The holidays are finally here, bringing an onslaught of family, food and, for many of us, stress on stress. Whether you’re dreading endless conversations with your great aunt Judith or getting anxious over the prospect of impending New Year’s resolutions, may we humbly suggest you let your creative side serve as a sort of internal massage.
Art therapy is a form of therapy predicated on the belief that artistic expression has the power to help us in healing, in self-esteem or simply in chilling out. It’s unique in that most other forms of therapy rely on language as the foremost mode of communication, whereas art requires something different, something harder to define.
We’re not art therapists, and the techniques below are only suggestions based on practices familiar to the art therapy community. But for those hungry for a creative outlet to relieve the tension that tends to build up this time of year, the practices below may help. They require few materials and no artistic background — in fact, the less art you make, the better. The following suggestions are less about the final product, and more about the transformation that occurs along the way.
Behold, 37 art therapy techniques to help you relax this season.
1. Design a postcard you don’t intend to send
Whether it’s a love note to someone you’re not ready to confess your feelings to, or an angry rant you know is better left unsaid, sometimes enumerating all the details helps deflate the issue at hand. While writing the text can be therapeutic in its own right, designing the postcard gives even more value to the object. It also allows you to activate different portions of your brain while relaxing in a manner similar to coloring in a coloring book. Once you toss that signed and sealed letter in the trash (or tuck it away in a drawer), you’ll find its message has lost some of its power.
2. Cut and paste a painting to create a collage
Create a painting on a material like paper or cardboard. When you’re finished, cut or tear it up. Then use the pieces as building blocks for a new artwork — a collage. See how your original artwork transforms into something new and exciting, something unpredictable. This exercise illuminates the close proximity between creation and destruction, encouraging us to take risks to push ourselves creatively and in other aspects of life.
3. Build an altar to a loved one
Take inspiration from folk art and create an altar honoring a unique relationship between you and another person, living or not. Decorate the shrine with photographs, letters and relics of memorable times spent together, as well as new art objects you’ve created in their honor. Anything can become artistic material, from gifts you’ve exchanged to a candy wrapper you know your subject would love. Building a totem to another person awakens memories and creates a physical manifestation of a relationship that can provide comfort in tough times.
4. Draw in total darkness
So much of the stress we experience when making art comes from the judgments and criticism that seem unavoidable every step of the way. Try creating artwork in total darkness to make art free from that art critic inside your head. Think of it as a form of blind contour drawing. You’re suddenly freed up to create lines, shapes and patterns simply because you feel like you should. When you turn back on the lights, we suspect you’ll be surprised by what you find.
5. Watercolor your bodily state
Lie down and close your eyes. Visualize your body as you breathe in and out. Try to imagine your breath as a particular color as it enters your body, another color as it exits. What do you see? Draw an outline of a body on a large sheet of paper, and inside, create a watercolor based on your bodily state. Think about what these colors mean to you, where they are densest, where they are most opaque. Think of this as the most relaxing self-portrait you’ll ever create.
6. Create a Zentangle-inspired creation
Zentangle is a drawing method invented by Rick Roberts and Maria Thomas, designed to make drawing meditative and accessible to all. To learn the official method you must be taught by a Zentangle Teacher, but you can recreate the basic idea on your own. Use a piece of paper, cut into a 3.5-inch square piece, and draw a freehand border around the edge in light pencil. Then use your pencil to draw a curved line or squiggle within the border, called a “string.”
Now switch to a pen and begin drawing a “tangle,” a series of patterns and shapes around your “string” and voila! You got yourself a Zentangle. The process is designed to encourage deliberate, ritual creation and allow room for human error — no erasing, that’s against the rules. Traditional Zentangles are always black and white but we fully support experimenting with color. The entire process shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes, and can be repeated whenever you feel the urge. Keep some squares handy so you can always create when inspiration strikes.
7. Produce a permission slip
Think of the societal and self-imposed pressures you feel on a day-to-day basis, the personal traits you see as faults, the natural slips you see as errors. Choose one of these things and give yourself, in ornamental detail, permission to do just that. Turning one simple defeat into an accomplishment can minimize feelings of self-hatred, allowing you to achieve more of your important goals. Remember, it’s an art project, so make it pretty.
