How painting can refresh your mind – tips from Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill loved to paint

100 years ago Winston Churchill wasn’t yet Prime Minister of Britain, but he was a leading politician making key decisions in World War 1.


He was stressed! (even though that term wasn’t in use then)


Unsurprisingly, he describes his job as causing him great anxiety.

He felt removed from the action with too much time on his hands to worry.

It was no coincidence that it was at this point that he found painting. Or rather, he describes the Muse of Painting as having come to his rescue.

Over the holidays I’ve been reading ‘Painting as a Pastime’ by Winston Churchill.  In this compact little book he explains his theory of why painting is such a good ‘pastime’ to cultivate.

As he sees it the key is that, to most of us, painting is an activity that uses a different part of our mind than our normal everyday activities.

Instead of reading, thinking, analysing, talking and even worrying, painting requires close observation (REAL ‘seeing’ rather than thinking) and hand-eye coordination.

Churchill describes how the worn parts of the mind can be rested and restored, not just by giving them a break, but by actively using different parts of the brain.

Churchill wrote this long before the modern neuroscience discoveries about the differing roles of the left and right hemispheres of our brain, but to me it does sound like Churchill was observing the way that the ‘right brain’ activity of painting can offer rest for the ‘left’ brain usually engaged in analytical activities.

As he puts it:

It is no use saying to the tired ‘mental muscles’…”I will give you a good rest”, ‘I will go for a long walk’, or ‘I will lie down and think of nothing’. The mind keeps busy just the same. If it has been weighing and measuring it goes on weighing and measuring. If it has been worrying, it goes on worrying. It is only when new cells are called into activity, when new stars become the lords of the ascendent, that relief, repose, refreshment are afforded.

It is for this reason that Churchill argues that having a hobby is VITAL for everyone.

I find it really interesting.

What Churchill seems to be describing is the need to be able to ‘switch off’.  For the majority of people in the West (especially of working age), hobbies are increasingly rare.

Often people say that they are too busy for a hobby, when the reality is that they use TV, often for hours each day, as their way to ‘switch off’.

TV is certainly the easy way to relax. I know I watch more than my fair share of it.

It’s really absorbing.

But as author Eckhart Tolle has described, and as you’ve probably observed for yourself, most TV watching as putting you into a sort of semi-consciousness which is both relaxing but ultimately depleting of energy and creativity:

In contrast, engaging in an activity such as painting involves being fully conscious, ‘total’ or fully mentally present in what you do.

As Churchill, writing before the age of TV, puts it:

Painting is complete distraction. I know of nothing which, without exhausting the body, more entirely absorbs the mind. Whatever the worries of the hour or the threats of the future, once the painting has begun to flow along, there is no room for them in the mental screen. They pass out into shadow and darkness. All one’s mental life, such as it is, becomes concentrated on the task.

He could also be describing meditation – from Eastern philosophy or from more modern mindfulness practices. And I believe there is a link here.

If one can get into the ‘flow’ state with our painting, we are truly at one with it and the mind is quietened in a positive and restorative way.

And for those of us not well practiced in meditation (I for one am always promising myself I will make more time for it), painting can prove an especially useful addition to helping bring balance to our mental and emotional lives.

It certainly did for the remarkable Winston Churchill who managed to keep a clear head throughout the Second World War and played a key role in providing confident, reassuring leadership for Britain during that frightening time.

I’d love to hear your own thoughts on this subject and whether you find painting to be restorative for yourself.

Please let me know in the comments below!

Happy painting!

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  1. Linn on January 13, 2015 at 1:13 pm

    Interesting. I have never thought about it but I agree. When Things get too busy with my studies or life in general and I start painting – I forget the world around me. My back gets strained but my mind feels better. 🙂
    Guess I just need to get a better ergonomic stand to work at while healing my mind 😀

  2. Symi on January 13, 2015 at 1:17 pm

    This is a great read, Anna! Well done xxx

    • Anna Mason on January 14, 2015 at 2:59 pm

      Thanks Symi!

