This object is not only an art supply: it opens up a new world of possibilities. It brings peace in times of crisis and makes me go into flow mode whenever I am using.
When my object is closed, it looks just like a plain white boring box. Whenever I open this pocket-size case, there is a feeling of excitement: twelve colors fit in half pans, that can become all sorts of shades and tonalities when mixed with water or each other. My object is a watercolor set by Winsor & Newton, a small light plastic case composed of tones of yellow, red, pink, green, blue, brown, and the color white. Inside the case, there is also a pocket brush, which is small and thin. In addition to that, there is a mixing pallet on the lid, where I can see old dried paint which reminds me of early paintings I have done. The box closes so tightly that I struggle to open it every time, the sound of opening and closing can be quite loud. I like the fact that the case is compact and can be carried around, it makes me think I could bring it outside to lay down on the sun in a park, painting whatever I see. These twelve vibrant colors open up a world of possibilities for me: so many objects, people, abstract figures, nature, between other things, can be painted. All I need is paper, paint, a brush, water to dilute the pigment, and my imagination. As my hand grabs the brush, I get indecisive about what to do. “Less overthinking, more acting,” I say to myself. The result does not matter so much to me, the process is what I value the most. As a beginner, I do not care if my paintings are great quality-wise: I just want to have a good time.
The purchase of this watercolor set happened on the first lockdown after a day spent ‘doomscrolling’, which is a new term used to refer to the habit of checking the news, usually negative ones, obsessively. I thought to myself “enough is enough” and decided to take an attitude to change that behavior. I then decided to start a new hobby: it needed to be easy to learn by myself, low-cost and should be done indoors. Painting seemed to fill all the boxes and it was something I had tried as a kid and enjoyed. I decided to go for watercolor because it seemed to be the easiest painting technique for a beginner and I also had some watercolor papers laying around.
During the first lockdown, I had a really hard time focusing on activities. Reading, watching, listening, all seemed like a struggle to me. When I started to paint with watercolor, my mind went into a flow state. For Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990) this is “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”(p.13) In summary, the flow state is linked to happiness, and attaining this optimal experience when doing things might be the secret to a fulfilling life, according to him. Suddenly, my focus was shifted from doomscrolling to painting and that contributed greatly to my mental health improvement.
At the time, I was neither studying nor working. Therefore, there was plenty of free time on my day-to-day. My painting process had a ritual: I would play music or a podcast, have a coffee or tea mug in front of me and paint whatever I was feeling like on the day. Doing something with my hands was also great to mitigate anxiety and keep me away from screens. The less I spent in front of a screen, the happier I felt. It was also an outlet for my emotions, it allowed me to examine my feelings and express them on paper.
In the second lockdown, I had way less free time as I started studying. Nevertheless, watercolor was present in my life again, as German winter is long, cold, dark, and lonely, with lockdown intensifying all of this. Thus, painting with my watercolor set was useful to ground me and increase my wellbeing.
Art as an Antidote during the Pandemice
Lockdown and quarantining can be a tough experience for a lot of people. Studies have shown that almost everybody will face some sort of negative psychological reaction to it, namely stress, insomnia, anxiety, depression, lows moods, among other symptoms. (Brooks et al 2020) Among the things one can do to alleviate these symptoms and increase well-being is to reduce boredom. One of the ways this can be done is through art: whether you are a consumer, a creator, or both.
The healing properties of art have been discussed for many years by many academics and experts. Art is proved to be a tool that assists people with stress reduction and contributes to their overall wellbeing, no matter if one is creating or consuming art. Additionally, people always had an urge to express their emotions and art is certainly an outlet for that. (Ceaușu, 2018) As a result, art-therapy has become common practice in many institutions. Drawing, for instance, can be used to access patients’ views through their interpretation of figures. As claimed by Ceaușu (2018), “the drawing acts as a vehicle for the intra-psychic content of the individual, reflecting his/her general personality”. Moreover, art can help to diagnose and treat mental illness.
