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As early as 40,000 years ago artists invented the first pigments — a combination of soil, animal fat, burnt charcoal, and chalk — creating a basic palette of five colors: red, yellow, brown, black, and white. Since then, the history of color has been one of perpetual discovery. The invention of new pigments accompanied the developments of art history’s greatest movements—from the Renaissance to Impressionism —during which artists experimented with colors never before seen in the history of painting. As our visual vocabulary has expanded to include an infinite amount colors, so too have our associations with them. Different cultures across the globe have forged culture-specific associations of colors to people, places, objects or emotionally charged events, and within these cultures these connotations have also changed over time. Today, in my culture, most people understand that brides wear white, that "seeing red" means being angry, and that one can feel "green with envy." But the link between color and feeling is also a highly individual thing. We create personal connections through idiosyncratic personal experiences with colors. A British toddler might, for instance, witness his parent shriek at the sight of a banana spider which, though not indigenous to England was accidentally imported to London by a freighter ship. Such a toddler might connect fear with the speckled brownish-yellow color of the spider, a connection that could last a lifetime. By attempting to better understand our own idiosyncratic associations with colors we can unveil a lot about ourselves and our own self expression.

Last month I taught a class at Free People here in New York City, where I introduced a self-help strategy, or exercise that allows one to explore his or her emotions through colorful art-making. This was not an art therapy session. My intention for this class was to simply share with a curious audience a creative practice that has been highly beneficial for my own well-being. Following a coherent threefold process that includes contemplation, art making and reflection, this class aimed to strengthen the participants mind/body wellness and general self-awareness.

Mark Rothko,  No. 7 [or] No. 11  , 1949. Oil on canvas. The National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.). Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc. 1986.43.144.

Mark Rothko, No. 7 [or] No. 11 , 1949. Oil on canvas. The National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.). Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc. 1986.43.144.

When engaging in this exercise at home or in a group setting, I always begin with time for contemplation. While there are many different contemplative methods, I focus on mediation, specifically mindful meditation. Mindfulness is the active component of the mind in meditation. You don’t necessarily need to mediate to be mindful. In fact, as humans we have a natural tendency to be mindful, it’s just that sometimes we forget how. Most of the time we move mindlessly through the day, getting swept up in the day to day or multitasking that keep the “mind full,” rather than aware and present. For example, we may become caught up in regrets about the past (contributing to depression), or worries about the future (contributing to anxiety). But mindfulness is about paying attention to how things are in the present moment.

Mindful based practices serve three main functions: to relax the mind and body, to raise awareness about present moment experience, and to regulate emotions. The calming function of meditation aids relaxation, where de-centering provides a psychologically safe space for exploring emotions. As the mind quietens, the body becomes calm and we begin to notice a shifting array of thoughts, feelings, perceptions and sensations that present themselves. From here we can gain deeper insights and awareness of how things are and are able to access deeper parts of yourself and your emotions. The kind of thinking that goes on in mindful meditation is about self-reflection. Reflecting inward is more focused and powerful when not clouded by a barrage of repetitive thoughts we run over and over in our minds. Instead, we become present with our thoughts, feelings, emotions, perceptions, and internalized images as they arise, but are not caught up or defined by them. In other words, this inward reflection allows the participant to explore and express deep-felt emotions that often keep you stuck.

This phase of the process takes place in the comfortable silence of a relaxed and safe psychological space where one can turn inward through meditation and begin to notice their inner mental life. Something happens when we quieten the mind, detach emotionally from their problems, and consciously connect in this way. The goal here is to gain clarity and focus.

Ellsworth Kelly, Landscape, 1975 .  Collage and postcard. University of California, San Diego.

Ellsworth Kelly, Landscape, 1975. Collage and postcard. University of California, San Diego.

Translating subjective thought and feeling into a tangible art form is empowering for those who have difficulty communicating their emotions. Where mindfulness helps to calm a person, art provides the liberating effect of enabling people to communicate through it. Translating inner mental life into a tangible form is the goal in this next phase of the process. Drawing on inner resources through art is beneficial in many ways; first in helping people to access deep-felt emotions that may be difficult to harness or verbalize; second, in providing a means for cathartically releasing pent-up feelings; third, in providing a visual language resource for communicating such feelings; and fourth, in the power of direct experiencing that often results in inner mental shifts. In other words, we get to the heart of the matter of what ails us.

That which one focuses on during mediation - albeit a thought, feeling, idea, or sensation, or anything – is what becomes the driving force behind their creation. For my artistic exercise, I typically use color blocks, cut from paint chips found at my local hardware store, to create a collage. Immediately following my meditation session I select several paint chips to work with, any that I am instantly drawn to, and glue the chips in whatever way make sense at the time. If I find myself feeling stuck at this point, I often revert to asking myself: What is aesthetically pleasing to you in the moment – what are you gravitating towards? Here aesthetics refers to the structural features of line, shape, or color.

Aesthetic reflection helps to construe meaning from the visual elements of a work, during reflection we go beyond the crafting of an artwork to “seeing” and thinking about its meaning through deeper observation.  This marks the discovery phase, which will help one to accept and acknowledge the resonance of his or her feelings and to consider other alternatives. In other words, one can now we reflect on the images created – which offers a springboard for understanding his or her emotions.

Upon completion, I objectively compare the colors in my work to any of the various published ‘emotional color wheels’. These emotional color wheels are based on evolutionary connections between colors and emotions. Evolutionary connections are the most widely shared connections, and are probably the themes for which the cultural and personal connections are variations. I often allow for a few moments of reflection here, where I revisit the thoughts, feelings, perceptions and sensations I encountered during meditation.

Anne Ryan,  Untitled (#447)  , 1954. Photo © The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of Elizabeth McFadden.

Anne Ryan, Untitled (#447) , 1954. Photo © The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of Elizabeth McFadden.

Guiding you into, rather than away from your artwork allows you to approach emotional pain with presence, openness and curiosity.  This enables us to see the artwork afresh, and dialogue beyond its face value, in terms of the underlying meaning expressed in for example the liveliness or tensions of line, color and shape or from, or through the deeper emotional tone of a work. Both art and mindfulness practices support the notion that there is greater hope for spiritual and emotional recovery if people stop, turn inward and access deep parts of themselves. When words fail you, or you find it difficult to grasp or harness what you want or need to say, art can provide another source of awareness, communication, and self-insight to guide the path of restoration and healing.

Whether we realize the fact or not, color is a major part of our lives. Colors can quietly influence our emotions and consequently our decision-making processes. This knowledge should open up our minds to the possible ways by which we can make them an active and positive influence on our day to day existence.


Throughout next year, I am attempting to bring this practice to a wider audience through collaborative group healing ceremonies and workshops. If you are interested in a collaboration or booking please contact us; and check here for announcements and upcoming happenings.

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