Whether it's woodworking, sewing or sculpting teeny cupcakes out of bright purple clay, making art is good for your mind and body.
The act of creation can reduce stress and anxiety and improve your mood, says Girija Kaimal, a professor at Drexel University and a leading researcher in art therapy. And flexing our creative side can give us a stronger sense of agency — the ability to solve problems by imagining possible solutions.
Making art can also feel pretty awesome, she says. Engaging in any act of visual expression activates the reward pathway in your brain, "which is perceived as a pleasurable experience."
Artists say they often feel those positive vibes when they work. Trinidad Escobar, a Filipino American graphic novelist and poet based in Oakland, Calif., says that drawing "feels like a superpower." And Liana Finck, a cartoonist for The New Yorker, says sharing her art with an audience is "the most cathartic thing in the world."
But you don't have to be a full-time artist to get in on those health benefits, says Kaimal. All you need to do is just make art. And the more you do it, the better. Here are six things you need to know to kick-start your creative art habit.
1. You don't need to be an artist with a capital "A"
We tend to think that only people who are very skilled at art can call themselves artists, but really, anyone can be an artist, says Kaimal.
"Everyone is capable of creative expression," she says. In fact, her own research has shown that there are no differences in health outcomes between those who identify as experienced artists and those who don't. So that means that no matter your skill level, you'll be able to feel all the good things that come with making art.
Christianne Strang, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, promises that if you stick with it, you'll enjoy it. In her 30-year career as an art therapist, she has found that "99% of the time, people find that if they give up the idea that they're not good enough, if they give up the judgment, making art actually feels good."
2. Figure out your mode of creative expression
Start with what you enjoy — maybe something you've done before, maybe something you loved as a kid. But keep an open mind.
"Anything that engages your creative mind — the ability to make connections between unrelated things and imagine new ways to communicate — is good for you," says Kaimal.
You can do that through myriad activities: finger painting, cooking, baking, collaging, oil painting, weaving, knitting, crocheting, writing screenplays, scrapbooking — the sky's the limit. And don't feel like you have to stick to one thing, say the art therapists. Mix it up — do whatever you're in the mood for.
3. Focus on the making, and let go of expectations
Once you have your art materials, here comes the fun part. Mess around! Let yourself get lost in the process and just play. Because it's the physical act of making art, says Kaimal, that induces those feelings of stress relief and positive energy — not what you make or how you make it.
Kaimal says you don't even need to complete a project or like what you're making to feel those health benefits.
In fact, says Strang, that can be a positive thing. In her free time, she likes doodling, watercoloring and glass fusing. "Sometimes, when I don't like what I'm making, it frees me up to play and explore new ideas, because I've let go of expectations," she says.
4. Think about making art like any healthy habit, such as eating well or exercising
Just as you make time to work, exercise and hang out with family and friends, you should make time for your artistic endeavors, says Strang. "Creativity in and of itself is important for remaining healthy — remaining connected to yourself and remaining connected to the world," she says.
While there are no hard and fast rules for how much time you should devote to engaging in art, Strang has a suggestion: "as much as you can get away with."
Try to designate a special time in your week to devote to your practice, says Kaimal. She likes to set aside time on the weekends to work on her own art projects: mixed-media pieces inspired by nature. She calls it her "TGIS." "Thank God it's Saturday," she says. "It's my few hours of time to develop something I'm working on and really take that time for myself."
You don't even need a few hours. Escobar, the Oakland-based artist, teaches community art classes to people of color and members of the LGBT community. She says that doing just 10 minutes of art each day can do wonders.
Whatever you do, don't wait for creative inspiration to strike. "That's a myth that you'll create because you're in this altered state of mind and feeling free and loose," she says.
In addition to carving out time, carve out a physical space in your home for art, says Kaimal. She suggests setting up a corner table for your sketchbook and art supplies. If space is an issue, put it all in a basket or a plastic container that's easily accessible.
Your creative corner is "kind of like a reminder," she says. "It reinforces your commitment to invest in yourself and your well-being."
5. Ride those waves of emotion
The more you're able to make art a regular habit, the more you're likely to get this great reward: this wonderful thing that happens when you're in the zone. Kaimal says that scientists have a word for it. It's called "flow."
"It's that sense of losing yourself, losing all awareness. You're so in the moment and fully present that you forget all sense of time and space," she says.
Escobar says she feels that flow when she's filling in lines with color, inking — which in the world of cartooning means tracing over pencil marks with ink — and when she's drawing aesthetically pleasing backgrounds, such as jungle or garden scenes.
"It feels meditative," she says, like things are "going well, smoothly, like the process is nourishing me."
6. Get yourself in the mood
Some days, you won't feel like making art. And that's OK, says Finck. As the author of several graphic novels, most recently Excuse Me: Cartoons, Complaints, and Notes to Self, she's used to juggling multiple projects.
"I get a lot of writer's block," she says. "It feels like stage fright when I sit down with a blank page."
To trick herself into drawing, Finck tells herself to think "that I'm just doodling," she says. "Then it flows freely."
If the block persists, she checks in with herself. What's stopping her from drawing? Is she anxious? Depressed? Worried?
"If you're too anxious to draw, address the anxiety. Go take a walk. Stand up from the couch. Go for a run. See a person," says Finck.
You can also try a breathing exercise, says Escobar. "Inhale for four seconds and hold for a second. Repeat that for about three minutes."
She does this with students in her art classes to help them reset and refocus after a long day at work — and it works, she says, like a charm.