Drawing Emotions Out
Humans respond to the world around them through their emotions. We feel these emotions in our bodies and they are physical things, not simply imagined scenarios that run through our heads. We say ‘I feel sad’ or ‘I feel afraid’ and we really do feel them physically.
Extreme fear often stirs up a sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach, maybe a dry mouth, maybe palpitations. Everything around you might feel dangerous and suspicious. Feelings of joy or love are often felt higher up in the body – think of ‘light-hearted’ or ‘heart-warming’; you want to smile and your eyes twinkle. Everything feels safe and good.
Events and people around us trigger these feelings, but so can our thoughts. Think about something very sad, and then very happy, and notice how your body reacts. Everyone is different of course, and we have personal reasons to react in individual ways, but there are common responses which we can all identify with to some extent.
One exercise I like to give students asks them to make marks to represent specific emotions. They are not allowed to use any symbols – no hearts, stars, zigzags, smiley faces – and especially no spirals. Spirals are commonly used to show movement. Nature moves in spirals; just think of water going down plugs. They form the basic pattern of our world, which is why the symbol is so common in prehistoric cave art.
In this exercise though, all symbols are banned. I lead everyone into feeling each emotion in their bodies. Not the story that caused the feeling, but the physical residue of it. I ask them to feel where it is inside them, and then to channel that into their hand and then their pencil. The marks that emerge instead of symbols are always interesting.
Although each set of marks feels very personal and raw, it is fascinating that when we compare them afterwards they are often very similar. For example, ‘calm’ marks are – not always but often – long and horizontal. No wonder we are so soothed by horizontal images of landscapes and seascapes. It seems to be an innate human mark, and we often ‘know’ this without realising it.
The series of marks in the exercise seem to tap into a very deep place within. Everyone’s will be a little different of course; we all have our own experiences and our own ways of dealing with and feeling specific emotions. ‘Fury’ is often dark, jagged and heavy. ‘Fear’ might be sinking, small and against one side or other of the page.
These marks can obviously be powerful and revealing, and of great interest to therapists. I am not a therapist, although I know that art and creativity are definitely therapeutic. I would not dream of ‘reading ‘ these marks; I believe it’s better for us to interpret them ourselves with a little guidance.
The point of doing this exercise with my students is twofold; realising that we naturally make common marks to represent our emotions can help us to read more into other artist’s work, especially abstracts.
Secondly, using this exercise to make marks when we are feeling a strong emotion can really help to shift it in our bodies. For example, if you are very nervous about something, making a page of nervous marks (remember, no symbols) can really help to move that ‘butterfly’ flutter in the stomach. Carrying these emotions in our bodies can be physically harmful if we do it habitually. In time they can turn into symptoms and even illnesses. Stress can underlie ulcers, for example. Literally drawing them out is certainly a harmless way of helping to release some of our pent up emotions in a creative and positive way.