Art & creativity for mental health & wellbeing + mixed media self-portrait process

Published by Nela Dunato on in Art, Creative process, Nela's Art Chat, Sketchbook, Video

In today’s episode of Nela’s Art Chat I’m sharing the process of creating a mixed media self-portrait, and discuss how creativity and the arts can improve our mental health and help us maintain a healthy outlook on life, give meaning to our life, and help us deal with daily challenges and grief.

I would love for more people to learn about this power of creativity that anyone can use in their life. You don’t even have to be an artist. You don’t have to make “good art”. You can just have fun with lots of different creative mediums and still get the benefits that I’ll be talking about today.

Listen to audio only:

Full transcript is included below!

Tools used on this mixed media sketchbook page

  • Artway Enviro A4 casebound recycled sketchbook
  • Kneaded eraser + regular eraser
  • Faber-Castell 0.35mm Mechanical Pencil
  • Caran D’Ache Neocolor II watersoluble wax pastels
  • Pentel Aquash water-brush
  • Flat brushes in several sizes
  • Sakura Koi pocket watercolor set*
  • Derwent Coloursoft pencils*
  • TOZ Artist Color pencils
  • Pentel Pocket Kanji Fude brush pen with Platinum Carbon waterproof ink
  • Kreul kraft acrylic paint
  • Magazine images
  • Lefranc & Burgeois matte acrylic medium
  • Uni-ball Signo white gel pen
  • Pilot Metropolitan fine fountain pen with Platinum Carbon waterproof ink

* I don’t recommend these lines of art supplies, I only use them in mixed media journals.

No more affiliate links. I suggest that you buy the supplies you’re interested in from a local store, or the nearest reputable online art supply store.

Finished sketchbook page

Click to see the larger images in my art gallery:

Selfportrait with headdress art journal page by Nela Dunato

I first discovered how art benefits mental health a long time ago, when I was a teenager fresh out of high school. It was a challenging time with a lot of changes, uncertainty, and pressure. I didn’t know at the time what was going on with me, so I didn’t ask for mental health support, and no one around me suggested it because they were uninformed about mental health. So I found other ways to cope—some healthy, some less so.

During that challenging time, drawing helped me feel better and find meaning in my life.

I was able to channel my anxious energy into creativity instead of into destructive behaviors that were harming my health. Spending hours upon hours immersed in creative activities helped me take my mind away from the immense pressure to do something with my life, and the feeling of hopelessness because I didn’t know what to do. I was able to experience deep focus, relaxation, and a sense of accomplishment during and after my art-making sessions.

This led to opportunities in my professional life, and I was soon able to make money with my artworks, illustrations, and designs. I started feeling better about myself, becoming more confident as a young adult, and I learned that I can take care of myself. It also encouraged me to go for my dreams—to identify my own desires instead of what other people want for me. It was quite a transformational experience.

Art continues to be a supportive force in my life.

I try my best to make the time to draw and paint even when I’m busy with work. When I don’t make art for a long time, I start feeling cranky and dissatisfied with life. I can’t imagine my life without it. I’m also passionate about helping people nurture their own creativity.

I’ll be talking mostly about visual art since that’s my background, but other creative mediums share the same beneficial effects, such as playing music, singing, writing, dance, theatre, and handmade crafts. I’ve often heard creative people say “My hobby is my therapy, it keeps me sane.” The key is to find what’s most enjoyable for you.

A note on art therapy

Expressive arts therapy is an accepted form of psychotherapy that helps people of all ages in healing or managing mental health challenges. I won’t be talking about art therapy specifically, because I’m not an art therapist, and I’ve never worked with one. I only know what I’ve learned through my own experience, and from a couple of books about art therapy I’ve read. There are many videos by licensed art therapists who have explained this topic much better than I could.

I want to focus on how a personal creative practice can help you cope with everyday challenges, grief, mental disorders, or lingering effects of trauma. But as always, caution is advised. Check with your mental health provider whether a certain technique is appropriate for you to do without expert guidance.

Personal creative practice is not a replacement for psychotherapy, nor is it an attempt to emulate art therapy. I consider it a lifelong self-care habit. Regular exercise alone may not be able to heal a certain medical issue, but it improves your health in a general sense. In the same way, art may not heal someone’s disorder or trauma on its own, but it gives you a little boost. And little by little, it adds up if you do it regularly.

You don’t need to learn any special techniques in order to get psychological benefits from creativity.

I very rarely use art therapy techniques or prompts. I don’t like assignments when I draw. (But if you’re curious, there’s lots of free art therapy videos available that you can look up.)

Any time I draw anything, I feel better.

The subject or the technique doesn’t matter. It doesn’t have to be an intentional process for healing. Any time I make anything with my hands, including crafting, my mood improves.

