Updated: Nov 15, 2021
Everything in existence is alive—animals, plants, rocks, rivers. Everything has a consciousness that we can engage with and create relationship with. This includes all forms of human creative expression from woodworking to painting, from dancing to magic making, even the words we speak.
I first became acquainted with shamanic practices in my early twenties. There were certain aspects of this path that felt familiar to me, but I didn’t yet have the patience or discipline to devote myself to mastering the journey techniques that I read about in books. It wasn’t until my early thirties that I discovered I had been journeying all along. For me, walking between the worlds is a daily experience and journey happens naturally in the midst of life. I found that the more I moved my body, the clearer the channel became. It made sense to follow what was working, to go toward what made me feel most alive, which at the time was dancing and writing. This led me to develop a practice I call “shamanic dance journey.”
By my late thirties, the final pieces of the puzzle began snapping into place. I had been slowly developing my skills as a self-taught artist for several years, when I came across a video promo for an online intuitive painting class—Bloom True—taught by Portland artist, Flora Bowley. Within the first few lessons, I was reunited with the joy I felt as a child, when I would scribble randomly on a page and see worlds come alive between the lines. Flora’s class introduced me to several other artists, including Pixie Lighthorse. During her course, Visual Quest: A Shamanic Painting Intensive, I further developed my ability to let Spirit speak to me on canvas, through paint.
Following a trail of clues, I then came across a treasure trove of inspiration on YouTube and began experimenting with a form of abstract art that uses fluid acrylic paint combined with a pouring medium. And this is when things really got exciting! All the pieces came together—journey, dance, writing, and painting—to form a magical practice that felt unique and innovative, something I could authentically call my own.
Here are the steps to experience a transformative medicine journey with paint:
Creating the Container
Decide on an intention for your session. It could be finding an answer to a question, seeing a vision of how the energy dynamics of a situation are playing out, or connecting with a certain animal ally, archetype, planetary energy, seasonal energy etc... Sometimes, my intention is to free myself from all expectation and be open for whatever Spirit wants to show me.
As with any form of magical work, creating a container is recommended. This keeps you focused on your intention and becomes a place for the energy to build as you work. This step can be as elaborate or as simple as you wish, but it generally starts with building an altar. There are plenty of books on how to do this, so I won’t go into that here. But I will offer a suggestion that I have found helpful: find a visual way to place your intention on the altar. This could be words written on paper, a stone that you’ve held in your hand while focusing your energy, objects or images such as Tarot or SoulCollage cards, your own or another’s artwork, anything that inspires you and evokes an emotional connection. Complete your container by casting a circle and calling on the elements and any spirit allies you work with. My favorite way of casting circle is with the vibration of my voice through song.
Activating the Blank Canvas
I will often use a sharpie or other marker to write my intention directly on a blank canvas, a technique inspired by the work of Catt Z, creator of Cosmic Smashbooking. It’s going to be covered up with paint, so don’t worry about making it legible.
The next step is to dance yourself into the canvas. I recommend using a music streaming service to get a mix of songs you absolutely love and some that you’ve never heard before; the element of surprise can get your energy moving in unexpected ways. I have created playlists for different elements, zodiac signs, chakras, planets, seasons, moods and more. Set the blank canvas near your altar, making sure to leave yourself plenty of room to move around freely. As you dance, feel the life force energy coursing through you, stirred by the music. Pay attention to your body’s sensations. Follow them with your movements, lean into them with your breath, let them take you deep within, unlocking the doors on all that has been hiding from you. Feel it flow out onto the canvas.
This part of the process becomes a vehicle for your unconscious to be expressed, without being constrained by the mental realm of words. Through this act, you are submitting your request to the Otherworld, giving the sweat of your body as offering. As you begin to put paint to canvas, the journey begins, and layer by layer, your answers are revealed to you.
Revealing the Unconscious
Working in this way prioritizes the journey itself over the final product. Everything that happens during the session contributes to the fulfillment of your intention. Trust that you are being led to what you most need, even if you’re not consciously aware of what that is. Even what seems like a roadblock or dead-end may lead you in new directions you would have otherwise missed. Whatever awareness you need to come to, you will, by staying present in each moment and letting go of expectations.
One of my favorite ways to start a new painting is with a fluid acrylic pour. Advanced practitioners of this technique may learn ways to influence the outcome somewhat, but there is no way to completely control the result, making it a perfect vehicle for the unconscious to reveal itself. Fluid pours feel especially magical to me because they integrate all the elements: earth (the canvas), water (the pouring medium), fire (the heat gun or torch used to pop air bubbles), and air (used to move paint around the canvas, with a straw, hair dryer, canned air, or air compressor.)
Once the pour has dried, I “read” it, by hanging it up in my studio, viewing it with a soft gaze and going into a light trance. I will see images pop in and out of focus, usually in the form of animals, plants, trees, landscapes, faces, and humanoid bodies. The hardest part at this stage is choosing what to reveal and what to keep hidden in the deeper layers. I often use acrylic pours as a base coat and then continue layering on top of that with intuitive mark-making. I’ve found that if I get too attached to imagery at this early stage, it tends to become a stumbling block, as I become concerned with messing up a good thing.
My advice if you see something significant in the first few layers: dialogue with it in your journal. Any figures that emerge are guides on your journey. Work with them long enough to receive a message or be led to the next clue, and then move on. Take pictures, print them out and sketch what you see on paper or use water soluble chalk to outline shapes on the canvas that you feel called to explore, before committing with paint. If you absolutely love what you see, it’s okay to develop it, but don’t let it keep you from surrendering to the rest of the journey. Even if something gets covered up, its essence is still part of the whole. Trust the process.
