On art
A new field of learning that can be relevant to artists.

Mindfulness for artists

Text copyright Jenelle Latcham, not to be reproduced without permission.

Mindfulness is a new field of learning that can be helpful for artists. It is being applied in new ways every day - in business, industry, parliament, law, Olympic sport, medicine (management of stress, depression and pain), schools (students, teachers and parents) and more.

I have written an article on how mindfulness can help artists, for the November 2015 issue of UK's The Artist magazine. I'm just an artist who has found mindfulness relevant to my art journey, and wrote the article because I thought mindfulness was news for artists to hear; from there an artist can see for themselves if mindfulness is useful for them.

It is hard to summarise all the ways mindfulness can be helpful. Mindfulness is gently life-enhancing at such a fundamental level that it can impact positively in many directions. So I've opted to just give brief pointers below. If you're interested you can easily find further information in the resources listed at the end, and explore it for yourself.

What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is about operating fully in the present moment, non-judgmentally - simply experiencing life as it unfolds and being open to what is actually going on in front of you, instead of reacting out of expectations from past experience or hopes and fears about the future. As a result, you can respond appropriately and effectively in whatever situation you find yourself. It also results in living with a bit of heart and soul, a good antidote to our ultra-fast digital world.

You can become present, centred and mindful anywhere, anytime, just by tuning in to your breathing. All you have to do is take a few deep breaths deep into your abdomen, noticing each in-breath and out-breath.

It isn't always easy to remember to do this, so it can be useful to practice being mindful through regularly stopping and coming to stillness and silence, taking time for simply being or 'non-doing' instead of our constant doing. This is called mindfulness meditation, and can be done sitting, lying down or walking, for a short or long time, whatever works for you.

Mindfulness for artists
We artists are already being mindful at times, such as when we carefully observe what we are sketching, accepting what we see even if it doesn't make sense - things getting smaller in the distance or a foreshortened leg. Or when we are so focused as we paint that we have no idea of the time, we are totally absorbed in the present moment.

Briefly, here are some of the many ways in which mindfulness may help with your art.

Staying fresh
Being open to how things unfold rather than having pre-conceived ideas helps you to experience things with a ‘beginner’s mind’ (a Zen concept), a sense of curiosity and wonder. This ensures your work (both subject matter and technique) stays fresh. A watercolourist especially needs to stay present as the wet paint flows, in order to respond appropriately.

With this open mind you start to notice alternatives rather than taking the same old path, like going down a different street in London and finding a whole new world to explore. Your work can become flexible and alive.

Being authentic
Spending some time in stillness puts you back in touch with your deepest, truest self. You become more aware of what things give you a buzz artistically, which yields the authenticity needed for substance in your art work. You speak with your own voice.

It also brings self-acceptance, that you don't need to be anyone else (no matter how good they are). Art needs you to be you.

Staying relevant
As you notice more about the reality of your life and your world, you find you have more things to say, and they are the things that we are all experiencing and can relate to.

There is a concept called the 'isness' of a thing, which recognises that everything in the universe is unique and will not happen again because everything is constantly changing. When we paint, we don't paint bland generalities, it is this uniqueness that we want to convey - the personality of this tree that chose to grow in this way, the precise rawness you felt in this particular situation. Mindfulness is about getting back to direct experience not your mind's commentary of it, being aware of the essence of what it is that moves you.

Better intuition, bringing clarity and insight
Mindfulness strengthens your intuition. Looking openly at what is in front of you allows all your senses to take in a lot more than your thinking mind alone. This means your decision-making is being informed by a broader information base than before.

Try taking a few moments to come to stillness when you arrive in your studio, perhaps simply contemplating the work that you are about to continue. (Maybe you already do this.)

An outcome of better intuition is that you may be surprised at times with a clarity in seeing situations for what they really are, that you hadn’t realised before.

You may also find you have helpful insights into what to do next in a situation. This is useful for your art journey and your art career. Art is such a wide-open field it is often difficult to know what direction to take, and forging your own path is ultimately what art is all about. You can define success on your own terms.

Silencing your inner critic
When you spend time with yourself in stillness you become familiar with how your mind works. You are not your thoughts. Thoughts and emotions are like passing clouds - or buses, another will be along in a moment. This understanding of your mind’s games is inordinately helpful in silencing your inner critic as you paint and as you evaluate your work: ‘That’s just a thought’.