In his article named ‘The importance of art in the time of coronavirus’, Louis Netter explains that “in this time of crisis and isolation, the role of art becomes central to our lives, whether we realize it or not”. When the pandemic first hits us, it was normal to see videos of people playing and singing music on their balconies being shared on social media. The sense of community shared through music gave people support in a time where very little was known about the virus. Art is available to anyone and shows us that we are not alone.
“Throughout time, art has shown that it can change, renew, and revalue the existing order. If art cannot physically eliminate the struggle of our lives, it can give significance and new meaning and a sense of active participation in the life process.” (McNiff, 1981, p. vi)
Furthermore, during the pandemic, when we are restricted to the space of our home most of the time, art represents mobility, a salvation from inertia. It can connect us even when we are far away, as can be seen on the video where people sing from their balconies. Our physical surroundings might stay the same, but we can explore new fictional places through movies, books, and video games. “Art connects us to the foreign, the exotic and the impossible – but in our current context, it also connects us to a world where anything is possible. A world out of our grasp for now.” (Netter 2020) Thus, art represents freedom from the physical barriers established by social distancing.
Documenting crisis through visual art
Throughout history, visual art has been used to portray times of crisis. May (1975) points out that “if you wish to understand the psychological and spiritual temper of any historical period, you can do no better than to look long and searchingly at its art. For in the art the underlying spiritual meaning of the period is expressed directly in symbols.” (p.52) One example that comes to mind is the painting Guernica made by Pablo Picasso in 1937, which is a representation of the Spanish Civil War. Thus, it is undeniable that art provides access to the human experience in a way that books are not able to, through the individual perspective of the artist. We already have a meaningful number of artworks produced to represent the Covid-19 pandemic and one of them is a street art located in Berlin and produced by the artist Eme Freethinker. The street art shows the Lord of the Rings character Gollum holding a toilet paper and saying “my precious”. Over the world, art took over the streets to represent the pandemic, with some of them showing support and spreading messages of resilience.
Biography of the Object
Every object is believed to have a biography, as stated by Hoskins (2006). The biography of an object is its trajectory, the history it counts concerning the one who uses it. Objects possess agency: “they make us feel happy, angry, fearful, or lustful” (Hoskins, p.76), they can impact our world and make changes, but only because we allow them to do so. This will, of course, vary from person to person, the agency of an object is linked to the intentions of the person who makes use of it. Thus, the way I relate to this watercolor set might be completely different from the way other person does. For me, this object is associated with hope, empowerment, and healing. It gave me a sense of purpose; with it, I was able to create tangible visual art when there was an invisible threat surrounding me.
Brooks, S. K., Webster, R. K., Smith, L. E., Woodland, L., Wessely, S., Greenberg, N., & Rubin, G. J. (2020). The psychological impact of quarantine and how to reduce it: rapid review of the evidence. The lancet, 395(10227), 912-920.
Ceaușu, F. (2018). Fine Arts: 6. The Healing Power of Art-Therapy. Review of Artistic Education, 16(1), 203-211.
Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Csikzentmihaly, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience (Vol. 1990). New York: Harper & Row.
Hoskins, J. (2006). Agency, biography. And objects, In Tilley, C. et al. (eds.) Handbook of Material Culture, pp. 74-84. London: Sage Pub. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/288915635_Agency_biography_and_objects
May, R. (1975). The courage to create. W.W. Norton
McNiff, S. (1981). The arts and psychotherapy (1st ed.). Charles C. Thomas Publishing.
Netter, L. (2020)The importance of art in the time of coronavirus https://theconversation.com/the-importance-of-art-in-the-time-of-coronavirus-135225
AFP News Agency (2020) Italians take to singing at windows to beat virus blues; Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8r357UgH7hU
TEDx Talks (2006) Art as Empowerment: The Virtue of Art Therapy. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bPszGBfjuOY