Moving with what Moves You
In the beginning, just get paint on the canvas. You don’t need to know where it’s all going yet. Don’t worry about messing up. Acrylic paint dries fast, so it’s easy to change course simply by adding another layer. I like to give myself a lot of options, so I use a mix of painting mediums (fluid and heavy body acrylics, spray paint) and keep a wide array of tools nearby (foam and bristle brushes, spray bottle, stencils, palette knives, etching tools.) Sometimes I will even add a collage with paper scraps for additional texture and variety.
Work on at least 2 canvases at a time (more if they are small.) This keeps your energy moving while you wait for paint layers to dry. Move intuitively around the canvas, varying your marks, adding contrast with darks and lights, writing words, thoughts, song lyrics, and phrases that come to your awareness, directly onto the canvas. Some of these may be covered with subsequent layers, but some parts may still peek through, adding depth to your painting. Change your pace, tools, and strokes according to the music you’re listening to. Let it inform your choices in paint color, stroke type, and speed. When music is upbeat, move around the canvas faster. When it slows down, pause and go deeper. Sometimes silence is what’s needed to access expanded realms of personal alchemy.
As you move, pay attention to sensations of pain or restriction in your body. Ask your body how it wants to move in order to find release, open up and create a feeling of ease. Shake, shrug, stretch, roll your shoulders, touch your toes, sway side to side. Just keep your body moving, following every impulse. Allow any tension you feel to be released onto the canvas.
Recording the Insights
This journey is an ongoing conversation between you and your soul. The paint is just a vehicle for breakthroughs in consciousness. Some insights will want to be expressed on the canvas, some on the page. Keep a notebook nearby while you’re dancing and painting, to record thoughts as they come to you. I use simple spiral notebooks so I won’t be concerned with messy handwriting. In this state, I don’t write in a straight line. My notebooks are filled with scribbles running off in all directions, up, down, and sideways. Over time, I have created my own shorthand, so I can decipher my notes after the session is finished.
Pay close attention to any song lyrics that stand out to you, and any thoughts that come up connected to them. Note any dialogue you have with your inner voice, experiences of resistance and breakthrough, body sensations and tech anomalies like the music skipping a beat or lights flickering (specifically note what you were just thinking about when this happens!) Paying attention to how the outer environment corresponds to your inner environment can give you very useful insight about the healing journey taking place.
When switching back and forth between painting and writing, remember that you are alternating between your right brain and left brain and this can sometimes feel like traveling between different worlds. Transition slowly and allow time to establish full presence in each place before continuing. If stopping your painting flow to write insights feels distracting to you, use what I call a “memory keeper” which is an object kept on the altar, designated to record the essence of the experience. If you used a certain object to represent your intention in the beginning, you could even use the same object for this purpose. After the session, hold the object and ask for help recalling the important details of the journey. Take as long as you need to write down everything you can remember. It is even more effective if you include some gentle movement. This helps to “squeeze” the energetic “juice” from your memory banks.
P.S. For all of you insomniacs out there, this method also works well for late night downloads! Instead of keeping yourself awake scribbling notes all night long, set a memory keeper on your bedside table and revisit the information in the morning.
If you begin to feel stuck, try rotating the canvas and seeing it from a different perspective. Go within and ask, “what comes next?” Then listen for an answer. Choose a new color, make a different kind of mark, keep riding the energy of each impulse until it runs its course. Then pause and ask again.
You can also write prompts on pieces of paper and keep them nearby. The prompts can be things like: use a new tool, use a foam roller, add fluid paint and spray water on it, change brushes, etc… You can pull a prompt randomly like you would a Tarot card and let your inner wisdom guide you that way. When no other impulses arise, choose a prompt.
Alternate between focusing on details and taking a step back to see the big picture with fresh eyes. Flora refers to this back and forth movement as “spiraling out and in.” Notice what areas of the painting draw you in and what areas you skip over or avoid. Work with what’s working, and continue following intuitive clues until you reach a point where you love every corner of your painting, and don’t feel the desire to change even one aspect of it.
Dancing Between the Worlds
Approaching the painting session as a shamanic medicine journey draws in the power of the 3 worlds: Celestial, Middle, and Underworld. The Upper or Celestial World encourages an abstract way of seeing, exploring all possibilities, following the clues without attaching to any particular destination. This mode of operation is most active in the first layers.
The process of diving into the depths of your unconscious and allowing what is hidden there to emerge is a Lower or Underworld experience. You’ll know you’ve reached this stage when your fears and doubts start to surface. As you allow these deep feelings to be moved onto the canvas and/or page, profound healing takes place, transforming your inner demons into allies who can add the rich, unfathomable flavor that can only be found in your darkest corners.
As you get further along in the process, there comes a point where decisions must be made. Do you want there to be recognizable imagery or do you want to keep it abstract? What forms do you want to commit to and develop? Do the colors tie the piece together? Is there enough dynamic contrast between darks and lights? Answering these questions and bringing the painting to completion requires more of a Middle World approach.
Notice when you feel a shift from your regular way of thinking into a magical experience where the upper, lower, and middle worlds begin to overlap in such a way that your questions seem to be answered instantaneously, often before you are even aware of forming them! The more you show up for this practice, the easier it becomes to access this flow state. Like a muscle, your intuition is strongest when exercised regularly. And before long, you’ll end each healing journey with a piece of art that you absolutely love and feel proud of.
The finished painting becomes a record of your entire journey, a world of moving images to feel into. It contains the essence of your experience encountering fear, moving through obstacles, messing up and persevering, all that you learned about yourself through that process, all the locked doors within that you opened, the hidden places you touched, epiphanies you had, healings that occurred. This essence can be transmitted when the painting is viewed, connected with, or meditated on, infusing you (and others) with the wisdom gained along the way.
Blessings, my fellow travelers,
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