Digital Narrative: How I Use Art for Therapy

Barn and Truck

This is how I begin: I wake up. I know I want to paint today – I planned on it, more often than not. I direct my mind, to prepare for the act of painting – I seek out sources of inspiration as a form of psychological preparation. I look outside. See the peace of nature, try to feel it. Take that into myself, and feel how it inspires me. Or I look at other artwork and photos, and envision something I would like to paint.  I let them inspire me. I hold that inspiration and feed it – I let it grow inside myself. Once I feel as though I might burst with it, it is time to sit down and paint.


Angela Gives Miranda Her Quest D

I always try to remember to maintain my child-like innocence, and allow myself to dream. I do not allow myself to think serious thoughts. I imagine a world that is an ideal dream-world. I hold that inspiration while I pour out my paints. I decide on the colors I want to use, and the details of my subject – whether the bunny will be pink or blue, whether Alice will be a child or a teenager – will her dress be white? Pink? Blue?



Bird in Snow

I plan out my scene – will there be a landscape that expresses the quiet peace of the forest? Or perhaps smooth and shiny hills and crests that gleam and express continuity, flow, unity, and dreaminess? Will there be animals? I find that animals add a peace that is not possible without them in the work.

Dusk in Crimson After Mucha DS


Pink Floral Bushes at Sunset

By this point, my head is full of flower-full landscapes, sunsets, tree-swings, and in any color I like, and I am fully in the dream. Nothing else matters right now – nothing outside the painting. Even copying the works of a master artist with a deliberate variation such as in monochromatic alizarin crimson will bring my heart its peace. It all works, it’s all dreaming.

Ava Sleeps Full Image

Blue Fairy Closer In



And when I am done, there will be peace, rest, and contentment in my spirit. I may also feel frazzled or annoyed because the work did not turn out the way I had envisioned it, but that will pass. And the effect of a few hours or even a day away from the stresses of daily life will have given me the rest I needed. Even with annoyance, the art did its work. Remember that, when you try it. Annoyance with results does not equal lack of effectiveness as a therapy.

Beautifully Blue

Later, I will look at it, and remember the feeling of the original inspirational idea. Looking at the work will give me a peaceful and dreamy feeling. And I will remember why I painted it to begin with – to give my soul a rest from the toils and trials of life. Now you try… I know you can do it. And remember, your first tries may not be all you want them to be – art takes practice and patience. Be patient with yourself, and try to love yourself. Each of us takes work to get better – it is a journey, and we are all on it.


Below are two self portraits I have done of myself in watercolors. For a little additional information, I rarely ever paint or draw without going through the process I have described in this post. I did so quite often when I was younger, and spontaneously painted or drew free-hand as the compulsion took me. However, I have found that finding photos to reference is often the catalyst to get me into the mood to paint when I otherwise wouldn’t be able to access the right mindset. Referencing photos means looking at photos while you paint and trying to capture the essence of the image in your art. I also make art even when I am in a great mood and not just when unhappy, stressed, or upset – sometimes we don’t realize we need a break from life until we take one, and painting and making art can be a preventative as well as a remedy for stress.

Self Portrait 2Self Portrait

Also for the sake of interest, below is a slideshow of a few in-process photos of some of the paintings and drawings I did, for a peek behind the finished works. This way, you can see something of how they were created. Regarding the unicorn drawing in this slideshow, it is unfinished – I have not decided whether to use colored pencils or paint on it to finish it, yet. That drawing, along with the owl painting, were drawn/painted free-hand, with no reference material. Everything else referenced photographs either for setting aspects, for subject, or both.


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The artworks that I describe at the end of this post in the Artwork Credits were done while referencing photographs. I think the process of referencing photographs needs further mention and explanation, so I am going to do so, here, and explain why I prefer using reference photos over making free-hand art. Referencing photos can help you gain realism of shape in your drawing/painting, as well as light, shadow, and texture, and, in some cases, subject matter. Many famous artists use reference photos for their artwork. There are even some artists who believe that good art cannot be achieved free-hand, because the memory does not store every bit of information you need to create a realistic setting of light, shadow, and texture.

I have found that if I use reference photos, a larger percentage of my artwork turns out closer to what I had envisioned when I sat down to begin. That is not to say there are not good free-hand artworks out there – there most certainly are. And I’m certainly not against the concept – ninety percent of my art until I was in my thirties was all done free-hand. However, I think that, for me, if I don’t use a reference photo or two for the work, the results will be hit or miss in relation to my expectations. My art certainly improved, immensely, once I began referencing photos; and the improvement is overall – this choice increased my understanding of light, shape, shadow, placement, texture, perspective, color balance – the works.


Below is a slideshow of some of the better finished paintings and drawings that I have done:

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Artwork Credits: Each of the images in this post are my own work and photographed by me. Some of this art was done while referencing photographs found on Google (such as all of the horse images, and the bird image). Some others were done while referencing master painters. The woman in the red painting is based on the art piece, entitled “Dusk,” by Alphonse Mucha. The winter cottage scene (in the slideshow) is after Thomas Kinkade’s painting entitled “Winter Glow.” The two graphite drawings of children (one on horseback, one on the beach) were drawn from photographs of my aunt and uncle when they were children in the 1940s. The Princess Leia drawing in colored pencils was done while referencing a photo of Carrie Fisher after she performed in Star Wars – the background she sits in is all my own creation.

The Rita Hayworth (acrylics) painting was done while referencing a photo of her lying on pillows. The Vivien Leigh (acrylics) painting was done while referencing a scene of Scarlet O’Hara from Gone With the Wind. The horses (both the horses and mountains, in colored pencil, and the horses running, in oils) were done while referencing photos found on Google, both subject matter and setting. In the horses – mother and baby – in the forest (acrylics), two photos were referenced: a photo of a forest, and a photo of horses. The two girls in the night scene was painted while referencing a photo of the night sky with stars in it. An additional point of interest for that piece – it was painted with a book in mind – Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd. If you know the story, you will recognize the subject matter.

