Wednesday, 12 August 2020

Painting, Photography and Positive Mental Health

By Peter McDonnell

As on most weekends, today I was out and about visiting nearby open gardens run by The National Garden Scheme. My mum and I park the car after the usual drive through villages of thatched cottages, village halls, churches and well-kept lawns. During lockdown the large properties that host the gardens are not busy and we are often treated to a personal tour by the owners. You can see how happy they are sharing stories old and new about how their gardens came to be. You can pick out the differences of the owners’ individual spots of fondness, occasionally accompanied by a comment of slight aversion to their spouse’s decision to place some quirky item amongst the otherwise perfect design!

We walk around for about an hour, my mum teaching me the names and attributes of flowers. This is where I get my photography done. Most of the roses are past their best now that it is August, but I’ve taken many photographs of my favourite flower over the last two months.

I think they look especially good climbing up or falling over the top of a stone wall, so much so that I did an oil painting of a photo I took of roses on the wall of a thatched cottage that we saw on one of our recent summer afternoons out.

Rosy Cottage on Abbey Road

Painting and photography has made a real difference to my mental health

I started painting in March, inspired by the coronavirus lockdown. I bought some acrylic paints when I was eighteen in 2000, and they sat in the loft unused for twenty years. Occasionally I’d think about them but it always seemed like a chore to fetch them down and use them.

Recently, though, I watched a few TV programmes about how to paint, including ‘The Joy of Painting’ by the wonderful Bob Ross, the American guy with the afro hairstyle who in the 80’s presented clips painting quick but skilled scenes where he talked us through how it was done.

Inspired, I got the paints out and set myself up in my garden. By the end of the day I had completed something that wasn’t half bad! Of course, it wasn’t skilled but it was imaginative and colourful. I remember thinking about David Hockney and how his works are rarely based on accuracy and he gets on okay… he sells his paintings for millions, £94 million is his record.

Not having the burden of accuracy increased the enjoyment I felt. I remembered a few of Bob Ross’ tips (paint the background first, distant objects need less detail etc.) and away I went. A few days later I bought some canvasses, oil paints etc., and started my second painting. For that one I had a few really interesting ideas about provoking some thought, and the big tree that was the centre of focus looked fantastic. After a couple of days I couldn’t have been happier with the result. Then on to the next one … I have now painted about twenty canvasses. I can’t stop! My boss at one of my part-time jobs liked my online gallery and asked me to paint a series of murals in his large shop. I’m halfway through and it’s a pleasure.

If you are wondering about the connection with mental health, I’m so happy while I’m painting my murals. Mixing up the colours, being adventurous and bold and feeling it actually work into something alluring is a feeling that stays with me for the rest of the day. I step back and feel a sense of achievement. People come and go in the shop and often ask about it. They compliment me too if I’m lucky. I feel a little boost every time someone says they are impressed. When I go to my evening part-time job, colleagues ask how I am and I always say ‘I’m fantastic’ because I am, because I’ve been painting. Some people have spoken about being a little slowed down in activity during the pandemic, but I’ve surprised myself. I’ve never been so productive.

My favourite artists and inspirations are Van Gogh, Monet, Manet and Hockney. I knew who these artists were before lockdown but that was all. Since getting into painting I’ve also started looking at art. I’ve ‘caught the bug’ and I found a wonderful app, the Google Arts and Culture app, which has told me all about these guys. This new passion will be by my side until I’m old. I know much of their work intimately now. A real joy.

Mental Health

I was diagnosed with ‘cannabis-induced psychosis with delusions of a grandiose nature’ and serious anxiety in 2002 and 2005. It has mostly fallen away now. I consider myself ninety percent recovered due to good luck, support and hard work. I have had a long, serious and interesting journey. I am still on anti-psychotic and anti-anxiety medication. The antipsychotic worked wonders for me. I think of it with actual fondness. But it dulls the brain slightly, for some more than others, as do many medications. It slows me down in my cognitive abilities etc, and I feel the difference most profoundly in my memory. Before medication it worked smoothly and quite effortlessly, but these days if I don’t write things down or use mnemonic tips, information and everything else is subject to something of a disappearing act.

Since I started painting though, the creative side of my brain has returned in an enjoyable and controlled way. It’s also affected my memory in a very positive way. A few days after my new hobby began I found that I was remembering things – the best-before dates on refrigerated items coolly awaiting dinnertime consumption, numbers on paperwork at work, my mum’s varying weekly schedule. I must say it’s a welcome change after so many years of being on the forgetful side. It’s connected to the painting and the creativity in the same way that it’s easier to remember a colourful scene than a black and white one. So as well as all the joy of painting it’s improving my memory and cognitive skills too in a real way.

So having that working away, it helps me to build on it, which is where the photography comes in amongst other things. When I’m taking pics of flowers and nature and sharing them, it’s another piece of my mind that is awakened and happy indulging in a hobby. During my recovery my supportive team encouraged distraction techniques, activities that got me out and about, and spending time on an activity that I could enjoy.

One thing I have found for myself is that maintaining good mental health requires small but consistent efforts and doing things every day to keep me happy. This is part of why painting and photography have been so helpful. It seems like a cliché sometimes that art is good for mental health but knowing how it has helped me I’d really recommend it. I hope the positivity continues!

Thanks for reading. I have more to see on my mental health blog petesmentalhealth.com including my online art gallery and posts about how my medication turned my life around, a post about visiting Monet’s garden in France last year, and more about art and mental health.

About the Author

Pete is thirty-eight and lives in Hampshire, England. He is very open about mental health and discussing his journey. He has lived through serious psychosis, suicide attempts, hospitalisations, and panic attacks, then had a slow but steady recovery helped by writing and blogging, and more recently art and photography. He is now enjoying life and working on his memoirs. He is always keen for new visitors to his mental health website and blog petesmentalhealth.com.

 

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