Pain and Your Right Brain

Because many of you are disabled and dealing with chronic pain, I wanted to share my experience with pain and right-brain activity like painting and drawing.

“The Scream” by Edvard Munch

I am a very left-brain dominant person. I constantly worked with words, numbers, symbols, etc. When I started dealing with pain on a daily basis, I found that my left brain was trying to make sense of it. I could describe the pain with words (nails being driven through my skull) or numbers (on a scale of 1-10 my pain is __).

But my right brain was also trying to find a way to express those sometimes overwhelming sensations and didn’t know how. Once I started painting, I found it was very therapeutic to give pain a color or a geometric shape or a soft or hard line. These weren’t actual paintings, just expressions of colors and shapes on paper. But when my right brain was engaged and allowed to “speak” I found that my pain was diminished.

From all my years of working as a doula (a companion for women during labor and childbirth) I knew that pain was something that needed to be processed or it would build up and become unbearable. One of the techniques used is to distract the brain. It’s kind of like interrupting a conversation so that attention is diverted. In labor this can be done with massage or rocking or deep breathing. Vocalizing with low humming and moaning can relieve tension.

Unfortunately aside from childbirth, our friends and family tend to get weary of us verbalizing our pain and asking for physical comfort measures. In fact studies show that caregivers often get burned out and suffer physical and mental exhaustion. That puts even more strain on relationships: “What is Caregiver Burnout?”

I find that curling up on the couch with a pencil and paper and drawing or even doodling helps me begin to let my right brain “speak” and process the pain. Often I don’t have the energy to actually sit at my table or easel to paint, but a pencil works anywhere. Hum while you work, rock back and forth a bit and take deep breaths. It can do wonders for your mind and your body!

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How to Get Started Painting if You Can’t Draw!

The thing that really drew me in to painting was playing with color. The only problem was my drawing skills were pathetic! This stops many would-be painters from getting started.

Many of us began painting later in life and never took art classes. I believe that if you want to be a professional artist, you will eventually need to study fundamentals of drawing and perspective so that you can confidently do your own compositions, paint outdoors (plein air) or make changes to a photograph that you’d like to paint. I have spent much of the past year studying classical drawing from life and it has helped me tremendously. But that’s not how I got started and I would rather see you get started painting first and then have you sharpen your drawing skills as you go along.

There have been many drawing aids over the years to help artists get their composition on paper or canvas. Even the masters used some devices to assist in portrait or still-life work. Modern artists often use projectors or light boxes to transfer an image. I tried both and got frustrated with the limitations of each. So I found a way to trace an image using my own homemade tracing paper. Here’s a link to the process: Tracing Paper Demo


I get the image the way I want (size, contrast, etc) in a photo editing program, then print it out. Rather than using a pen to trace the lines, I use a stylus which has a ball point on either end. That way I still have the photo to use for my reference without it being marked up by a pen. I would caution against the tracing paper you find in the hobby and craft stores. They often leave lines that are not erasable. This method will allow you to easily lift, lighten and change lines.


As I started doing my own drawings I used tracing paper to get it the way I wanted, then used the same process to transfer the finished drawing to the watercolor paper.

Most beginning watercolor painters trace their drawings and work on their free-hand drawing skills as they go along. This helps keep you from getting frustrated early on because you can’t get a likeness. It also helps you to understand perspective, values and line as you trace. At first your drawing may look like a coloring book page. But as you get more proficient you may want to add lines to mark areas by shadow and light and begin to work on value ranges. This will look a bit more like a “Paint by Number” drawing.

The most important thing is to get started and not procrastinate because you’re afraid people will laugh at your painting. If you are an artist you will spend the rest of your life improving your skills and becoming more professional, but there is no shame in using some tools to help you get started. It’s like using training wheels when you’re learning to ride a bike.

Happy tracing!


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Setting Up Your Painting Space

My “studio” is a table in a corner of my office.  It’s a very small space but works fine for me.  That’s one of the great things about watercolor…you don’t have to use a large easel or have a lot of room to work.  There are no toxic fumes from solvents and sealers, and the cleanup is as easy as it gets! 

I have a melamine drawing board that slants at about a 20 degree angle.  The helps the paint to mix better and since I always staple my paper to Gatorboard (very light polystyrene with a melamine type coating)  I can pick up the board and move it around to help the wet paint mingle.  I find it’s much easier to work when standing, but if I’m in a lot of pain and just don’t have the energy, then I sit on a stool so that I am still above the painting. If you work in a chair at a table and have your painting flat, it will end up being distorted.  Your eyes need to be at a 90 degree angle with your painting or at least very close. 

I like to paint during daylight hours.  It’s great if you have a window in your painting area for natural daylight.  You don’t want glare (I have to keep the blinds partly closed in early morning hours) but daylight seems to help you judge color best.  If you are right-handed, the window should be on your left so that your palette and water can be kept on the right side of your painting and not throw a shadow across it every time you rinse your brush or pick up paint.  If you’re left-handed. then turn your working surface so that the window is on your right. 

There are many artists who have to work in artificial light and that’s fine, too.  Many of my friends have Ott lights which approximate daylight.  I use GE Reveal bulbs in my lamps which also gives a daylight spectrum.  One of my favorite children’s book illustrators, Christopher Bing, works in his attic.  I love this video of his workspace:

I hope this encourages you to set up your own personal studio, even if it is in a small, cramped corner.  You can still produce amazing paintings!



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Learning How to Paint Online

Because of my health issues I am unable to attend any painting classes. When I decided I was going to learn how to paint with watercolor, I watched YouTube videos to get familiar with techniques.  Some of the videos were very professional and some were a bit pathetic, but it was all helpful.  Often the professionally produced clips were previews of DVDs that well-known artists had for sale.  I was able to pick up some tips, but I needed more thorough lessons.