Handling rejections and failures
Mindfulness teaches acceptance of what is. What happened is here, now, in the present, a reality. This is how your life unfolded today. But it is not a passive or fatalistic stance, instead it is an effective one - 'OK, what next?’. In place of being paralysed by a rejection or failed painting, you simply say, 'I really wish it was different’ (and you can be really upset about it) 'but I accept that this has happened. Now what do I do from here?'

Mindfulness also teaches ‘not-knowing’, something quite foreign to our western culture. You don’t need to know the answer to ‘What next?’. It is enough to just let the question linger for as long as it needs, no hurry. The answer will be better than a quick reaction that hasn’t been thought through.

There is also the concept of letting go, letting be and non-attachment to a particular outcome. A rejection can be hard, but it is a good time to be open to ‘Is this what I really want?’ or perhaps, ‘What do I really want in my art?’ and examining things from that perspective. The rejection may teach you to improve your craft, to better target the competitions you enter or the markets you’re aiming for, or to network a little. Or it may tell you this particular opportunity isn’t really what you thought it was and it isn’t for you, in which case, what is? An opportunity may cause you so much work that you have to accept the fact that you’re not sure it’s worth it, and let it go.

Mindfulness also brings a healthy, deep self-confidence. In sitting quietly with yourself, you develop resilience. You don’t have a need to be better than anyone else, you are content as you are, accepting that life may bring you this success or it may not and either outcome will be all right. If you have to let go of one thing and start over somehow, you know you can handle it.

I wish you all the best in your art journey, and maybe mindfulness will make your path more enjoyable and fulfilling.

I have listed the websites informally, rather than take on the responsibility of keeping links up-to-date; the websites should be easy to find.

A good rule of thumb for newcomers: anything by Jon Kabat-Zinn, or endorsed by him, should be worthwhile.
  • Kabat-Zinn is the medical scientist who saw what Buddhism had and what the west needed and brought the two together to create the MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) course at the University of Massachusetts Medical Centre back in the late '70s. He is a leading figure in modern mindfulness, bringing a wise, moderate overview of what it's all about.

  • Kabat-Zinn writes with a bit of soul, something that artists would appreciate.

  • A good starting point is his book Mindfulness for beginners, complete with CD in back cover.

  • Full Catastrophe Living, revised edition 2013, is Kabat-Zinn’s book of the original MBSR course, now fully updated. Many reviewers consider it is still the best book on mindfulness. There is an accompanying set of CDs of soundtracks sold separately, titled Guided mindfulness meditation Series 1.

  • Wherever you go, there you are is also hugely popular, a compilation of short, gentle, thought-provoking chapters.

Another good rule of thumb for newcomers: anything by Professor Mark Williams of Oxford University, or endorsed by him, should be worthwhile.
  • Professor Williams helped to develop, from MBSR, a course for treating depression called MBCT (mindfulness-based cognitive therapy), which is recommended by the NHS, the UK's free medical care system.

  • The popular book Mindfulness, a practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world, by Professor Mark Williams and Danny Penman is based on the MBCT course, and includes a CD in the back cover. A straightforward, structured approach.

  • franticworld.com, is the website of the book.

  • Another book co-written by Danny Penman, Mindfulness for health, won the British Medical Association’s Best Book (Popular Medicine) prize in 2014.

  • Hot off the press: a new book published on 1 October 2015: Mindfulness for creativity - adapt, create and thrive in a frantic world, by Danny Penman. Excellent information, in a nuts-and-bolts structured approach. If like me you prefer a less-structured, more soulful approach, you could combine this book's useful information with one of the books by Kabat-Zinn, say the first or third listed above.

  • Also: oxfordmindfulness.org, is the site for Oxford University’s Oxford Mindfulness Centre.

Some books on mindfulness are written by Buddhists, as they have centuries of wisdom to offer on the subject. It is easy to respectfully blip over anything that sounds more religious than mainstream as you read.
  • How to train a wild elephant, and other adventures in mindfulness, by Jan Chozen Bays is book where each chapter gives you something to focus on mindfully for a week. Some chapters are ideal for artists, for example: notice the colour blue; notice spaces around objects; notice spaces as you move from room to room.

  • How to sit, by Thich Nhat Hanh. A pocket-size book of gentle paragraphs on how to be mindful, from a Zen master.

For the big picture of mindfulness in the world today: mindful.org, a US e-magazine website edited by Barry Boyce with an advisory board of top mindfulness experts.
  • Boyce also edited the book The mindfulness revolution. Each chapter is on different ways mindfulness is being used today. Writers include Kabat-Zinn, Hanh, Bays, the Dalai Lama and Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence.

- September 2015, updated October 2015

Text copyright Jenelle Latcham, not to be reproduced without permission.