Dear Wonderful, Creative You:
One of the questions I get asked most is how to art journal when you feel sad. My art journal has been a great source of comfort and self-understanding for years. I’m blessed to be able to share my techniques here. I’m hoping this post will help get you started when you want to art it out in your journal, but you’re not sure how. Even if you’ve never made art, or never thought about making expressive art, I want to assure you humans are uniquely creative beings. We have been using the arts to process our feelings, and mark important moments in our lives since the beginning of time. Art as a coping tool belongs to me, to you, and to us all.
As an art therapist, I’m lucky to have a lot of training in how to use art for self-expression and healing. While I no longer practice art therapy, I still use art to help myself feel better, and I love teaching these age-old techniques to others as well.
TIP #1: FOCUS ON PROCESS OVER PRODUCT
One of the blessings of my art therapy training was learning to focus on art process over product. Of course I know you are art journaling because you’d like to make art, but getting overly focused on it can tighten you up and ensure that you won’t express your feelings or make anything you like. That’s a lose-lose.
As many artists know, the more you create, the more you open up space for exploration through your art materials, the more the process of art making becomes a balm to your soul. Funny enough, the more you do this the more your product improves too. It’s weird the way that works, isn’t it? That’s a win-win.
TIP #2: WORK IN LAYERS
The other thing I’ve found that really helps me to loosen up, create, and express myself is working in layers. I find layers give me lots of permission to make mistakes, try out new things, and not have to know what the finished product will be. This helps me express myself. When I art journal because I’m feeling down, I don’t want to have to think too much, so I’d like to share a sort of art making formula that has helped me. You can use some of it or all of it, depending on what feels good to you.
LAYER 1: WRITING LAYER: Journal About Why You Feel Sad
You can approach this in many different ways. Art journaling when you feel sad is a super flexible activity. Here’s some ideas for writing when you feel sad:
- Write a letter you’ll never send. This helps me clarify my feelings and get them out.
- Describe how feeling sad makes you feel in your body.
- Create a poem about feeling sad.
- Honor your sadness: “Talk” to sadness as though it were a person. Honor it. Give it some room to speak back to you, perhaps even in a dialogue you write in your journal.
- Sarcasm: Have a mock conversation with someone and be as sarcastic as you wish!
- Imagery: Describe, with words, the images that come to you when you feel this way.
- Flip the table: Write about how you wish you were feeling right now.
- Conceal your feelings: Write over and over your own writing until you can’t read it. This helps create texture on your page, in your own unique handwriting style. I find this very cathartic too.
- Reveal your feelings: Write in white gel pen on a white page, and then paint over it with high flow acrylic paint. Some colors also cover the writing more than others. This is a fun “magic writing” technique you can use either to reveal or hide your writing.
LAYER 2: PAINT LAYER: Paint Your Feelings
With this next layer, we move form words and texture on the page to flowing paint. Art journaling when you feel sad gives you opportunities in paint to use the colors to express how you currently feel, or how you want to feel. For me personally, I find I often need to shift to expressing what I want to feel, or I end up wallowing in negativity. You will need to be your own best judge of what helps you. There’s no right or wrong in self-expression. There are no rules, just do what feels right to you. Here are some options for the painting your feelings layer:
- Paint with brushes, sticks, kitchen tools, rocks, shells, or plastic wrap
- Finger painting for adults: Put on gloves and push and pull paints with your hands
- Use colors that express your sadness, or colors that express how you want to feel
- Create a grid over your writing and paint each one a slightly different color
- Paint a repetitive pattern over your words
- Black page, white stars: Paint your page black, then use gel pens to create a galaxy of white stars.
- Take my class, Art Journaling 101 for more guided lessons on using art and writing in transformative ways.
LAYER 3: WRITING LAYER: Transform Your Feelings
- Write out a poem that expresses what you’d like to feel. I love Rilke and Mary Oliver. What about you?
- Write hope, love, or joy in block letters. Then write inside about what gives you hope, love, or joy.
- Gratitude journaling: Write in block letters something you are grateful for, then write about why in a circle going around your letters.
- Fold your own envelope, paste it to the page, and put a letter inside to someone you love.
- Creative writing: Write a story or poem about what you wish was happening right now.
- Use a script liner brush and paint to write down a message of encouragement.
LAYER 4: DRAWING LAYER: Slow Down and Tune Into the World
I also like the invitation to slow down and observe something closely enough to draw it. Even when my drawing is kind of wonky, I try to embrace the practice in the moment. I also REALLY find the repetition of drawing patterns soothing. This frequently helps me feel better. Here are some ideas for your drawing layer:
- Draw an animal that symbolizes protection, freedom, or strength for you. You can draw it cartoony or realistic. I like to find a photo and work from that since I’m not good at brining the image clearly enough in my mind.
- Draw a repetitive pattern with a paint marker, gel pen, or brush. Use dots, circles, dashes, or wiggly lines. Imitate something in nature or make up your own based on what feels good to your hand. On light backgrounds, you can use a Micron pen too.
- Use a photo to draw someone you love. You can also paste it into your journal if you prefer not to draw.
- Illustrate a place that makes you feel happy.
- Be sure you are on my mailing list for more art journaling ideas and inspiration!
Remember, I’m sharing ways I use my art journal in my own life to feel better. This isn’t art therapy, and in no way should be seen as mental health treatment or advice. If you are facing overwhelming feelings or mental health struggles, I hope you honor your pain by getting the support you deserve. If art therapy feels like the right option for you, you can find a local art therapist here.
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