I eventually found ArtistsNetwork.TV.  They have various memberships but I chose the 6-month watercolor medium subscription for $49.99.  It was the best investment I could have made as a beginning artist.  I watched hours and hours of different artists and learned all kinds of information about paper, brushes, paints and technique that kept me motivated and excited about painting.  I’m a very visual learner and while there are some great watercolor painting books, it just wasn’t the same as actually watching someone paint.

If I woke up in pain in the middle of the night, I would grab my smart phone and watch a video until I got sleepy again.  I could even watch a clip while I was in a doctor’s waiting room.  No more wasted time!   When I first got started I still wasn’t painting much – it was kind of like the “think system” in Music Man.  But it did sink in and as I got more confident because of what I was learning, painting became a lot more fun.

There are several other subscription sites online, but this one is still my favorite.  It’s really a broad overview of painting – you’ll see many different styles and approaches and over time you will sort out what fits your personality. 

If you have a minute, visit ArtistsNetwork.TV and preview some of the videos.  I’m not an affiliate and I don’t get any commissions – I’m just enthusiastic about their service!


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Painting a Memory

One of my greatest joys is getting to spend time with my grandchildren.  I always take lots of pictures when we go on outings together but one of the reasons I wanted to learn to paint was so that I could capture some of those moments in watercolor. 

Last Thanksgiving five of my grandchildren were visiting from Iowa and we decided to go to the Denver Aquarium which is an amazing place.  One of the sections goes through a tunnel where the aquarium surrounds you – it’s so much fun to watch the fish and turtles swim past. 

This is a scene painted from some photos we took.  When you paint something, you really begin to SEE it.  I loved trying to capture the colors and the reflections in the water.  I hope you’ll pull out some family photos and pick out a few that might make interesting paintings.  They don’t have to be professional…your family will appreciate the fact that you were thinking of them and you’ll have fun reliving a memory!




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Why I Chose Watercolor


Back in the early 1980s I was diagnosed with a strange and dubious condition referred to as environmental illness.  Proponents described it as being allergic to the 20th century and blamed it on pollution, pesticides and modern chemicals.   Mainstream medicine said it was all psychological and that the patients were paranoid and mentally disturbed.

For me it started with sensitivity to pesticides and petrochemicals like diesel and gasoline. Soon I was reacting to fragrances in laundry products, perfumes and cleaning solutions.  I could be feeling fine, but just walking past the detergents and fabric softeners at the grocery store would make me dizzy and nauseous.  I would have to leave the area immediately and get fresh air.  Eventually any exposure would leave me exhausted for days.

Back then many people went to specialty clinics, but their treatment centered around avoidance of all the “triggers” for their symptoms and most of us ended up being very isolated.  Just a simple get-together with friends could become a nightmare…the charcoal lighting fluid for a barbeque, candles on a dining table or a freshly painted room could send me into a tailspin.  Over the years I learned what foods and chemicals to avoid and basically tried to dodge all the exposures that would make me ill for days. 

In the past several years much has changed regarding the understanding of this condition which is now usually referred to as MCS, or multiple chemical sensitivities.  In my case it turned out to be caused by mutations in genes that code enzymes which break down various chemicals.  I was unable to process things like benzenes, formaldehyde, alcohols, vinyl chloride and many other compounds.  There’s really nothing I can to do cure it and a small exposure which would not bother a normal person can become toxic to me very quickly. 

When I decided I wanted to pursue painting more seriously (I started with watercolor pencils) I ran into all kinds of issues with art supplies.  Everything from paper treated with mildewcides to paint preservatives that I could not tolerate almost discouraged me from going ahead with my plans.  Acrylics and oils were totally out for me…even the newer water miscible oil paints caused reactions. 

I finally found two brands of watercolor paints I could tolerate, M. Graham and Daniel Smith.  Both companies are very environmentally conscious.  I don’t buy any paints containing cadmium or cobalt since they are toxic, but so far I haven’t had problems with any of the other pigments.   Unfortunately Winsor & Newton adds something as a preservative to their paints that makes me ill.  I can’t even use a dot of their paint without reacting.

For papers I settled on Fabriano Artistico. Arches treats theirs to prevent mildew and as soon as it got wet, I was in trouble.  Some watercolor artists use boards (instead of paper) that are especially made for watermedia.  However I can’t tolerate whatever the wood is treated with.  Once I brought home a small sample and it made me so sick I had to put it outside!  There is one other surface I can handle and that is Yupo, but it’s a totally different technique than traditional watercolor. 

If you’re reading this and have MCS, I feel for you.  It’s like walking a tightrope every day just to avoid all the things that can potentially make you sick.  But don’t give up if your dream is to become an artist.  Please email me if you need information on particular products or manufacturers.



Posted in Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, Non-Toxic Art Supplies | 10 Comments

Welcome to my blog!

I’m starting this on a snowy winter day with the hopes that spring is just around the corner.  Because of my health issues I am homebound in cold weather and discovering the joy of painting has been a lifesaver.  You can read about my first encounter with watercolor here: Art for My Heart

After this article was published, I was asked to participate in a webinar on creative expression.  This was an amazing opportunity for me considering I had only started painting that spring!  I have gotten lots of wonderful feedback from disabled and “normal” people and I hope that my story will encourage others to consider art as therapy. 

If you’re already an artist, I appreciate your interest and hope that you’ll share your blogs and websites with me.  If you have never attempted any type of artistic expression, I hope you will follow along and see that you are never too old, too sick or too artistically challenged to start your own journey. 

Here is a link to my webinar if you would like to see how easy it is to get started!

Thanks for stopping by!

TwoStone Studio

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