8. Write a found poem
Don’t consider yourself a poet? Let someone else do the hard part of coming up with the words by grabbing your material from old books, magazines, newspapers or even letters. Cut out words that jump out at or inspire you. Collage your found materials just as you would a visual collage. You can have a topic or story in mind at the beginning, or just get started and see where your word collaging takes you.
9. Craft a mark-making tool unique to you
Instead of spending the majority of your time on an actual painting, why not focus a little of that attention on crafting an alternative paintbrush all your own? You can make a mark-making tool out of nearly anything, whether it’s a row of toothpicks glued to a cardboard base and dipped in paint, or a DIY paintbrush made from pom-poms and yarn. When you finally get around to actually making a piece with your new tool, you will have relinquished some of your artistic control to your distinct artistic medium, which, of course, is a work of art in itself.
10. Make a forgiveness box
If there is a certain person — including yourself — you don’t want to harbor negative emotions toward any longer, try making him or her a forgiveness box. Decorate a small box with soothing images and words that can be either specific to an individual or catered to your desired inner state. You can write the person’s name on a slip of paper and include it in the box if preferred, and the name can be removed and exchanged if needed. The act of making the box will bring up happy memories of whomever the box is for, as well as help you physically work toward a place of forgiveness.
11. Create a color collage
Color has the ability to affect our moods. Sometimes, however, instead of using color to transform our current state of mind, it’s helpful to take a moment to delve deep into the color you’re currently experiencing. Feeling hot-tempered and uninhibited? Cut and paste orange images that fit your mood. Working within your current emotional state can help you make sense of why you’re feeling the way you’re feeling and realize that, perhaps, it’s not such a bad place to be.
12. Make a power mask
Most often we think of wearing a mask as a way to hide something about ourselves, but sometimes this layer of protection and anonymity makes us feel liberated and actually aids in expressing something true, difficult and real. Create a power mask, filled with symbols that make you feel strong (think of an actor’s costume or athlete’s helmet). You can put it on when preparing for a rough situation — whether it’s dinner with the extended family or giving a speech at work — and prove to yourself you can accomplish the task at hand with or without the mask.
13. Construct a holiday “anti-calendar”
All too often calendars are jam-packed with chores, obligations and responsibilities, making the coming days a point of stress more than solace. Try making a DIY advent calendar, which we’ve dubbed an anti-calendar. Instead of giving yourself a chocolate each day, treat yourself to a compliment, a doodle, an inspiring quote or an encouraging mandate such as “eat breakfast in bed today.” If all goes according to plan, you could find yourself bouncing out of bed each morning like a kid on Christmas.
14. Start a doodle chain
Fact: It’s impossible for a doodle to look bad. Once you give in to the endless possibilities that occur when wiggly line meets unidentified shape, you’ll find it dangerously hard to stop drawing. Start a doodle-centric take on exquisite corpse with a friend or loved one to loosen your attachment to your creation. It’s pretty magical to watch your lone squiggle blossom into a spindly beast before your eyes. You can also try this with a pen-pal for a more productive spin on chain mail.
15. Draft a portrait of a past self
We’re not talking about past lives here, but versions of yourself you feel like you’ve either lost touch with or outgrown. Whether you’re revisiting a phase of innocence, ignorance or just plain difference, using the space between memory and imagination as your subject helps illuminate how malleable your self really is. It feels almost like reading your old diary for the first time in years.
16. Build a wishing tree
Take a cue from her majesty Yoko Ono and build a physical object to hold your wildest dreams. Use either a real plant or a tree-like object you create yourself, write your wishes down on paper and hang them, one by one. You can invite others to do the same. Writing your hopes and dreams on paper brings you a small step closer to making them real. Not to mention, the little papers resemble blossoming flowers from far away.
17. Paint your own personal set of Russian dolls
Though we’re built a little differently — mainly, not out of wood — we too have different layers nestled inside us at all times. What is the self you portray to others? What about to your most trusted loved ones? What remains hidden underneath? You can either purchase a set of dolls and paint over them or paint atop a set of cardboard gift boxes or other stackable objects. Feel free to use images and words to recreate the layers you envision when you think of yourself.
18. Add on to a masterpiece
Intimidated by a glaring sheet of blank paper? Yeah, us too. Instead of starting from scratch, try adding onto a canvas you already know and love to boost your confidence and lower the risk. Whether you’re applying makeup to the Mona Lisa or filling in the blanks of a Paul Klee paintings with your own brand of alien creatures, we’re sure the original artists would be honored by your tribute. Who knows? You could become a famed appropriation artist in the process.
