The Importance of Art Materials

Art Materials: Chalk Pastels, Oil Crayons, Finger Paints.

Art Materials: Chalk Pastels, Oil Crayons, Finger Paints.

My recent experience at the International Art Therapy Practice/Research Inaugural Conference in London has highlighted how instrumental good quality art materials are for the outcomes of our work. When working with a focus on the body, Sensorimotor Art Therapy requires tables and chairs. Even the height of the table is important, ideally at or approximately 5 cm below the navel of the client. Chairs should be high enough that the knees are slightly lower than the pelvis, and the feet touch the ground. It is important that one sits comfortably upright while drawing, as it is an exercise of body awareness. A starting position that allows a relaxed upright body posture is important, which is not possible when crouched on the floor.

When we ask clients in groups to draw sitting on the floor, the body cannot be upright. In fact, the spine is bent over, the chest and abdomen constricted. Such a posture supports cognitive image-making activities, but not a body-focused approach. When we teach meditation, one of the core requirements is to be able to sit upright in a relaxed posture. Guided Drawing[1] is a form of ‘meditation in action’.

Bilateral drawing with closed eyes is highly unusual in the art therapy context. The focus goes inward; clients become aware of their implicit body sensations. In order to do so, the setting needs to be safe and calming to support inner awareness. Sharing art materials, having to search for masking tape or crayons becomes distracting from the inner experience. We would not expect participants in a meditation group having to deal with changing cushions to sit on every couple of minutes. In individual sessions and groups, it is important that each participant has all the required materials at hand.

In Guided Drawing for example, each client needs a supply of about 8 large A2 sheets of bulky newsprint paper (about 60 cm x 80 cm) per session, a role of tape to fix the sheets onto the table, so they can’t slide, and a set of colour chalk crayons and oil-pastels.

Ideally a number of different pastels, crayons and paints is available, because each can evoke or support a different implicit experience:

Chalk pastels are highly sensitive to subtle changes in the pressure. Especially when used flat, they allow multiple layers of transparent lines to appear on the paper. They appeal to clients with a transpersonal or a meditative approach to the drawing process or those who feel delicate and hypersensitive. The texture of the pastels is dry and the dust can be rubbed into the paper with flat hands, which increases contact. This allows even unskilled clients to mix colours in a satisfying way. However, the dryness does not suit all; some even have allergic itching reactions to it. They are also an expensive art material, which can be of consideration. There have been times when I sat with a certain amount of resentment observing a client going through two pastels per drawing and at the end of the session a $20 box had been ground to dust…. Chalk pastels break easily when pressure is applied, which can be frustrating for clients. In that case it is better to choose oil crayons.

Oil crayons come in different qualities and thickness and are much more affordable, because of their application in schools and kindergartens. If they are too hard, they will feel scratchy on the paper and tear it easily, without making satisfying marks. However, they do not need to be artist quality in order to be effective. It is good to have at least a few really thick oil crayons at hand, the ones on offer for pre-schoolers, as they withstand pressure and can be used for drawing with the fists.

Finger-paints come in large bottles for school supplies. These acrylics are usually affordable and wash out, which can be an issue otherwise; painting with both hands can get very messy. There needs to be enough space to dry the pictures afterwards. In most sessions I supply the paints on demand. Sometimes only one colour is needed to emphasize a particular emotion or to mix an ‘ointment’ that can be applied to a wound on the paper. Many clients with attachment trauma “never got enough”. When the therapist pours paint into their hands while they have their eyes closed can be a nurturing gesture to assist them moving towards fulfilment of their needs. Handfuls of paint contribute a distinctly more tactile and sensual dimension that may prove invaluable in certain cases. The smearing, mixing, scratching and mucking around, as well as the direct contact with thick layers of paint can evoke early childhood memories, and may satisfy a desire that was never granted. Sometimes finger-paints are a more appropriate material than crayons. The vivid strength of the colours appeals to emotional expression. The fluidity of the paints also encourages the idea of giving oneself a massage. However, clients who have been traumatized by touch, in particular those who have suffered sexual abuse, may get severely triggered by the contact with the paints. In this case it is important to have access to plenty of paper towels and water for washing rituals, which may offer a counter vortex to pendulate to. The haptic dimension of touch has enormous healing potential, which I have explored in detail when working with clay[2].

Crayons, coloured pencils, felt-pens and paintbrushes allow distancing from the paper and thus from direct contact with the self, whereas finger-paints are “full on”. Yet, also here clients can distance themselves from overwhelming contact by for example just touching the paint with the fingertips. Full contact of the hands with the paint and the paper indicates full sensory body contact also on the inside. Haptic perception, perception through touch, allows a score of diagnostic insights about how a client’s hands have learnt to orientate in the world. How they reach out for contact externally reflects on how they are in contact with themselves internally. Haptic perception[3] relates the base of the hands to the pelvis and inner grounding, the middle of the hand to the chest and to feelings, and the fingers, especially the fingertips to cognitive processing. Relaxed hands allow diagnostic conclusions towards a relaxed felt sense, whereas tension, inflexibility, white knuckles and the inability to fully touch the paint are indicators for fear and point towards a trauma history involving interpersonal abuse.

[1] (Elbrecht, Healing trauma with guided drawing; a sensorimotor art therapy approach to bilateral body mapping 2018)

[2]  (Elbrecht, Trauma healing at the clay field, a sensorimotor art therapy approach 2013)

[3]  (Deuser, Arbeit am Tonfeld, der haptische weg zu uns selbst 2018)

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