Exercising your creative side reduces stress, improves your mood, and more, NPR reported recently. Making art can also help our ability to consider new solutions to problems. Starting out can be far less daunting than it seems.
According to the NPR article, “engaging in any act of visual expression activates the reward pathway of your brain.” In addition, there’s no difference in the health benefits for a master performing their craft as opposed to a beginner—simply undertaking the activity, regardless of skill level, provides the same mental boost. Furthermore, the scope of “visual expression” is far wider than painting or drawing. “Finger painting, cooking, baking, collaging, oil painting, weaving, knitting, crocheting, writing screenplays, [or] scrapbooking” are examples of activities that work, the article said.
Even still, since drawing and painting are two of the oldest visual art forms, they serve as great foundations for beginning or improving your craft. Here’s what to expect.
Lesson One: Don’t Be Overwhelmed
The oldest cave paintings date back 40,000 years or so, but drawing ordinary indoor scenes to proportion is only a phenomenon of the last six centuries.
“To get the figure proportionate, believably seated in a chair, the chair on the carpet, and the carpet on the floor, well, that took us collectively tens of thousands of years to figure out,” said Professor David Brody, Professor of Painting and Drawing at the University of Washington in Seattle. “The knowledge and methods we use to do these things today were developed and codified during the Renaissance. Before the Renaissance, no one had figured out how to do anything remotely like this.”
According to Professor Brody, while we may not all be master artists, the mental tools they employ can be learned to a similar degree as learning a language.
“The drawing concepts and techniques developed during the Renaissance and used by Leonardo and by Raphael here in his School of Athens are commonly used by cartoonists drawing superheroes, video game designers, and animators,” he said. “While Plato and Artistotle—depicted in the Raphael—are clearly different from Bart Simpson, the methodology underlying the drawing in these images is surprisingly similar. The knowledge is transformative.”
Lesson Two: Rewards Come Sooner Than You Think
A well-known theory in psychology is that someone who has mastered a complex skill has spent 10,000 or more hours learning it, which averages out to eight hours a day every day for nearly three and a half years. However, this theory has been strongly contended. Even if it were true, there’s no need to acquire a total mastery of a creative skill to enjoy doing it as a hobby or source of stress relief.
Professor Brody has a much more palatable number of hours: 160.
“At the University of Washington, we’re on the quarter system; courses last about 10 weeks,” he said. “Intro Drawing meets twice a week for a total of six hours. Students who excel report spending an additional 10 hours a week on homework.”
Sixteen hours a week multiplied by 10 weeks makes a total of 160 hours. Professor Brody said that students who practice their artwork at that level “improve substantially,” and that they can tell how much they’ve improved, which drives them to improve further.
“They know it’s possible,” he said. “They know it’s not genius, but time and effort.”
Expressing your creative side might be difficult if you’ve never done so before—or haven’t in a while—but it’s a much smaller mountain to climb than most people think. By taking a 40,000-year head start over the earliest cave paintings and devoting a few avid months to improving your skills, creating artwork can reduce stress, improve your mood, and boost your problem-solving skills.
Professor David Brody contributed to this article. Professor Brody has been a Professor of Painting and Drawing at the University of Washington in Seattle since 1996. He did undergraduate work at Columbia University and Bennington College and received his graduate degree in painting from Yale University in 1983.