Last year I worked with a friend of mine to make a giant paper maché brain for a school project. We met on Friday mornings to share breakfast and work on the project and chat. It was a lot of work and took us many weeks. Though we both often thought about cancelling due to heavy work load, we never regretted the time we spent together getting messy and making something. When we were finished my friend told me that this time had helped her to feel relaxed amidst her busy student life. Playing with paper mache was a treat and a good chance for her to rest and regroup. For me, too, it was a nice break from the pressure I put on myself to constantly be producing new work.
It's hard to make creativity a priority in our lives. There's always something more important to do. And it can be hard to feel relaxed doing it when our inner critic can be so mean. Sometimes it feels more stressful to work on a creative project than to just zone out with a book or a TV show.
But creativity doesn't have to mean doing something hard, or coming up with something brand new. It can be easy and relaxing, and still give us the satisfaction of saying yes to our creative selves.
The important thing is to choose something that doesn't make your inner critic go crazy. For me, that's drawing so I don't draw to relax. I might doodle, or colour, or take photos. Choose something that's easy - not completely mindless (even colouring requires choosing a colour) - but where there isn't a lot of weight placed on your decisions.
Especially if you spend yours days analysing, solving problems, or figuring out logistics, it's good to give that side of your brain a rest. It seems counter-intuitive, but the busier we are, the more we need activities like this: devoting time to something fun can make us feel calmer, and less rushed or busy. Even if you do spend a lot of your time in a creative mindset, like I do, it's good to practice low-key activities with really low stakes.
In this article, James Clear writes about the health benefits that scientists have found result from art-making, including reduced stress and anxiety, increased positive emotions, and increased spontaneity and flow.
Think about what you long for in your life. Is it more downtime, or time to yourself? There are plenty of activities that take only a few minutes and can help recharge you. If you're wishing you had more time to spend with people you care about, use some of these ideas as group activities - two of them require a group.
Make sure that you set aside regular time to relax with creativity. These activities would all be a great way to start or end your day, or as a break before moving on to something else. Try them on your lunch break at work, or after dinner with the family before you do the dishes.
Here are some very non-stressful ways to incorporate a creative activity into your day:
1. Play with coins: In her book, The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp writes about a very simple exercise. All you need to do is drop some coins of different denominations on a surface, seeing how they fall. Then you can re-arrange them until they form pleasing patterns. As Tharp puts it, "There in a nutshell is the essence of creativity: There are a number of possibilities, but only one solution looks inevitable."
2. Automatic drawing: Take a black pen to a piece of paper and just let your hand move all over the page, in wavy, squiggly, or straight lines. After awhile, bring the line around to connect with where you started. Colour in the shapes that you made.
3. Geometric shapes: This was probably my favourite exercise from the Draw Paint Print book. Cut out uniform shapes - squares, triangles and circles - from different colours of paper. Arrange the shapes on another piece of paper to make designs or pictures and glue them down. Can you make a pattern that covers a whole page? Can you make animals or a landscape? I could spend hours doing this.
4. Organic shapes: A variation on the exercise above, this time let your scissors roam free across the coloured paper, cutting out any shapes that appeal to you. Then use those to make pictures.
5. Basic printmaking: Gather as many circular objects as you can find, in different sizes and widths, dip them in paint (acrylic, tempera, or poster paint works best), and stamp them on paper. Use different colours of paint, experiment with creating patterns, overlapping different colours and sizes, or use coloured paper to print on.
6. Exquisite corpse game: Play this with other people. Fold pieces of paper into 3 parts. Give each person a piece and have them draw the head of a character or creature on the top section of the paper. Then tuck the folds up so that only the middle section is visible and the head is hidden, with only two lines coming down into the middle section to show where the neck is. Exchange papers and use the two lines as a guide for drawing the torso of a character/creature. Then fold it again so that only the bottom section is showing, again with lines to show where the torso is. Exchange again and use the lines as a guide to draw the legs and feet of the character/creature. Then unfold the papers and see what monstrosities you have created. I've found that any self-consciousness I have about drawing in public is soon eased by how much fun this is.
7. Another group game: Fold a piece of paper many times. Like the previous game, it will be passed from person to person. But this time the first person writes a one-sentence story. They pass that to the next person, who then draws the story, folds the first story under so it isn't visible, and passes the drawing. The next person writes a story based on that drawing, folds the drawing under and passes it. It keeps going like this until the paper is full. Unfold it and see what hilarious interpretations have been made.
8. Draw music: Listen to a favourite piece of music and use a marker, crayon, or paintbrush to draw the sounds you hear. Use different colours and shapes to try to bring out as much of the music as you can.
9. Pointillism: Using coloured markers (I love using fine-tipped Sharpies) make a design using only dots. Make circles within circles within squares, or swirls across the page. It's usually best to start with a small paper, since this will take a lot of time. I made a birthday card like this at my last craft show and it was a great way to pass the time. It's a little addictive so be careful!
10. Make a wacky collage: During a craft night with a friend years ago, he started cutting out heads of animals from magazines and glueing them to the bodies of people. They looked hilarious and once he started he couldn't stop. Find elements that contrast sharply and see how you can join them.
11. Colouring books: I heard that the best-selling books on Amazon right now are adult colouring books, and I'm not surprised. Colouring is a blissfully meditative activity, to the point where the last time I did it, I found myself sighing with contentment as it seemed that my life couldn't possibly get any better. My mom had a book of mandalas for colouring in, which you should try if you want to up the meditation/spiritual factor.
12. Sculpt: Play with plasticine, play dough, or polymer clay. Make shapes, characters, or just roll it around in your hands. My friend gave me plasticine for a birthday present when we were in our early teens and I spent hours making a village of characters that I was so pleased with I held onto them for years.
13. Free writing: Pick a topic, set a timer, and write without stopping. Let your mind go loose and write whatever comes to mind without judging or crossing anything out. If you get stuck, write the topic again and again until things start to flow. Don't stop writing until the timer goes off.
14. Photo walk: After interviewing someone for an article for the Local Good recently, I was walking home feeling worked up and thinking about how I was going to write the article. I stopped to take a photo of some gorgeous plants along the path and suddenly felt calmer. Walking with the intent of taking photos focuses your mind and can keep you in a relaxed state. Use a nice camera or just use your phone and capture anything that grabs your attention.