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Challenge: Painting in Lockdown


I write this article during our eleventh week of lockdown in Sydney where the cases have reached the fifteen-hundreds. Like in Happy Death Day, Before I Fall, Palm Springs, or any other film that employs the Groundhog Day time-loop trope, my days have become mindlessly repetitive. I wake up relatively late in the day but still early enough for Gladys to tell me that she “can’t stress enough,” that we all need to “get the jab,” and “stay at home.” Being on the introverted side of the personality spectrum has placed me solidly in my comfort zone of reading, drinking coffee, studying, rinse, repeat. I haven’t tried anything new in months. Every time-loop story has the protagonist come to some sort of epiphany through the process of reliving the same day. I haven’t had my epiphany yet but there are some benefits to lockdown and I think one is that we have the time to slow down, reflect, and focus on the things we might not have had time for in the constant hustle of normal life.

In an ordinary COVID-free world, every so often I’d visit the Art Gallery of NSW, stare at one of my favourite paintings, ‘The railway station, Redfern’ (1893) by Arthur Streeton, and poke fun at some of the more abstract and outlandish art exhibits. Once when visiting, three suited security guards started circling my friend and I, flapping their arms, and yelling “this is art!” After the flapping stopped they stoically returned to their positions, so I suppose one of the great things about art is that you never quite know what to expect.

Paintings in various mediums and forms have existed for millenia and in the last few years there has been emerging evidence which suggests that engaging with art has a positive effect on the brain. A video on YouTube by SciShow Psych, called ‘How Paintings Help You See the World Differently,’ delves into this concept. Anthony Brown, the host of the episode, notes that viewing art “activates reward regions in the brain and can even reduce stress levels.” Another interesting point made in the video is that both the positive and negative emotions felt towards a piece of art, ultimately tend to still result in a positive conclusion as a “strong negative reaction can prompt us to change. If we sit with the discomfort, it can cause us to rethink our views, which in the end becomes a positive and even transformative experience.”

The process of creating art, in particular painting, is widely known to be a therapeutic process. Art psychotherapist Gwendolyn Rowlands emphasises that “The strength of art therapy is its use of non-verbal communication. Working with paint and clay allows people a way, literally, to touch on very difficult experiences that can’t be talked about.” Art can help people cope with anxiety, stress, and depression as evidenced by the mental health charity Arts and Minds, whose evaluation on their art workshops “revealed a 71% decrease in feelings of anxiety and a 73% fall in depression; 76% of participants said their wellbeing increased and 69% felt more socially included.”

The last time I focused my time and energy into a piece of art was when I created a wire-frame seahorse-giraffe hybrid sculpture in a high school visual arts class. Was there some form of deeper meaning behind the creation of this creature? Frankly, no, but looking back I think I could have at least drawn a contrived metaphor between the hybrid creature and my biracial identity.

There are a ton of free painting classes splattered across the internet but I chose the iconic Bob Ross as my creative spirit guide. More specifically, I attempted to follow the ‘Island in the Wilderness’ episode, from the 29th season of the ‘Joy of Painting’ series. You can find it on YouTube. 37 million people have viewed this video, and I would guess they’ve watched it less for the art lesson and more for the overall tranquil watching experience and hilarious and wholesome Ross-isms like “We don’t make mistakes here, we have happy accidents.”

I dutifully followed along as Bob Ross covered his canvas in titanium white, painted the sky prussian blue, and zigzagged his trees with reckless abandon. “Have a little family of trees,” he advises while doing this, “I think everybody should have a friend, even a tree. Even a tree needs a friend.”

The proverb “A poor craftsman blames his tools,” is one I believe rings true however, I would not advise doing what I did by using a single paintbrush to paint everything wherein Ross uses multiple brushes varying in size and shape in order to capture one of “nature’s masterpieces right here on the canvas.”

While my painting got progressively worse, I appreciated Ross’ relentless optimism. “What’s so fantastic about this is that anybody, anybody, can put a little masterpiece on canvas with just a little bit of practice, a vision in your mind, and off you go.”

My painting ended up being a bit of a waterlogged mess which I ultimately threw out, but painting as a hobby is really more about the process than the final product. If you’re looking for something new to try in lockdown, I’d recommend giving it a shot, and seeing what you can create.

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