Leaves On A Stream

“Japanese Garden” ~ acrylic on wood ~ 36″ x 65″ ~ Sara Roizen

I have often found it useful to offer a short guided visualization or breathing practice before my art therapy groups. In the beginning I offered these exercises a bit timidly, wondering how my clients would react to engaging in some quiet time. Although each person is different, I am finding that for the most part these small carved out practices are embraced.

Most of the places where I work are fairly chaotic at times. The buildings themselves are in challenging neighborhoods and the residents that come to my groups are usually trying to find a balance between engaging in the outside world but also protecting their inner needs and space.

There are not always private and quiet spaces to conduct my groups in and so we work with what we have. We enfold the sounds of people shuffling in and out, the occasional arguments outside, and other everyday interruptions into our work together.

Let Go…
One of the visualizations that I sometimes guide my art therapy clients in:

Imagine you are sitting quietly by the side of a stream. It’s Fall and there are beautiful bright leaves in reds, oranges, yellows, and golds floating downstream. As you become aware of your thoughts, try placing each thought on a leaf and watch as it floats away from you down the stream. There is no need to chase the leaf as it floats further away. Simply breathe in out and place another thought on the next leaf. Observe that there is no shortage of thoughts, for that is what the mind does – it creates thoughts. Thoughts are not a problem. See that the water is always moving and flowing, just as your thoughts and feelings are never still. Relax into the process of letting each thought arise and then let it go.

ink & watercolor on rice paper ~ Sara Roizen

This visualization can be expanded upon utilizing art. You can use real leaves and have the clients write a thought or feeling that they are trying to release on the leaf. Metallic and black sharpies work nicely as would paint or even oil pastel. If there is a moving body of water nearby then group members could actually release the leaves and watch them float away. An alternative is to cut-out leaves on watercolor paper and have everyone write their thoughts on the leaves in washable marker or paint words on with watercolor. After the leaves are completed, submerge the cut-out leaves in a pan or bowl of water and watch as the words slowly dissolve and wash away…

For those of you who incorporate guided mindful practices into your work, do you have any favorites? How might they translate into the art process?

Resist(ance) & Watercolor

oil pastel & watercolor ~ Sara Roizen
 “It’s easier to resist at the beginning than at the end.”
~ Leonardo Da Vinci
It was pouring rain as I headed deep into Brooklyn to lead one of my art therapy groups at a residential building for adults living with chronic mental illness. It seemed fitting that I had packed watercolor for the group that day, as well as oil pastels. My thinking was that instead of fighting the rainy day, perhaps we could glean some inspiration from the puddles, soaked clothing, and failed attempts to stay dry.
As I walked to the building, there was a little doubting voice in my head that wondered whether or not the simple watercolor and oil pastel materials would be enough to entice the residents during group. As an art therapist I often find myself wondering if my ‘buffet’ of art materials will feed a hungry group or if they will find my offerings lacking. Each group is completely different and I always remind myself to do the same thing that I encourage my clients to do…trust the process.
As it turned out, this particular group ended up being one of the most attended and lively art therapy groups I had led in a while. My enthusiasm for the process quickly spread throughout the entire group. I did a quick demonstration by showing the clients how to create doodles with the white crayon on the white paper. Once the drawing was done, I showed how layers of watercolor could be added to reveal the white crayon lines underneath. This technique works because oil and water don’t mix – hence the beautiful resist paintings that emerge.
oil pastel & watercolor ~ Sara Roizen
One of the new group members began hesitantly and at first expressed frustration that the art was not matching the vision in his mind. A few of my more seasoned group members gently encouraged him to keep going and not worry so much about the finished product. (Always amazing when a group is in the flow and seems to run itself!) As he started a second resist painting he mentioned that he hadn’t picked up an art material in years. I asked him if he remembered the last time and he said, “when I joined the army I traded my drawing pencil for a rifle.” There was a collective silence and a few head nods from other group members that were veterans.

As this client continued to create, we all noticed that his pieces were becoming less self-conscious and much more fluid. His last piece was an abstract geometrical square pattern and the shapes seemed to leap from the paper. I helped him explore the idea of muscle memory and asked him if he could retrain himself in the practice of art as a parallel to his experience of training for and serving in the army. The connection between the two seemed to appeal to him and I pointed out that in only an hour and a half he had gone from a reluctant group participant to an engaged and more self-assured creator.

Quick crayon & watercolor resist tips:

White crayon on white paper leads to the most striking visual results, but adding other color crayon lines adds very interesting effects!
  • To create a solid and clear line, make sure to press down pretty hard on the crayon. I always tell my clients not worry if the crayon breaks! Having a few extra white crayons in your supply bin can help too.
  • The more pigment/watercolor on the brush = deeper and less transparent layers. To create a crisp visual edge, load that brush up with pigment. For more subtle washes and soft effects, use more water.
  • Many of my group members are not sure what to draw so to warm them up I encourage doodling with eyes closed, picking a shape and repeating it, or having someone else draw and then have them add the watercolor.
oil pastel & watercolor mandala journal pages ~ Sara Roizen
  • This activity appeals to the inner child as well as actual children. I have used this technique in the children’s hospital with patients and parents. The adult can write a ‘secret’ message or create a drawing in white crayon on the paper, and then the child reveals it by adding watercolor, and plenty of opportunity to switch roles too! A beautiful and simple collaborative method.
     Enjoy this technique! It’s one of the most relaxing and simple techniques I have found and always leads to amazing discoveries.