Self-Portrait for the Soul: How I Healed with Art Therapy

painting-oil-canvas-013115About a year ago, I was working as an art therapist in private practice and I had a 12-year-old client struggling with anxiety and figuring out who she was in the world. I asked her to create a self-portrait—a great exercise for a girl trying to define herself. At one point I realized I had never made a self-portrait, at least not since grade school. So I went out, bought a canvas, took a “selfie,” and began my own personal process answering, “who am I?”

I began with a light sketch, trying to see myself from the observer view. Then I started painting, layering first in basic colors to assign shadow and light areas. I have a lot of experience painting, but painting a person is definitely challenging. Faces have complex layers of subtle shadows and highlights. I worked layer after layer. Too dark. Too light. Too dark again …

One night I came home and looked at the painting in process and wondered, “Have I gone too far? I just keep layering and layering, will it ever be finished? This painting is getting overworked.” I paused, contemplating this chosen word. That’s exactly what I had created: “overworked Michelle”. Working three jobs and always doing a lot, I was overworked and my self-portrait reflected this state.

This is the beauty of art therapy: even though you’re not trying to do it, your self comes through in the art you create. There I was, “overworked Michelle,” in painting as in life. I didn’t like how she looked … and I didn’t like how it felt to be overworked Michelle, either. At that point, I stopped working on the painting and bought a new, blank canvas of the same size. “Who would I be if I wasn’t overworked Michelle?”

I challenged myself to make the Michelle I wanted to be, my ideal state of being. To avoid overworking the painting again I limited my work time to two sittings. In the beginning, I did not sketch anything, but started with paint on canvas, finding a portrait through color and strokes. Without a photo to reference I was free to make the face, body, and shading however I wanted. The result was a representation of how it feels to be me on the inside.

A few nights previously I had had a powerful dream about a mountain lion and when the hole in the chest appeared in my painting, I knew I wanted a cougar coming from the darkness. But how would I paint a cougar in such a short amount of time? Actually, I had already cut one out of a magazine and it was just hanging on my bulletin board nearby. Should I put collage in my painting?! I’d never done that before!

michelle fox art therapyI found freedom in creating this painting. All rules went out the window. I could be whoever I wanted to be! This is the truth of life. We create imaginary confines around ourselves that don’t actually exist. With the focus of actually creating the me I wanted to be, I found myself soft and open, vulnerable and dangerous, with strong roots hanging down, looking for soil.

Art is a powerful medium. It reminds us that we are creators, born to make what we want out of life. Art is an opportunity to ask yourself, who do you really want to be? I practiced what I wanted in this painting, and then my life followed suit. I am no longer “overworked Michelle.” Now I have one job, and it is my passion—the place where I share my heart with others and practice vulnerability and openness. I take care of myself first, every day. I don’t feel overworked, because I love what I do. I continue to draw and paint what I want out of life because, in the very near future, it could all come true.

Michelle Lynn Baker is an art therapist and owner of MBodied Art Studio in Westminster, CO. She teaches art classes to children and adults and runs therapeutic art groups for parents and children. Michelle enjoys the spectrum of art as therapy from learning to healing.

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  • Corrinne

    January 31st, 2015 at 1:59 PM

    I don’t know that art allows me to create what I want to because I am a terrible artist, but what it does is allow me to express myself a little more freely than I may do with out ti.
    That for me says a lot.

  • Jim

    February 2nd, 2015 at 3:42 AM

    Funny how there are times when we don’t even know the hurt and the pain that is inside of us until we discover a way to get it out on paper. This could be via art, writing, music, but there is something so healing in getting all of that out on paper in a way that feels safe that actually allows us to see all of the angst and the turmoil within. An once we see it, that is the beginning of the healing.

  • sharon d.

    February 2nd, 2015 at 10:29 AM

    I think that art therapy is becoming more and more widely used because of the success that so many have found via this method, right?

  • Debbie W

    February 2nd, 2015 at 12:43 PM

    This was fascinating. Your insight to your self- portrait was deep. It’s so valuable.
    I took Brene Brown’s e-course on The Gifts of Imperfection, which included an art journal. Now I’m extremely interested in art therapy. If I want to take classes on art therapy, but don’t intend to become a therapist, what classes would you suggest? I’m in Central CA. Thanks.

  • Rekha

    February 3rd, 2015 at 11:56 PM

    You have described the art therapy process so beautifully, and in such a realistic manner! I understand because I went through a similar process which helped me understand myself better. I used mandalas.
    I will try the self portrait. Thank you for your insightful article

  • alec

    February 4th, 2015 at 3:45 AM

    Although I know that this is proven to work for others this to me would so be a chore. I would draw something and have no idea what it was that I was supposed to be seeing. I am the guy who without the aid of the descriptions of the pieces at the art museum, generally has no idea what it is that I am supposed to be seeing. I think that this is wonderful for the people who can really engage and relate to this option but I also think that it is another way to show that there are multiple opportunities for healing and that what works for one may not be the answer for others.

  • MamaB

    February 5th, 2015 at 12:04 PM

    Art is transformative

  • Suri

    February 8th, 2015 at 9:45 AM

    I love the analogy that you draw between art and life- fantastic piece

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