The Art Of Emotions

January 7, 2017

(4) Comments

‘Anxiety’ by Toby Allen


‘Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.’

(C.G. Jung)


My new job at the psychiatric hospital provides me with many exciting opportunities to collaborate with the other group leaders. We each come from a different background and have a unique way of working with the patients and creating and running groups on the inpatient units. One of my colleagues recently came up with the idea to co-lead a group together called Art Collaborations. In this group we mix psychoeducation with art therapy. The goal is to provide group members with an integrative approach to learning about mental health and recovery that speaks to both sides of the brain.

One of my drawings, illustrating the feeling of anxiety.

My colleague had come across the amazing art of Toby Allen and was inspired by the artist’s mission to give a visual face to mental health issues in order to address stigma. He approached me about doing an Art Collaborations group where we explored and brainstormed different emotions and created art around that theme. We both decided that picking actual mental illnesses (as Allen had done) could be too triggering for our group members, but we liked the idea of using an emotion as the direct art inspiration.

The Psychoeducation Piece
We began by explaining this new hybrid group to the participants and introducing ourselves as co-leaders. My colleague began by asking everyone to share an emotion that they experienced frequently and might be struggling with. Some of the common emotions were anxiety, overwhelm, confusion, depression, and anger. As emotions were said out loud, my co-leader wrote them on a whiteboard. We also encouraged members to share ‘positive’ emotions and examples from that category included happiness, excitement, and hope. Once the white board was fairly full with listed emotions, my co-leader asked everyone to decide on which feelings were the most challenging to experience.

‘Depression’ by Toby Allen

Overwhelm, confusion, and sadness topped the list of most difficult feelings for most of the group members and my co-leader circled them on the board. We spent a few minutes letting the group process why these emotions were so challenging. Many seemed to gain comfort by looking up at the board and around the room and realizing that they were not alone.

The Art Piece
Next I handed out watercolor paint, brushes, and watercolor paper. I chose watercolor because I find that it helps individuals dip into emotions more readily than drawing materials, but without as much potential to overwhelm group members on an emotional level. I often select watercolor paint as the middle ground between the two ends of the materials spectrum.

I asked each person to choose an emotion. It could be an emotion they were struggling with on a daily basis (like anger), or an emotion that they would like to experience more (like happiness). I then asked them to use the watercolor to give the feeling a visual form by thinking about questions such as: what color would the emotion be? what shape? size? texture? abstract or representational?

Some group members painted quietly while others verbally processed as they worked. As I glanced around the table I saw that some people were working abstractly while others were creating representational images. Once everyone had finished their piece we spent some time sharing the images and the emotion that had inspired them. One participant shared a picture of his cat and the attached emotion was happiness. The more he talked about his beloved cat, the more he realized that the picture actually depicted two strong emotions: happiness and sadness, since he had lost the cat a few years ago. We talked about the ability to experience two seemingly opposite feelings simultaneously. Another member picked anxiety and confusion as his primary emotions and depicted himself caught between the two words while listening to music. For him, the music was a way of centering himself when these emotions became too powerful. I thought it was interesting that he had illustrated the feelings while including his own solution for handling them.

One woman held up a completely blank page to the group. She explained that she experiences such a range of emotions every day, that she didn’t know where to start with the art. She said this in a sarcastic and slightly defensive tone. It might have been easy for me to privately assess her blank page as a form of resistance to the group process and the directive. However, I thought it was an extremely creative and revealing statement about where she was at the moment. It was a genuine reflection of her ongoing struggles to find meaning in her ups and downs. At times she felt like giving up out of exasperation. At other times she was able to find the playful fluidity in her high and low emotional states.

‘That Sinking Feeling’                               Sara Roizen

It was an interesting collaborative group to say the least. I am eager to continue working this way and weaving different approaches to therapy and group work together.

How can you apply this to your work or yourself? Have you ever tried giving visual form to a particular feeling? In many ways, art automatically gives form to our feelings but it may not be every day that we consciously pick an emotion to focus on as an actual art piece.

If you’re interested in doing more reading about working with your feelings through art (making the invisible visible), check out my past blog post here:
Feeding Your Demons (Some Art)

In the post I explore an amazing book called Feeding Your Demons, by Lama Tsultrim Allione and how her way of working with difficult emotions can be explored through art by giving visual form to our inner ‘demons’ and dialoguing with them in a creative process.

Happy art making to you! May you make room for all of your feelings in some form…even (especially) the challenging ones.




  • Cami

    Lovely blog and such an exciting experience. I spent a while working on a similar project. My theme was depression and illustrating the many feelings it can manifest itself in. I find that once you tackle such a difficult subject people often open up and talk more freely about their experiences. I’d love to read more about your work on the topic.

    • ats

      Hi Cami,
      Thank you so much for your comment! I agree, that a theme such as depression can be a powerful thing to explore in groups (or individually). I have often found that there is an initial resistance to working so directly with something like depression, but if people feel safe enough to stay with the feeling and the art – it can be a dynamic and illuminating process. I look forward to exploring these ideas more on my blog, and hope to keep hearing from you and your work too!

  • Darlene


    • ats

      Wonderful! I’m glad that this idea resonated with you! Happy art making tonight. 🙂

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