Art thinking, casual art, and following bread crumbs to deeper self discovery

Yesterday while listening to a Big Think podcast, they played a segment of an interview with Jon Kabat-Zinn where he talks about the results of MRI scans comparing people who meditate and who don’t, when asked to just sit and do nothing. Those who don’t meditate activate a ‘default’ mode part of the brain, thinking in linear time and about themselves, their reality. Those who do meditate activate an adjacent part the brain, where this is a sense of expansion, possibilities, energy, growth – beyond the self. In other words, the potential of what we can become. He says that we go through life with the brakes on, because of that default mode.

My experiences so far with art thinking (color thinking) makes me think that I’m tapping into that space. Art thinking and color thinking releases me from the usual ego-centered, me-centered, self talk and seems to be a gateway into a space that is rich with potential for new experiences and ways of thinking.

In recent months I’ve tried to flip from telling myself I have to follow a certain rigid path, because that’s what I’m supposed to do, to giving myself permission to discover a path, and listening for subtle signals I hadn’t paid attention to before in order to allow for a path to unfold.

Reading the book Mastery by Robert Greene set me up for this, to a certain extent. He talks through different paths people who become masters might take – whether through an apprenticeship, or doing deep into one topic, or moving from one topic to the next, making connections between them and basically discovering a new, untapped niche. At the core was this idea of letting this path organically evolve by letting yourself be drawn to whatever resonates. Get ride of assumptions, open yourself up to possibilities, allow yourself to be curious, and see where it takes you.

I went to the bookstore around that time and let books talk to me…and certain art books did, ones I hadn’t considered before. I look back now at the progression of my interest in art, and the ‘signals’ I feel, and what I’ve come to value. It’s quite different than what I was trying to force myself towards.

Originally I thought about art as a skill to perform, for an output that would be meaningful. I collected art supplies while in college with the intent to one day ‘do lots of art’, because I was drawn to it and wanted to. But I never did. I tried often, but it didn’t stick…because I was approaching it the wrong way. I bought many ‘how to’ books and started on the first lessons, but it wasn’t all that enjoyable, because I could never do it ‘right’. The books were very much focused on the outcome – the different techniques, and step by step process for producing certain outcomes.

That day at the book store the books I bought approached art very differently. Two books, Art Before Breakfast and The Zen Drawing Pack, focused not on the outcome, but the process, especially the state of mind – relaxed, open, free. They stressed that art wasn’t about producing artwork, but nurturing a creative state of mind.

The other book was a Zen Doodling. Adult coloring books are the rage right now, but they don’t appeal to me because you only color; it’s the drawing of new lines that I want to explore. But most art books are very heavy in that direction – it’s not about simple lines, it’s about entire projects and that tends to set me up for failure. Zen Doodling shows you tiny little steps you can take where you just start to draw, no pressure, no failure. Tiny little steps where you pick up a pen, and let it go on its journey, and start to create. With that aspect of ‘doing’, you begin to chip at that wall that holds you back from creativity, you begin, ever so slightly, to release that brake.

I spent several weeks with Zen Doodling, bought additional books, mostly by Carolyn Scrace, because she goes deeper into the creative process, past just basic doodling. The taps into nature, other art materials, other patterns and methods – gradually expanding the ‘casual art’ space, one small step at a time.

I then looked to other books that nurtured creativity through other gateways – not necessarily through learning one technique or trying to create a certain masterpiece. Another book I’ve enjoyed is Draw Paint Print like the great Artists, as it encourages art for the fun, free, creative experience it can be – not pressure to create a specific thing. It further helped me free my tight hold on expectations of what being artistic and creative should be.

Another stepping stone to elevate my doodling was 20 Ways to Draw a Tree, by Eloise Renouf. I’ve always been drawn to nature, and this provides a plethora of suggestions to work with, copy and modify creatively.

Along the way I came across Steal Like an Artist, where Auston Kleon encourages you to copy artists, copy what you love, it helps you discover you. And as you copy, you get glimpses into the minds of your heroes. And I strongly believe great artists are driving without the parking brake on! And that’s how I want to live as well.

And so I’m copying a lot – it makes ‘doing art’ far easier to do, because you have the idea and inspiration right there, and it allows you to easily practice and flex new muscles.

I’m ‘doing art’ with a ‘casual art’ attitude – it’s for the pleasure of doing, the nurturing of new a new mindspace, not for what the physical outcome is. It becomes peaceful and invigorating at the same time.

Finally, I’m doing casual art and art thinking for self-discovery. This is a big theme in Art as Therapy, by John Armstrong, one that I’m still exploring. But related, the new trend of art journaling is fascinating, on two levels.

One, I’m embracing art journaling for the new perspectives – the crossing of left and right brain, the different perspectives that arise when you include doodles and sketches with your words – entire new frameworks evolve, and deeper understanding.

