Making art is an innate part of being human. It is a way of knowing so essential to human-beingness that it is part of our developmental process just as much as learning to crawl is.
The late poet John O’Donohue explains it well:
“The heart of human identity is the capacity and desire for birthing. To be is to become creative and bring forth the beautiful.” (2004).
Truly, creative play is like an umbilical to our highest self. This cord of connection, intricately linked to our imagination, was never meant to be squished or severed. It is an essential source of nutrition necessary for our wellbeing and growth. Which begs the question:
What if our time in deep play as young children was never supposed to end?
Since time immemorial, humans have been art-making as part of their spiritual practice. Creating art is always a process of listening, receiving, responding and sharing. Not only does art making connect us to Source energy it is also an embodied practice that weaves together all parts of us: mind, body and soul, because the practice of art making utilizes all of our energy centers, as we birth what is ‘above so below’ into the physicality of the now. This process is a powerful form of spiritual alchemy.
Making Art as a Spiritual Practice
If you are ready to explore getting into the practice/flow of art making as a way of knowing, this article shares some key steps to help you begin, with the understanding that making art is simply a returning and a remembering of a way of being that’s already deeply embedded within you. Enjoy!
Step 1. Let yourself off the hook
Making art is not about a final product. This approach to art making is all about curiosity, gentle noticing, being in the process, and experimenting. We are not beginning with a clear plan of where we might end up, rather this is a tutorial in surrender. In this process, you might unlearn ways of making art learned in school or from caregivers. So many of us carry creativity scars, from unsafe experiences of making art and expressing ourselves where we were judged, criticized or rejected. These ‘scars’ impact the social part of the nervous system, because they tie a felt sense of fear together with creative expression. We can begin to heal and repair these creative injuries by intentionally creating a sense of safety within ourselves and in our environment when art making. You might need to give yourself a lot of permission to be messy, to be imperfect, or to simply explore without it looking a certain way. Don’t be surprised if the critical part of you makes an appearance. Simply try to remain curious and not shame this critical part. Let this critical part know that you understand it’s just trying to help you, and that it is now safe and okay to make art in whatever ways your heart desiers. Remember this is just an experiment! We are just mucking about and playing.
Step. 2. Set up Your Space With Intention
Set up your creative space in an intuitive way with intention and beauty. Notice the materials you gravitate towards. Can you give yourself permission to think outside the box? Do you notice that you love rocks? Are your eyes always drawn towards deep shades of yellow? Do your hands love the texture of fabrics and yarn? Notice how you have set up your home. What are the colours, textures and materials you feel attracted to? If possible include some of these items and materials in your items to create art with. You can make art with anything! I encourage you to imagine you are setting your table for a fancy feast, but instead of dishes and food you are putting out art materials and tools.
Of course, you can make an ‘art meal’ with simple wax crayons and computer paper, however it can be so supportive to give yourself lots of options to choose from such as collage materials, play-doh, rocks, feathers, sequins, acrylic paints, pencil crayons and at least a few different sizes of paper. See if you can spoil yourself and find some luxury in this experience! Here are a list of materials that might help you get started. Before creating you might want to create a simple ritual that signals to you that you are entering a sacred space of intentional soul communion. This might look like lighting a candle, using an essential oil, pulling out your crystals or having a flower on display. Explore what feels good for you.
Step. 3. Try starting with the doorways of embodiment and imagination
So often when it comes to art making we have learned to start with an idea or a thought in our mind. It can be so interesting to begin with an embodiment practice where you start by tuning into your body and your imagination. This might look like beginning with 3-5 minutes of meditation or deep breathing. As you tune into your body, scan for any felt sensations, movements, or images. For example, you might notice feeling fuzzy red around your head, or a blurry fog around your chest. Questions you can ask as you are tuning into your felt-sense is, ‘what is the weather like on the inside today?’ or ‘what colours do I sense inside right now?’ and begin to notice what arrives in your imagination. To support grounding and resourcing you might notice an area in the body that feels more open, connected or ‘good feeling’ even if that area is teeny-tiny. Another beginning place is putting your hand on your heart and sensing your heart’s energy. Notice what sensations and images begin to arrive as you place your attention on this powerful area. You might listen to a guided visualization to connect more to your imagination, pray or ask your spirit guides or highest self any questions that you have. This also might be a moment where you set an intention for your art making exploration. Often, my imagination really begins to open up once I begin the process of moving my hands and body in the art making process so don’t worry if it feels like nothing is coming. There are no wrong or right ways for this to unfold.
