Pastels for Pain – Where it all Began

When I first picked up a pastel after years of aggressive pain medications, I quickly realised that all I really needed was my faculties back and a beautiful distraction.

My name is Emma Hunt, and I am a Pastel Landscape Artist, Teacher and Curator, living in the beautiful county of Cumbria where I’m inspired by Lake and Sea every day. My road to this vocation came later in life at 44 years old. This is my story of how it all happened.

I was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome in 2018. This is a life-limiting, incurable genetic condition that arises when there is a malfunction of collagen in the body. It has many consequences, some more serious than others and has differing impacts on its’ sufferers. My biggest issue was coping with the pain, but I also have leaky heart valves and other complications. I had some short spells of remission, but I had basically retired to my bed for almost 12 years, believing this was my only prognosis. I did not appreciate the beautiful landscape around me, I rarely opened my curtains.

But with the diagnosis came more intervention and I was directed to a pain management consultant. When she said she wanted me to reduce my pain medication, it felt like the end of my world. I wasn’t coping with the pain as it was so how can they expect me to do better with less? However, I didn’t realise I was also addicted to many strong painkillers, including fentanyl. I needed a machine to keep me breathing at night because the doses I’d been given were so high, it suppressed my breathing.

So, in 2019, I started to reduce and quickly realised I had been sleepwalking through my life. I saw colour, everything stood out like 3D instead of the muted flat scenes I’d been seeing before. Over the period of several months, I had stopped all painkillers completely.

Then in July 2019, a friend challenged me when I saw some artwork he’d bought and felt it was a lot of money for very little work. I had dabbled with art as a child and early adulthood. He asked me to go and do something. I didn’t have very high-quality materials (like I do now) but I set to work on this dandelion.

Dandelion pastel painting by Emma Hunt.

Something amazing happened at the same time. I realised I was distracted from pain or worry – just lost in the moment and soothing practice of applying pastel. This became a key coping mechanism that to a desire to share the benefit.

Before I could do that, I had to overcome social anxiety. The only way to do that is to face your fears and do it anyway. So, I did and started to sell paintings in a lovely bar in Whitehaven called The Harbourmaster. From there, it grew, and I approached a women’s centre called Women out West to offer my services as a pastel teacher in November 2019. I am still volunteering now, and the results have been amazing.

Then, when COVID came, I was no different to anyone else; I felt that wartime spirit and wanted to do my bit to help. I auctioned paintings off and raised £800 for PPE and I turned my camera to my work and began teaching free pastel workshops from my Facebook page @EmmaHuntArtist.

As I started to explore better materials, I knew I had to try Unison Colour Pastels. I knew instantly that my life was made easier for it…. they were smooth on the paper and just a joy to work with.

In May 2021, I was delighted to meet Helen Bullock at The Rectory as I asked cheekily if Unison Colour could help me with materials so I could continue to help my charity, Women Out West. I was humbled by the donation and those pastels are still being used, every week to give our most vulnerable and fragile women an hour of peace and distraction.

Now, I am humbled once again by being invited to be an Associate Artist. I cannot wait to see how things develop and look forward to sharing so much more with you!

This is my latest ones, a study of Castlerigg Sunset last week.

Associate Artist Intake for 2022

It seems a while ago since we asked for applications from artists to become an Associate Artists & wow the applications came in thick & fast. So much so it took our Unison Helen a good while to get through them all.

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9 Responses

  1. Hi
    What a great inspiration you and your artwork are. I suffer from an autoimmune disease since my girls were little. Painting is a great distraction from any side effects or moods. That’s one of the reasons I paint so often. Congrats on your accomplishments.

  2. Emma is a fantastic teacher and motivator as well as a great artist. Her blog, characteristically, plays down the impact her generosity in helping others like me to find their passion for art and discover how it can improve their wellbeing. I speak from first hand experience. Pastelling is my creative antidote to stress and Emma helped me so much.

  3. Emma,
    I can totally identify with you story. I was diagnosed with Lupus at age 52 and had an outbreak at age 60. I was in bed for the next nine years and too sick to even get up much. I started painting after a few years of this but could only work on my paintings for about 10 minutes at a time. Just those few minutes were such a help with my mental health. I am in remission now and paint for hours every day. I got pan pastel a year ago and love them. I use stick and pan in my painting and donate painting to non profits plus sell in galleries. Thank you for your story. I live in California
    Karen Keys

  4. What a fascinating and inspirational story!!! Art is MY therapy! When I am creating, I am zoning out of all my other issues and focusing on the task at hand! I am SO glad that you are painting and living life, Emma!!! Thank you for sharing your struggles!!

  5. Mark Twain once wrote, “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.” I would agree, but add: “Against the assault of laughter AND ART nothing can stand”. When I work with my pastels, when I’m deep in the values and drama of complimentary colors, I do not note the physical pain from arthritis or the wickedness of depression. Life is good. And when a friend wants something I’ve painted, I’m over the moon. I’m so very happy you wrote this. I hope others might read and realize how much they, too could enjoy art, especially pastels.

  6. Thanks for sharing – absolutely encouraging! I started painting in my late 50’s so I know it’s never too late to begin a new journey. Keep pasteling and teaching!

  7. (translated)How inspiring! It really excites me!
    How wonderful that you have been able to find yourself and move forward thanks to art.
    Beautiful are your jobs!

    Greetings from Santiago de Chile.

    (Original)Qué inspirador! Me emociona en verdad!
    Qué maravilloso que hayas podido encontrarte y avanzar gracias al arte.
    Bellos son tus trabajos!

    Un saludo desde Santiago de Chile.

  8. I had to stop and read this article. Emma, your story is so much like mine. I have suffered with often severe pain since I fell down a flight of stairs in 1994. I spent 3.5 years in intensive physical therapy that gave me no relief, actually made it worse, and I eventually quit. I started going to a pain doctor and while he gave me a few months of lessened pain, he also got me hooked on pain medications (Norco, Tramadol, and Fentanyl). After several years of treatment by him that only made me worse, I moved from the Southeast to the West. My new pain doctor got me off the meds and has helped me cope with the increase in pain, but I felt blessed to have my mind working again. Unfortunately, I am now 67 and have been living with this and slowly losing physical functionality from several conditions almost all related to that fall. During the first enforced isolation under Covid, I picked up a box of pastels and began painting again for the first time in 50 years! (Long story) Strangely, I noticed that my pain levels dropped significantly when I was painting. Since February 2021, I have painted 2-3 paintings a week, done many as gifts for family and friends, and a surprising number of commissions. Now I am branching out, trying other mediums. It has been a godsend for me through this difficult time. Even my chronic depression is not as pervasive as it has been for most of the 30 years of my physical disability. And like you, I donated a couple of paintings to charity auctions. This has been such a wonderful addition to the end of my life and it never occurred to me I could ever experience joy again! My daughter says she thinks I am channeling my artist mother. 😍 Reading your article was like reading about my own life.

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