  3. Ellen Hines on January 13, 2015 at 1:48 pm

    I couldn’t agree more. Drawing in graphite is my first love, my form of meditation. Thank you! for your very informative web site.

  4. Ann Pottinger on January 13, 2015 at 1:49 pm

    Anna, how true, anyone running a busy successful business needs to switch off completely from time to time and having recently enrolled on your painting course realise that getting the paints out and following your excellent instruction is what’s required.

  5. Lynda on January 13, 2015 at 3:34 pm

    Churchill also said. ‘Having bought the colours, an easel and a canvas the next step was to begin……but what a step to take! The palette gleamed with beads of colour; fair and white rose the canvas, the empty brush hung poised, heavy with destiny, irresolute in the air!
    My hand seemed arrested by a silent veto!’
    I think we can all identify with that but I couldn’t have put it more eloquently.

    • Susan on April 1, 2020 at 6:48 am

      Love that. It is so me!

  6. Vivienne Adams on January 13, 2015 at 3:40 pm

    I agree completely. Painting is that rare thing that allows no other thought processes and I always have a good sleep after a painting session, it manages to tire my mind like nothing else can. After a night of telly watching, I get into bed and can’t stop my mind from racing.

  7. Svetlana on January 13, 2015 at 3:52 pm

    I totally agree. I feel the same. Actually is one of the reason I start learning drawing and painting, to calm down my mind. It helps me a lot.

  8. Toni on January 13, 2015 at 4:11 pm

    I’ve discovered learning how to paint watercolors is helping me recover after losing my husband of 40 years. It is a gentle prodding to my mind away from grief and yet very meditative and soothing to my soul.

    • Anna Mason on January 14, 2015 at 2:58 pm

      So pleased to hear that painting is helping Toni. Positive wishes to you.

    • jennifer on March 31, 2020 at 5:47 pm

      It’s true that art can help towards healing. When my husband knew he wasn’t going to live he made me promise to keep up my botanical art. After he died it took me a while to get back to it, but I realise how wise he was, because it really does keep me going – it is so absorbing that you can’t be worrying about anything else while you are doing it. We were married for 50 years.

      • Anna Mason on March 31, 2020 at 9:03 pm

        I’m so sorry to hear of your loss Jennifer but what a wise and loving husband to have encouraged you to use your gifts and have a pastime of your own.

    • Susan on April 1, 2020 at 6:51 am

      God bless and heal you of your great loss.

  9. clare on January 13, 2015 at 8:17 pm

    Thanks for the post. Very well done. I didn’t start painting to relax. I started for the love of colors and play. As I continued to sketch and paint , especially when I traveled, I realized that it did in fact help me to relax as well as enhance my memory of the places I had visited. When I looked back at my sketches I could recall small details, smells, sounds, weather, many things that one just can’t put on paper. I’m pretty much OCDC when it comes to painting now that I’ve retired. hummm have I created another stress in my life? If so it is a good one.

  10. Alysia Hunt on January 14, 2015 at 7:55 am

    So very true! Fourteen years ago my husband had a couple of strokes, he couldn’t bear me to be out of the house… we had both just retired and had plans to do all sorts of exciting things. By chance, I met a wonderful botanical artist and began to paint, never having picked up a brush before. Painting has transformed my life with some amazing happenings along the way. While trying to capture the essence of a flower, one is completely transported from the stresses of life into another world.

    • Anna Mason on January 14, 2015 at 2:57 pm

      Thanks for sharing this Alysia – very inspiring.

  11. Nandhini J Prasad on January 14, 2015 at 10:18 am

    Interesting read! I do agree that it has been both restorative and recreation for me personally. The creative journey is something indescribable and I can feel the varied areas of the brain light up while at it. But to begin that journey is slightly slower in my experience and am certainly looking for ways and means to conquer that initial block.

  12. Bettina O. de Gonzalez on January 14, 2015 at 10:20 pm

    Hi Ana, you are very right, since childhood painting has been for me a great medizin, it makes me happy. Did you know that in Tibet people paint mandalas for many days after a loss to recover?Thank you for sharing this article.