There are many reasons why arts and crafts are beneficial for mental health.

How arts & crafts improve your mental health & well-being

1. Creative expression soothes & reduces stress

Engaging in tactile play with creative materials and instruments switches your focus from internal rumination onto the object you’re making. Creative process is immersive, and once you’re in that state of flow, the rest of the world disappears. For a moment you forget about your health, family, work, and any challenges you may be dealing with.

You don’t have to create masterpieces with expensive art supplies—very simple activities can evoke the same soothing feeling:

  • Doodling with a pen on junk paper.
  • Filling a page in a coloring book.
  • Scribbling with crayons on a large sheet of cardboard.
  • Cutting images from brochures and magazines, and gluing them into a notebook.
  • Embellishing a household object with paint markers.
  • Assembling a puzzle of a beautiful photo or an artwork.

Creating helps you put your worries to the side, and give your brain a break from the stress. The more time you spend in this blissed-out state, the more resilient you get in your daily life.

2. Creative expression can change our self-image

Self-image issues include a low sense of self-worth, poor self-confidence, and self-criticism. If we don’t have confidence in our own abilities, we keep seeking approval. It puts our focus on what we can do to please others, instead of doing what we really want.

So what does creativity have to do with self-image? When we start anything new, we usually aren’t very good at it—but if we persist, we get better very quickly. Seeing that progress in yourself is so rewarding.

Completing a creative work gives you a sense of accomplishment. This boosts your self-esteem, and allows you to appreciate something about yourself even if you generally don’t feel great about yourself.

Some of us may attach our value as a human being to a specific role we have, like a “professional”, or a “parent”. Finding a hobby we enjoy can loosen that grip on The One Thing and we allow ourselves to be more than that.

Lots of creativity teachers preach how “process is more important than product”. This means that how we feel while we’re creating, and what we learn from our creative process is more important than how our work ends up looking once we’re done. But I have found the feeling of accomplishment when I’ve completed something that looks good to me to be very beneficial. It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece, every little thing counts.

Accomplishment may be more or less important to you, but I’ve seen people flourish when they’ve discovered what they’re capable of, and they had no idea they could do that. They never thought of themselves as “creative” or “artistic”, and it turns out, they are! Learning that about ourselves can change how we see ourselves.

3. Creative activities take time away from destructive habits

Once you’re in a creative groove, daily practice will fill up your schedule, so you’ll have less time to do things that harm your mental health.

You find yourself reaching for your journal or sketchbook first thing in the morning, instead of your phone. In the evenings you relax with your craft project instead of watching the news. Rainy weekend afternoons are spent in creative abandon (either by yourself or with other family members) instead of refreshing your social media feed and binge watching a TV series. You may discover that hanging out in a pub doesn’t have the same allure and you’d rather work on your short story.

The best way to break a bad habit is to replace it with a constructive habit. Sometimes we can get a bit obsessive about our new habit, but as long as it leaves you in a better mood, that’s not a problem! It’s OK if you skip washing the dishes or vacuuming every now and then because you were lost in your creative project.

People often complain they “don’t have the time to create”. That’s a whole different topic I did address in episode 6 of Nela’s Art Chat, but I would advise that you try looking at this differently. If you dedicate more time to creativity, you will need to sacrifice something, for sure. But why not sacrifice things you’re better off without, anyway?

4. Art helps us express and process difficult emotions

If you’ve had a crappy day, an art-making session can be just the thing to bring you back into balance. Lots of people use journaling to vent when they feel in distress, and you can vent through arts and crafts as well. Expressing your emotions on the page is a safe way to confront them and experience their depth, before letting them go. That way you’re less likely to lash out on loved ones, or to ruminate on it for days.

You don’t have to dig into your memories or interpersonal conflicts like you would in a therapy session. You can, but it’s not necessary. Art has healing properties even if you’re not trying to make it happen. Sometimes uncomfortable things come out when you don’t intend them to.

In my experience, if you regularly make any type of art, things from your subconscious will pop up because creative ideas tend to originate from the same mind space as your dreams. Your emotions can show up in your subjects, color choices, materials, or techniques. You may recognize symbolism in your work that helps you make sense of your experiences. Or maybe it’s just a way to clear out icky feelings, and you don’t want to dwell on it.

You can choose how you want to use your creative practice. If “processing emotions” sounds uncomfortable, don’t force it. Just make something, and whatever you’re ready for will happen on its own.

Related video: The truth about dark art + spooky colored pencil drawing process

5. Creativity can connect us to a greater community

We can meet like-minded people in many ways though creativity:

  • Participating in online or in-person classes and workshops.
  • Publishing our work on social media or a blog, and commenting on other people’s work.
  • Joining forums and groups online to discuss topics we’re interested in.
  • Attending meetups, exhibitions, fairs, and other cultural events.
  • Collaborating with other local creatives.