19. Assemble a safe space
This is for the architects among us. Remember building a pillow fort as a kid? That cozy, secret space for you and only you? Take inspiration from the five-year-old inside and build yourself a grown-up fort — ahem, an art installation. You can create a full-blown tent if you wish or simply arrange meaningful items in a closet or under the bed. Incorporate nostalgic objects, old toys or blankets, twinkly lights — anything that makes you feel removed from the world around you. Put on a soothing song and let the good feelings wash over you.
20. Use crayons
Yup, it’s that simple. There’s something about the crayon’s blunt tip and uneven method of coloring that is at once frustrating and liberating. Yes, it’s hard to draw a straight line. Yes, it’s nearly impossible to color in a space without it looking patchy. But that’s exactly the point. Allow your artistic imperfections to float to the surface and learn to cherish every human error in your creation. Whatever work you create will be distinctly yours, even if it’s not quite museum-worthy.
21. Make an invisible New Year’s resolution visible (and beautiful)
New Year’s resolutions. How did something so seemingly restorative turn into something so incredibly stressful? Instead of promising yourself to floss more or eat less, focus some attention on an invisible accomplishment, something that’s either too big or too small to see with your eyes. Instead of writing it in the notebook with the rest of your resolutions, devote some time to making your personal goal into a beautiful object, a visual mantra that inspires you just upon seeing it.
22. Create a memory jug
Memory jugs originated with members of Africas Bakongo communities, who believed the physical world was connected to the spiritual world by water. They often decorated graves with water-centric items like jugs to connect deceased spirits to the waterways that would lead them to the afterlife. The ritual was revived recently as a form of found art sculpture, or 3D scrapbooking. Use lacquer to adhere found objects to a vase, jug or pot — whether they remind you of a specific person, recall a certain time in your life, or just make you smile.
23. Do a doodle a day
You know what’s hard? Taking time out of a hectic schedule to create a work of art when you have absolutely no idea where to start. You know what’s easy? Taking a few minutes to break from your day and scribble out a little weirdness, just for the sake of keeping that hand moving. Divide each page of a sketchbook into fourths and create one simple drawing every day — really, if you draw a happy face as your falling asleep it’s okay. Just getting into the creative rhythm will get your imagination churning. Soon you’ll feel more comfortable with your artistic style and be struck by inspiration during your daily routine. You may even want to spend more than five minutes on a drawing someday. But worry not, doodles always look good.
24. Shed your old skin into a sculpture
Okay, this is far less creepy than it sounds. This suggestion is for those doing some early spring cleaning or getting rid of old belongings — be they clothes, papers, glasses, buttons, defunct technologies. Instead of tossing away your old junk, use the materials to create a sculpture of a former self, immortalizing the (insert appropriate adjective here) year that was 2014. The sculpture does not have to (and probably won’t) look like you; it can be abstract, geometric, organic or all of the above. Even if the materials seem meaningless now, they’ll become treasures with the passing of time, and the ceremony of creating the sculpture provides great closure in moving on to the new year.
25. Use your non-dominant hand to create
You know that Pablo Picasso quote, “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up”? Firstly, make that “he” a “he or she.” Now, channel this Picasso-ian sentiment by unlearning anything you’ve ever learned about style, control and discipline by passing your pencil to the other hand. Before you know it, you’ll have the uncertain, wiggly, unfettered stroke of a child — and thus, by the transitive Picasso principle, of a bona fide artist.
26. Craft an intention stick
Whether you call them intention sticks, prayer sticks, wish sticks or talismans, their purpose is the same: to provide a physical object for you to wrap your hands around and bring you strength as well as peace of mind. Intention sticks, which have roots in Hopi and Tibetan traditions, gain their power from the positive energy posited in the stick during its creation — so basically, make sure you’re in a good mood when you make it! Find a stick that fits perfectly in your hands, think of it like a magic wand, paint it and decorate it with mantras or intentions close to your heart. Add string, feathers, glitter, beads and whatever else you wish and keep the stick in a secret place for when you need it most.
27. Make your own stencil
If you’re having trouble embarking on an artwork itself, how about starting with the artistic medium instead? You can make a DIY stencil from a cardboard box, playing card, cereal box — the list continues. Use scissors to cut out a shape all your own and you can make your imprint, quite literally, on any future artworks or random pieces of paper you happen to encounter. Don’t worry about straight lines and perfect proportions; with a handmade stencil, the more rugged the better.
