Teaching Alcohol Ink Painting as a Healing Path

by | Sep 12, 2017 | Alcohol Ink, Barbara Nahmias

Let me begin by saying that I never wanted to teach. In fact, it took me a very long time to even call myself an artist.  I was also somewhat shy and uncomfortable with leadership. Yet, in the course of a few years, I went from reluctant artist- to artist- to artist who sells her work- and then finally to teaching. I would not have predicted that path in 2014 when this colorful, flowing medium first called to me, beckoning me to release the creativity I had put away for so many years.


I had recently retired from my position at a major media company, moved to a new location, and was feeling quite lost and lonely.  It was also one of the coldest and snowiest winters New York City had ever seen, so I was stuck at home a lot. I loved to paint and draw as a kid, but somehow had received the message that art was not a worthy pastime and that I didn’t have the necessary talent to pursue it.  Over the years, the few attempts I made to sketch or paint, actually produced more stress than joy, in that I was too worried about outcome to have any fun or to learn.  

My sister, a trained artist, began to “play” with alcohol inks and when I saw her results, I was entranced. The forgotten child within me spoke loud and clear: “I want to play too!”  And there it began.  What was latent within for so many years could no longer be contained.  I started with “drips and drops” and quickly moved onto landscapes and abstracts. I took classes, learned new techniques, became fearless in my willingness to try new things.  I dreamed about the vivid colors and painted my dreams.  The floodgates of creativity had re-opened and I couldn’t get enough!  

For the first time in my life, I set up a space in my home dedicated exclusively to my art- and every time I looked at my little corner “studio,” I couldn’t stop smiling.  I had gone from a depressing kind of “lost” to a “losing myself” in the inks.  Whenever I sat down to paint, hours would go by as I turned out piece after piece, while in, what I can only describe as, a kind of trance-like state.  In this state, attachment to outcome seemed to vanish, as I simply “allowed” the inks to guide me.   

Because of the dynamic nature of alcohol inks, the fact that often they will “do what they do,” layering, mixing, expanding out into unexpected shapes- I realized I could not control them.  As I made what I thought were “mistakes,” I eventually saw that there were no mistakes.  For example, once I had the intention of painting a landscape, but the inks and my newly attuned intuition took me in a different direction- and I ended up with a lovely garden.  I learned to literally “go with the flow,” to keep working a painting, suspending judgement and self-critique until I came to a sense of completion.

Soon, with the encouragement of my husband, I began posting my paintings online.  To my surprise, people loved them and I was selling as fast as the paint could dry!  It became clear that years of studying technique was not a prerequisite to expressing oneself fully through this wonderful medium.  

In an effort to learn and meet other artists,  I began to connect to the artistic community online and in my area.  I made new, supportive friends who loved to talk about painting and share their work.  I wasn’t lonely any more.  My friends and family began to ask me to teach them.  Teach art? How could I teach?  I wasn’t a “trained” artist like my sister!  But almost as soon as I had that thought, this next realization hit me-  that I had been on a  powerful healing and transformative journey, that painting with alcohol inks had turned my life around, and that I needed to share that process and experience with others.  I could create a safe, nurturing environment where people might gain the courage to allow the inks to teach them, as they had for me.

My classes have in fact turned into powerful healing sessions.  I note that there is often a lot of tentativeness when people arrive.  They run in stressed from a day’s work. They don’t know what they’re getting into. They may have felt all their lives that they could not draw a straight line, let alone paint.  I know how they feel!  So, we start by building “community,” with students going around the room talking about what brought them to the class, what they hope for, what their experience with creativity has been up to this point. I speak a little about my own journey, and I see them relax a bit as we all get to know each other.  I then lead them in a short guided meditation encouraging them to release the stresses of the day and any worries or concerns about the future- just for a couple of hours.  Some soothing background music helps this process along. Only then do I begin to teach “technique.”

They start by simply choosing colors they love, dropping the inks onto the page, observing how they behave. I show them how to create texture, using brushes, cotton swabs, stamping, spraying.  We then use fine point markers to draw into the designs. I notice how absorbed they become- there are a lot of “oohh’s” and  “ahh’s” as they delight in the way the colors layer and move. I walk around offering encouragement, as I would with a young child who is learning something new.  I answer questions about technique, but I try not to be intrusive or to “make” them work in a specific way.  I notice that they begin to encourage each other. They find new techniques on their own. There is always the hum of friendly chatting in the room as they work.  

I also speak a little about how the lessons the inks have taught me have generalized into other areas of my life, for example, I have become less attached to outcome and therefore less susceptible to disappointment.  I have realized how little we can actually control, so I tend to work with whatever life throws my way.  I have become more  courageous and less judgmental.  Perfectionism, or the paralyzing pursuit of it, is a thing of the past.  I’ve incorporated a lot more “play” into my life, tuning in more and more to what brings me joy. 

At the end of class, I always leave time for a group photo, and individual photos of their work if they like. I’m always amazed at how the energy has changed in the room after only a couple of hours!  The tense, tentative faces are now relaxed and smiling.  The students seem so proud and excited about their first attempts with this new medium.  But what is most amazing are the hugs all around, considering they were all strangers only a few hours before!  

Is it possible that in this short time together some lives have been shifted just a bit? That someone who may have felt stuck or depressed, as I had been, might have found a new direction to begin healing?  That someone who was lonely made a friend?  As I consider any of these possibilities, I feel nothing but gratitude and humility for the privilege of doing this work. And I realize that I am not the teacher at all.  I take credit only for creating the conditions that allow others to experience the teachings of the inks- to be   healed by them, cheered by them-  at the very least, to have a little more fun and color in their lives!   

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Barbara Nahmias is a self-taught artist, and art instructor living in Riverdale, New York. She defines herself as a “latent lifelong artist” who, until retirement from her position at a major media company, never had the time to nurture her creative expression. View Barbara's full profile and see her work!


  1. Janet

    Are alcohol inks safe to use with teenagers….as far as health goes? Someone on an alcohol ink Facebook group claimed that alcohol inks were not safe to use around kids because the fumes are toxic. I have a hard time believing that. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

    • Alcohol Ink Art Community

      Janet, isopropyl alcohol can be toxic. I wouldn’t use it around small kids, but I think teenagers are ok. Just make sure you are in a really well-ventilated area. The fumes from the inks themselves aren’t always strong. But when you add the alcohol to work with them, it can be overwhelming and if that’s the case, it’s best to use an aspirator.


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