    • Anna Mason on January 15, 2015 at 8:14 am

      Thanks Bettina. I’ve read a bit about Jung and Mendalas – but not about what they do in Tibet. How interesting – I’ll check it out!

  13. Keith Thompson on January 16, 2015 at 2:06 pm

    I started painting whilst recovering from a 4 way heart bypass operation. I like to produce art in detail and I could not achieve this in watercolour so I began to use coloured pencil and pen and ink.
    Over a period of about 10 years I have developed arthritis which now causes me to be in constant pain, sometimes very severe.
    I saw an avdert in a magazine for WOW watercolour painting and after watching some of Anna’s demos I thought this what I have been waiting for.
    When I am in severe pain I can’t do a lot about it but rest, but for the rest of the time learning to paint watercolours helps to take my mind off the pain.
    So it is a BIG THANKS to Anna for providing a way of helping me to have a better standard of living.

  14. Pamela Collocott on January 18, 2015 at 6:31 am

    Hi Anna,

    I have been receiving your newsletter for a while now and really enjoy your updates. A couple of years ago I went to the Winston Churchill museum in London and understand completely how he must have needed a mental escape from the confined spaces he and others ran the war effort.

    Last year I established a small business and now run my own watercolour workshops in Sydney, where I am thrilled to share my experience and skills in art to encourage others to be creative. Please look at the Eat.Paint.Laugh! Facebook page and Like (if you like!)

    Keep inspiring people to tap into their artistic side and I will do my part in Australia!!

  15. Dorrie on January 20, 2015 at 11:23 am

    As a paralized stroke surviver,I know the value of painting. Losing the use completely of my right dominate side, I was devastated.Then I tried a child’s colouring book,slowly making marks with my nondominate hand,progressing from there to now using multi-media,though mainly watercolour. I had an exhibition last year,selling four paintings and numerous greeting cards. Painting saved my life at a time I was looking to end it. Now I have everything to live for and a new exebition.

  16. Anna Mason on January 31, 2015 at 7:56 am

    Really inspiring! Thanks for sharing Dorrie and congratulations on your successful exhibition!

  17. Meeta Dani on March 13, 2015 at 12:40 am

    This is a very good article. I too have experienced that painting is a very good way of relaxing. It is like meditation. I lost my mother to cancer 5 years back. My mother also used to love painting like I do. Since then my love of painting has increased. I find painting takes me to a different world where only colors are their arround me. But it takes me some time to switch off my left brain and see image as a pattern of colors. I will try the upside down theory to speed up the switching time.

  18. Sharon3 on April 16, 2018 at 10:16 pm

    Thank you Anna,
    This is such a treat to know Sir Winston Churchill enjoyed painting.
    Just got the book:
    Sir Winston Churchill His Life and His Paintings.
    By David Coombs and Minnie Churchill.
    You will be wowed by his paintings.
    thanks Sharon

  19. Genie on July 7, 2018 at 10:35 am

    Excellent subject,l started painting when my darling mother died.l needed. Something to fill this great big hole inside me.Pastel painting did this and after 10years is still my first love,although watercolour is now becoming self fills my mind and creates a softness inside of me,wonderful.

  20. Helen T on January 15, 2019 at 8:51 pm

    Never were truer words spoken! Gardening & sewing were my ‘release’, till I started painting! Thank you Anna!

  21. Jo Ann Frommer Rom on March 19, 2020 at 4:48 pm

    That was a great read Anna, Thanks so much. I have been painting and trying to distract myself from what is going on in the world. Please all of you be safe.

  22. Kerry C on March 20, 2020 at 12:15 pm

    In our current times, when the world seems to be out of control, there is something about painting that brings back a sense of stability for me. I will be working through many tutorials in the next few weeks or months of home schooling.

