Can Art as Self-Care Work for Anyone?

Can Art as Self-Care Work for Anyone?

I have been going to therapy for the better part of seven years, but it wasn’t until last year that my therapist asked me to draw. On the table when I arrived for our session were a few leaves of copy paper and a used pack of oil pastels. I bypassed the presentation. I hadn’t thought of art as self-care. I was used to diving right into conversation, usually talking very quickly about points I had gone over with myself in the car. I always jumped straight into analyzing the previous week. But this time, my therapist told me not to do that. Instead, she asked me to make use of the supplies in front of me and said, “Draw how you feel.”

I didn’t know how I felt. Half of the reason I even attended therapy sessions was to put words to how I felt, and we hadn’t begun to talk yet. I stared at the colors available to me, and noticed how the popular choices were worn to nubs with the papers ripped off. As a child, I always chose the most pristine crayons in the box. I found myself repeating that reflex, selecting a light blue with enough pastel poking from the wrapping to scribble all over the page. If I was going to draw how I felt, I thought, confusion probably looked something like that.

The unexpected benefits of art as self-care

Art as self-care

“Sirius” by Leah Thompson. Art therapy helps calm the amygdala, reducing stress and contributing to well-being.

Later I would wonder why my muscles relaxed as I continued drawing. Later is when I would learn that with each color selection and mark on the page, I was stimulating my vagus nerve. Each creative choice I made was regulating my parasympathetic nervous system. I was no longer stuck in my thoughts; in fact, I was no longer in my head at all — I was in my subconscious, a place that is much smarter than any part of my brain and the part of me that knows me best.

The emerging field of neuroaesthetics

One can reference the study of neuroaesthetics to understand the positive effects of my experience and of art as self-care. Susan Magasmen, founder and executive director of the International Arts + Mind Lab at Johns Hopkins, writes,

“The field of neuroaesthetics offers research-based evidence that a variety of arts-based approaches may work to improve quality of life, mobility, mental health, speech, memory, pain, learning, and more. Such interventions could potentially lower the cost and burden of chronic disease, neurological disorders, and mental health issues for millions of people.”

That art can beget wellness is a relatively new idea, and it is being explored more widely in these times of rapidly declining mental and physical health. 

In 2011, a University of London study revealed that looking at art directs blood flow to the pleasure center of the brain — the same area that lights up when you’re looking at the person you’re in love with. Scientists from UC Berkeley published a study in 2015 in the journal “Emotion” that stated any activities which inspire a sense of awe have “a direct influence upon health and life expectancy.” This could go from experiencing a wondrous moment in nature to engaging with a work of art. 

New research from the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center points to how the arts positively influence well-being to the extent of increasing a person’s lifespan. Even simply viewing art has the potential for health benefits, such as reducing blood pressure, chronic pain, and anxiety. With the natural spike in serotonin and dip in cortisol levels provided by aesthetic experience, these results are as inevitable as they are accessible. 

Putting creative self-care into practice

Art as elf-Care

“Orchid Flow” by Mitch Eckert. Creating art helps shift your focus from anxious thoughts to something outside of yourself.

You don’t need to go to therapy to reap the benefits of art as self-care. You don’t even need to draw your feelings with oil pastels (though I highly recommend it). The only requirement is to engage with your innermost self, who you have likely been avoiding, and see what they have to say. The medium is entirely up to you. 

Drawing with reckless abandon is a great place to start, especially if you struggle with control in your daily life. If you are burdened with perfectionism, make something bad on purpose. Choose the instrument with the experience that feels best in your hand, whether that be the smearing black dust of a charcoal stick, a solid paintbrush smothered in acrylic or a wet hunk of clay on a potter’s wheel. 

Then, observe what comes up. Are you choosing more colors that are bright or ones that are muted? Are your shapes more flowy and organic or sharp and geometric? As I drew with my therapist, I noticed that I was imposing order on the original chaos I created: Within the blue scribbles, I put down a balanced number of circles, and rounded triangles and filled them all in with the same pink color. It appeared to be a pattern, revealing that my subconscious was seeking familiarity in a turbulent time of my life. 

For a more directed practice, you may consider some prompts. Create the likeness of a familiar object entirely from memory. Cut images from magazines and collage your emotions. If you’re feeling more observant, you may choose to look at art instead of making it. Visit a museum. View pieces in digital galleries. Ask pointed questions: What is the piece saying to you? How do you think the artist felt when they made the work? Notice what you respond to and name your emotions.


