Art Therapy

Since, well, forever, people have turned to art for refuge and comfort at trying times. And we’re here to say that you don’t need to be a natural-born maker of masterpieces to yield the proven benefits—reduced anxiety, greater productivity—of creating. 

So we asked our favorite illustrator and watercolor artist (a former art teacher!), Riley Sheehey, for a few tips on artful distraction during this pandemic-driven pause on regular life. And scroll to the end for a Dudley Stephens-themed coloring page by Riley to get you started!

For Big Kids and Grown-Ups

Sketch It Out

I would highly recommend the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. I purchased my copy in college for an art education class. I still refer back to it from time to time, and used it all of the time when I taught middle school art classes. 

A couple of drawing exercises I loved (some from the book, some I used to do with students):

+ 5 minute blind contour drawing: Tape a piece of paper to your desk. Turn sideways in your chair, so that your dominant hand is holding your pencil over your page, and you’re looking behind you at your non-dominant hand. Set a timer for five minutes. Without looking at your paper, draw the creases on your hand. Don’t turn around to look at your drawing, and draw for the full five minutes. It won’t be a good drawing, but the idea is that it teaches your brain to focus on what you’re drawing vs. the perception of what you’re drawing—kind of cool!

+ Negative space drawing of a chair (in college, we did this with a tree/tree leaves instead- if it’s nice out, might be a nice alternative): “Negative space” is a fancy word for empty space. Make a line drawing outlining the empty spaces around the stool or chair (or branches/leaves) vs. drawing the chair/tree itself. You’ll be surprised at how accurate your drawing is!

+ Upside down drawing: Find a black and white image (a line drawing works best—actually, a coloring book page would be perfect!), and flip it upside down. Draw the image.

Put It in Paint

While I took some drawing and acrylic painting classes in college, I want to mention as a disclaimer that I am self-taught in watercolor! That being said, I put together a “Cheat Sheet” of the materials that I use, the step-by-step process I usually use, a color-mixing guide, and some watercolor tips and tricks on the blog section of my website. I put it together a couple of years ago, but most of my materials and my process are still the same! 

Mix Your Media

I first learned about altered books while student teaching from my mentor teacher, and I kept one as an art journal throughout my senior year of college. Basically, you take an old hardcover book that isn’t being used any longer, and you alter the pages with your artwork. Some ideas: collage pages with magazine cut-outs, paint pages with watercolor so that the text still shows through, or cut into books to create secret compartments (always a favorite with children, but make sure you’re the one wielding the X-acto knife!).

For Littles

When possible, I always liked to pair different studio activities with famous artists/art movements. Students always surprised me by how much they loved learning about the people behind the paintings and sculptures! There’s a great book, Discovering Great Artists by MaryAnn F. Kohl and Kim Solga. That was my number-one most used resource throughout my years of teaching. A lot of the supplies needed for the projects can be found in your home. 

Here are some lessons I taught (some from the book):

+ Pointillism “dot paintings”: Look at paintings by 19th century French painter Georges Seurat. Have your child make a line drawing of a landscape (or anything, really!), and then add color with dots of tempera paint with the end of a Q-tip. The pointillists liked to make colors blend together with “optical mixing” (for example, placing blue and yellow dots very close together, so that when you look at them you see green).

+ Magazine collages inspired by Romare Bearden: Look at collages by 20th century American artist Romare Bearden, and teach that a “collage” is a work of art made from gluing different pieces or materials to the same flat surface. Have your child cut from different old magazines to create their own collage.

+ Op art inspired by Bridget Riley: After looking at examples of op art paintings by English artist Bridget Riley, teach that “op art” is a type of abstract art (meaning it doesn’t look like anything you see in real life) that gives the illusion of movement. Have your child trace his or her hand with a black marker or sharpie, then outline the line they create over and over again. The finished piece of art will have wavy lines that are close together (kind of like a thumbprint!)

+ Drawing with scissors with Henri Matisse: After looking at examples of paper cut-out collages by French artist Henri Matisse, have your child cut out (or, as Matisse called it, “draw with scissors”) different shapes from construction paper to create their own colorful collages.

+ Abstract expressionist finger paintings inspired by Joan Mitchell: View examples of paintings by American painter Joan Mitchell. Mitchell was an “abstract expressionist” painter, meaning her paintings didn’t represent anything in the real world, and she used techniques like spilling, splattering and even finger-painting! Ask your child how the paintings make them feel (I always liked asking them to try and find hidden objects in the paintings, like when you look for shapes in clouds!). Then have your child create their own “abstract expressionist” painting with finger painting with tempera paints!