“Oh no, I can’t do mindful sketching. I’m not an artist. I can’t even draw a stick figure.”

That is the number one response I get when people decline my invitation to join our mindful sketching group.

Let me tell you the first rule of mindful sketching…

NO ART SKILLS REQUIRED.

For real.

Take a deep breath.

Literally.

Right now.

Take a slow, deep breath.

Inhale…    exhale…   inhale…  exhale…

How did that feel?

You’ve just completed the first half of mindful sketching.

If you have the physical ability to pick up a drawing utensil in your hand, in your teeth, with your toes…

…and if you can drag that utensil across any surface like paper, a wall, a digital tablet…

…then you can do mindful sketching.

Goals for this Post

In this post I want to introduce you to mindful sketching.

First, I’ll define the terms. What do we mean by “mindful sketching?”

Second, I’ll give a brief overview of four basic types of mindful sketching practices that we do.

Finally, I’ll give a short intro to my own philosophy of art as spiritual practice that undergirds all of this.

A Prologue…Meet Our Club

I am an artist and a seminary professor. I teach spiritual formation at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN. My scholarly interests lie in the intersection of art and theology and spirituality.

We started a mindful sketching club at Luther. I love it.

Our club gathers once a week  for a half hour to practice mindful sketching together. Some people gather in person, others join via Zoom. The flexibility of the hybrid space is nice since most of our students are distance learners. This space is open to everyone.

Defining Terms

Mindful

OK, let’s start with definitions for all of us word nerds.

Mindful sketching begins with

mindful.

Perhaps you’ve heard of mindfulness practices.

To practice mindfulness is to simply take a moment to slow down, take deep breaths, and become more fully aware of the present moment.

Mindfulness is an expansive and inclusive term that is open to any human. One does not need to believe in the spiritual realm or the divine in order to practice mindfulness.

Western scientific medical research has demonstrated that mindfulness practices are good for you. They increase healthy brain function, decrease toxins, and just make you feel more at peace and physically ready to handle the stresses of life.

I like the word mindfulness for its inclusive aspects. There are synonyms for mindfulness, however, that may be more familiar to those of us who do have a sense of the spiritual and/or the presence of the divine.

Contemplation.

Meditation.

For me, mindful sketching is a deeply spiritual practice.

Sketching

Now, let’s look at sketching.

I said earlier that if you have the physical ability to pick up a writing utensil and make a mark on a surface, then you can sketch.

I think of Joni Eareckson Tada who was paralyzed from the neck down when she was twelve. She learned to draw and paint by holding a brush between her teeth. I’ve seen other people who have no hands that can draw with their toes.

Sketching is simply mark-making.

Mindful sketching is the physical act of connecting breath with body.

Some people find it difficult to practice basic mindfulness, because they struggle to sit still and do nothing but breathe. The physical connection between our breath and the bodily movement of making marks on a surface helps ground us and focus much of the nervous energy that races around our brains.

Simply put,

mindful sketching is making marks that help us to slow down and breathe deeply.

Four Types of Mindful Sketching

Now let’s move on to describe four basic types of mindful sketching.

I like to think of these practices as spanning across a wide spectrum of styles and mindsets.

Free-Form Breath Lines

On one side of the spectrum is abstraction.

Abstract sketching doesn’t care about “drawing something” in the sense that we’re trying to make our marks resemble anything that we see with our eyes. We simply care about making marks that connect with the feelings of our mind, spirit, and body.

I call this practice Free-Form Breath Lines.

You simply move your pen across the paper in a way that matches your breathing and your present experience. There is a great app that guides you through many variations of this approach. It’s call Lines of Zen.

There are no art skills required to do this. Simply breathe and make your marks. It is incredibly soothing. Give it a try.

Plen-Air Sketching

Now, let’s swing all the way to the other side of the spectrum to the kind of mark making that is representational. This is where the artist makes marks that attempt to represent what the artist is looking at in three dimensional space.

To be honest, this does take art training. This is the type of drawing that activates anxiety in people’s imagination and intimidates them.

Hear this.

You do not have to do this form of sketching to be a mindful sketcher.

However, I am an artist. I am trained in art and have made a living as an illustrator.

When I do this type of mindful sketching and take the time to become present with a subject in three-dimensional space it is a deeply spiritual practice. It connects me to that moment in a way that passive sitting cannot do for me.

So, for those who love to draw like this, come on in, the water is fine.

Mindful sketching is also for trained artists.

Zentangles

There are two other methods that are really popular with our mindful sketching group that each fall a little closer to the middle of this continuum.