Two, I believe it is a gate way to that living without the parking brake on, and I’m fascinated by art journal pages others have created. Pinterest has become a great resource, not only for doodle ideas and casual art ideas, but glimpses into other artists’ minds through their art journal pages. A few books have come out highlighting examples – such as A World of Artist Journal Pages. There is something so deep and intimate in these pages – artists, those very people living without the brake on – are sharing very personal visual stories that show vulnerability and authenticity I strive to nurture in my own life.

In continuing on this journey, following signals, taking small steps, exploring new paths, copying others, and applying art thinking, I stay close to that path of self-discovery that I’ve come to enjoy so much, and now feels much easier than it ever has.

Art thinking (new perspectives on art)

“You are very cerebral.” (my high school basketball coach)

“You’re overthinking this.” (most people I’ve worked with, and the voice in my head)

“You are making this more complicated than it needs to be.” (again, me, and also my husband)

“You’ve got the weight of the world on your shoulders…”

“….analysis paralysis…”

All true. I think a lot. Partly I’m just really curious and like to think about a lot of things. But partly, I can’t help it. I think, overthink, worry, stress, dwell…it goes beyond healthy contemplation to being consumed. And I beat myself up over the fact that I can’t turn that off.

I’m working on changing my perspective. What if it’s my superpower? And I just need to learn how to harness it better? Ok, that’s cool and something I want to dig into. But, short term, how do I manage so I can sleep at night?

I started thinking about art. I’ve always been drawn to art, art supplies, art lessons, art books, art museums, art stores…anything art. Yet I don’t actually do much art myself – why not? Because I overthink it. I get hung about the output, the quality of what I create, rather than letting go and appreciating the process. ; I stop myself in my tracks before I ever take a first step.

I remember very distinctly as a child, pen and paper in hand, quickly sketching the profile of my father as he lay in the beanbag watching TV. And dang if it wasn’t an awesome drawing – anyone who looked at it knew right away it was my dad. And I haven’t been able to do anything like that since…because I started overthinking it.

Incidentally, along with overthinking comes a lot of reading. I am an avid book collector and am typically reading 3-5 books at a time, many different topics. My husband once commented that I read too much (is that possible?), and that maybe it isn’t good for me. I bristled at that, but have since tossed that idea around. What if I do read too much? What am I actually ‘doing’ with all that I’m reading? I am using it? Is it helping me?

My job is research; I do a lot of research, in a lot of different directions because they are all important and together allow for a better understanding of the problem space with a more holistic lens. But, I don’t synthesize and deliver on meaningful insights and outcomes often and effectively enough.

It’s cool and good to do a lot of thinking, but I have to work on sometimes not thinking, and land some planes. Sometimes just stop for a bit, package up the thoughts into something consumable, put a bow on it and deliver it so it can be meaningful for something or someone – an action or an outcome.

So what does art have to do with this train of thought? As I said, I’m drawn to it, and I’m learning to pay attention to those subtle signals. Art is important for my arsenal, although I’m not sure yet how.

So I thought about it (yes I did)….and I connected some dots:

  1. I’m drawn to art. Art pleases me, having art supplies around me warms me, I feel a sense of peace when I doodle. I want more art. I need more art.
  2. I think too much and sometimes it hurts.
  3. Once, when I didn’t think so much, I freely sketched an awesome representation of what I saw, what was there. And it felt really good.
  4. Thinking keeps me from doing art.
  5. More art in my life would make me feel better.

Could art help me with my overthinking?

What if instead of focusing on art, and getting stymied by my overthinking, I focus on how to manage my overthinking with art?

I did an experiment with art thinking, and it’s becoming kind of interesting.

When I’m overthinking and I can’t stop, I tell myself to think visually, artistically – in colors, shapes, patterns – just not words. I can’t easily make my mind stop churning…but it turns out I can change the ‘language’ of that churn. And when I do, a sense of calm and clarity starts to evolve. A cerebral stillness, though still rich with content.

It’s a muscle I have to flex and encourage myself to embrace, so I’m also experimenting with Zen Doodling, casual art (e.g. Marion Denchars Draw Paint Print like the Great Artists), art lessons, and art journaling.

Altogether, it’s helping me feel more at peace, more creative, more centered and more real. And I can’t help wonder what goodness it is doing for my brain – bringing together Right and Left brain for a more cohesive, balanced existence. Might be crazy, but maybe there is something there. Sometimes, when I meditate or do energy work, I feel a dark chunk of energy in the right side of my head and lately, it hasn’t been there.

A few nights ago as my husband and I talked about the day and the things on my mind, I started to prompt myself to art think. And suddenly, when my husband spoke, I saw a stream of colorful dots and stars in my mind – and it matched perfectly with his voice and tone in that moment, as he shared with me some things that had pleasantly surprised him. Maybe art thinking will strengthen new senses I didn’t know I had?

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