Art Therapy Exercises

Last Christmas I was talking with my family about my recent discovery of watercolor paintinig. My Mom asked what I did with all my paintings and I said “mostly just put them in a pile.” We all laughed, but it’s true. I’m honest enough with myself to be able to say that most of them are not very good, like at all. But that’s not the point for me. I just like painting. My goal is to keep practicing until I get to a point where I feel comfortable selling my art, and I have been encouraged by my progress over the last year, but I just like the act of painting for it’s own sake.

Through the darkness of January I found myself painting more and thinking more about what exactly I got out of it, aside from the sometimes moderately okay finished product. And I realized it was actually therapeutic. On days when I would feel particularly depressed and lacking energy, it was a way to pass the time in a way that made me feel better, if only while I was doing it. I tend to fall into spirals of negative thoughts when I’m not doing well and it’s extremely difficult to talk myself out of it. I found that while I was painting my mind was slightly calmed. Negative thoughts still pop up, and I may even still be thinking about whatever thing it is that’s distressing me, but the quality of the thoughts softens. My breathing slows and I am gradually soothed by focusing only on the colors flowing in the water, as abstract and meaningless as it is.

I don’t usually start with a concept, if it is visual it rarely works out. Like I said, I’m really not very skilled lol. I’ve mastered very few basic techniques, so when I have a complex image in my mind of what I want it to look like, or am referencing some instagram inspiration I can only get so far before it’s a mess, or sometimes nice but nowhere near what I was aiming for..

But I remembered I had this book.

The Mandala Workbook: a creative guide for self-exploration balance and well-being by Suzanne F. Fincher

The Mandala Workbook: a creative guide for self-exploration balance and well-being by Suzanne F. Fincher

I probably bought it about 10 years ago but have never done more than flip through it. Do you ever do this?! I am ashamed to say I have more than once! In this case, I had already been drawing concept-less, abstract mandalas for years, so the idea of self-therapy through art was appealing.. Turns out I didn’t really actually want to do the work! It’s taken all these years for me to be in a place to sit down and WANT to think through the exercises and actually put in the time to do them.

Most of the reasons why NOW was finally the time to do it are stories for another day, but one factor has been my new love of watercolors! I remember looking through the book when I got it and feeling like the art prompts weren’t really for me. They are mostly reliant on using color to express ideas, and at the time I was into very symmetrical, geometric, mandalas with black ink. I wanted them to be so perfect I used to use a pencil and ruler to lay out the circle before freestyling details with pens. I find that tedious and boring these days, I prefer a little imperfection. But neither is really compatible with this book - if you’re going to try any of the following prompts use absolutely whatever medium you want or have - as long as it’s colorful! The dollar store has a surprising amount of affordable art supplies, the water colors aren’t amazing - but for like $3 you can get yourself a set of paints and a set of brushes (the one that comes with the paints is probably total shit - for an extra $1-2 it’s worth getting a variety of marginally better ones.. You will also need some heavy paper that can hold a lot of water - you should be able to get a big pad of 140lb paper at a craft store for about $5. So for less than $10 you too can have a fun & therapeutic time making art that may or may not be sort of crappy! How can you go wrong?!

Anyways. I wanted to share with you a bit about the first three exercises from this book. It’s divided into 12 chapters - one for each month in the year cycle. Each chapter starts with a few anecdotes that characterize the theme and energy of the month and ends with several prompts for mandalas to create with a variety of materials.

Stage One

Intentions: For stage one, if you expect yourself to function at high levels of energy and efficiency, you will be frustrated when experiencing this stage. The natural rhythm of this stage is slow, and if you can come to appreciate this and accept the gifts of depression, then this experience can even be welcomed. The tasks for stage 1 are waiting, calming, keeping faith, trusting the process, and being patient with your poor performance. The stage of resting in the darkness is a natural part of life, but if you find yourself lingering here longer than a few weeks, it is important to seek the support of helping professionals.

Stage 1 Mandalas created while experiencing this stage may be dark or completely black. Sometimes the circles are left uncolored. Mandalas here have little or no form other than the circle. This is partly because the activity of drawing is difficult when experiencing stage 1. The circle gives you a safe place for resting in the darkness. It is the beginning point for your exploration of mandalas of the great round.

I felt this one hard. If you’ve read any of my recent posts you know that I struggle with seasonal depression and this summed it up nicely. But it was a fresh and more positive angle than I’m used to. The idea of resting in the darkness was soothing. It made me realize how hard I am on myself & reminded me that even nature is resting right now - nothing blooms all year. I actually quite like the mandala I made for this stage. I usually use several colors in a painting so it was enjoyable to work with a more limited pallette. It’s not really anything other than blue. And dark. Just like me. And January.


Stage two: floating into the light

Intentions: Energy is rising, though it does not have a clear direction or goal. When experiencing stage 2 you are swimming in the joy of feeling yourself a part of nature. There are Limitless possibilities for when, where, and how to express your new energy the richness of these options give you gives you a feeling of abundance and optimism that amazing things are possible.

During stage 2 you are far from doing anything productive. It is more of a time for play, for exploration of what you are curious about, for following your intuition, and joining with the flow of life around you. Just as a toddler forms paradigms for how the world works when she plays with blocks, sand, and mud, during this stage you have the opportunity to open yourself to new ways of looking at things, to practice new behaviors, and to say yes to things when you may previously have said "no way". This stage is a nice time to relax, turn your face to the sun, and enjoy the bliss of being.

Stage 2 mandalas are a window on a watery World. Mandalas created during this stage are characterized by fluidity in the designs, numerous tiny forms scattered like stars float within the mandala. Sometimes the mandala looks like an aquarium filled with fish eggs, miniscule creatures, or strange plants. There is the suggestion of fertility, but no clear sense of what is developing. Reflecting a lack of boundaries characteristic of stage 2, artwork may spill over to the space outside the mandala circle.  Colors tend to be light blues and yellows, pale orchids, and pastel pinks. A touch of red in these mandalas may emphasize generativity, as in the yolk of a fertilized bird’s egg. Dark Shades of Blue can possibly reflect an early negative experience in this stage.

The above prompt gives several choices and I tried a few. My first attempt was at a light, watery one, I liked the idea of trying to capture fluidity and the feeling of floating.. It didn’t go so well. I basically just kept painting over each scattered form until I had another January. It’s actually pretty fitting since January feels so long and heavy, it’s like I live it twice.

I call this January again but shinier.


I have since made another one that is a little bit more light and watery, incidentally I did it with no brush! Last month I spent a week in Kincardine and thought I brought all my painting stuff but forgot a brush! One evening I felt like painting so I used my makeup brush to wet the paper with water, then would dip my fingers in a cup of water then into the paint and onto the paper. Yes, I wanted to paint so badly that I finger painted.. And somehow it sorta turned out?! But i cant find it or i would show ya!

The last one I’m working on that is sort of February-ish is this pinky gold one. I haven’t drawn on it yet because I’m afraid to ruin it, but I’m going to draw some human cells in it. I used to enjoy drawing cells when I studied anatomy & physiology, but I’m out of practice. I just like the idea of a cluster of cells representing fertility and latent potential.


Stage 3: turning towards the journey

Intentions: Stage three is exciting and a bit dizzying, pulling you in several directions toward exciting possibilities. During this stage you touch into the indomitable life-force of New Growth. Your challenges to settle on a special something by the end of this stage, that will give you focus for the stages to come. However, sometimes you only discover what this is in retrospect. What is most important is that you embrace life by turning towards the journey.

The mandalas of stage 3 often suggests depth and the twists and turns of plant tendrils along a mysterious path through the jungle. The possibility of moving from one level of experience, Consciousness, emotion - to another is often suggested by mandalas of this stage. Colors are usually springtime pastels, especially light blue lavender and pink, although bright colors are not unusual curving lines are typical of stage 3 mandalas. They have no pronounced center.

I liked the green background I did on my first attempt, but I don’t really care for how the spirals turned out..


Similarly, on my second attempt, I really liked the green and yellow watercolor, but as soon as I started outlining it I was like FUCK. I don’t like it. I need to rethink how to finish this one - it’s clearly still a work in progress!


Let me know what you think of these exercises and PLEASE TAG ME in your art if you try any of them - I’d love to see what you create!!