Step 4. The process of inquiry
With your feet on the floor grounding you, you might find a simple scribble or a shape that most captures what you have been sensing or noticing inside. You might play a song and close your eyes as you experiment with moving fast or slow and pressing hard or softly. Notice what feels good in your body. Notice what feels ‘most right’ for you at that moment. An experiment you might try is syncing your breath with your hand movements. You also might play around with switching from your non-dominant hand to your dominant hand. A practice you might try, which I did last year is, every morning, using simple water colour paints I created concentric circles moving from the center outwards as a way to check-in with myself. This is your time to create and experiment with whatever art materials catch your eye. If you want to create something that looks ‘realistic’ go for it. If you end up creating something that looks very childlike, amazing! Those of us who are used to creating ‘praised art,’ often have the most to unlearn. To help us get out of our heads it can be helpful to use really simple materials like fingerpaints. I love how Art Therapist Pat B. Allen explains this, “inquiry requires that we remain playful and open, noticing our energy and following it wherever it leads” (2005).
Step 5. Engagement
Trust the process that is unfolding. When you get stuck, lost or uncomfortable, come back to gentle curiosity through your senses. Feel the texture of the paper on your hands, the smell of the crayons and your feet on the ground.
“Getting a clear-cut “idea” of what “we” want to express is often a signal that the thinking mind is trying to supersede the organizing unfolding of the creative process. When we “know” what we are about to create, the trail is often about to go cold. The Creative Source wants to enlarge what we know by helping us manifest new depths of truth or by discarding outworn perceptions. Engagement is a commitment …we are asked to travel forward without knowledge of our destination. We are asked to trust that just about everything is part of our path. We are asked to cultivate the sense of knowing in our body when we are on the right track” (Pat B. Allen, 2005).
In your last 5-10 minutes of art making you might ask your creation if there is anything else it wants or needs to express? Notice what arrives in your imagination. Follow your first impulse. Maybe your image calls for some soft pink to be added. Can you listen to that invitation?
Step 6. Responding
Take a moment to step back from whatever it is you have just created and see it with fresh eyes. Maybe you rotate it or turn it upside down. What colours, textures, lines do you notice before you begin to make meaning from it? Where do you feel this image in your body?
Spend 5-10 minutes stream-of-conscious writing or you might dialogue with your creation. You can ask it questions like, ‘do you have a name? Or ‘do you have any messages for me?’ Instead of pivoting to the medium of writing to respond to your image you might also find a movement, a song or a gesture.
Step 7. Closing
Finally, ask your creation where it would like to live. Your creation is an extension of you, so be careful not to carelessly toss it on the side of your desk. Does your image need protection and want to be wrapped carefully in a box? Does your art want to be witnessed or seen by you on the wall or shared with a close friend or your therapist? Does it want to be released in a fire in a burning ceremony? It can be really powerful to keep your images over the course of a year or to record what you create through photographs. Every few months or at the end of the year I encourage you to spread your images out and arrange them in a type of installation or story.
You are and always have been an artist, an alchemist, a powerful co-creator of life. It is time that we all reclaim this identity, for it has never left us and is awaiting our return. Art making is not just for a ‘talented’ few. It is your birthright. “Art is the way I knit together the beliefs and practices that guide my life. Art is not a religion, but a practice As a path, it can take us more deeply into whatever place it is that our soul calls home” (Pat B. Allen, 2005). Are you ready?
Resources to support making art as a spiritual practice
Find an art therapist to support you here:
- Art Therapist Directory — Canadian Art Therapy Association
- Art Therapist Locator – American Art Therapy Association
Events to explore
Books to read: