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  • Rachel Ireland

Mindful Art Activities Using Watercolour

What is Mindful Art?

I’ll start by talking about what I mean by ‘Mindful Art’.

You know that feeling when you just get lost in something? For a blissful few minutes you’re just there, and nothing else matters?

At its core, Mindful Art is about being present. It’s about focusing fully on the activity you’re doing. It’s being with your creativity, rather than trying to control it.

As such, you could say it’s a creative version of meditation. It’s somewhere you can escape to; somewhere safe to rest; somewhere your thoughts aren’t all consuming.

What I love about Mindful Art is that there are no expectations at all of the end product. This is not about creating a work of art; it’s purely about getting absorbed in the creative process.

Art Therapy vs Therapeutic Art vs Mindful Art

Before I go on, I will also attempt to define the often-blurred lines between Art Therapy, Therapeutic Art and Mindful Art, to be clear what these activities are and what they’re not.

“Art therapy is a form of psychotherapy that uses art media as its primary mode of expression and communication. Within this context, art is not used as diagnostic tool but as a medium to address emotional issues which may be confusing and distressing.”

- The British Association of Art Therapists -

Therefore, Art Therapy is delivered by qualified art therapists, and is often sought out as treatment for trauma and mental health issues.

Therapeutic Art tends to be a little more mainstream, in that there are a number of non-accredited Therapeutic Art courses that you can take, either to develop your own practice, or deliver activities to others. Learning how art and the creative process can, in itself, be therapeutic and cathartic, is helpful in understanding the relationship between art and our emotions.

Whilst there isn’t an agreed definition of Therapeutic Art, I understand it to refer to learning and testing the art activities that can be used by individuals and groups, that is not based in the process of therapy, and can be used for much broader and general wellbeing outcomes than therapist-led practices.

I have used the term ‘Therapeutic Art’ in my workshops and courses up until recently, but something didn’t feel right about it. Perhaps it’s simply the word ‘therapeutic’ that has such strong associations with therapy, counselling and psychology. It could, even subconsciously, make us question, “What’s wrong with me?”. Whatever it is, it still feels a little clinical.

The activities that I have found to work time after time, on myself and my workshop participants, are the ones that are rooted in mindfulness. Simple mandala colouring, writing down our worries and negative thoughts then painting over them with a sunrise, mixed media art journaling – they all have something in common – they require us to be in the moment.

So, in conclusion, we can think of Mindful Art as being present whilst we create, and focusing entirely on the process and the act of creating rather than the end product.

I feel much more comfortable with the term, Mindful Art, because it asks nothing of us. It’s impossible to get it wrong. We can let go of our perfectionism and be free to create, because it is the process that we are seeking, not the result.

Mindful Art for Self-Care

My initial experiment with using Mindful Art for Self-Care began during a time I was undergoing some pretty intense counselling.

As we were talking about how effective creativity could be during a difficult time of change, the conversation went something like this:

“Could you write a song about how you feel?”

“Yes, I’ve already done that.”

“How about journaling?”

“Yes, journaling is working but I’ve been doing it a while now.”

“Is there something you haven’t tried before, but have always wanted to?”

“I’d love to do watercolour painting.”

“What is stopping you?”

“I can’t paint, so I worry I would try to do it properly and end up taking it too seriously”

So, the challenge was

  1. finding a new creative activity I didn’t already do

  2. finding an activity I wouldn’t try to get good at!

My mum bought me a set of watercolour paints and brushes that Christmas, and I began what has become my go-to activity for stress relief and anxiety. It’s a place I go to find peace, to escape my thoughts. It’s the new medicine I didn’t even know I was looking for.

As a musician, I am always so aware of the rules around creating music, that I have my own step-by-step process I have to follow, knowing that the song will always turn out well. As a writer, I have become disciplined with my routine, ruled by word counts and the spell checker.

I am not an artist. I have no expectations and I don’t know the rules, so I can (quite literally) colour outside the lines and not feel guilty about it – and I can’t begin to tell you how liberating that is.

You could argue that the fact I now include watercolour activities in my business is proof that I really can’t do anything and not take it too seriously, but…it’s also true that when you find something that works so well for you, you can’t help but want to share it with other people.

Therapeutic watercolour

There’s something unique about watercolour. It’s gentle and calming. If you absorb yourself in the activity, and open up your senses, you’ll find it has this therapeutic quality of its own.

The swish of the brush in the water, the tap on the glass jar, the stroke across the paper. There are even some YouTube channels that focus on the sensory experience of watercolour, and its effect on our wellbeing.

This one on Coco Bee Art is one I like

ASMR (Autonomous sensory meridian response): a pleasant tingling sensation that originates on the back of the scalp and often spreads to the neck and upper spine, that occurs in some people in response to a stimulus (such as a particular kind of sound or movement), and that tends to have a calming effect.


That aside, these are the reasons we may seek out and benefit from the therapeutic effects of watercolour:

1. The colours

  • I wrote previously about the associations we make between colours and our feelings. If you’ve tried using the mandala mood tracker or something similar, it’s likely you’ll already have your own colour key to refer to.

  • With watercolour, we can either do the same – pick colours that mean something to us, and represent how we are feeling, or where we are in our lives at the time, or – we can simply choose colours in the moment that we are drawn to. Whichever method you use, you are following your instincts, and even in a beginners set of watercolour paints, it’s likely you’ll have 20 – 30 colours to choose from, so your finished product (that we are not focusing on!) will, in some way, end up representing your current state of mind.

2. The focus

  • Whilst you don’t need a lot of expensive equipment to get started with watercolour painting, you do, inevitably, need a few things: paints, brushes, paper, water – and unlike many other forms of creativity, such as journaling or colouring, it does require a little setting up time. You cover up the table you’ll be using, get your supplies out, fill a jam jar with water…in other words, it feels like you’re about to undertake something, rather than merely trying to pass the time.