  23. Ann on March 23, 2020 at 8:27 am

    Thank you Anna for your interesting & supportive email.
    I have that book by Sir Winston Churchill’s, it is as if he is speaking to you! Well worth a read & best of all to own it – as I have read it a few times – so inspirational….
    Yes, painting certainly plays a great part in my life, especially this winter getting me through the grief of my husband’s passing.
    A huge thank you Anna, for your teaching, your library of tutorials, information & forums.
    I shall be making good use them. & soon by signing up again for my 3rd year…
    Wishing everyone a safe journey through these difficult times….

  24. Barbara Donohue on March 31, 2020 at 3:00 pm

    Oh Anna, you have hit the nail on the head, so to speak. I’m an amateur artist at best and never really plan to sell my work. Mostly I paint and often give away my work if someone admires it. I paint greeting cards and avidly practice new techniques to try to improve my skills. My husband once asked, “Why do you spend so much time on something that is not very lucrative?” I tied to explain to him that it wasn’t the product so much as the process. It’s my Zen, my quiet place, my place in the world where I can escape and regroup and refresh. For me it provides that “endorphic high” often spoken of by avid runners. Painting provides its own meditative state and for me renews and refreshes the soul. So yes, I agree completely with you and Winston Churchill. I couldn’t imagine life without watercolor painting and I pray that I will always have good use of my hands so that I can paint, refresh and renew!

  25. Judith LOTT on March 31, 2020 at 3:51 pm

    Hello Anne, I haven’t read all the replies but I enjoyed your Winston Churchill post and agree with him about painting being relaxing…For me it is like meditation as it requires full concentration. and I don’t see the time pass while I am painting.
    I have been “confined” as they say here in France for 2 weeks now and there is more to come. Although I miss getting together with friends, I do not miss anything else and I spend wondefully peaceful days in my house and garden. I always liked my own company but the present situation makes me realise how few things I really need and that the essentials are not to be found in the outside world!
    I wish you too a peaceful time with your family….

  26. Cynthia Lane on March 31, 2020 at 4:17 pm

    Painting is my “drug” of choice Anna. Your tutorials are awesome. Thanks for sharing this great read. ❤️✌️

  27. Mary Tarver on March 31, 2020 at 5:09 pm

    I find myself losing my sense of time passing as I paint. Following Anna’s instructions, pausing the video “to catch up”, mixing the paints to match her colors – I get so focused. I have discovered watercolor painting at an age with an empty nest. While my son and granddaughters are busy with their lives, I relax in my quiet home and lose myself in a fantastic new hobby. My hubby works in woodworking, so he is downstairs in his workshop while I’m upstairs in my hobby room. At times, I think, “Oh, it will soon be time to start dinner” and look at my watch, and it’s hours later than I thought! I have recommended Anna’s lessons to my sister, and she is starting her journey with Anna as well!

  28. Kay Schaul on March 31, 2020 at 5:33 pm

    As a beginner to watercolor, I have been amazed by how much time passes while absorbed in drawing or painting. As a teen in the 70s, before tech availability and when tv pickings were slim, creativity was quite helpful to fill my time and being! I still have most of those pieces! Thank you for the lessons I am learning with your tutorials!

  29. Maureen Brown on March 31, 2020 at 6:15 pm

    Thank you Anna for thinking about everyone. My medium is coloured pencils but I can still “copy” your subjects.

