Monthly Archives: August 2013

Restraint, economy, and abstinence for artists and therapists


The balance has swung away from writing towards sketching this month. The Wednesday Group are having an extended summer break, so the characters have withdrawn to the back of my mind, and into the foreground comes this!

The Young Turk's Turban

The Young Turk’s Turban

But this is only part of the story, because I’ve been on a three day Life Drawing course. What did I learn?  The immediate answer is— some interesting techniques, much needed ideas about perspective and proportion, and how hard I can find it being a group member! The latter is hardly a new discovery, but never comfortable.  Another familiar feature turned up when I walked around the room checking out everyone’s work, as we did at regular intervals.  I was struck with how restrained my own drawings were in comparison to the strength, exuberance, colour, on other easels. Whatever fantasies I may have about riding a bike across an enormous paint spattered canvas, they were not being acted out here.

I could use the word ‘inhibited’, but I’m going to stick with ‘restrained’. I am aiming for a place where every mark carries a weight and meaning, and there is no superfluous packaging. At the same time it cannot be so tightly controlled that the drawing has no life. Just as with writing, the art has to shape the artist, and there has to be that vital reflexivity between the two.   The obsessive part of me could easily be drawn into adding details, layering and manipulating, reworking and reworking until some moment of completion arrives – but it also stirs up a sort of claustrophobia. The layers of pigment become enclosed and entrapping and I need to breathe. (Incidentally, that helps me see more clearly why water colours are so attractive, with their beautiful opacity and light – enough oxygen to survive!)

Restraint, inhibition, economy, and abstinence may all sound narrow and restrictive. Paradoxically they are also routes to keep something alive and open, and so important in psychotherapy. The idea of the therapist as a blank screen has been largely overthrown by a relational, interactive stance, and I have no desire to reinstate it;  but that does not mean restraint and abstinence are to be discarded.

Without that I could dominate every group therapy session with my own particular clever insights, or supposedly wise anecdotes; I could come up with an answer to all the queries, explain my views and share my experience; I could even find reasons to disregard therapeutic boundaries when I found them frustrating.  None of these may be hanging offences if they are deftly and rarely applied, but to use them as part of everday communication would make me a terrible therapist, I believe. Part of my job as I see it is to help create a space in which others can come to their own discoveries, rather than fill it with my own. The idea of abstinence deters the therapist from trying to take away the patient’s problem rather than engage with them in the struggle to transform, transcend or bear it.

In the therapy groups, I try to use words a bit like the marks in a drawing. I don’t want to just be an empty page, but I want the marks I make to capture something important about what I see and hear going on in the group session. The marks will change in response to other marks – it’s not just me that is engaged in this process within the group. Of course it’s impossible to get it exactly right – too much, too little, wrong tone, unhelpful choice of colour – they are all there, in the group as well as in the sketch book. I’ve learnt to be tolerant of my own supposed ‘blunders’ in the group, discovering that often they lead to useful and unexpected places. I’m not quite there yet with my drawings though!