  • The colours and the process, plus the fact that we have decided to sit down and use watercolour as a therapeutic activity means that we have already committed to the task. Once you’ve set up your workspace, prepared your materials and put brush to paper, everything else suddenly seems much less important. The phone rings, an email pings, someone wants your attention – ignore it, and focus on what you are creating.

These are the basic art supplies I use and recommend:

3. The movement

  • Although we are using watercolour in this instance as a mindfulness activity, and it has some of the same benefits of meditation, it is very different from meditation in a really obvious way – movement.

Sometimes we need stillness, and sometimes we need movement. Painting can give us both.
  • The movement of the brush across the paper is, in itself, deeply relaxing, then we might pause and reflect on our work so far, taking in what it means, before moving to paint the next element.

4. The unknown

  • Because this activity is about the process rather than the result, watercolour is the perfect medium. Yes, it’s soft and gentle, but it’s also very hard to control! Of course we can learn the tips and techniques of watercolour, but it will still act in unexpected ways.

  • Whether it’s mixing two colours together, the amount of water you add, the paper you use – you never really know what’s going to happen. Add to that some of the abstract watercolour activities, where you tilt the paper and let the paint run where it likes, and you always end up with something unexpected.

  • Therefore, its very basic elements make Therapeutic watercolour an exercise in letting go of control.

Mindfulness watercolour activities

There are a number of mindfulness watercolour activities I would recommend. The majority of them focus on creating shapes rather than trying to paint anything to look realistic.

If you want to start off with a really easy activity, just to get used to how the paints respond, to test how much water to add, to see how thick the brushes are, then start with some very simple brushstrokes; just lines, using different brushes and different colours. In fact, if that’s all you did, that would still be a Mindful Art activity in itself.

Here are two of my favourite Mindful Art Activities Using Watercolour, each of which will also link to a video of me doing the activity as a demonstration.

Watercolour Circles

I first saw this activity done on the Coco Bee Art channel I mentioned above. I have adapted it slightly to my own (lack of) experience, and so that I end up with the definition in the circles at the end that I prefer to have, but again, there is no right or wrong way to do this, and I am not claiming to be an expert. This is simply how I do the exercise.

This exercise uses two colours.

  1. Set up your workspace by covering your table, laying out your paints, brushes, paper (taped to a board – optional), jar of water and some kitchen towel.

  2. Create a quiet space and take some deep breaths to prepare for your mindfulness activity.

  3. Choose two colours that you are drawn to – see my writing on colour association if you need any help with this – but trust your instincts, and choose two, ideally contrasting colours, for your piece.

  4. Mix the first colour with water in a mixing tray or palette (you’ll probably have this within the lid of your paint set). Mix enough to last for the full piece.

  5. Mix the first colour again, but this time dilute it with more water so that it’s very faint.

  6. Using a separate brush, repeat steps 3 and 4 for the second colour.

  7. Take your brush, dip it in the more concentrated mix of the first colour, dab the brush on the kitchen towel, then paint your first circle.

  8. Paint a couple more with the concentrated mix, then swap to the second colour (remembering to change brushes too).

  9. Now add some circles using the diluted mix of the first colour, followed by the second.

  10. Take a minute to reflect on your piece, and ask what more it needs – add more circles in whichever colour combination feels right to you. Overlap them if you wish, or keep them separate if you prefer how it looks.

  11. Keep going for as long as that feels right. Stop when that feels right.

  12. Once the paint has dried, you can meditate on it, or simply hold the painting in your hands and reflect on what the colours mean to you, what state of mind you were in when you created it, what the painting is telling you, and what you might want to do next.

Watercolour Leaves

I love watching Shayda Campbell’s tutorial videos, and this one where she teaches painting leaves is one of my favourites, so I’m not even going to attempt to do the same.

Instead, I have created an activity that I have found to be extremely effective for stress and overwhelm – and on that note, using art for overwhelm has a way of grounding you, helping you to feel centred and calm, and of getting things back into perspective.

Therefore, the reason I have created such a simple version of painting watercolour leaves is that I don’t want it to take too much headspace and concentration; I want the exercise to be a calm and healthy form of escape from the everyday.

This exercise uses three colours.

  1. Set up your workspace by covering your table, laying out your paints, brushes, paper (taped to a board – optional), jar of water and some kitchen towel.

  2. Create a quiet space and take some deep breaths to prepare for your mindfulness activity.

  3. Mix your choice of brown with water in a mixing tray or palette – this is for the branches.

  4. Choose two colours for the leaves – for example green and orange, red and orange, and mix each of them separately, initially quite diluted with water.

  5. Take your brush, dip it in the brown then dab on the kitchen towel. Now paint long, thin branches anywhere you like on the paper. Do as many or as few as you like.

  6. Now take the first colour you have chosen for the leaves. Use a round tip brush and experiment with creating a leaf shape attached to one of the branches.

  7. Keep going with different sizes of leaves, testing how you can use the brush to make a shape you like.

  8. Swap to the second colour you have chosen for the leaves and do the same.

  9. Add more branches as you need to.

  10. Once the initial layer has dried, you can then use a concentrated mix of the same colours to add some detail or texture to the leaves, such as the veins or a shadow (completely optional)

  11. Keep going for as long as that feels right. Stop when that feels right.

  12. This is a piece you might want to put somewhere you’ll see often – such as on your desk or on the fridge – the changing colours of the leaves can serve as a reminder to let things change and let things go.

You can find more details about workshops, courses & mentoring here on the website.

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