On the abstract side there is a practice called Zentangles. You can learn about them here.

I love making Zentangles. They are abstract doodles, so you don’t have to be able to “draw” in a representational way to create them, but they are more intentional and directed than pure free-form breath lines.

One way to begin a Zentangle is by drawing some type of outer shape that becomes the container for the doodle. Next, you create a series of overlapping ribbons that form a web of empty spaces. Each empty space becomes a little frame in which you can make whatever marks and patterns you like.

They are super fun.

Response-Reflective Doodles

Finally, there is a fourth style that falls a little more on the representational side, but still doesn’t require classical drawing skills. This practice begins by experiencing something and then responding to it with doodles.

In our club at Luther we usually read a passage of scripture to begin our practice. One person reads the text slowly and we all sit quietly with the text for a moment.

The facilitator starts a timer and everyone is free to practice whatever method of sketching they want. Those who practice the response-reflective doodle method will begin to draw symbols that respond to or reflect what they heard in the text. These symbols could be words, shapes, stick-figure scenes, colors, etc.

There are no rules for this method.

One could argue that all of the methods are technically response-reflective doodles.

That is true.

I identify response-reflective as its own category because I have noticed that it is really popular with our group, and it doesn’t fit nicely into the other three categories.

This method gives people a lot of freedom, because everyone knows that it doesn’t matter how the doodle looks at the end. Stick people and child-like doodles are absolutely welcomed and beautiful.

These doodles aren’t purely abstract, and they are not trying to be realistic. They are simply a symbolic response to the stimulus.

The stimulus doesn’t have to be scripture, by the way. Some people don’t have a scripture that is important to them. That’s OK. The stimulus can be any artifact: a photo, a poem, a song.

Simply present the artifact to the group.

Let everyone sit silently with it for a moment.

Then begin sketching.

That’s it.

That is how we practice mindful sketching in our group at Luther.

Why I Make Art: A Personal Philosophy

Since you are still with me, I’d like to take you to one more place. I’d like to share with you my personal philosophy for why I make art.

I wrote these three lines a long time ago and it is still true for me today.

Drawing is seeing.

Seeing is understanding.

Understanding is the beginning of wisdom.

Allow me to unpack that a bit.

Learning to See

One of the things I love so much about representational art is that it forces me to slow down. If I want to draw something that is right in front of me, I have to focus.

The light pattern of colors, shapes, and values comes into my eyes, it passes through my brain, then travels down my arm, through my pencil and onto the paper.

It is like an energy circuit that makes me feel connected and grounded in that moment and in that place.

I love looking through my old sketch books. Each drawing takes me back to that moment when I made the drawing. I experience that time and space with my whole body. I can feel the air. I can hear the sounds. I can sense my emotions.

Drawing like this requires more than looking. It requires seeing. To draw something with the goal of representing it well requires really seeing it in all its detail.

There is a part of the human brain that wants to simply summarize things into predefined categories so that we can move on to the next thing.

Oh, that’s a flower. Draw a symbol. Next.

That’s a tree. Draw a symbol. Next.

That’s an eye. Next.

This is an important function of the brain because we wouldn’t get anything done if we had to analyze every piece of data we encountered in every moment.

The downside of this efficiency mode in our brain is that we can easily dismiss and ignore things. This is one of the sources of racism and the mistreatment of others who are different than us. We see something that doesn’t fit in a category in our brain, so our brain either ignores it or puts it in an “unknown” category that often activates the natural “fight, flight, or freeze” response to danger.

When we move through life with this as the only mode of our brain function we can hurt a lot of things and people. At the very minimum, if we only function in the efficiency mode, we simply miss out on so many good things.

It takes time and discipline to shut off the efficiency mode in our brain.

For me, drawing helps me to see.

It helps me to really see.

Understanding

When I see something intentionally and notice all its intricate details, then I can begin to understand that thing.

I am usually surprised by what I see when I pay close attention.

When I take the time to try to understand something, I see how important that thing is.

Everything is connected.

Everything matters.

From the smallest pebble, to the most majestic landscape, it all matters.

Everything is worthy of an artist taking the time to notice it,  and to record it on a piece of paper, or a canvas, or a photograph.

Wisdom

This level of seeing and understanding is what I think,

What I hope,

What I pray,

Will lead me to a life that is led by wisdom.

The Psalmist tells us that Wisdom, Sophia, stood with God in the creation of all things. Wisdom is the ground of our being. Wisdom holds all things together.

Drawing is seeing.

Seeing is understanding.

Understanding is the beginning of wisdom.

 

That is why I draw.

 

That is my underlying purpose for mindful sketching.

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