How to start a mindful drawing practice

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Last year I had this idea to teach a workshop that combined art and mindfulness. Since I had been learning so much about mindfulness through my newfound drawing practice, I figured that would be a good place to start. I developed it with an art therapist friend and it was a huge hit. In fact, it had more people registered than any workshop I’ve taught, ever. Something about the combination of mindfulness and art spoke to people. 

What is mindfulness? 

I really like this definition by John Kabat-Zinn because it encompasses everything I associate with mindfulness:

“Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” (source)

Another definition, by Ellen Langer is: 

“the simple act of actively noticing things.” (source)

To me, mindfulness means learning to become aware of my thoughts and bodily sensations so that I’m not controlled by them. It means that I get to choose which story I want to tell, instead of being carried away by automatic reactions to thoughts and feelings.

What does mindfulness have to do with drawing? 

Mindfulness is all about observation, and so is drawing. Both require you to slow down and pay close attention to what’s in front of you. Drawing is a great way to practice mindfulness because it allows you to be focused in the present moment - in what is happening right in front of you. And mindfulness can help people who think they can't draw (like me!) because it helps to release the judgement and harsh criticism that keeps people feeling stuck. 

So how can you harness the power of mindfulness to either start drawing, or start having more fun with it? Here are 7 steps: 

Set an intention 

Decide what you want to get from your drawing practice. Do you want to learn to see things better and translate them realistically to the page? Or are you just looking for a way to relax? Do you want to learn to overcome the insistence of your inner critic that you don't know what you're doing? Your end goal will drastically change how you approach any drawing.

I have separate sketchbooks for different goals: one is for detailed drawing from photographs, one is for fun, colourful doodles that I usually do in front of the TV, and one is for when I’m out and about and doing rough sketching from life.

Each time I open one of these sketchbooks, I think about why I'm doing it, because tapping into that greater purpose makes it easy to overcome the obstacles that are sure to crop up. 

Pay attention 

No matter what style of drawing you’re interested in, you’ll need to start developing a habit of observation and noticing. Before you start, use all of your senses to observe your surroundings - not just your eyes. What does the space you’re in feel, look, smell, sound, and taste like?

Next, take a few deep breaths and scan down your body to get an idea of how it’s feeling today. Are you tense, relaxed, nervous, excited, aching, tired, energetic, or some combination of everything?

Finally, and most importantly, start paying attention to your thoughts. What is your mind telling you about what you're doing right now? Is it helpful or critical? Write the thoughts down if it helps. Also notice what happens in your body as your thoughts travel through - do they leave sensations behind?

Get curious 

The more you start observing, the more curious you’ll become about what’s going on around you and inside you. Look at it like you’re a detective on the trail of a new clue, or a scientist gathering data in the hopes of making a big discovery.

Curiosity helps you stay engaged and can make the most seemingly dull drawing assignment into an adventure. Just like tapping into your intention, it gives you a reason to keep going when things get tough.

If you're finding it hard to start or stay with a drawing, ask yourself if there's anything unique or interesting about what you're working on or experiencing. This kind of question helps build your curiosity muscle and can give you a new sense of purpose. 

Find softness 

As you start paying attention, you might notice how harsh your thoughts can be - especially when you’re drawing. You might feel tempted to fight against these thoughts, or to berate yourself for having them. These reactions will only make things worse.

Instead, you’ll want to muster as much softness as you can towards yourself, your body, your mind, and your drawings. You’ll want to show yourself kindness and compassion, recognising that you’re doing something challenging and you’re on an important journey. Think about how you would treat a good friend or a tiny baby and pull inspiration from that. 

Let go of judgement 

We all have judgemental thoughts toward ourselves and others, and it can be really easy to get attached to these and see them as ‘objective truth’. But a big part of mindfulness is realising that we don’t have to believe any of our thoughts, and especially not the ones that tell us that we’re crap.

As you get curious about your judgements and show them softness, you might start to learn that you don’t actually need them any more. You can observe your judgements, thank them for their input, and then let them go. You’ll probably find that drawing is a lot more enjoyable when you stop telling yourself that you’re terrible at it. 

Move through resistance 

As you move further in your practice, there will always be times when you really don’t want to continue. You might feel like you aren’t getting the results you want, or that things aren’t changing quickly enough. You might even take those feelings of resistance to mean that you shouldn’t be drawing in the first place. Instead, resistance just needs to be met with more curiosity and softness.

I feel resistance every week when I step back in my studio after being at my day job. It feels hard and often pointless. But if I can be soft towards those feelings and continue working, I always end up finding my groove eventually. If the resistance persists, feel free to take a break, and think about what’s getting in your way. Just don’t give up entirely. 

Follow your intuition

Finally, a big part of drawing mindfully, for me, involves letting my intuition take over. My goal is always to get to a place where I’m not consciously thinking about what I’m doing, where my hand and my body seem to move on their own. This doesn’t always happen, and I will often stay stuck in my mind the entire time. But I now recognise that as part of the process and just keep practising.

If you want to start a mindful drawing practice, I have two great opportunities coming up for you to get some hands-on experience:

If you’re in Edmonton, I’m teaching a 5-hour workshop at the Paint Spot’s Artelier called Mindfulness through Drawing. We’ll start with a body scan meditation to help us focus, move on to playing with mindful mark-making, try out a fine-detail drawing, and practice following our intuition. It’s happening Saturday, February 17 from 10am-4pm and you can register here

If you’re not in Edmonton, or you want to go even further into mindful drawing, I’ll be running an online course called Drawing Beyond Fear from February 12 - March 19. We’ll cover each of the 7 steps listed above and more. You’ll get to try at least two new drawing exercises each week, each with its own mindfulness components. Find more information and register here.