The Psychology of Art: Emotions Translated into Visual Mediums

Published on

by Claire Wu

Art has long been recognized as a powerful means of expression, allowing artists to capture their innermost thoughts and feelings. Through color, symbols, and many other visual elements, artists are able to translate those intangible emotions into an image that they can share with the world. Likewise, a viewer can look at a piece of art and see those thoughts and feelings, as well as impart their own onto the work. This relationship is one of the most unique qualities of art in any form. In this article, we will discuss the psychological side of both the creation of art, from an artist’s perspective, as well as the impact that an artist’s work can have on the viewer.

Psychology of Art
Agora Artist Kathy Park at her studio

Art as a Means of Processing

Peyton, The Artist
The Overcomer, 2022, Oil paint, 23k gold foil, and natural pigments on canvas, 72″ x 48″ x 1.5″

Creating artwork can be an effective method for artists to process and navigate their emotions and experiences–both positive and negative. There’s plenty of art out there about love, happiness, and other joyous feelings, and there’s also a lot of art made from darker, more painful places. As such, the act of creating art becomes a therapeutic process that allows artists to confront those complex emotions that might otherwise remain suppressed. The creation of art serves as a safe space where artists can express themselves freely, relieving themselves of the psychological burdens they carry, and channeling their thoughts and experiences into their artwork.

Peyton Burnett–better known by her pseudonym Peyton, The Artist– uses painting as an introspective medium through which she reflects on her past experiences and how far she’s evolved since then. Many of her works delve into the pain she’d felt in her childhood and young adult years as a victim of bullying, and through painting, she was able to discover her creative voice and heal. Her strength and emotional fortitude are plain to see as one views her works, the darkness and struggles of her past paving the path for joy and hope for the future.

She says, “When introspection takes place, we realize that life is no longer selfishly just about us, nor is there only one arrival to wholeness. I have found, in my journey that wholeness happens in multiples and in multiple ways. I hope that when people see my work, they will be able to relate to the experiences displayed and that their spirits are pricked to begin their own journeys of introspection.”

Art as Healing

Jengiz Mahir Musa
Saints And Angels, 2022, Mixed media on canvas, 36″ x 24″

Some artists view their art as a necessity, something that they can’t live without, having experienced so much that they could not process in any other way. For Jengiz Mahir Musa, painting is not just a way to explore his emotions–it’s also a means of survival. Having moved to New York from the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan at a young age, and later to Alaska following his struggle against addiction, he started to paint as a way to ground himself and to cope with the long, dark winters. Musa describes his painting process as a spiritual act, a pareidolic meditation that reflects his personal journey of healing and rebirth.

Art’s ability to channel emotions is not limited exclusively to the lived past experience. Many artists use their work as a way to explore their thoughts about the future–and given how rapidly the world changes, very often that speculation can be infused with uncertainty and doubt. Kathy Park’s paintings are a surreal translation of her dreams and fears–not ones she’s lived through, but the imagined ones that haunt her subconscious. Rather than live with those anxieties, Park channels those feelings into her paintings, through colors and symbols that evoke that sense of disorientation, and explores it in a visual medium.

Kathy Park
I Want You To Stay IV (Probability), 2023, Oil & graphite on canvas, 30″ x 40″

“My work highlights the fundamental struggles of humankind through a surreal, symbol-rich aesthetic,” Park explains. “In line with traditional Asian paintings, I transcend the literal depiction of objects and phenomena but rather capture the energy and essence within them. Mining images and hallucinations from the deepest subconscious, I illustrate the unifying predicament of all beings.”

Creating artwork can be a deeply cathartic experience, one that allows an artist to purge all of their emotional tensions. By externalizing the emotions they feel and pouring them into their artwork, they’re able to let go of whatever feelings have been holding them back, transforming them into a visual work that they can then share with others who might be feeling the same burdens.

Art as Therapy

Similarly, art therapy has gained recognition as an effective tool in the world of psychology. By Engaging in creative activities within a therapeutic setting, individuals can express themselves in ways that they might struggle with in a verbal form. Though art-making isn’t a substitute for professional medical assistance, many artists consider their practice to be a therapeutic experience that brings joy and stability to their minds and helps them maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Julia Meyerowitz-Katz
Bearing Witness: Enduring Love, 2022, Mixed media on paper, 51″ x 35.5″

Julia Meyerowitz-Katz, for example, has her Master’s and Postgraduate Diploma in Art Therapy. A Jungian analyst as well as an artist, she integrates knowledge from her studies and mental health practice into her artwork. In contrast to the aforementioned artists, rather than using her work as an emotional outlet for herself, Meyerowitz-Katz seeks to influence the viewer and appeal to their sensitivities through her dynamic marks, drawing them into the piece to experience the visual tension she creates, born from her experience with other peoples’ stories and emotions. Given the abstract nature of her paintings, the breadth of viewers with which she can connect is different–less specific, perhaps, but more varied and individual.

“My drawings and paintings represent the shared unconscious dreaming and corresponding transformations in energy, emotion, and thought that is a profound and essential part of bearing witness,” she says. “Bearing witness is an ordinary and ongoing human process. We all do it. We bear witness to our own lives; we bear witness to the lives of others; we need others to bear witness to our lives.” 

Art as Connection

One of the most remarkable qualities of visual art is its ability to transcend individual experiences and evoke those strong emotions from the artist to the viewer regardless of whether the viewer shares the artist’s experiences, connecting communities in ways that might not be possible with words. Just as artists fuel their artwork using their own emotions, the viewers play just as much of a role in the psychological exchange of their work. Though the experience is subjective in many ways, every viewer has the potential to connect emotionally to a piece of art, the exact array of emotions varying depending on the viewer’s personal background, cultural influences, and individual perspective. 

Agora Gallery
Opening reception of  The Mind’s Eye at Agora Gallery

A viewer’s interpretation of a work can change over time, based on the current societal standards and the different ways of thought that evolve as the world changes. A piece that may have been vulgar at one point in time might now be considered elegant, or something once thought of as lacking substance could, given a change of perspective, be understood in a more complex way. A piece that the artist might not favor could be the one with which their audience resonates most deeply.

Still, the artist’s intentions are nonetheless present in their choices in creating the work–scale, composition, color, or symbolism–and the narrative conveyed by their artwork can resonate deeply with a viewer, whether or not the viewer shares their experiences. Likewise, though the context of both its creator and the circumstances under which it was created are crucial to understanding a work of art, a viewer without any of this knowledge can still impart their own point of view upon any work that they see, even if that interpretation differs from the artist’s.

Art has always been acknowledged as an undeniably powerful medium, one that’s able to touch people across cultural and social boundaries. And yet, alongside its widespread reach, it’s also a deeply intimate and personal practice. For artists, it can be not just a career, but also a way of life, something that keeps their bodies and minds in a healthy condition so that they can navigate the world. For those who view their work, it can have a similarly therapeutic effect, evoking emotions within that might need to be released. 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *