Nature Imagery vs Abstract Art In Healthcare

Morning sun in the snow, taken with Nikon D800 and Nikkor 24-85mm.


Art can help you heal, de-stress, relax, and raise your spirits. But what kind of art? And why are all of my recommendations for healing centers nature-related? What about abstract art?

Abstract art can be powerful, evocative, beautiful or challenging - and these are all good things in the right context.  The problem with putting abstract art in healthcare settings is that people tend to project their current emotional state onto images that are open to interpretation.  If you happen to be stressed, worried, or in pain, abstract art may actually reinforce those feelings. 

A 2006 study on the effects of visual art in hospitals showed that patients were not as comforted by abstract art, “preferring the positive distraction and state of calm created by the blues and greens of landscape and nature scenes instead.”

The whole experience isn’t just subjective – there’s a whole emotion-brain element. Looking at images directly affects the parts of your brain that processes emotions. If you look at something odd and unfamiliar, your brain actually struggles to put it into some known context, which is linked to anxiety.


Okay, so ixnay on the stract-abay. But what about subjects other than nature? Sure, there are other things to take beautiful pictures of, but in healing contexts nature is still preferred over urban scenes, prominent people, architectural interiors, sport scenes, or still-life (yeah, vases and fruit bowls aren't doing me any favors either).

A great summary of the research, including specific elements that have been identified as most beneficial, can be found in Putting Patients First, by Susan Frampton & Patrick Charmel (hint, look for the chapter called "Healing Arts: Nutrition For The Soul" by Ulrich & Gilpin.) 

Sunset light on the water at Lake Powell, AZ.  Taken with Nikon D800 and Nikkor 28-300mm.


The preference for nature goes for kids too – a 2005 study showed that kids 7-17 in hospital settings rated nature art higher than abstract art, but also higher than cartoony or fantasy art.

If you’re treating children, go for nature with vivid colors, and try to get calm water and non-threatening wildlife in there too. Those recommendations actually apply to everyone – nobody’s relaxing to dark, stormy waves crashing into sharp rocks or a close-up of teeth from a snarling bear.

To learn more about recommended elements to look for in your nature scenes, check out my page on Evidence-Based Art: Images That Heal.

Great blue heron, taken with Nikon D300 and Nikkor 18-200mm.