Gestural Self Expression In Art

Gestural Self Expression in Art

Every summer I teach an art workshop for Stanford physicians at Stanford Sierra Camp with Jane Lombard, MD.

Creativity and self expression is essential for everyone, including physicians. Stanford Medical School and Medical School has been on a mission of incorporating art into the medical school curriculum as well as nurturing well being in physicians.

They have courses and workshops in the arts ranging from painting, drawing, filmmaking, creative writing, dance and many more arts.

I’m delighted to be part of this journey.

In the workshop we explore the emergence of post-war abstract expressionism and how it explored the idea of expressing the unconscious through gestural expression and stream of consciousness mark making.

Automatic drawing is mark making without a preconceived plan. It’s where you trust your gesture and the intelligence of your body, and you express without thinking, without editing and without trying to make it look like something. It is pure energy coming through your body onto the paper.

Activating The Canvas & Flux

You can activate the canvas with stream of consciousness mark making and then go back in with an eraser if you wish- randomly knocking back or covering some of your spontaneous marks.

Don’t worry. Activate the canvas. Don’t edit or strategize or plan. Allow your body to express spontaneous mark making.

We’re not trying to make something here, we’re simply activating the canvas with your marks. You can activate the canvas with slow lines, fast lines, jagged lines, discontinuous lines, continuous lines, staccato marks, dots, meandering marks- anything you wish. It could be a combination of different types and energies of line and mark making.

This is about whatever YOUR marks are. This is about your self expression.


Flux is the back and forth dance between assertion and dissolution of marks and shapes. It’s a form of editing.

We can edit or knock back or veil marks that we wish to cover up to varying degrees.

You can edit or knock back marks easiest when you use opaque paint.

You can veil marks by using transparent paint so that the marks are toned down, not as apparent. The marks are still there and you can see them behind the veil of paint you used to cover them. Zinc white is great for veiling because it’s a transparent white.

If you see a mark that you’re not sure you want, go ahead and knock it back or veil it.

In veiling, you can still see the previous marks but they’re more subtle.

Expressing Feelings in Mark Making

In the segment where there’s uproarious laughter, we were talking about how marks are expressive, for example they can express feeling states. We explored a range of feelings such as joy, anger, agitation, serene, laughter and so on.

As you explore the expressive language of mark making you begin to realize that there’s an intelligence in your body and its gestures that expresses feelings without words.

Believing in Yourself

The work of my life is helping people to believe in themselves. This is the work I’ve done in existential psychiatry for over twenty years.

I think the Holy Grail of creating is trusting yourself.

And then we have two concepts: composition and value that are technical game changers. But, being an artist ultimately boils down to: Do you trust yourself? Do you take risks? Is your work alive?

Your work may not be technically “perfect” but if it’s alive we feel it

I’d like to invite you to take risks in your art, to notice the fear and the inner critic and go ahead anyway. This is your journey of self expression.

It’s about deep experimentation.

Come back full circle to trusting yourself.

Thank you.

Much gratitude from my studio to yours,


P.S. Leave me a comment and let me know what you think. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Originally published at Nancy Hillis.