Create a Self-Portrait

by Shelley Long

While the world feels unusual and strange, I think it is important ( now more than ever) to find ways to stay creative as an act of self-care. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, pioneer of the positive psychology movement, has done extensive research on the benefits of engaging in activities, such as art, that promote flow states. Flow is characterized as a state of consciousness where one’s attention and problem solving skills are being fully utilized to complete a task. Flow is known as the sweet spot between boredom and anxiety. According to Csikszentmihalyi (1990) there are six factors of flow:

  1. Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  2. Merging of action and awareness
  3. A loss of reflective self-consciousness
  4. A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
  5. A distortion of temporal experience
  6. Experience of the activity is intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience.  (p. 35)

Some of the researched benefits of creative flow states include; reduction in anxiety, increased sense of self-mastery, improved cognition, and regulated emotions. The motivating factor behind my decision to pursue a career in art therapy can be traced back to my own experience with flow when I was painting and drawing at St. FX. At the time, I had not heard of the concept of flow. However, I noticed that I completely lost track of time during my 3-hour studio art classes, to the point that I would be in disbelief when the class was over. I was so focused on my art that things such as worrying about the future and preoccupation with the past completely subsided while I was engaged in art. As a result, I left most art classes with an unnamed feeling of contentment and satisfaction. My senses were heightened and I noticed things on my walk home that normally hid from my awareness. I noticed the smells of freshly cut grass, the sound of the wind, the sensation of the warm sun on my skin. My racing thoughts were no longer inhabiting me. I thoroughly enjoyed the mental break from excessive thinking. As I continued taking other studio art classes, I felt a sense of accomplishment as my skill level improved. To my delight, I later discovered that there is a name for what I was experiencing, known as flow. Like meditation; painting and drawing became a key component in my tool box for maintaining positive mental health and wellbeing.

The wonderful thing about flow is that it’s a self-generated state that results in intrinsic happiness, that is – happiness and fulfillment that is not dependent on external situations or other people. Research has shown that intrinsic happiness, which is generated from flow states,  is far more sustainable than external praise or accolades which tend to be more fleeting states of gratification. While it is undeniable that humans are social creatures and most of us are mourning the loss of our social lives during this global pandemic, this time of social isolation could potentially be supportive of flow states as we connect with activities that bring us joy such as making art, baking and cooking, writing, yard work etc. Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo, created many of her famous self-portraits while she was bedridden from an accident and unable to leave her home. Great art has come from times of isolation!

Since we are spending more time with ourselves and less with others, my art invitation for you this week is to create a self portrait. Find a mirror, sit down in front of it, take a good long look at yourself (when was the last time you did that?) and draw what you see. Get curious as you study your face and features. Portland based artist Carson Ellis has compiled a list of objective questions to ask yourself while creating a self-portrait;

What shape are my eyes? Are they small or large?

What colour are my eyelashes? Are they thin or thick?

What shape is my face? Is it long? narrow? round? oval?

What colour are my eyes – chances are there is more than one colour or shade!

Can I see my ears or are they hidden under my hair?

What texture is my hair?

What colour is my skin?

How much space is there between my nose and my mouth?

What shape are my eyebrows?

Are my lips full or thin?

Do I have any freckles, moles or scars?

These questions can help you discover what makes your face uniquely you! (Please refrain from judgment, if you can). You can do this with any medium that you have in your environment – paint, pencil, crayons, markers, pastels, clay, etc. I realize that some may not have art materials at hand, and I am not suggesting that you go out and purchase any at this time. If all you have is a pencil and paper – that’s all you need! Have fun with this. Laugh! This doesn’t have to look exactly like you, just a representation.

We would love to see your creations – please share your art with us on our facebook page “ Arts & Health Antigonish!” I’ll go first!:

Self-Portrait, Watercolour on paper. Shelley Long


Csíkszentmihályi, M., (1990). ​Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. HarperCollins. Publisher: New York, NY.

 Csíkszentmihályi, M., (1997).​ Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engaging in Everyday Life. Basic Books Publisher: New York, NY.