28. Turn your fears into a (literal) monster
Sometimes the only way to lessen your fears is to face them head on. Think about something that frightens you, whether it’s “spiders,” “being a bad artist,” “going broke” or “losing my way.” Give this fear a shape, a color and a texture; it can be as abstract or symbolic as you wish. Creating the beast outside of you will strip your fear of some of its power, especially when comparing it to the (now often silly) fears we all had as a child.
29. Craft your own dream guardian
You’ve heard of a dreamcatcher. We’re tweaking the tradition a little bit, thus freeing up the possibilities of what shapes your new dream guardian can take. Create a dangling sculpture to hang above your bed that will watch over you while you sleep. Feel free to use the traditional willow hoop with feathers and beads, or veer off track and get experimental with fabric, bells, photos, or whatever brings you peace of mind. Soon you’ll have a new friend to keep an eye on you as your dreams sweep you off into another world.
30. Make a painting with no tools but your body
Don’t have the time (or the funds) to invest in a new batch of art tools? No worries, all you need to get creative is your own beautiful body. Explore the possibilities of your own anatomy — the plush curves of your fingertip, the sharp edge of your nail, the capabilities of hand and foot and even hair, if you’re feeling bold. Not only will your canvas end up looking unexpectedly magnificent, but you’ll probably resemble a work of art yourself.
31. Revamp a stuffed animal
We’ve been dying to give this one a go since we caught a glimpse of Jenny Ottinger’s latest exhibition, in which she conducts slightly botched surgeries on stuffed teddy bears, producing jumbled creatures at once adorable and creepy. We’d recommend a less frightening version for a therapeutic result. Take a beloved childhood toy and transform it into a work of art, either by patching its holes, replacing its ragged parts or going a more avant-garde route. You’ll finally be able to return your beloved teddy to its rightful spot on your bed, while proudly displaying an original objet d’art.
32. Craft a memory rock
Next time you have a special day, take a home a free souvenir in the form of a rock — or a receipt, or a brochure, or a leaf; anything will do the trick really. Call it your new canvas. Decorate your new keepsake with memories from throughout the day — however abstract or concrete your creative self desires. If you’re feeling painter’s block, use the natural creases and edges of the rock to guide your aesthetic decisions. A few memory rocks down the road, you’ll have a rock garden that instantly conjures recollections of your most joyous days, to help with the glum ones.
33. Channel Giuseppe Arcimboldo
Brief art history primer: Giuseppe Arcimboldo was a 16th century Italian painter primarily known for his surreal self-portraits made from painted objects like fruit, veggies, books and fish. Channel good ole Giuseppe with objects that mean something to you. Whether you draw, paint or collage, create a version of that precious punam of yours made from the objects that help define you or make your heart flutter — whether it’s your dog, sunflowers or the In-N-Out logo.
34. Make an ephemeral artwork
Practice the art of letting go by creating a work of art with an expiration date. Work with a material that erodes with time — whether it’s a sand castle that washes away in the sea, a chalk mural that fades in the sun, or a drawing attached to a balloon and set into flight. You know what they say, f you love something, set it free!
35. Paint a mirror or window
Overhaul the concept of a blank canvas by selecting a surface that already tells a vivid story. Apply pigment to a mirror or window, and let your brushstrokes mingle with whatever’s already gracing your uncanny canvas — be it a snowy day or your own reflection. Just think of it as makeup’s way artsier second cousin.
36. Turn a journal entry into a work of art
Whether you’re drawing inspiration from last week’s misadventure or your third grade trials and tribulations, why not creative a visual adaptation of your own first-person narration? Take an old journal entry — one that was especially poignant, difficult, joyous, or totally arbitrary — and recreate the text as imagery. Feel free to draw, paint, collage, whatever can best express the atmosphere of that one day.
37. Design your (artsy) spirit animal
Do you have a spirit animal? Have you never been quite satisfied with the classic genus and species currently available to you? Here’s your chance to craft the imaginary hybrid creature of your wildest fantasies. From a liger to a jellyfish-dragon to a pegasus-zebra, the only limit to the wildlife available to you are the zoological limits of your mind.
This post is based on a series of art therapy roundups we’ve published throughout the past year.