Beyond traditional self-care, getting creative with your practice can provide new avenues for self-connection and self-expression. You don’t have to be an artist for your inner child to be engaged by paints and markers. Wake up that part of you, create without judgment, and see how much calmer you feel afterward. 

Let us know in the comments which methods you try when it comes to art as self-care, or share your own ideas you’d like to explore. Tell us how you take care of yourself in an artful way.

Art Guide by Artrepreneur Author

Kendall McKinnon is a freelance writer based in Savannah, GA. Her work has been featured in Savannah Magazine, France Today, District, and more.

Let’s Hang with Spalding Nix, art appraiser and gallery owner

Let’s Hang with Spalding Nix, art appraiser and gallery owner

In Art Guide’s new interview series Let’s Hang, find out what’s on the walls of art-world luminaries and get expert advice on art collecting, styling, and decorating. First up: Spalding Nix, founder of Atlanta’s Spalding Nix Fine Art, a leading gallery for contemporary works in the Southeast. 
A lawyer by trade, art appraiser on the side, and “frustrated art history professor” deep down, Nix worked at Sotheby’s, The Smithsonian, and the National Gallery of Art before opening his eponymous gallery in 2003. As an art adviser, Spalding has assisted individual and Fortune 500 clients in private sales ranging from original Picasso drawings to rare Josef Koudelka photographs. Here, he dives into his best advice for starting your collection — and tells us why it’s a problem if the only thing your painting says is “I match the couch.” 
You recently gave a presentation on starting an art collection. What was the impetus behind that idea?
I wanted to look at what it means to take that plunge and say “I want to buy some art that speaks to me. How do I go about doing it?” The overarching idea to this presentation was “means and desire make the buyer.” How much you have and how much you want it sets the parameters for what you can buy. We can’t all go to New York City and spend millions of dollars on Basquiats and Warhols, but we’re so lucky to have so many hardworking, talented artists who are affordable. Whether you’ve got $5,000 or $50,000, there’s amazing artwork out there for you. 
The first rule is focus: Figure out what it is that you’re interested in. That takes time. I think a lot of people spread themselves too thin. If you’re flitting from one area to another, it’s really hard to figure out what you like and don’t like. If you’re interested in prints or photography or sculpture or women artists here in the Southeast, find a niche that really speaks to you. It could be subject, medium or genre, a micro or a macro lens. Once you have that, getting out there and looking is the most important thing. And that’s the fun part. It’s research but with a glass of wine in your hand. 
What was your first job in the art world? What was the most important thing you learned?
My first formal job was at the Heath Gallery, founded by David Heath — the first contemporary art gallery of note in Atlanta in the early ’60s. He brought down a lot of artists making big splashes in New York City, from the Pop artists through Lynda Benglis, and championed them in the Southeast. It was a real pleasure after my senior year of high school getting to spend the summer with him and it taught me how important the summers are. I ended up going to law school and every summer, I secured these great opportunities. A favorite was at the National Gallery of Art, which silkscreens all of their labels on the wall. It was a treat to march through the museum after hours with our buckets of paint and squeegees.
Art Appraiser

