Painting from within

For over 20 years, Su Riddell has been painting in silence with friends and strangers.

For over 20 years, Su Riddell has been painting in silence with friends and strangers.

For over 20 years, Su Riddell has been painting in silence with friends and strangers.

‘Something sort of settles in me as I paint in silence not knowing where the paint is leading me,’ said one person who took part in a Painting from Within session. ‘For me it seems to be about finding my balance.’

Painting from Within is a relaxed time of creating in silence, using acrylic paints, regardless of experience or skill. Swedish artist Gerd Ekdahl developed this way of painting as a therapeutic tool, and I was introduced to it by her sister, Elisabeth Peters, who used to live near me in Oxford.

A small group of us started meeting regularly for relaxation and to reflect on our lives in a different way. The emphasis is on responding to colour and brush in an hour of quiet, connecting to what is within us and producing our own expression in paint and shape. Some undoing of school art class
learning may need to take place.

We try to set aside expectation and judgement and to keep noticing what is going on within us and what is emerging on the paper before our eyes. This helps us to see beneath the immediate concerns running in our heads and to connect with how we really are.Observing what we are doing is a mindful process, which slows us down and gives other parts of the brain a chance to make some input.

We take a moment of quiet together for a few minutes before we start. Sometimes we have a theme, otherwise we look within ourselves for our own starting point. The aim is to put our brains and thinking away for a while, using our other senses as we set up, choose colours, brushes and paper, and start to paint, still in silence. After an hour we boil the kettle and make a hot drink, put our paintings up on the mantelpiece and settle down to look at them.

For me, this hour is a reflective space where I connect with my feelings and reflect on what they are telling me. I’m no artist, but I enjoy playing with the paint, with no pressure to produce a finished product. Sometimes I like what I’ve done, sometimes I don’t like it so much. But I prop each one up on the mantelpiece anyway, as they all have something to tell me.

As I paint, I ponder. At our most recent session, I started with an awareness of my sadness that the oceans are being affected by climate change. As I painted imaginary seaweed, I pondered on what I can do about it, and what sources of hope exist. The process was enjoyable and gave me space to find fresh inspiration on an issue that is on my mind.

When we look at each other’s paintings, care is needed, so we don’t hurt each other’s feelings. The trick, rather surprisingly, is to only say what we see. For instance, if someone says they see a fish in my painting of seaweed, that image belongs to them. It might help and amuse me to find that I produced a fish shape when I wasn’t intending to, but I can take it or leave it. If on the other hand someone was to tell me that they found my seaweed sinister, it would upset my new feeling of optimism.

We find it’s important to avoid our own interpretations, and instead to truly see through the eyes of the other. Getting together to express how the session has gone and describe what unfolded enables us to expand our reflective process and confirm our discoveries.

I have run sessions at conferences and gatherings in Britain and overseas, and in my own home. Both painters and those who believe ‘I can’t paint’ tell me that the experience helps them to relax and connect with their feelings. ‘At the beginning I was a little bit resistant to come, because I had never painted before,’ said one. ‘After each session my spirit feels calm and quiet and I really enjoy it.’

‘This is a chance to express myself through paint without needing to worry about what the final picture will look like,’ said another. ‘There is no pressure to produce something “pretty” or “good” but simply to let go and be free, letting the painting become whatever it wants.’

Our latest session took place on the UN International Day of Peace in September, when we joined up with Creators of Peace, IofC’s women’s empowerment programme. The Day’s focus this year was the climate emergency, which in the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres ‘threatens our security, our livelihoods and our lives’. We took this as our starting point. The photo above shows what emerged from a group aged from 13 to 88!

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