  30. Judy aka BridgehavenJude on March 31, 2020 at 6:38 pm

    God’s timing is the BEST!!! I have been working on my most ambitious painting thus far for about a month now – wondering if I would ever finish it- would I ever get all those gazillion trees painted in the hue and shade they needed to be. Then there was the complicated sky – which I have never attempted to paint before – with all the different shapes and colors, and the reflections of them in the large lake area – I just plodded along praying as I do for the Lord’s hand to guide mine. I am quite sure He led me to find your school, and to paint this particular painting too. The photo I “ran across” while looking for a good one of our favorite local lake – a place that has been in our family for generations now, was taken by a man with a drone from the boat in the lower left corner of the lake. As I shared my finished painting digitally with him last night, I gave him the credit for the wonderfully colorful image of a place where it’s usually gray and gloomy because of its location in the Pacific Northwest, between the Olympic Mountains. He told me I as wrong! He said that day was the usual gray overcast day, and soon after he took that image, the clouds opened and he was caught in a downpour. He tooks the photos home and with “Illustrator” on his computer, enhanced the image to bring up the colors – he said he over saturated it to make it “pop”. Of course I didn’t know all that when I saw the photo, I just loved all the beautiful colors in the image and did my best to portray them on a piece of watercolor paper. But God knew all of this before any of it came together! He orchestrated all of it, including the skill and confidence I would need to even attempt it by bringing me to your school in the first place. YES painting does take me to another “place” – I get lost in “space” and time when I am in my studio, trying to bring whatever subject it is to life on a piece of paper with a little bit of watercolor paint. I don’t think about the Lord all the while I paint, but I see His Hand in all the paintings I have done while I have been at your school. I realise that everything I have painted was His Creation and as such, He knows best how to make it look lifelike on paper. I am sure it was Him that led Churchill to canvas too – gave him the skill required to do what he did during such a terrible time in his life. You and all the other students here, have given me a wonderful way to get my mind off of the pandemic, and focused on all the beauty still in our world! Thank you Anna! To God be the Glory! I do meditate each morning, only I call it prayer. I will add you to my prayers for your little ones to learn to love one another and for you and all your concerns about the school here too.

    • Anna Mason on April 1, 2020 at 11:45 am

      Thanks Judy and thank you for sharing your beautiful landscape painting here.

  31. Pat on March 31, 2020 at 8:05 pm

    I find painting very absorbing and so good for relieving feelings of stress and anxiety etc. I have to be careful because my perfectionist tendencies can mean that I get uptight and irritated with myself even when painting. For the last few months I have been dabbling with other types of paints. I am grateful to the great grounding Anna has given to me that cut across all types of painting. It really did take me quite a while to realise that all mistakes are good ones and that it is so necessary for learning. When I first started I would feel frustrated. My daughter once said… “Mum! You can’t expect to be good at this immediately! It’s like you want to be Monet overnight!” 🙂

  32. Molly Caton on March 31, 2020 at 8:39 pm

    Thank you Anna, very interesting what Churchill had to say, I was really mad on painting and drawing until alas I had facial palsy approx three years ago which you cannot tell now, but unfortunately I have not done any painting or drawing since, I want to but don’t seem to have the urge any more

  33. ROSALIE ROSCOE on March 31, 2020 at 9:31 pm

    Thanks Anna, I reallyenjoyed reading this and I agree that painting puts you in a new frame of mind.

  34. Mérie on March 31, 2020 at 10:16 pm

    Painting is s new hobby for me. I love it though. Finding it challenging to do during this lockdown time with kids home learning. But I grab every chance I get and it keeps my stress levels down for sure. Thanks for the videos. I can’t wait to try them.

  35. Glenice on April 1, 2020 at 12:36 am

    Hi Anna, this is brilliant. Yesterday, I picked up my paint brushes for the first time in months and was almost immediately* transported into a better space than all my walking and sleeping (hoping that this nightmare will all be over when I wake!) has done. Churchill
    was so right.
    * (I say, ‘almost immediately’ because I was frozen for a while in front of my painting thinking I had lost all skill. If only I had done as you say, paint every day!

    Life is so topsy-turvey! I have been a hands-on Grandma for my two youngest grandchildren – exactly the same ages as your two little ones! – and now can’t be with them. FaceTime initially just added to our distress, as the two and a half year old just cried and cried, unable to understand why we couldn’t come over or he couldn’t come around. But, modern technology and youth have combined to relieve the problem – we now pretend we’re on holiday when we FaceTime and he’s too young to notice that our holiday home looks just the same as our house!
    (And, here’s hoping that he is just as generously perceptive when I send him the hamster I’m painting for him from the Tutorial Library! I’m starting back at the Beginning tutes)
    Thanks Anna, you are truly inspirational.

    • Anna Mason on April 1, 2020 at 11:37 am

      Thanks for this lovely message Glenice and I hope painting can help fill your days til you’re back cuddling your grandbabies again!

