The portrait and the case study: getting beneath the surface

I have discovered portraits. Of course I knew they were out there, and I’ve even tried one or two pencil sketches myself, but this is serious. Pushed into new territory by this term’s art project, I find myself wrestling with two paradoxical demands. I want to paint or draw a portrait of a real person and capture something of their likeness, which for me involves a lot of smudging and tweaking and attending to fine detail; at the same time I want bold big brush strokes, ‘unrealistic’ colour and speed.   Talent and experience have enabled many good artists to combine the two, but I’m a beginner here. The project has led me into looking at artists work that I wasn’t familiar with. Luc Thymans, David Bomberg, Gerhard Richter ,Maggie Hambling, for example – all painted portraits that I am appreciating with a new sense of awe.

I am fascinated by the way in which the slightest touch can transform the expression on the face that I am creating. Charcoal is beautiful in its smudge-ability, each messy fingerprint transforming an expression. I become engrossed in rubbing, smudging, erasing, adding and subtracting charcoal – mainly from the drawing but there’s a fair amount on me as well. Much of the time I use my fingers. There is something sensuous about stroking across the emerging face, feeling out the contours beneath the skin, blending the chalk and charcoal into flesh. In fact, I decided that I had to be very selective about whom I wanted to draw in this way – up close and personal with Ed Miliband made me feel slightly queasy.DSCN0559

At the same time I am writing about case studies in psychotherapy: as so often happens, images and words resonate with each other. The case study is a focused examination of one unique therapeutic relationship. It may serve to illustrate or challenge some general themes or theoretical point, but if it is to come to life be it must pay attention to the subtleties of individual relationships, emotions, behaviours and thoughts. We need to have a sense of the way in which a particular history, context, and lifestyle infuses the ‘problem’. We are depressed, or manic, or suicidal, or narcissistic in our own unique way, I believe, whilst sharing a common experience.

Most people have noses but that doesn’t mean if I can draw one, I can draw them all. An understanding of anatomy does not on its own produce a lifelike drawing:  the case study, like the portrait, is trying to capture the vitality and uniqueness of the subject. Not just the subject, either, because there is a relationship involved in both examples – the patient or client and therapist, the model or sitter and the artist. The gaze of the other, however much downplayed, is always implicated. The perspective of the therapist or artist can never be whitewashed away.

I have been writing about this from a therapy perspective for ages, it seems. But it suddenly hits me afresh when I am struggling to get beyond my own limitations in drawing. I can feel myself being magnetically pulled into familiar responses; the same old marks on the paper, even though I know I am being confronted by a task that requires more.  My own comfort zone, in drawing as in psychotherapy, will not do justice to the person in front of me.

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2 thoughts on “The portrait and the case study: getting beneath the surface

  1. Chris Post author

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Yes, we used our existing maps to navigate through relationships and over-ride lots of information that might challenge them. Labels are another way to ignore inconvenient inconsistencies and particularities, I agree.

  2. H Button

    Great likeness of Ed Miliband for a beginner! I like the comparison of the portrait to the ‘preconceived’ thoughts we have of people. When drawing we comfortably use memory to create and switch off from actually ‘seeing’ our subjects (Quote Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain). It’s the easier option for the brain to deal with. Do we respond in the same way to meeting new people? Particularly people who are labelled with mental illness and not look at the true person in front of us.Maybe a book called ‘Therapy on the Right Side of the Brain’ would be good.

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