Migraines and Art: Finding the auras in my paintings

A family member recently sent me an article on art and migraines, and reading it gave me the idea to write about my own migraines and how they became a positive force in my development as an artist.  In my teens and early twenties, I experienced frequent classic migraines, and I never had much success in treating them with medication.  Thankfully, as I got older and had my first child, they improved drastically.  After also finding the right combination of diet and daily exercise, I now get them only a few times a year, and they are not nearly as severe.

Migraines can affect people in many different ways, but mine were the classic form; a short visual aura preceding one-sided pain and nausea that sometimes lasted for days.  About 20 minutes before the pain started, I would see a visual disturbance that looked like a cracked windshield in a c-shaped form, scintillating at the edges and spreading out in a circular pattern.  I painted it once to show my neurologist what I was talking about.  This is how it would look on a black background:

Migraine Aura Painting by Kathryn Beals

Aura, 24″ x 24″ acrylic on canvas, copyright © Kathryn Beals

Reading about migraines and seeing other artists’ depictions, I learned that these c-shaped patterns (called scotomas) are fairly common in migraine auras, due to a pattern of changes that occur in the brain during an attack.  It’s still pretty alarming to watch one unfold.

At the same time as I was struggling with the migraines, I was finding my style as a painter.  Like many developing artists, I started to move away from realism and (without making the connection to my migraine auras) began painting these paintings:

Wander northstar starry_river_iw

Top left: Wander, 30″ x 40″ acrylic on canvas, top right: North, 16″ x 20″ acrylic on canvas, bottom: Starry river, 22″ x 28″ acrylic on canvas

Later, these:

Light in the desert sanctuary_i2w

Light in the Desert, 20″ x 24″ acrylic on canvas, Sanctuary, 20″ x 24″ acrylic on canvas

haven_iw Heartwood

Haven, 16″ x 20″ acrylic on canvas,  Heartwood, 24″ x 30″ acrylic on canvas

solstice_iw blessing_iw

Solstice, 24″ x 30″ acrylic on canvas, Blessing: 24″ x 30″ acrylic on canvas

The migraines got less frequent, but I felt more and more at home painting these surreal skies with circular patterns.  The images often came to me in dreams.  Now that the migraines are mostly behind me, I remember the pain less and the auras more, and I can look back and see them everywhere in my early work. Though scary, the visual disturbances were often beautiful and almost supernatural.

new_i  mather_w beyond_i

Top left: North Star, 24″ x 30″ acrylic on canvas, right: Amazed, 20″ x 24″ acrylic on canvas, bottom: Beyond, 24″ x 30″ acrylic on canvas

I don’t miss the migraines, and I’m thankful to be mostly rid of them. However, they gave me a new way of seeing the world, and now I can look back and see them in some ways as a gift.

Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 12.47.38 PM

Finished painting: Light in the Desert

A few years ago I was asked to create a piece on the Nativity story, so I painted this scene:

Light in the desert

Light in the Desert, 20″x 24″ acrylic on canvas, copyright © Kathryn Beals

I wanted to create something peaceful but mysterious, with a dark sky.  I decided to keep the composition very simple and limit the palette to mostly blues and purples, to make the focal star more striking.

As my style developed as an artist, it kind of split into two styles; abstract/surreal and more realistic landscapes.  The more realistic landscapes tell a story or recall a certain place, the surreal ones are more emotional and abstract.   I love hearing others’ impressions of these pieces, and I’ve found that viewers interpret the surreal landscapes in very different ways.

For me, this painting shows a vast desert – sand dunes in the foreground, the star in the sky – and has a dark but hopeful feeling.  Other people have told me that this painting is the moon over huge ocean waves, and it has kind of a scary but captivating feel.  Others have said it is snow-covered mountains, cold and stark.  I like that these images can be different things to different people.

This painting is available in my Etsy store as a photo print or canvas print.  The original is not for sale.  Happy holidays!  I’ll be back to posting in the New Year.

Dreams and the Pacific Crest Trail, Finished Painting

Nine months pregnant with my first child, I had a vivid dream of climbing up Forester Pass on the Pacific Crest Trail, in the high Sierra mountains of California.  This pass, also part of the John Muir trail, is the highest point on the PCT, which I had hiked several years earlier with my husband.  In my dream, I reached the top of the pass, pregnant and exhausted, where I found my baby safe and brought him home.

etsy_avatar

I woke up inspired to paint the place in my dream, secretly hoping that it would somehow bring on labor.  It worked!  Twelve hours after finishing the painting, labor began.  Just like in the dream, I finally met my baby after a difficult journey that took several days.  I like to imagine that this place is where he came from:

origin_iw

Origin, 30″x 40″ acrylic on canvas, copyright © Kathryn Beals

I decided to keep the surreal, dreamlike aspects of the scene, over preserving the realistic details and colors of the pass.  This is probably my very favorite painting now, although just looking at it made me sick for a few weeks after the birth, since it brought me right back into the dizzying feelings of labor, mixed in with memories of altitude sickness.  I like it when I can harness a powerful memory into a piece of art.

Here’s the southern approach to Forester Pass, the place in the Sierras that the painting is loosely based on.  We spent a day walking towards that pass, wondering how we would possibly climb over it since it looks impossible, but when you get right up close, you can see the steep trail zigzagging up the rock.

IMG_0579 IMG_0576

This is me, hiking down the other side of the pass quickly just as a storm rolled in.  You can tell it’s a high pass (13,153 feet) when there’s snow, in California, in July. The high Sierras have such an otherworldly feel, and I find myself coming back to paint them again and again.

IMG_0570 IMG_0569

I also filmed video of the painting coming together.  The video quality’s not great since I didn’t have my new camera and tripod then, but I’m glad I filmed it anyways.

This painting is available in my Etsy store as a photo print or canvas print.  The original is not for sale.

Winter Night Sky Painting: Wander

This is another painting from a snowshoe trip in Yosemite a few years ago.  We had a long trip in to a stone shelter hut, and due to bad snow conditions it took much longer than we expected.

It was close to midnight when we were still a mile or two from where we needed to be, and we had that exhausted tunnel vision that comes at the end of a long hike at high altitude.  Suddenly we looked up from our plodding snowshoes and saw an amazing sight around us – a burned forest covered in snow, silent, under the moon and stars.

Wander

Wander, 30″ x 40″ acrylic on canvas, copyright © Kathryn Beals

Sometimes I need these moments to remember why I love the backcountry, and why it is worth it to be out in the cold in these amazing places, and not home in my warm bed.  We stopped and looked at the stars for a long time before continuing on.

Continue reading