This blog post was written by JKP author of ACT Art Therapy and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Art Therapy Amy Backos, PhD, ATR-BC.

Throughout humankind and across cultures, art has been used for personal and public expression. Think of the cave drawings found in the Huns Mountains of Namibia in Africa. Over 27,500 years old, these carvings into the rock walls significantly predate the hand drawings in caves in France and the petroglyphs on rocks in the United States. The act of “making our mark” satisfies a foundational need to see ourselves as both part of the collective, as well as a separate, unique being. In making art, we can feel we are worthy members of our communities by contributing our unique selves to the collective.

Reflecting on the primitive art as part of vital human expression helps us connect to the larger experience of being a human in a shared condition on this planet. Making our own marks on paper helps us connect to our lineage of humankind and artists. These primitive, human urges to make our mark still exist in all of us. Children today replicate the same scribbles, drawings simplified animals, and tracing their hands. Many artists and art therapists scribble and make primitive marks as a “warm up” before they begin a drawing or painting.

Art remains an easy-to-access mode of self-expression, accessing the more primitive parts of our brains to visually demonstrate our wishes, fears and hopes. Making marks on a page or moving clay in our hands offers a symbol far closer to our actual internal experiences than the symbol of words could ever capture. A feeling is a vibration in our bodies and scribbles and lines demonstrate these feelings in powerful ways without relying on the verbal centers of our brains. We can also express ourselves in art for the purpose of validating a feeling or changing how we feel.

Furthermore, the creative process helps us know ourselves, others, and our wider experience in the world. In art, we can ask of ourselves, “How do I feel? What am I experiencing that I am not saying?” Furthermore, art expression gives us the external tool to decide what we want to do with this inner knowledge. From artistic expression flows creative thought and problem solving.

Creation externalizes our feelings and thoughts, settles our body, and taps into pre-verbal ways of knowing. A pre-verbal experience might be a past event that has yet to be processed it into a verbal story. This includes past traumas, confusing experiences, as well as peak experiences of positive emotions, spiritual awareness, and new insights. Furthermore, pre-verbal understanding includes unconscious thoughts that are perhaps holding us back from taking action, making a decision, or committing to something we truly desire. Art further bypasses the often rigid ways we behave to feel safe and cope in stressful situations, revealing what we have kept hidden, even from ourselves. Similar to how humans have used art in the past, our art making gives us the tools to change how we (and others) think, feel and act.

You might be surprised about how much you are influenced by the art of others. Reflect on how much art you have “consumed” today. We live with design and aesthetics in every facet of our lives: product packaging, adverts inviting us to purchase entertainment or consumer goods, film, theater, and television, social media, public murals, the art our walls and in waiting rooms, and so on. Consuming all of this art in the absence of producing some ourselves has potential downsides. We can become passive consumers without engaging meaningfully with the art we see. We can even become numb to powerful, provocative, and emotional images. Without making art ourselves, we miss out on personal expression, brain integration, authenticity, and of course, making our literal “mark” as we reflect on our life and experiences.

For many of my clients, art making provides a much-needed break from all the over-stimulation of visual content they are consuming. Art making further provides expression, perspective, and a new set of symbols for communication of their wordless, inner experiences and emotional lives. Ultimately, authentic self-expression emerges in ways like the primitive symbols made by early humans.

Ready to make some primitive art? Try the exercise below to shift away from thought to focus on your body and primitive images. This art would be appropriate for all ages, is easily tailored to client need, and can be modified for various abilities and mobility. It requires no artistic skill and is ideal for anyone reluctant to attempt art for fear of it being “not good enough”. The art focuses on the artists own hands which are a symbol for agency in the world, our ability to manipulate our environment, as well as leave our “mark” and impact ourselves and others. To add an educational component or get some inspiration, you can look up primitive art and hands drawn in caves. You will need drawing materials, scissors, paper, and magazines.

Art Exercise

Reflect on how much art and design you have consumed in the last 24 hours: time spent on social media, entertainment, the art on your walls, the adverts on your computer. Imagine all of these images blurring and melting away from your conscious awareness.

Focus on your hands and warm up by scribbling or tracing your hands on paper, on a dry erase board, or in sand. Next, trace your hands many times on magazine pages with images you like. Cut them out and create a collage or a 3D sculpture of your hand-shaped images. Hang your art on the wall to mimic the experience of the art on cave walls. Admire your creation and notice as much as you can about the shapes and images on the paper.

Now shift to the symbol of words. Give your hand image a title and write three words or phrases to describe it. Spend a few minutes journaling about the process and reflecting on your title and words. Answer these questions: What were you aware of while you were creating? What do you notice now? What are you thinking right now? What feelings arise from these thoughts? What inspired action will you take in the future to notice art and design around you? How can you commit to creating your own images?


What was the process like for you? I would love to hear about your experience and see your art! Tag me on Instagram and DM or email to let me know your experience. If this kind of work appeals to you, learn more at The Modern Creative Woman where we explore presence, mindset and purpose using the art and science of creativity.


Dr. Backos is a Licensed Psychologist and Registered Board-Certified Art Therapist living and working in San Francisco, California, USA. With over 25 years of experience as a therapist, educator, and author, she specializes in the art and science of creativity to help women integrate their traumatic experiences, heal, and find their purpose. She is the CEO of the Art Therapy Center of San Francisco and loves teaching women to be creative thinkers in her on-line program, The Modern Creative Woman. She has authored several books with Jessica Kingsley Publishers including ACT Art Therapy and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Art Therapy. Read her blog at Contact Dr. Backos at, email at, and follow her on Instagram @dramybackos.

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