Finding Solace In Art Therapy

By: Emily McGuigan

“If I could say it in words there would be no reason to paint.” ~ Edward Hopper

As an artist with Generalized Anxiety Disorder(GAD) and Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), I have primarily used drawing and painting to help me cope with and explain traumatic or stressful events in my life, but also to discover who I am as a person. Art allows me to reach within myself to heal myself.

Whenever I talk about “art therapy,” I get a lot of mixed reactions. Many people have never heard of it, or they think they know what it is but dismiss it because they don’t understand its value and benefits to the mental heath community. I also get a lot of people that say they have “no artistic ability,” so it would not apply to them. However, the purpose of art therapy is the process of creatively expressing the mind, not the aesthetic of it. Sometimes words are not enough to explain what has happened to us or how we feel. Art explores our subconscious and engages our senses. In a professional setting, the therapist helps the client acknowledge why he/she/they are driven to choose certain colors or images. It can be performed as an individual session or a group session. In a personal setting, it is just more of a state of meditation or self-reflection.

For me, it is about what I need from my own work-what I need that canvas or paper to hold that I do not want to hold anymore. I get to externalize what I have been internalizing for so long. When my mind stops working, my hands don’t. When I can’t make sense of my feelings, my hands guide me. Whether I am painting or drawing for half an hour or five hours, that is time I use to either face my emotions head on or forget about them entirely. Without this outlet, I feel trapped inside my own mind. I know that everything I make reflects some part of me, potentially one I never knew about.

Art therapy utilizes choice. Every medium I use or mark I make carries a purpose. For example, I choose to draw in charcoal if I feel overwhelmed because it covers more surface area in a shorter amount of time, so I can draw as fast-paced as my thoughts. I also use it if I want to recognize darker thoughts or subjects because of the intense contrast I can get from it. Charcoal is bold and dramatic for me, so I know exactly where it can take me. The medium itself gets all over my body, clothes, and surrounding area which makes me feel like part of the piece.

I will choose to paint when I want more of a physical interaction with my work. Oil painting comprises of many steps, starting with the set-up and ending with the clean-up, so if I choose to do it I know I will be committing to a longer process. If I am upset, frustrated, or anxious I paint thicker and rougher brushstrokes. I do less blending and care less about a diverse color palette. The canvas sits there and takes whatever I throw at it with no judgement. If I just want to paint for pleasure, I am much more patient with preliminary drawings, drying times between layers and glazing. My palette consists of many different hues as well.

Even if I’m not sure exactly how I’m feeling, I can use my material of choice to help me figure it out by paying attention to how I use it. It took me many years to train myself to recognize my own way of working and the correlation to my mental state, but for someone not pursuing art as a career or hobby that is where a trained art therapist can help.

Throughout my entire life, I have turned to my hands to do the talking that my mouth could not do. My art shows what is beneath my surface- my art is me. All of me. The empathetic-the emotional-the ugly-the dark-the tortured- the anxious- the depressed- the passionate- me. It is my reason for being. It is my life preserver.

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