For those who don’t feel connected to many people in their environment, a creative community can be a lifeline. Social isolation is a very common cause of depression and anxiety. Any step you take to connecting with other people will improve your mental health in the long term.

Finding a creative community was life-changing for me, because I was living in a very small town at the time, with very few friends. I was convinced that I was the most screwed up person on Earth, and that no one could really understand me and what I’m going through. In addition to that, some people were creeped out by my dark art. I felt isolated in my local community.

But I was able to connect to artists, designers, photographers, writers, and musicians from all over the world through online forums. By exchanging knowledge and encouragement with other creative people, I realized that there’s a lot of people like me in the world. That made me feel more normal and accepted. I realized there is a place in the world for me, which is huge for someone with mental health issues, because often we feel like there is no place for us. That we’re always going to be outcasts. And it really doesn’t have to be that way. We just need to find the right people.

How to get started if you don’t have a creative hobby

If you have a creative hobby, you’ve probably already experienced everything I’ve talked about. Just keep doing what you’re doing. Seeing other folks doing therapeutic expressive arts may feel like what you’re doing is not enough, but trust me—it is. Do whatever works for you. If you’re curious about doing something in addition to that, try it out. But don’t do it out of FOMO—do it because you’re genuinely interested.

If you don’t have a creative hobby yet, or all your creative activities revolve around paid work, I will offer some suggestions to get started.


Many people already do this spontaneously while talking on the phone or listening to a lecture. It’s a highly relaxing activity, and you might surprise yourself with what your hand does seemingly on its own if you just allow it to.

Doodling is different from drawing. Drawing is a more intentional process where we try to control how things appear on the paper. We might sketch guidelines or erase parts we don’t like. Doodling is immediate. We use a permanent pen, we don’t erase anything, and we don’t plan ahead.

Surreal ink doodles with a red brush pen

There’s no secret to doodling “right”. I know Zentangle® folks want people to think there’s a special method and that you need workshops to learn how to do this, but you can absolutely achieve relaxation and mindfulness with other doodling methods. If you happen to like the look of Zentangle® doodles, you can find introductory tutorials online. But anyone can doodle without any training or experience.

Take a piece of paper—it can be something you were about to throw into the trash. Find any pen you have lying around. Start making random marks without thinking. They can be geometric marks, or free-flowing organic marks. You can cover areas with tiny dots, lines, triangles, spirals… Just keep your pen moving until you fill the page.

If you enjoy drawing characters, you can fill out pages with quirky faces, animals, imaginary creatures—whatever your imagination throws at you.

Lots of folks enjoy doodling mandalas, and I find it very relaxing and satisfying as well. I don’t use any guides or templates so my mandalas tend to look a bit wonky, but if you want yours to be more symmetrical, guides can help.

I find that doodles are like handwriting. Everyone has their own style of doodling. Sometimes those spontaneous doodles can show us things from our subconscious mind, or inspire us to create more elaborate artworks.

Sketching what you see

Danny Gregory has a wonderful illustrated memoir “Everyday Matters” where he explained how sketching scenes from his daily life transformed his outlook during a very traumatic time. He also made a video How a sketchbook can change your life where he explains why this method works so well for him. I highly recommend that video if you don’t already keep a sketchbook.

Sketching from life as a journaling practice is not concerned with learning how to draw, but is meant to document your life, like a personal diary. Learning how to draw is a happy byproduct.

Ink and watercolor sketch of a walk path

For people who have a difficult time coming up with ideas for what to draw, this is a no-brainer: you draw whatever is in front of you. It can be something you do almost daily, or just occasionally when you see something you’re fascinated by. It’s a great mindfulness practice that anchors you in the present moment and teaches you to be more patient.

Visual journaling

The purpose of a visual journal is to document your surroundings, feelings, thoughts, and future plans in a tactile and engaging way. People keep gratitude journals, travel journals, bullet journals, prayer journals…

Mixed media visual journal page

You can use simple techniques, or make it as involved as you want. The simplest way would be to write journal entries and occasionally glue in photographs, postcards, tickets, pressed plants, and other things that mark your daily life. If you want to get more crafty, you can add color to your pages with paint, markers, colored pencils, or crayons. You can also get stickers and stamps to embellish your pages, or use stuff you have around the home like patterned paper, packaging, magazine or catalogue cutouts, paper napkins, sticky tape, etc.

The resulting page doesn’t have to look pretty, but if you take great pleasure in arranging and embellishing satisfying pages, go for it. Do whatever you’re called to do.