In the Alice drawing (ink and colored pencils), the tree was referenced from a scene in the classic Disney Alice in Wonderland cartoon. The rest of that drawing is free-hand, although the placement of Alice and the cat, Dinah, and the fact that I have Alice making a flower wreath are also inspired by the same Disney photo. I decided to age-progress both Alice and Dinah to deviate from the original image I was referencing. In the moon and galaxy charm pendant drawing (colored pencils), I referenced a photo of my own necklace on my kitchen tablecloth. In the flower garden drawing (pen and ink), a photo of a garden and a photo of a cottage were both referenced. In the horse and mouse sleeping in the forest drawing/painting (colored pencil and digital paint in GIMP), the horse was drawn while referencing a photo. 

Art Therapy Versus Writing Therapy – Which is More Effective?

Pen and Brush

By C. Lorraine Hall
September 8, 2017


There is much to be said about both art therapy and writing therapy, and both have their usefulness in helping people who have traumatic issues, stress, and/or anxiety. We who do art and writing therapy understand the ways in which they work to help us cope with our emotional overflow and tensions; however, the subject is still under heavy discussion in society.

In the abstract of their article, “The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health: A Review of Current Literature,” Heather L. Stuckey DEd and Jeremy Nobel MD, MPH say that “Although there is evidence that art-based interventions are effective in reducing adverse physiological and psychological outcomes, the extent to which these interventions enhance health status is largely unknown.”

However, in the abstract of Judith Pizarro’s article, “The Efficacy of Art and Writing Therapy Increasing Positive Mental Health Outcomes and Participant Retention After Exposure to Traumatic Experience,” she says that:

Research has shown that traumatic stress has negative effects on overall health and well-being. Traumatic exposure has been linked to higher rates of psychological and physical health problems. Writing about trauma or stress has been shown to improve health and reduce stress, but can negatively affect mood. The purpose of this study was to examine whether art therapy is as effective as writing therapy in improving psychological and health outcomes. Participants in the writing condition, but not the art therapy condition, showed a decrease in social dysfunction. However, participants who completed artwork reported more enjoyment, were more likely to continue with the study, and were more likely to recommend the study to family and friends. Future research could combine writing and art therapy to determine whether a mixed design would both improve health and maximize participant retention.

In this day and age, everyone is aware that stress can be debilitating, both to mental health and to physical health. Stress can be caused by everyday responsibilities and activities, from being a child in school and the expectations that go along with that, to being a teenager and dealing with overwhelming emotions and passions; from being a young adult, struggling to make it in the world, to being a parent, trying to provide for the children. There is job stress, there is home stress in relationships, and all sorts of other factors in life that can cause stress, as well.

For some people, on top of these natural stresses, which only change and alter but don’t ever go away as we age, there has sometimes been trauma. As Pizarro says, “parental psychopathology, substance abuse, death, divorce, and sexual or physical abuse are some of the ways that individuals are exposed to traumatic experience…”(2004). People need ways of coping with these issues, because there is emotional overflow from stress and trauma that can affect choices in life and behaviors such as outbursts of anger, violence, or self-destructive actions.

“The creative arts therapies, like art and writing therapy, have been shown to be effective in helping individuals recover from traumatic experience” (Pizarro). As Pizarro points out in her article, Vietnam war veterans have undergone art therapy in hospital settings for their post-traumatic stress issues, and hashing out a traumatic experience, when in a supportive setting, can help a person work through their trauma, preventing “further development of psychological disorganization and chronic mental health problems” (Pizarro). Evidence has been produced that shows that writing out past or even current traumas does benefit health and psychological issues. Writing therapy helps people develop coping skills while it reduces stress, thereby improving health.

Pizarro’s article covers an experiment and its results, which show that while art therapy is helpful to mental health and overall stress, writing therapy has a stronger effect than art therapy does, especially regarding decreasing social dysfunction in trauma sufferers. However, the act of writing out a traumatic event is more likely to leave negative mood and anxiety directly after writing, leading people to want to discontinue the therapy and/or not recommend it to others, whereas art therapy leaves the person in a better emotional mood, but is lacking the desired long-term effects that writing therapy gives. The two therapies affect people in very different ways.

To repeat, yes, art therapy works to help with stress and trauma, but writing therapy has long-lasting positive effects, especially on social dysfunction. If people are unwilling to use writing therapy because of the negative mood it leaves them in, however effective writing therapy may be, it ceases to be useful to people as a method for healing. Pizarro makes a suggestion that I fully and wholeheartedly agree with: that art and writing therapies could be combined, so that the person doing the therapy can benefit from the enjoyment of the art and the progress it brings them, as well as gaining the long-term benefits of the writing therapy. By creating a better balance to make effective therapy more enjoyable, the art therapy may make it easier for a person’s mood to re-stabilize after a writing therapy session’s depressing effect. In addition, it may provide something positive to look forward to while a person is actually engaged in the performance of the writing exercise.




Heather L. Stuckey, Jeremy Nobel, “The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health: A Review of Current Literature”, American Journal of Public Health 100, no. 2 (February 1, 2010): pp. 254-263. DOI: 10.2105/AJPH.2008.156497. PMID: 20019311.

Judith Pizarro MA (2004) The Efficacy of Art and Writing Therapy: Increasing. Positive Mental Health Outcomes and Participant Retention After Exposure to Traumatic. Experience, Art Therapy, 21:1, 5-12, DOI: 10.1080/07421656.2004.10129327.