How To Use Art To Enhance Self-Knowledge

Art therapy can be incredibly powerful—especially for those who are looking to tap into their subconscious minds and learn more about some of the thoughts and emotions they may be holding back.

For example, art therapy can be highly effective for people suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, who can use creative, non-verbal methods to express vital elements of suppressed memories.

However, you don’t need to be deeply traumatized before it’s worth turning to art therapy—almost anyone can benefit from the ways in which art can be used to enhance self-knowledge.

Here are some basic tips to get you started on a rewarding journey of exploration.

Try Keeping an Art Journal

While there’s much to be said for keeping a traditional journal and writing in it at least a few times a week, you can tap into some of the underlying feelings behind your daily experiences by using an art journal. Pick whatever medium feels comfortable—pencil, paint, collage, or anything else that suits you—and just let your intuitions guide you in creating an image that represents your day.

When you’re done, see if you can pick up anything you hadn’t realized. For example, perhaps you set out to create a fairly cheerful image of a decent day, but the darker colors you were drawn to use around the edges of the picture suggest you are repressing certain negative emotions or sensing them lurking in the background.

Represent Your Inner Self

Once again, you can choose any medium you like when trying this exercise. The task is to use artistic expression to represent how you see yourself on the inside—so instead of sketching your own face, sketch something (or someone) that more accurately depicts the sense you have of your inner life.

Once the image or object is complete, ask yourself how this differs from the version of you that others see. Could you do anything to bring the two closer together and allow people to experience a more authentic you?

Connect With Your Childhood

Creating art is a particularly effective way to tap into your memories from childhood, as it allows you to access pre-verbal memories and emotions (bypassing your usual attempts to express yourself in words). Challenge yourself to create an image that shows your experience of childhood, whether it’s in color or black and white, whether it shows no people or a whole family, and whether it’s abstract or feelings clearly identifiable images.

After you feel the work is complete, step away from it for a while. When you’re ready, return to it and see what speaks to you about the picture. What can you surmise about your childhood that you may not have already known?

For example, consider the significant relationship, experiences, excitements and losses that may play a role in the image. Does anything about the picture change how you think about your younger years?

Create a Fantasy Animal

Some people like to use clay or another mold-able material for this exercise, but you can also draw or paint if you prefer. The object is to design an animal from scratch, with reference to certain key questions.

Where does it live? What does it enjoy? How does it reproduce? Does it live alone, or in a pack? What are its talents and strengths, and what are its weaknesses? Unsurprisingly, the fantasy animal you draw or shape can tell you a lot—either about how you see yourself, or about what you value in others.

Connect Art With Music

Finally, you can experiment with developing a deeper understanding of how certain music makes you feel by choosing to create art at the same time as listening to specific songs. You may have a particular goal in mind, such as drawing a piece that reflects your response to a song that you already know you associate with a romantic partner, family member or time of your life.

However, it’s also well worth just painting or sketching in response to favorite pieces of music. If you’ve never known quite why they touch you, looking at the image you produce may give you a clue about what the piece of music is activating in you.