Paint a parrot – playtime for grown-ups

A new way to play that helps jumpstart creativity 

Hand-over-hand painted parrot

Hand-over-hand painted parrot

Take a parrot, turn him upside down and paint him. His picture – not him.

That’s what I did, along with a partner who held the paintbrush as I tried to control it and paint my parrot. The parrot, of course, was just an image – an A4 computer print-out.

The painting process, which involves trying to guide someone else’s hand, is strangely freeing – and joyful. I found I worried much less about detail than I usually do. And the results – not just mine, other people’s too – were pretty good. And surprisingly different.

Paint a parrot is a recent interactive art exhibition, at Auckland University’s Window. This is a tiny gallery in the university’s library run by student curators. The exhibition is the work of artist Dorota Broda who works doing just this ‘hand-over-hand’ painting with autistic children, to help them learn to express themselves.

I think it helps adults express themselves too. At least one grown-up (me) found it gave me permission to paint much more freely than usual. You don’t feel so fearful of the blank sheet of paper in front of you. Something that torments many artists – and writers.

To further free myself up, I asked Dorota to turn my parrot image upside down. This tricks the brain; you no longer see a parrot but a pattern, and you just reproduce the pattern, which is much easier and less stressful to do. Amazingly, the results are usually much more accurate than if you draw from an image that is the right way up.

Electra and Michael learn about freedom and control

Electra and Michael learn about freedom and control

But the ‘hand-over-hand’ part of the painting process is what is really important. Because you can’t totally control your partner’s hand, fiddly painting isn’t possible. If, like me, you have a tendency to fuss, trying to paint fine lines and worrying about making mistakes, you find you easily let go of this paralysing inhibition.


Control and the ‘writing’ button 

There is unexpected battle for control in painting this way. Indeed, when my painting partner took control of my hand and brush, he pressed my thumb painfully without realising it. But both of us produced lovely, uninhibited parrot paintings. I also felt strangely peaceful afterwards.

Painting had induced that state of mind where you feel ready for any endeavour – including writing. Which is why I am writing about this painting experience. Getting into a creative frame of mind, where the ideas and the words flow, is not easy. This seems to be one way to get there.

A word of warning: my partner was reluctant to take part at first, so if you do try this exercise at home be ready for this reaction. It’s common. However, he ended up loving the experience – and it relaxed him too.

As for me, I felt like I was back in kindergarten. The world of fun and sandboxes, with pale sand running through my fingers.

My hope is that playing – and this is just one way to play – will help the words flow as smoothly as the sand in my memory does.