Urban Sketching, Mental Health & Mindfulness
In a world where norms are everchanging, where we are overloaded with pressure seemingly applied from every direction (including our own minds) and where technology shapes and reshapes our experience constantly, we are increasingly more aware of the prevalence of mental health issues across all sectors of society and across the globe.
There are as many treatments to mental health issues as there are issues themselves. In an attempt to move away from medicating ALL conditions a number of techniques have been developed over the years. One such technique is mindfulness. With its roots in zen Buddhism, mindfulness has been proven to have a beneficial effect on mental health by practitioners.
There are many ways to practice mindfulness, such as meditation or yoga. Drawing and creating art can also be utilised as a way to practice mindfulness. I believe urban sketching takes this practice to the next level, encompassing many facets of mindfulness, leading to improved mental health (amongst many other benefits).
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness has very much been in vogue for the last few years, with a huge rise in content dedicated to the matter, including apps (“Calm” springs to mind) and even technology to help you measure the quality of your meditation! This always makes me chuckle – it just seems ironic.
There is a multitude of definitions of mindfulness but I think the essence is: be present.
That’s the extremely distilled, most simple explanation I can give and the one I like the best.
Here’s a fun short little cartoon taking that definition of mindfulness a tiny step further:
I can tell that when I’m out urban sketching, I am developing a state of mindfulness because of the following:
- I lose track of time
- I feel like I am in a state of flow (another way of saying “in the zone”)
- I am not reflecting on the past or obsessing about the future (another way of saying “being present)
Why Practice Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a practice that anyone can apply within their lives. It’s a technique that’s widely acknowledged as powerful and beneficial for improving general mental health and wellbeing.
I am certainly not saying mindfulness is a catch-all solution for all mental health problems. I’m also not recommending mindfulness to only those who suffer from mental health issues, we can all practice mindfulness.
The video below is an incredibly beautiful 3-minute animation illustrating mindfulness and particularly the importance of acceptance:
Practising mindfulness has been shown to:
- reduce stress levels by helping to regulate emotions
- improve the ability to deal with illness
- facilitate recovery from illness or trauma
- decrease depressive symptoms as well as increase self-compassion
- improve general overall health [source]
Drawing is one of a few exercises that Mind (mental health charity in the UK) recommends in order to practice mindfulness.
I think it’s important to be aware of the positive mental health benefits that a regular creative habit can bring, this is true of urban sketching specifically. Urban sketching and mindfulness go hand in hand.
Urban sketching can:
- enhance your mood
- improve your awareness and observation skills
- help to build a better attention span
- help develop gratitude
- build a regular or daily art habit
The points above can also be developed through the practice of mindfulness techniques. Put a sketching and mindfulness practice together and you can supersize these beneficial effects.
Urban sketching takes the activity of drawing mindfully one step further. There’s the added element of being on location, observing the world in front of you and paying such close attention because you want to capture the essence of your experience on paper. This process marries with the fundamental elements of practising mindfulness. Rather than sitting at home drawing from photos (which is a passive exercise), sitting in the scene you are drawing and experiencing it with all five of your senses allows the concept of “being present” to come to life.
Ian Fennelly (one of my favourite urban sketchers) is an ambassador of the strong link between mental health and creativity, specifically urban sketching.
In the video below, Brenda Murray (of Studio 56) interviews Ian about this very subject. Ian relays some of his favourite stories of his experience sketching out on location (including an angry 95-year-old Portuguese lady and avoiding a dog peeing on his sketch) as well as explains the mental health benefits of urban sketching.
Practicing Urban Sketching and Mindfulness Together
To be honest? You’re probably already doing it! That’s the joy of urban sketching, it transports you into a mindful space automatically.
Being very aware of your surroundings, the sights, sounds, smells and tastes (maybe you have a nice flask of coffee with you to sketch) as well as touch – the fresh breeze, the sun on your back, maybe the crispy snow underfoot (keep wrapped up)! You’re drawing your experience of being there in that place, in that time. You’re more intimately connected with your subject.
Here’s a breakdown of how you can be more intentional about practising urban sketching and mindfulness together:
- Find a seat (with a view of course)
- Set some time – how long do you have? If you lose track of time easily when you sketch (like I do), set an alarm on your phone for when you need to start packing up and heading off to wherever it is that you need to be.
- Make sure you can sit comfortably for your allotted time. Are you out of the sun? Are you warm enough? Can you balance your sketchbook ok? Can you access your materials? If you think people may bother you, you could use some headphones, there doesn’t need to be anything playing through them. I would recommend trying no to do this though, just so you have full access to your environment with all five of your senses.
[Side note: I have a whole post on how to overcome the fear of sketching in public if that’s something that you are nervous about and want to build your confidence in.]
- Relax, breathe deeply and take in your surroundings. Appreciate where you are. Spend time just observing what’s in front of you before putting pencil to paper. The first thing that grabs your eye may not actually be the thing you want to spend time sketching.
- Embrace the feeling that there is nowhere else you would rather be and nothing else you would rather be doing.
“It’s not just the art, it’s living the experience, being outside, embracing the whole kind of atmosphere that surrounds [urban sketching]”.Ian Fennelly
A non-profit organisation with a magazine, conferences and of course website all about Mindfulness. They have some excellent tips on getting started with mindfulness.
And an interesting article about how to apply mindfulness to the creative process.
A blog by Alfred James who has authored a book of the same name. I like it because its clean, simple, straight to the point information. Alfred has 6 mindfulness exercises you can try straight away.
Melli O’Brien is an Australian mindfulness practitioner and teacher offering retreats and workshops. She has a great video explaining mindfulness below
There are a few book recommendations I can give. These are books I have read and enjoyed personally and that you may also enjoy too. Not all of them necessarily focus on both sketching and mindfulness at the same time, usually one or the other but there are a few which do deal with both topics.
The Power of Now – Eckhart Tolle
This was the first book I read that really drove home the concept of being present and living in the moment, rather than living in the past or the future.
Here’s an 8-minute video of Eckhart himself explaining what meditation is all about, an interesting watch
The Artists Way – Julia Cameron
I kept hearing about this book in various disparate places (Steven Pressfield’s book, Robin Sharma’s podcast and others) so I eventually took it as a sign from the universe that I was meant to read it. The book is structured as a 12-week course that aims to take you step-by-step to overcome artistic blocks and build up self-confidence and productivity. I, er, have not made it through yet, but what I have read is great and this book is very highly regarded (it’s been around for over 25 years)!
The Creative License: Giving Yourself The Permission To Be The Artist You Truly Are – Danny Gregory
I think Danny Gregory is responsible for helping many people jumpstart a regular creative practice by encouraging daily drawing of everyday life. He is an inspiring guy, I’m a fan of many of his books and his illustration style. He is also the co-founder of Sketchbook Skool.
One of the best known and highly regarded apps for meditation and sleep. There is a free version as well as a monthly paid subscription. There are stories to help you sleep, some of which are read by well-known celebrities, breathing programmes, masterclasses, guided meditations and relaxing music. Check out the free version of the app to see if its something that helps you.
An app that teaches you how to meditate. They have courses or single meditations to choose from. Again there is a small amount of content for free, and a paid membership to access everything. They claim using the app reduces stress within in 10 days and increase happiness by 16%, using the app for 4 weeks increases focus by 14%.
Mental Health Support
If you are or a loved one is suffering from mental health issues then finding the right support is important. There are so many organisations and charities that provide mental health support, helplines and resources. Here are a few of the most well known in the UK and US:
National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI)