How is ‘process painting’ different than ‘intuitive’ or ‘spontaneous’ or ‘expressive’ painting?

Is it? For me, process painting falls into the realm of art-making for self-care and self-discovery. It is a contemplative approach and as such it can be a particularly helpful approach to art-making for people in caring professions: healthcare providers, social workers, teachers, coaches, and others.

©Gwen Hayes 103 ProcessIt’s not an art lesson. It’s not art therapy. It’s an opportunity to take time for your ‘self’, to rest, release stress, renew the spirit, feed the soul; all that.

If you’ve never heard of it, check out Stuart Cubley, co-author of Life, Paint and Passion.

Process painting is spontaneous and it is painting from your intuition, and it is somewhat ‘expressive’. That said, in my experience it’s both the structure within the process of painting and the intent that differs from what many people refer to as intuitive or spontaneous painting.

Process painting is done in silence. There is a rhythm to how you get your paint and how you apply it to your paper and the process is facilitated in a very specific way. We work with high-quality water-based paint (tempera) (there are reasons for this). Our paint brushes are different than what you might normally use – and we work on a certain type of paper; again there are reasons for this.

Process painting tends to be more representational as opposed to abstract – whereas spontaneous/expressive painting is quite often abstract and non-representational. So we discover and tell our stories in a different way.

Both process painting and spontaneous/expressive painting emphasize present-moment responses, curiosity, bravely choosing to explore what emerges, and healing, but we come at it from slightly different perspectives.

Process paintings are not evaluated, critiqued, or compared or “liked” by others in the group, and generally we don’t show them to anyone else. We give ourselves permission from the outset, to make “really bad” paintings. Often, they’re not pretty – they’re messy and real and they can be the painting equivalent to a personal journal when you’ve poured your guts out onto the page. Cathartic. Fanciful. Weird. Whatever – they’re personal and private. Not for show.

In my experience, people who do expressive painting tend to gravitate towards making it just a little less private, often putting expressive paintings up on the wall or wanting to do enough of them to start selling them… which may have the subtle effect of turning an initial intention of a focus on process into a sub-conscious desire for a ‘good’ (saleable)outcome. Not always, but I’m just saying. This observation isn’t intended to diminish any of these offerings or approaches in any way…

So, if I was to invite you to an expressive arts painting session we would loosen up… there would certainly be movement; we would make some noise – make sounds, or maybe we’d express our emotions by shouting or using our voices in creative ways, and we might write something at the end of it, or in the middle of our time together. We would approach the process of painting differently, quite conceivably, with an intention to explore something quite specific, thus we would engage with it, ourselves, and others differently than we would in process painting. 

Many facilitators of spontaneous painting might also encourage painters to first get their energy flowing and they might emphasize ‘play’ and ‘having fun’. Depending on the facilitator you might start with a guided visualization and do breath work. There could be music played during the session. Naturally, music influences the emotions and how you respond to the process, the materials, and what you think about. You might be encouraged to move to your painting. Dance to it. Maybe you’d talk to it… starts from another place.

You can have plenty of fun with process painting (but it can also make you cry). It’s a different kind of inner work and you don’t ‘have to’ feel energetic or turn your inner dial to ‘on’ or hold an intention to ‘have fun’ or to work through something. The idea is to focus on your process without attending to any preconceived notion of a finished product, without thinking about problem solving, without planning; and to access deep intuition, without planning. It’s like making a self-portrait from the inside out. Space, colour, form, symbol, metaphor… and surprises emerge. It’s meditative. It’s a private path. It’s powerful.

And maybe that’s the most noteworthy point to come from my ramblings here: sometimes it is important to get clear on your intentions for making art in the first place. Sometimes, you just come to the page and see what happens.   

© Gwen Hayes, 2014