Monthly Archives: November 2013

Working face to face

Portraits have dominated the last month, not just in my art class, but online as well. I’ve signed up for #portraitnovember on twitter, and seen lots of impressive work whilst being motivated to produce some of my own. I’ve found the online community – which I’m tempted to call a group – encouraging and supportive, and wish I could find a similar twitter tribe who are interested in group therapy.(Maybe like me, most group therapists are ambivalent about group membership?) However, back to sketching …..

What have I learnt?

  1. Volume, or mass, is my downfall. I’m not bad on detailed observation but lose sight of the sculptural. Heads are big clunky bits of solid matter, rather than wispy two dimensional ovals.
  2. Eyebrows are much more important and individual than I realised.
  3. After 20 minutes I can’t really see what I’m doing and need to get a distance from the sitter and the portrait. In the art class that usually involves wandering around and looking at what everyone else is up to. (This is possibly very annoying, but no-one has said that to me yet).
  4.  I need to manage my own frustration in a more productive way. There is a place I want to get to, with a confident, sparse line, that is out of my reach at the moment … and it isn’t going to help me to get there if I am too self-critical.

One of the things I’ve been reflecting on is emotional expression.  A great deal of psychotherapy rests upon often unacknowledged visual clues about emotional states. We know when somebody is swallowing distress, for example, by the look on their face – but what exactly does that involve? There is a lot of emphasis placed upon eyes, in the clichéd ‘windows of the soul’ formula, but I am realising it’s a great deal more complicated. Tiny muscle tensions in the eyebrows or eyelids create very different expressions. Around the mouth too, all those small muscle groups are choreographed into subtle messages about feelings. Trying to capture any of this on paper or canvas is so hard! portrait

Part of the challenge lies in the mobility and speed of changes in tension. I replayed a brief moment on the iPlayer where someone was being interviewed and I could see a powerful emotion flicker across their face. Every time I paused it I had missed it, or caught a fragment that on its own did not tell me anything. The message lay in the sequence of barely perceptible changes, even though the whole movement only lasted a second or two.

Once again, drawing makes me realise how much is taken for granted in the ways in which we communicate with each other. I’ve been more involved with email counselling lately, and this underlines the absence of certain information when not in visual contact with a client. What I learn from drawing reminds me that working ‘face to face ‘means just that. It is a very helpful reminder not to overplay the importance of the spoken word and underestimate the contribution of visual communication.

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