Your Brain on Abstract Art: A Guide to Achieving Mindfulness Through Painting

As my relationship with abstract art deepens, I find myself wanting to share all the juicy benefits it’s provided me with the world like a healing elixir. I think if more people knew how welcoming and nurturing painting like this could be, we’d alleviate a lot of the collective tension. Who doesn’t want that?

In this blog post, I’ll be sharing three ways abstract painting can help you achieve mindfulness and how you can start benefitting from this creative process regardless of your level of experience.

Let’s start, shall we? 

To begin, I want to try to describe the process of abstract painting and what it feels like. To me, the thrill of it stems from freedom — every ounce of feeling and subconscious thought makes its way to the canvas without hesitation. It’s grounded in pure expression and never dictated by the pressure to create something perfect or recognizable. 

That’s what makes it so inclusive. Whether you’ve been painting for years or never held a paintbrush in your life, you know you’re safe to channel your authentic creativity on the canvas and give in to the process as it unfolds without fear of judgment. 

This specific type of freedom always reminds me of how you create when you’re a child; without inhibitions, not trying to stay in the lines. I remember coming home from school and spending time at my desk with all this energy inside that needed somewhere to go. I would tear through construction paper, rip apart old fuzzy posters, and start throwing any paint and assorted crafts I could find into this mass of controlled randomness. All the pent up energy made its way to this thing that wasn’t a thing at all. I didn’t think the result was pretty when I was done, but the aftermath was a fullness that’s stayed with me since. I’ve come to understand that these are the reasons why: 

  1. Abstract painting is free from the binds of reality 

For anyone with a busy mind, abstract painting can provide a comforting stillness much like meditation. When you’re not focused on a clear vision, result or specific form, you let yourself wander into the subconscious. Vered Aviv writes in his Frontiers in Human Neuroscience article that “abstract art frees our brain from the dominance of reality, enabling it to flow within its inner states…and activate brain-states that are otherwise harder to access…it enables the exploration of yet undiscovered inner territories of the viewer’s brain.” With this freedom, you can express feelings and forms of energy that don’t fit the mold of something humans have quantified or defined. 

For example, last year I went through something physically and emotionally traumatic that left me feeling deeply isolated even when I was given support. I wasn’t prepared at the time for the feelings that came up and I didn’t know how to articulate them. I tried talking about it (to myself and loved ones) and writing about it, but words didn’t do the experience justice. So, on one of the days when it all felt especially unbearable and claustrophobic, I pulled an old canvas out of my closet and faced the discomfort head-on. I poured every tear into a process that had no structure and allowed myself to feel each emotion while the painting naturally unfolded. It was the most healing I had felt since the experience because I didn’t have to define it — what came out of me was unfiltered feeling itself, all the ugliness and beauty of my “inner states.” While the process of painting through the trauma was painful, the aftermath when it was done was like drawing a full, clean breath. 

“Shedding” Original Abstract Acrylic Painting by Mariana R. Cabral

2. Abstract painting helps you focus on the present moment

As previously mentioned, even if you’ve never painted before, you can achieve the mindfulness from abstract painting very early on in your practice. All you need is a canvas (or your medium of choice), some paint (I recommend acrylic to start) and paintbrushes or palette knives. The real magic unfolds the moment you begin concentrating on the canvas and experimenting. As you mix colors, discover new textures and play, you find yourself so focused on the task at hand that you enter the flow state. The flow state or “being in the zone” is a psychological theory that describes being so fully consumed by the present moment that the outside world, time itself and self-conscious thought slip away. You step outside of your typical thought patterns and into something bigger than you. 

Often when I tell people about these benefits they’re reluctant to paint because they think of art-making as daunting, something you need the perfect training and materials for. While I won’t deny that my time studying art in college helped me build a strong foundation, it upsets me how many people feel like they don’t have “what it takes” to paint. Sadly, I think a lot of this shame stems from childhood. It might’ve been a bad teacher, hypercritical parent or friend who judged your artwork so harshly once that you gave up on art altogether. I understand, and I faced that shame every day in many of my art classes where the pressure to be perfect clouded the high of free expression. It took time to find a space where I could express myself without limitations, and when I finally did I stopped obsessing about the final result. Abstract art allows you that freedom to rediscover your voice.

3. Abstract painting can change your brain 

Once you get comfortable enough to start playing with your new materials and painting consistently at your own pace, you’ll start to notice a drastic mood shift. For me, this was gradual but also completely life-changing. I’d notice the same release of energy and calmness wash over me that followed after a yoga or meditation practice. The more time I committed to creating freely like this, the less my anxiety or depression crept in (which was especially healing during the early stages of quarantine when I thought I might lose my shit for good). I was able to address those feelings, release them and put them somewhere. 

Research shows that through this process you activate your brain’s pleasure and reward system (serotonin). In one particular study done in 2014, fMRI scans were used on two different groups of post-retirement adults — one half of the group engaged in a 10-week art intervention while the other did not. The results showed a significant increase in stress resistance through more functional connectivity in the brain for the group exposed to the art-making. No effects were reported for the group that did not participate, which further proved the “neural effects of visual art production on psychological resilience in adulthood.” You can read more about this study and others here on Art4Healing’s special report. The results are mind-blowing — from improved critical thinking to increased empathy and reduced depression/pain.

“Untitled” Original Abstract Acrylic Painting by Mariana R. Cabral

All of this research and information is to say that abstract art (all art really) is nourishment for the soul, and the benefits are universal. Whether making art helps you translate feelings that are otherwise impossible to explain, stay focused on the present moment or heal longterm wounds, I’m a firm believer that this practice is worth every bit of effort. For me, it’s made all the difference — it’s been a friend, support system and a guide into my inner self that’s helped me grow more than anything else ever has. 

For those of you who are curious but embarrassed to try, please take this blog post as an official loving push into your abstract art journey. For those of you as deep into this practice as I am, please let me know if any of this resonates, and let’s connect!

If you enjoyed this post and would like an in-depth guide on what materials I recommend starting with along with some tips and tricks I’ve learned over time, I’d be happy to share what’s worked for me. As always, thanks for reading and happy painting. 💕

References

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