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How drawing helps my mental health

Written by James Horne 19/05/2020

So, I’m an artist, which still feels like a ridiculous title for myself, but I can’t think of a better name for what I “do”. I’ve worn a variety of hats in my career but in the main I like to make pretty things. A lot of those pretty things have been for theatre and screen as a Scenic Artist, Props Maker, and Graphics Assistant.

Drawing for me is actually a job skill, I need to be able to draw to do what I do. It’s a design tool, a language to communicate ideas and an artform in itself.

Basically, what I’m trying to say is that Drawing (with a capital D) isn’t just a little hobby, it means an awful lot to me and to people like me. That said, it is still a wonderful pastime, something much more than just work, and it can be a wonderful thing to people who don’t consider themselves artists or designers too. You don’t need to have a creative vocation for drawing to be important (and I really think it is important for everyone), but I thought I should give a little of my background for context.

Drawing is a way of processing the world around us, and for whatever reason it helps ease all the noise in my head.

Despite having a creative career so far I feel like I haven’t really pursued my own personal work. I know that I enjoy drawing and am decent at it, but I often felt that my “style” had eluded me. I got envious of artists and illustrators who have their own unique ways of drawing.

As a daydreamer and overthinker I can spend a bit too much time in my own head. Drawing lets me get what’s in my head down on paper in a way that I can struggle with with words. With drawing it doesn’t matter what language you speak, it’s universal, if you capture something well then everyone can understand it. Anyone can read it.

Recently I’ve really started making an effort to draw more. I’m making more of an effort to illustrate the ideas in my head and just put pen to paper to draw the things and people around me. What I found useful for this was actually something I’d tried before called Inktober – a daily challenge throughout October to do an ink drawing every day following a prompt list on Instagram. It’s a brilliant way to get started if you feel a bit rusty and ideas don’t come easily, you get prompts like “grow” “footsteps” or “husky”, and then just draw what comes to mind. After a few you really start thinking outside the box!

It really helped me getting back into a groove with drawing: I felt my drawing muscles relax, I was drawing well and was coming up with my own ideas to draw without prompts, and the best bit - I wanted to keep on drawing.

It doesn’t have to be a high concept for me, I just like drawing simple things, animals, people, seeing if I can capture them in a unique way. Sometimes I just like the challenge of seeing if I can draw something – the challenge of using my eyes and hands to convert what I can see into an image on a page.

However, sometimes this “challenge” I set myself, to draw something can be a bit dangerous, or at least it was in the past. If I felt like I hadn’t drawn something well, if I hadn’t captured the object or the thought the way I wanted to, then I felt like I had wasted my time. That all I had was a “bad drawing” and a wasted hour. I would be discouraged to do another drawing because I felt like I couldn’t draw the way I wanted to and would sit in that lovely toxic spiral of comparing my drawings with “better” drawings. As a creative where drawing ‘should be my main thing’, I had a really bad relationship with the way I was drawing.

Despite the rut I was driving myself into, I was still having ideas and thinking of things to draw to the point I just kept going, I kept drawing, and eventually learnt to let go of feeling like everything I did needed to be its own artwork. It no longer feels like wasted time when I get things wrong or feel like I haven’t captured something, I know that I gave it a shot and now I have something to rework with lessons learnt so that I can start again and make it better. The more you draw the more confident you get, and that confidence starts to soak into other things in life.

Drawing makes me happy.

The more I draw the better at drawing I get.

The better at drawing I get the happier I feel when I’m drawing, and the more I want to draw.

I also LOVE seeing other people’s drawings and I get excited about what other people do. Humans making images to pass the time is a marvellous thing to me, whether that is seeing a 10’000 year old cave painting of bison roaming the plains, a child’s drawing of their house and family, or a friends first attempt at drawing a portrait.

It’s interesting to me to look back at things I draw and notice motifs and running themes. At the moment I’ve noticed I’ve drawn a lot of birds, which is probably very telling in a time when we don’t have a lot freedom and are trapped inside, I’m drawing creatures that can fly and can go wherever they wish. I also notice I draw positive male role models and love stories. That’ll be the romantic in me.

I like to draw things that make me happy and stick it up on my walls, surround myself in happy things. Or if I draw something sad and melancholic, I feel like I’ve somehow managed to get it out of my head, faced whatever that feeling is and let it go.

I think a lot of creative people can relate to that feeling. The release of creating. It doesn’t have to be drawing, it could be any kind of art form where you can translate how you’re feeling or what you’re thinking into something tangible, whether that’s painting, dancing, or writing. Art is free therapy.

Recently I saw a post by the author Matt Haig about mental health being as active as physical health and that it is something you have to keep working at, and for some people they have to work just a little bit harder to keep on top of it. For me, drawing has become my outlet for mental exercise, and I feel like I have only just got started with it, which is beyond exciting. It’s essential to my health, the chance to fully express and explore, for myself as much as anyone else, how I feel on any given day.

I don’t feel the pressure to create “my style”, because whatever I draw and create is my style and what I choose. I’m letting go of the envy and instead finding inspiration and energy to do more for myself, and I’m enjoying sharing what I do, and in sharing what I do I stay connected, which is such an important thing right now during times of isolation.

So that’s how drawing helps me. It shows me how to process and express for myself, and if I want to share what I do it connects me to others, and I will forever cheerlead other people in drawing and making. Like I say, this is the start, so I can’t wait to see what I draw next…

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