My artistic skills are sorely lacking. You don’t want to be on my Pictionary team. No one can ever guess what I’m drawing—the pictures in my mind can somehow never make it out of my hand. I’ve long accepted all people are a collection of talents and weaknesses and, in turn, avoided art activities because I’m not good at them. My partner, however, is an avid and amazing artist, and his pandemic-canceled birthday party was going to be a paint-and-sip gathering. When he suggested a virtual version, I felt obligated to join. I had no idea how much a guided painting session would lead to a level of lightness, fun, and laughter that is otherwise difficult to achieve during these times.
The first painting we did via YouTube was of a baby chick with a flower on its head. I thought my partner’s painting looked just like the example, whereas I found mine hilariously terrible. Shockingly, I loved it. It was funny and silly. I texted my best friend a photo, and she immediately asked me to send it to her. She has since become the proud owner of a half-dozen of my awful paintings, and I love her all the more for her enthusiasm.
If there was ever a time for one to branch out into new indoor hobbies, now is it. The openness I felt doing something outside my comfort zone was confounded by my need for stimulation and activities beyond books, cooking, and television, so I entered that first session with a more positive attitude than I likely otherwise would have. What I didn’t realize, though, was by having no expectations for my performance, I allowed myself the freedom to play in ways I haven’t since childhood. That was unexpected. As a person, I err far on the serious side. I’m a happy person, but it’s not in my nature to show it in obvious ways: I’m not effusive even when I want to be, I don’t laugh a lot, and I don’t think I’ve ever once whooped in excitement. My lighthearted behavior about painting, and my enjoyment of it despite not being good at it, surprised me immensely.
Because I hadn’t thought of myself as a visual artist, I’d never looked into the mental health benefits of art. It turns out, they’re manifold. Beyond the immediate effects of reducing stress and enhancing relaxation, creating art can reduce depression, enhance self esteem, and release emotions. It stimulates the release of dopamine, one of the chief “feel good’ chemicals, in our brains. Our ability to create art may remain after we lose other faculties, such as speech, and art therapy, similar to music, is used successfully in treatment for dementia.
Professional artist Satine Phoenix considers making art “A way to express myself when I'm overwhelmed with emotion and can't verbalize the depths of how I'm feeling.” She experienced childhood trauma and found art as an outlet when she was young. Of its therapeutic qualities, she notes art “Allows me to feel safe in the practice of expressing myself until I'm comfortable to do so. Sometimes it's a vent to a passing emotion I need to exercise. Sometimes it allows me to catch a thought or emotion and process it. Art is a wildly variant idea and being able to use it as a flow to translate my thoughts and feelings is incredibly therapeutic. It teaches you how to feel, be present and let go."
Creative outlets are notably important parts of our lives, but before the pandemic I felt settled in the ones I knew I was good at. I cook and write happily as hobbies because I make a living as a chef and writer. I always feel validated and comfortable in those endeavors, even when they’re experimental, because I have confidence in my skills. Doing painting tutorials made me realize how much I shy away from activities I don’t excel at, and how ridiculous that is, especially when it comes to hobbies. It’s completely possible to have fun at things you aren’t great at—in fact, it can even be more fun, as you may be more in the moment and spontaneous than you are in your usual leisure activities.
To get more comfortable creating art, Satine suggests, “It’s not about how good you are at the medium, it’s about how it makes you feel. When you approach it this way you'll find it easier to get better because you're in a dialog with yourself about what you're interested in. So, try many different things. When you find the one you like, practice it... allow it to become muscle memory. When the subject you've been practicing clicks in you, you'll be ready to take the next step. It's a hobby, there's no rush. Enjoy it."
While I definitely can’t say I’m at the point where painting has become muscle memory, I do know I'm relaxing into it and focusing on enjoying the process, versus caring critically about the outcome. There is also a comfort zone to the YouTube tutorials that has helped me enjoy creating art more than I ever did on my own; when you see the end goal, and are given step-by-step instructions to accomplish it, the activity feels simple (versus an impossible goal like “paint a cow"). I’m sticking with painting not to become a great artist—I’m wise enough to know talent like Satine’s isn’t something one can be taught—but because it helps me be a lighter person. Hearing myself laugh makes me happier, and I’m proud to enjoy an activity for levity’s sake. Even serious people need time off, and YouTube painting is like a coffee break for my brain.