Coloring books

For folks who are afraid of drawing, or don’t want to draw, or can’t draw because of a disability, coloring pages provide an immersive experience that gives you all the benefits that I’ve talked about, and it’s so simple even kids can do it. In fact, some parents I know color along with their children and it’s a great bonding experience.

You can choose subjects depending on your taste and ability. There are simple images, highly intricate images, images with inspiring quotes, floral images, fantasy images… There’s something for everyone, and a lot of it is available for free.

My Phoenix coloring page

If you want to check out some coloring pages that I’ve made, and other people’s pages I’ve curated, I posted them on my Croatian website Kreativna. You don’t need to understand the language to be able to download the pages :)

Expressive drawing and painting

You can use expressive drawing and painting in your visual journal, but it’s preferable to do it on a larger surface so you can move your body. Many teachers recommend standing up, so you’ll need to tape a large sheet of paper onto a wall or a closet, or use an easel if you have one.

You can use any mark-making tool that can make bold lines: marker, charcoal, crayon, brush or a sponge dipped in paint, etc. Experimenting with tools we’re not used to forces us to improvise.

The way I see it, expressive drawing or painting is kind of like doodling on a larger scale. But color plays an important role in expressive painting, as well as layering over the parts you’ve already painted, so your painting can change over time and this transformation can feel very meaningful. If you’re interested in expressive painting, I recommend checking out Chris Zydel and Connie Solera. Connie Solera has lots and lots of free videos, and Chris Zydel has a book about expressive painting called “Conversations With The Brush”.

Structured art therapy drawing methods

I mentioned Zentangle® earlier, so I wanted to mention a couple other structured drawing methods that I’ve heard about which some people swear by.

A pretty new method that is spreading across the world from Russia is NeuroGraphica. I’ve tried it a few times and find it to be a mindful and enjoyable method. However, I can’t vouch for any of the promises of healing mental or psychosomatic ailments. I don’t want to give people false hope. But it costs nothing to try, since there are video workshops available for free. And even if you don’t believe in the “neuroscience” and “energy” part of it, and I’m not sure I do either, it’s a really interesting drawing method in itself. I found a great YouTube channel called NeuroGraphicAcademy with lots of instructional videos in English and Russian.

Another similar method that hails from Russia is called fractal drawing. I never followed this method so I don’t really know much about it, but like NeuroGraphica it involves drawing random lines, and then coloring the drawing based on some rules. I’ve seen workshops advertised around Europe, and I’m sure you’ll be able to find videos of it as well.

There are probably more methods available, I just haven’t heard of them.

Photography walks

Photography walks are so easy, and everyone has a camera on their phone nowadays. Whenever I take a walk in nature I come back with dozens (sometimes hundreds) of images because I always notice beautiful or interesting details around me.

Cobbled floor on the Montjuic hill in Barcelona

If you’re not someone who notices the details in your surroundings, challenge yourself to take 10 photos every time you take a walk. You can later delete images you’re not attached to. Pushing yourself to find things worthy or photographing trains you to start paying attention to the present moment and to appreciate the beauty in everyday scenes that we tend to pass by without really looking at them. It helps us get out of our head and be more present in the world.

Expressive writing

If visual arts are just not your jam, you can simply write. Expressive writing is a form of stream of consciousness writing with the aim of processing your emotions and learning new things about yourself. The key is to write without censoring or editing yourself, just getting whatever crosses your mind onto the page. You can reflect on what you wrote afterwards.

Two popular methods of expressive writing are “morning pages”, and responding to prompts.

Morning pages are a technique popularized by writer and creativity teacher Julia Cameron. The gist is writing 3 full pages of stream of consciousness content first thing in the morning, every day. It’s not my cup of tea, but I know a few people who claim it has changed their life.

Prompts are questions you respond to, or beginnings of sentences that you complete in a stream of consciousness manner. The prompt guides your attention to the area you want to explore through writing. Examples of prompts include:

  • I’m grateful for…
  • What do I really, really, really want?
  • I’m inspired by…
  • What can I forgive myself for?

You can find many more ideas if you search for “expressive writing prompts”.

Creativity is available to everyone.

You don’t have to consider yourself an artist.

You don’t even have to think you need mental health support. Everyone deals with difficulties in life, and we find ways to get through it. Creating is one way that I’ve found to be enjoyable, fulfilling, and it never gets boring because there’s always something new to try out.

I hope this episode was interesting and useful, whether you already have a thriving creative practice, or are thinking about starting. Join me again in the next episode of Nela’s Art Chat.

Nela Dunato

About Nela Dunato

Artist, brand designer, teacher, and writer. Author of the book “The Human Centered Brand”. Owner of a boutique branding & design consultancy that helps experienced service-based businesses impress their dream clients.

On this blog I write about art, design, creativity, business, productivity and marketing, and share my creative process and tips. Read more about me...

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