Spalding Nix –  Art Appraiser & Gallery Owner

Through law school, I was on the general counsel team of the Smithsonian. For people who are interested in the art world, there are so many different sides of it. Take advantage of opportunities to be in galleries, museums, and regional auction houses. I feel very lucky that I got to experience a few of them before I had to make a professional career decision. 
What’s your top tip for starting your art collection? 
Just find one piece a year that you and your partner really love – one great thing to add to your home every year. Now that I’m 47, my home is filled to the gills with art. Twenty years of buying something that’s special to you will change your home and change your life. It’s a challenge you can share with someone. 
A lot of collectors buy for themselves but I love the challenge for couples. It’s a personal decision shared by two people. At the gallery, we recently had a couple who was very excited about Susan Habel collage pieces come in on a Saturday, and whittle down the works they wanted from two dozen to four they really loved. It was hysterical listening to them compromise and figure out which ones made both of them happy and they were so proud in the end. 
That’s adorable advice! What’s the first artwork you bought as a couple? 
For our first anniversary and the traditional gift of paper, my wife and I found a beautiful early 19th-century French drawing that spoke to both of us when we were in Paris. It’s a charcoal portrait of a young man who seems like he could open up his mouth and talk. It’s so fun to have that character hanging next to a piece by portrait artist Richard Thomas Scott — the old and the new. 
What’s your favorite piece on your walls at home? 
Katherine Sandoz abstract painting of a magnolia. We really love this picture, and it’s a big painting, so when we redid our living room, we said “Every decision we make is going to be based on this painting.” We had it answer all these questions for us: What color should the walls be? What color fabric should the sofa be? It’s a very special picture that creates a special room. 
I’m sure you have many interesting stories from your work as an art appraiser. I would love to hear about some memorable moments in terms of works you’ve seen or notable requests for your services.
I was part of helping an estate where a long-lost John Singer Sargent Venice watercolor reappeared. I happened to know the people who represent his estate. I called and said I hope this is what we think it is! They called back in two seconds – it was a work that had been missing since 1913! Then, there was a Norman Rockwell painting of Lincoln saved, literally, from the trash.
On the appraisal side, it is fun that there are those diamonds in the rough out there. Write the information on the back of the picture of what it is or how it’s significant to your family — it only takes a generation to turn over for the relevance of something to be lost until it’s rediscovered.
What is your favorite museum? 
There’s just nothing as global and encyclopedia as the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When I lived in New York, I tried to go there as often as I could. When visitors came to stay, I’d take them on the Better Butts tour, critiquing as many rear ends as we could — a lighthearted way to make your way through the galleries. I’m very at home at the Met. 
What’s your motto? 
Ideas start with the art. For art galleries, a lot of what we’re doing is trying to sell art for people for their homes. If all the painting says is “I match the couch” that’s a problem. We want to find something that excites them and surprises them, maybe for a lifetime! 
No one is going to remember the sofa — they’re going to remember that great work of art you hung over the sofa. Make art a priority. How you do that is by focusing, really looking, doing your research, and listening and learning from the people around you who might have knowledge to share.
Spend some more time with Spalding Nix through his artist talks on Instagram.
What questions do you have about starting your art collection? Whose advice are you dying to get? Let us know in the comments below. 
Allison Stice

Editorial director and writer Allison Stice covers art, design and culture. Her work has been published in The Bitter Southerner, Garden & Gun, Savannah Magazine and more.

How to Focus Your Art Collecting

How to Focus Your Art Collecting

Art-world insiders from all corners of the industry agree: The first rule of art collecting is to buy what you love. But, in a world where you’re constantly surrounded by images and art styles, how do you find artworks that are right for you? What if you feel hopelessly out of your element in a fancy art gallery? What if you failed Art History 101? Where do you even begin when it comes to building an art collection that makes you feel like you’re in love?

The short answer: Approach art collecting like dating. Sometimes it takes a lot of searching to find the one — so you might as well have some fun. Somewhere between intuition and experience, you’ll learn what you’re looking for and be able to focus your search in the future.

Below, we’ve compiled our favorite places where you can explore different art styles from contemporary to traditional before you focus in on your personal taste and what makes you tick. Bonus: some of these are cultural events in your town or city that could double as an actual date! Others are solo adventures on your smartphone or with your laptop on your couch at home. Cast a wide net! Like mom always said, there are plenty of fish in the sea.

Start Art Collecting by Looking at Art.  Lots and Lots of Art

If you’re serious about starting out in art collecting, make a realistic goal to look at art as often as you can. Whether that’s once a month or every weekend, you’ll be gaining a crucial foundation in a historical context that can help you navigate the contemporary art market. From in-person to online, here are our favorite places to find art and start figuring out your art style.
How to Focus Your Art Collecting - Art Guide by Artrepreneur

Take the plunge into the world of art collecting by casting a wide net. “Untitled” by Helen Fox

Museums and galleries

If you live in a major metropolitan area, you probably already have a shortlist of museums and galleries where you can see the greats. Walkthrough any number of the wings and you’ll get a crash course in art history from different eras in the course of an afternoon. While the average emerging art collector won’t be able to afford any of those big names, it’s a jumping-off point for discovering what schools and movements speak to you. With a foundation in historical context, you’ll be able to understand the ideas and influences in contemporary art and find artists interpreting key art movements in a new way.

Beyond making a trip to visit major museums, emerging art collectors who live in smaller cities can support local museums and lesser-known galleries to get an intimate education, make connections and ask questions in a less intimidating environment. Be a tourist in your own town by finding a unique small collection, attending a local exhibition, or signing up for a docent-led tour where you can spend a pleasant afternoon or evening outside of the typical dinner and a movie.


