As humans, drawing is one the first ways we learn we can express ourselves, to communicate with others and to record our experience and learning. Think about the cave paintings made by our prehistoric ancestors or the rudimental art drawn by a young child. Unless we are really fond of the arts or have a special talent in sketching things and using colours (lucky you!), many of us overlook our very basic capability to draw something and are unaware of the benefits it takes to our brain and overall wellbeing. So read on to rediscover your abilities and boost your mind and wellbeing at the same time!
Drawing is much more than an interesting hobby for people with some talent in using pencils and inks. It can actually be a tool, a language, to tell stories and express feelings. A tool that doesn’t require special abilities, and is actually achievable by anyone. But, as adults, we tend to forget about it.
The benefits for our mental abilities that even practising drawing can promote could give us all the boost we need to feel more productive, alert, focused, and even help us de-stress. So discover your way to make the best of paper and pencils (no skills required!):
1 Concentration through scribbles
Let’s start with something really simple: doodling. No matter what you’re doodling, it can be flowers, faces or geometric shapes. We won’t investigate the unconscious meaning of your scribbles, just scribbling itself is proven to improve our ability to concentrate during a meeting, a lecture or a long phone call, preventing our mind wandering or daydreaming. It acts as an anchor to reality, helping us maintain our attention and release tension and stress that the effort may cause.
2 Mindful drawing with mandalas
Some of our finest doodles, with symmetric geometric shapes and colours may actually look like mandalas. Mandalas are ancient oriental rounded shapes with sacral functions, but have become famous in the western pop culture as geometrical drawings to colour. Drawing or colouring mandalas is a way of practising mindfulness through art, allowing us to reduce stress, calm down and self-regulate. And we don’t even need to draw these mandalas ourselves - there’s loads of colouring books, downloadable resources and even apps to give it a go.
3 Focus training
Actually, it’s not just about mandalas or pretty patterns, drawing itself is an activity that allows us to fall into a mindful experience, we’re focused on the present moment and giving our full attention to what we are drawing, the texture of the paper, the shades of colours. Trying to accurately replicate real objects, people or landscapes with a drawing also trains our ability to pay attention to detail, to capture and reproduce them patiently.
4 Sketches for analytical thinking
Drawing allows us to visually represent reality in a simplified way. This requires us to use and stretch our analytical skills, since we transfer reality into paper we need to extract the key features we need to represent, such as relationships between different elements and space proportions. Forcing ourselves to draw something can even help seeing connections between things we were not thinking about otherwise. For example, making a sketch of the way we want to rearrange furniture in the living room can help visualise new possibilities we might not consider if we were to just stare at the walls sitting on our sofa.
5 Stretch the imagination
There’s a game we used to play… When drawing, it’s never just our brain areas devoted to analytical thinking that light up, it’s actually our whole brain, including areas linked to imagination and creativity. Free drawing can be a good way to trigger imagination and get creative. Without the fear of a blank sheet, just put on paper what’s on your mind, no matter whether it looks like nonsense or scribblings of a 3 year old. Just draw with no constraints and no judgement. At the end, you may look at the final results and see connections between concepts, or clarify an idea in your mind. It doesn’t need to have a consistent meaning, it could just offer some insights about your deep mind and be an inspiration for something to create or a decision to make. Or it might just head straight for the bin, and we try again!
6 Visual brainstorming for group problem solving
Team leaders and project managers heads-up: here’s something juicy for you. Using drawing as a tool for group brainstorming is a powerful way to create innovative ideas, see links between concepts, develop solutions and shared goals of projects. It doesn’t require being able to draw well. Actually, the core of this methodology is in our ancestral ability to draw, as humans. We may have a vague idea in mind which is very difficult to convey with words: that might otherwise be left out, while it could be vaguely represented through a colour, a line, a symbol, which others can interpret in multiple ways to explore the concept. This is also a great way for experts and novices to collaborate together, as no specialised knowledge is required (e.g. a focus group between marketing experts and consumers).
7 Draw your learning and memories
Those who are visual learners - who prefer to memorise things through images rather than words - know this very well already. But regardless of our learning style, drawing concepts we have to learn or experiences we have had is a way to consolidate our learning. By carving it into our memory we can then retrieve it more easily when we need to reuse that information. This isn’t just a trick for students, but it’s being extensively used in support of people living with a condition of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Making drawings of key things needed in daily life helps remember it better, as it is like making a picture of them in your mind.
8 Express yourself, connect with others
Drawing is indeed a privileged way to express ourselves, explore our imagination, our feelings and emotions, and to communicate these to others. Drawings are the product of our gestures, our choices in terms of colours, tools, materials and subjects represented, which are a mirror of what we feel. We don’t need to be art or psychology experts to understand the feelings conveyed through a drawing either, as they pass through a non-rational channel - a basic universal language that other people can get. Looking at our own or someone else’s drawing helps develop our emotional intelligence, introspection and empathy. If we are not expert drawers, we might not always find it satisfactory to express ourselves through scribbles. Try to use pure colours instead, such as watercolours: the shade effects they create give an immediate reward in their ability to mirror our inner emotional world.
Drawing and painting are extensively used as a therapy for people with mental health conditions, allowing them to express and elaborate their feelings and thoughts that can be difficult to express with words.
9 Drawing with the body
So far we explored drawing as mainly an activity for the mind, but it is primarily a body activity. Drawing is first of all the result of our gesture, the product of our movement. Drawing requires and develops our fine motor skills, dexterity and coordination. Trying to draw with both right and left hand, regardless of our dominance, helps activate the whole body and brain. But it’s not just a matter of hand dexterity: our posture, breathing, the relaxation or contraction of muscles in our whole body, all make a difference in the result of drawing. Try simply to draw a line on a blank sheet sitting at your desk or standing up: in the first case, you’re probably able to be more careful about the accuracy, but also feel more uncertain; when standing up, you can allow your arms to move more freely, and the mark is made more confidently, having gone beyond our seated control. There’s no one way better than another: it just ends up in different styles of drawing and different experiences for us. If you want to go extreme and your spaces allow you to do it, try action painting as well: throwing paint on a floor or on a wall can definitely be an experience for your whole nerves and muscles!
10 …and I’m feeling good
The benefits drawing can have on our mood might alone be the trigger for us to grab the pens and pencils and start creating. Thanks to the release of feel-good hormones in the brain, putting ourselves in a positive mindset. Together with a calming and relaxing effect, it gives us a sense of achievement and self-realisation, thus improving our self-esteem (even if our aim is not to sell our creations at Sotheby’s!). Anyone’s who’s experienced or familiar with art therapy might be well aware of the magic of drawing for our mood and mental wellbeing. But we can simply recreate that magic in our daily life. To maximise the effects, put some music on: to inspire you during creation and help guide your gestures, by softly moving and releasing your entire body. You could try outdoor drawing in natural spaces - the local park will do the job: natural light will be a boost in the choice of your colours and natural elements around you will be an inspiration for your subject, while helping grow a positive mindset. Finally, drawing can be good fun if you join an informal class or casual drawers group (I’m sure there’ll be some nearby you, have a look online), allowing you to share experiences and build social relationships.
Beginners to the best: we don’t have to be remotely skilled in drawing to reap the benefits. And actually drawing badly can help us manage perfectionism, imposter syndrome, and build confidence. Drawing is a flexible exercise, we don’t need fancy tools, we don’t need strict courses, and we don’t need to draw what others are drawing. Simply put pen to paper in your next meeting, while on hold to your insurance providers, or with the kids and watch the benefits wash over you.
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