  36. Sue (LadyCinnamon) on April 1, 2020 at 1:27 am

    I never knew Sir Winston Churchill was a painter too, but I’m not surprised he had this special outlet for relief from the huge load he carried for so long. Along with painting, I love sewing, beadwork, and gardening. Once I retired I had hoped to spend more time on them, but found I had less free time than when i worked fulltime – until the current lockdown. We’ve been “somewhat” in lockdown for a couple of weeks, but now the governor has made it official. So the only trips out I can make now are to the grocery, hardware store, and drugstore. Everything else is closed. My heart aches for people struggling with all the ramifications that go with this. I am VERY fortunate to be retired and living alone. Spring gardening is calling, my house needs attention, and a LOT of painting tutorials and unfinished projects are waiting. To just stay home and work on these things is a gift that, I realize, is not how everyone sees it. So, your message is certainly timely, Anna. Whenever we do get back to “normal,” it will not be the same “normal” we have left. Things will be different. The world will be different. But the arts will survive and continue to lift everyone’s spirits. And doing your tutorials will help to make it so.

  37. Anne Gardner on April 1, 2020 at 3:01 am

    That is so great that you wrote this Anna! Thank you! And just so you know and don’t feel bad about yourself….painting is one form of meditating. You are no longer thinking about anything else. When you are creating, you are in your right brain and out of the left brain.

  38. Chris Sanford on April 1, 2020 at 3:27 am

    I have read that ‘Little book ” many times. It is relaxing, I have just found a copy of the original larger version that includes 18 of his paintings.

  39. Angie Shaffer on April 2, 2020 at 6:17 pm

    I can’t even GET to it.
    (Homeschooling two children, essential chores, extrovert hubby, blah blah blah . . . )

    I long, every day, to paint.
    Glancing at my beautiful space keeps the dream alive in this fried introvert’s head.

    • Angie Shaffer on April 3, 2020 at 2:45 am

      Firstly, Yikes!! My above comment DID include laughing and smiley faces, which apparently didn’t come through in this post; without which makes me appear to be whiny!
      Anyway! Not whining. Love LOVE Churchill. Love LOVE Anna (Not ashamed one bit to say that my frazzled brain and heart instantly swell with calm and love the very moment I open Anna’s website. I can’t help but say – out loud and every single time [honestly, every single time] “Hello, my friend.” Anna’s tutorials have become my friend: they reliably cajole my synapses to settle down; they give me pretty things to look at; and they give me unquestionable courage to finally act on my life-long desperate desire to paint.

      Secondly, my now-telecommuting hubby is so lovely. After my initial post, he came to my frazzled INTJ brain’s rescue – asked me to commit to painting first thing in the morning while he homeschools the kids for an hour.
      I am blessed. My heart is full. What a time. “I’m coming back, my friend!!”

  40. Terry Lee Churchill on May 6, 2020 at 1:35 pm

    I am so overjoyed that you have honoured Sir Winston Churchill, Anna! I am blessed to have my Churchill surname and must admit during my school years, I had loads of fun with both School teachers and scholars alike, by quoting that Winston Churchill was my ‘great, great, great, great, Grandfather”!!! There always had to be four “greats”!! I have always had the utmost respect for Sir Winston Churchill and was extremely excited to discover he too, was a very talented Watercolour Artist! Given that the equipment was certainly not as advanced as that which we have today, his paintings were truly beautiful. I too, am a totally Self-Taught Watercolour Artist, having started way back in the 1980’s when I also taught myself Calligraphy. Discovering your absolutely breathtaking Art has been such a huge inspiration for me – and I have now done two extremely rewarding Free Tutorials! Thank YOU Anna, for continually inspiring and encouraging us Artists to “keep on painting & creating” with confidence – Watercolours are the most incredible therapy ever and I do feel blessed to have been given my creative talents!! All the very best, Terry Lee Churchill, South Africa

  41. […] For those drawn to it, painting or other creative hobbies can be just that kind of activity. As Winston Churchill wrote: […]

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