Art galleries and art fairs

Not just for an art-world crowd, there are art fairs for every niche and interest. These fun-filled, vibrant events transform the cities where they take place, offer a variety of events to choose from, and are a visual feast — and a place to find many emerging artists. A major part of many galleries’ annual sales revenues, art fairs are coming back to the fore after being put on pause by the pandemic. Consider a special trip to signal your new commitment to discovering your art style, and make an art fair the centerpiece of your travel itinerary.


Auction houses

According to Art Basel and UBS’s recently released annual Art Market Report, sales from public auctions were up 47% in 2021. The big names, like Christie’s and Sotheby’s, now offer live online bidding opportunities that you can browse to get a sense of what’s trending. There’s also plenty to explore locally near you, too. Since auction houses may conjure up movie scenes where buyers quickly blow their budgets after losing their impulse control in a bidding war, take the pressure off by attending a local auction to get comfortable and gain confidence. You’ll get a glimpse at the secondary art market and might discover artists from a generation ago who are gaining new prominence and followings.
Art Collecting

Make procrastinating productive by scrolling to train your visual eye. “Blue Jubilee” by JC Parente


Social media

While you may not realize it, you’re training your eye as an artist all the time. You may think you’re procrastinating by scrolling through feeds and clicking through photo galleries during your downtime (or when you should be working), but the constant process of looking at images can actually lead to important insights as you hone in on your art style.

Gallery owner Spalding Nix suggests that next time you’re at the doctor’s office instead of looking at pictures of your friend’s dog, try using Instagram to look at art. After you determine your niche or areas of art you’re interested in, search for hashtags related to the areas of art you’re interested in, from #fineartphotography to #contemporarysurrealism, #womenartists to #woodsculpture. Instagram is an incredible resource for virtually visiting artists’ studios, watching videos of their process, and discovering what resonates with you.


Online artist platforms

There is perhaps no better place to search and sort for styles of art that speak to you that on digital artist communities like Artrepreneur, where artists from all over the world share their creative talent and put up their work for sale. Go macro with permanent collections from portraiture to sci-fi, then use filters and tags to narrow your search once you find your niche of interest. Visit virtual artists’ studios and shop directly from showrooms. Reach out to curators for custom art advice. All you need is an Internet connection, and the art world is your oyster.


Books, journals, and newspapers

Anthologies and coffee table books from every time period imaginable can help your research into different art styles that can double as decor. Websites (like this one!) that present curated finds put a wide range of art styles at your fingertips. Sign up for newsletters and industry news from veteran sources like Hyperallergic and The Art Newspaper to get a sense of current trends.


Keep a Folder of Art Styles that Speaks to You

Whether it’s a digital folder on Google Drive or an old-school scrapbook or journal, catalog the works you love to look at over and over and jot down your discoveries about art movements so you can look on later.
“Go to Contemporary Art Daily and Art Viewer [both websites that post pictures from current art shows around the world] and screenshot anything you like,” art adviser Heather Flow, founder of Flow Advisory, told the New York Times. “Just create a file for yourself so you can start to see things you like and save them.”
Over time, creating this personal archive will help you establish metrics that any artwork purchase must meet before you take the plunge. You still might fall in love with something totally outside of your normal tastes, but you’ll be closer to knowing whether love, at first sight, will really last when you compare it with what you normally go for. And if you find your tastes change over time? Totally normal! In fact, it’s even expected, since you’re starting to develop more sophisticated tastes the more you learn and explore. You can look back on your catalog down the line, and cheer at how far you’ve come as an emerging art collector.


Has anyone ever told you to write a list of the traits you want in a romantic partner? The so-called “love list” of characteristics and qualities can range from non-negotiables to nice-to-haves. Consider applying the same treatment to the artworks you’d own in your dream collection. Art that expresses political ideas that are meaningful to you might go under must-have, while your budget has some wiggle room. Or you might have a hard-and-fast rule about how much you’re willing to spend but you’re open to artworks on the primary or secondary market. Much like avoiding going to the grocery store when you’re hungry, your list of ideal attributes in an artwork will prevent you from making impulse buys that don’t really work with your aesthetic.
Pro tip: Make sure to have your measurements on hand, since having artwork that fits on your walls is one of the more important things to know if you want to enjoy your new acquisition!
Start art collecting by making a commitment to go out and learn about as many art styles as you can. After you’ve turned up the volume, start to notice and take notes on what resonates with you. Compile some key characteristics of what your favorite pieces have in common and use it as your guide for finding your art style — and your forever piece.
Allison Stice

Editorial director and writer Allison Stice covers art, design and culture. Her work has been published in The Bitter Southerner, Garden & Gun, Savannah Magazine and more.

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