Finding headspace through creativity

Sandie Donnelly (Academic Skills Manager) shares the power of creativity to bring joy and headspace to overloaded minds

I like art but don’t see myself as “arty”. I have horror memories of art lessons at school: copying Picasso’s Weeping Woman in year 9 art classes without having a clue what we were doing and why. As my brother, mum and best friend at school effortlessly sketched things that clearly resembled the things they were sketching, I didn’t progress much beyond toddler level art. I grew up content to visit art galleries and admire other people’s work.

So I was surprised to find myself in a watercolour art class for beginners earlier this year. I’d gifted a family member the experience for Christmas, and when they didn’t want to go alone, I agreed to tag along for the day. I was happy enough to keep them company, eat cake and admire the artistic prowess of the barista who made my coffee.

Coffee cup (author’s own photo)

Before long, however, I was drawn into the class. The tutor was excellent, deftly managing the mixture of beginners and very keen amateurs through a combination of short demonstrations of watercolour techniques and lots of encouragement. I found myself totally absorbed learning how to “tickle” the paper with watercolour and didn’t want to be distracted; to the point where I gently suggested to my companion that we stop chatting so that I could paint my dried flowers in peace.

Painting lavender in peace (author’s own photo, 2023)

We experimented with different flowers and techniques. I didn’t mind what my efforts looked like or how they compared to anyone else; I just enjoyed creating my pictures whilst also admiring what others were producing when we shared our efforts during the breaks.

Lavender development (author’s own photo, 2023)
Dried thistle (author’s own photo, 2023)

As my chatty, anxious mind stopped buzzing about and focussed instead on putting watercolour paint onto a piece of paper, I went into a different headspace. Time flew by and when the class ended, I noticed how calm, relaxed and happy I felt; more calm and relaxed than I’d been for some time. I was feeling buzzy again but in a good way – like I had extra energy. It wasn’t that I’d suddenly discovered a hidden talent for watercolours, it was that the class had given me time and space to tune into and enjoy an absorbing process that kept me in the present moment. I wasn’t thinking about work, or planning what I needed to do next, or fretting about whatever it was that needed doing that I still hadn’t done. I’d momentarily cleared my head of all that noise, enjoyed a couple of hours being creative, felt really refreshed and more positive about facing my to-do list.

Pink fern (author’s own photo, 2023)

In the midst of all the busy-ness this time of year can bring for many students (putting the final touches to a dissertation, preparing for end of year exams, clocking up remaining placement hours, juggling employer and university expectations), finding time and space to try something creative could really make a difference. You might already know the types of activities that absorb you and help you tune into a different headspace and energy or you might be up for trying something new. With trees, plants and flowers so lush and blooming at the moment, it might be as simple as sitting outside for a while and noticing your surroundings; taking the time to smell the roses, as the saying goes. You might feel you haven’t got time. But taking a break to switch focus and engage with something absorbing will help you return to the things you need to do with a clearer head and feeling more refreshed.

Taking time to stop and smell the roses (author’s own photo, 2022)

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