Painting for the Second Half of Life

A picture of yourself as a living piece of artwork, as a path to self-knowledge and transformation.

In 2016 and 2017 I ran a series of consecutive weekend workshops exploring biography using therapeutic painting with a medical basis. These workshops were specifically aimed at people in the second half of life i.e. over 45 years of age. I didn’t want to say they were for the elderly, the aged, seniors or pensioners. I wanted to avoid categorising people with these terms as they all have somewhat condescending connotations.

Modern society doesn’t recognise that people are still growing and changing even into their nineties, still striving towards realising their potential and becoming more fully human. No matter how many years you have behind you, there are always parts of you that have not yet been explored, recognised and fulfilled. These workshops allowed people in the second half of life to do this, to explore their artistic, expressive self in a creative environment.

Over 9 months, more than 30 people attended; a core group came to almost every workshop. Some were as young as 40; the eldest was 85, but most were in their 60s and 70s. There is a willingness both to try something new and yet not be too self-judgemental in the trying when you get older, so everyone brought their most curious and adventurous selves to the classes  – and the results were stunning! Vivid, flowing and expressive. Afterwards, they felt nourished by their work and there was an almost spiritual ambience in the room as they worked.

But what they were really experiencing is how working together creatively in one space builds a substance, a creative substance that everyone in the space can draw upon. I first had this experience when I joined the Art Section artists at the Goetheanum in 1997 to research the 12 evolutionary epochs for the ceiling of the Great Hall. But it was only when I went back to Australia to work alone again in my room, that I realised the nature of this experience.

People think creativity is about self-expression or innovation. What we don’t realise is that it is a force for nourishment that is shared amongst our fellow human beings. It’s not just for ourselves, for for humanity. We take so much, but give little back, putting our own needs first without much thought of how something like creativity could be shared.

People in the 2nd half of life, especially beyond 60, often have this sense quite strongly, if unconsciously, if not burdened down with the physical side of ageing. But they need the soul substance to support them, so working in community, in groups, is far more fruitful than working alone.

We worked on a range of themes, and I painted alongside with them. The themes included:

  • The four elements
  • The fourfold plant
  • Sunlit tree by a waterfall
  • Day and Night

We worked with colour harmonies, growing nature forces, light and darkness and finished with some dynamic drawing exercises using coloured pencils and charcoal. All these exercises come from the foundational repertoire of the art therapist who has trained in one of the Anthroposophical art trainings.

Afterwards, I sent everyone their own copy of the workshop guide to therapeutic painting, with the purpose and structure of the exercises and their therapeutic indications, so that (hopefully) they could continue to practice at home. Here are some excerpts from the guide:

“We need inner movement for a healthy soul/spiritual life. Working with a transformative cycle, a series where change is brought about within a painting, or over two or three paintings that are worked on in succession, is essential for this inner pliability, for “breathing” to take place.”

“As we get older, (and older starts even as young as 35), when we have used up the youthful formative forces, we settle into habitual ways of living, working, thinking and feeling, gradually bringing a sclerotic, fixed quality to our way of being and doing. These habitual ways of living can hinder our ability to keep generating the creative forces that should carry our inner impulse, our life purpose throughout our whole earthly life. We become “body-bound”, so to speak, as sclerotic forces take hold of our bodily “temple”, and transformation becomes more difficult.”

“The art therapies are ideal mediums for revealing what our biography has made of us. Painting therapy not only expresses the inner self, outwardly, but also can bring about change inwardly by shifting the outer. By working with these different aspects of our being, we reveal where there are imbalances, hindrances, lack of “breathing” and therefore barriers to transformation. Art therapy can reveal weaker areas in our being and our “stuckness”. It can bring healing and change, by loosening, balancing, bringing breathing and nourishment to our hardened and depleted forces.”

“when we observe the growing, budding plant and then the fruiting, dying plant, and back again, there arises in us something new and active, and this experience of moving between opposites engenders a breathing in our soul”. 

Below is a gallery of the participants at work.

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