[Article by Jenny Hahn, originally published by Unity Leader’s Journal, Feb 23, 2017]
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” So said the great Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu. It can also begin with a single brushstroke.
Let’s take a journey together.
You are an archaeologist of sorts. Part scientist, part adventurer/explorer. You are alive, you are awake, and you are listening. With heart pounding and a flashlight in hand, you begin the descent into the darkness of your own unexplored being. Step by step, into the primordial emptiness you go, into the deepest recesses you walk. Your loyal companions, Courage and Curiosity, are there with you at each side as you step deeper and deeper into the swampy sub-layers of consciousness and see what is there…
Notice what you see. What does the space look like? Are there colors? Textures? What is the temperature? Is there anyone there with you? Any objects around? Any forgotten pieces half-buried in the murk? Notice what you hear. Is there a sound? A song? Notice what you feel. Do you feel solid and stable or elusively floating and free-form? Do you feel big or small? Expansive or contracted? Can you find adjectives to describe your experience?
And now let go of words. Imagine that you are a paintbrush. In this moment, what color do you most want to dip into? How does your body (as the brush) want to move? Can you give yourself the space to move? Can you allow your experience to be received by the welcoming emptiness of blank paper in front of you? Can you boldly make your mark in whatever way feels fulfilling, moment to moment, without interference from the mind? Allow the brush that is you to move and flow.
This is the essence of process painting.
Process painting is quite different from regular art making. It’s really not about art at all … it’s about being. Being present. Being willing. Being courageous. Being with whatever is showing up in the present moment. Sound familiar? Yes, it’s a form of meditation. A mindfulness practice. Except that it’s really more of a “heartfulness” practice as we drop from the obsessively judgmental activities of the mind into the pure and raw terrain of the heart, and allow whatever is showing up to express on paper in full color.
As an artist who has used process arts to reclaim wholeness in my own life, one of my greatest joys is to share the transformational power of this process with others by providing not only the tools and the space but also the support of a fellow traveler and confidant, as one begins the creative trek.
The materials we use are simple, by design. In a workshop we use tempera paints, brushes and paper. Using basic materials reduces our attachment to the results. We can express freely without holding tightly to the fear of “messing it up.” There is no way to mess it up. … there are no mistakes. When we paint this way, it’s really not even about the painting—the finished image is more of a by-product. As the popular phrase goes, the journey is the destination.
In this practice, one does not need any prior artistic experience or any kind of “talent.” Numerous times I’ve heard individuals lament, almost apologetically, “I don’t have a creative bone in my body. I can’t draw a straight line. I’m not creative,” as if one must be a professional artist or nothing at all. This limited perception does nothing but keep us in the creative closet, so to speak, never even taking a single step.
Creativity is the highest, most natural expression of alignment with our true Self. In fact, it’s an inextricable facet of our divinity. Every person is a creative being. To hide it or deny your own creative nature, from this perspective, could be considered sacrilegious. And to judge it or try to control the results is almost blasphemous. The light that is your creative essence shines effortlessly when you allow it, in a way that is uniquely yours.
Your Creative Essence
And yet when we paint, the small mind might be present in all of its egoic glory. Self-protective thoughts can coagulate and become “The Inner Critic.” The critic tries to keep us safe, but what it does really is keep us from living fully. Instead of fighting the critic or giving in to its warnings, can we instead play with it? Let’s get curious. … What kind of body goes with the stingy voice of your inner critic? Is it male or female? Or some kind of creature? What color/texture/scent does it have? How might it want to show up in your painting? This inquiry can take a painting on a whole new path—plus transform our relationship to the critic from one of contention to playful discovery.
There are many benefits to showing up to our truest self and deepest nature in this way. When we paint for process, we’re redefining the way we relate to ourselves and our experiences. We are approaching the paper (and ultimately, our life) with a spirit of curiosity and childlike wonder rather than thinking we already know what’s going to happen. Each breath, each brushstroke becomes an exploration … and as we begin our journey, we descend from the head to the heart and go even deeper into the body and the recesses of our subconscious—painting from the inside out. The language of color and form is preverbal, so we often process in dreams and symbols. We begin to heal a divide that is ancient in our soul but very much alive in this present moment.
Can you think of any other practices that can bring integration and awareness in this way, and also be fun? Process painting is one part deep work and one part play. It’s a form of radical self-care, a tool for awakening that can be practiced by anyone. You don’t need permission. You don’t need prior experience. You only need to show up as you.
Grab a paintbrush, and let’s see what worlds you uncover.
A variety of materials can be utilized in process art-making—you don’t even have to stick with paints! (Markers or even crayons are viable options.) In a process painting workshop we provide all the materials and have included a list below of standard supplies in case you’d like to set up a studio space in your own home:
- Tempera paints—We recommend Sargent Art Tempera Paints (available at craft stores) for primary and secondary colors and pre-mix additional hues to create 28 total colors for a workshop. The Utrecht brand tempera paints are another great option, available at many art supply stores.
- Paper—For a workshop, we use 80# Accent opaque cover stock (cut in half from the full 23″ x 35″ size). For convenience you could instead buy a pad of 16″ x 20″ thick Bristol paper from a craft or art supply store. Typically, the bigger the painting surface, the better.
- Brushes—Paint brushes come in many shapes and sizes, but I recommend having an assortment of at least 4 or 5 brushes, including one flat brush (about 1/2″ wide), one round brush, one pointed round, one detail round, and a 1″ foam brush which is very flexible in its uses.
- Palette—The paint palette is the slab or tray that holds your paint. You can purchase small plastic palettes at the arts or crafts store, or simply use a disposable paper plate.
- Paint surface—You can use a wooden board or even an old door as a painting surface on which to affix your paper. It’s ideal to paint upright in order to keep a free range of movement, but a table can also be used.
- Masking tape—Use this to tape your paper to your painting surface and to keep it steady. You can also use the tape to combine multiple pieces of paper as your painting starts to grow in size.
- Water cup—You’ll need a container of water to rinse out your brushes between colors. An old plastic margarine tub works great. Paint rag or paper towels—Keep a towel handy to assist with drips and messes, as well as wiping your brush dry after rinsing in your water cup.
- Paint smock—Although tempera paint mostly washes out, it’s best to wear clothes that you don’t mind getting messy with paint. An old button-up shirt works great as a designated paint smock.
Jenny Hahn leads workshops through Unity Arts Ministry both in person and through online platforms. Check our event calendar for upcoming Creative Flow Home Practice classes with Jenny. Or experience a Process Painting workshop with Jenny at our annual Creative Renewal Retreat.
Jenny Hahn, BFA, is a professional artist and workshop facilitator who loves to help others tap their creativity using painting as a tool for mindfulness and self-discovery. She is cofounder of Creative Nectar Studio–A safe haven for creative self-discovery–and a supporting member of the Unity Artist Coalition at Unity Village.
She exhibits her vibrant acrylic paintings nationally and out of her studio at the Bauer Building in Kansas City’s Crossroads Arts District, opening to the public every First Friday. Her regular practice of insight meditation informs her creative process and teachings.
Jenny serves Unity Arts Ministry in multiple roles including: Administrative Support; Workshop Facilitator; and featured writer for UnityArtsMinistry.org.