Tag Archives: drawing

Safety in numbers? Sketching with the group.

There’s been a lot happening on the urban sketching scene since I last wrote. Inspired by the Oxford workshop, we have set up a small group who have met 4 times now to ‘SketchCoventry’. We are lucky to have an excellent art gallery, The Herbert, where we meet up, and it looks as if there may well be an Urban Sketchers workshop here in Coventry next April! This is timed to coincide with the exhibition Recording Britain that is touring the country and which I caught up with last year in Sheffield. It feels good to be involved in such a fascinating project, and amazing to think that it has all come about thanks to three of us pushing at some doors and finding that they opened!

We are a small group so far, but that feels fine to me. We meet up for coffee, decide where we are drawing and sometimes split into smaller groups; then we join up for lunch to look at the sketches. In the afternoon there is another foray, followed by more refreshments and more learning from each other’s drawings. It is very flexible and friendly, with ex-Oxford workshop sketchers making the effort to come from London, Shrewsbury and Banbury. Last 12 Months - 21

The Herbert Gallery was having a WW1 ‘family day (!) so there were lots of children clutching huge tissue paper poppies that they had made.

Sketching out in public is still a challenge, but is transformed by the group effect. I don’t feel nearly so conspicuous or vulnerable when there are two or three people drawing nearby. We give each other a sense of security and confidence; it seems that as a group we are far less likely to be interrupted or criticised than on our own. I wonder whether this is objectively the case or is something that, like a placebo, just makes us feel good.Sketch Cov2

We huddled together on the sofas in ‘Fargo Village’ to draw one of the vintage clothes stall.

The idea that there is ‘safety in numbers’ is set against a range of fears about the dangers of groups and I can see this good group/ bad group split in my therapy group too. The good version brings mutual understanding and support; the other side is the capacity to cut deep, to ignore, reject and challenge. This all reminded me of an article that I wrote for Therapy Today some time ago, and when I checked it out, this is what I found –

“Joining a group is rarely an emotionally neutral event. It holds both a promise and a threat. Depending on the sort of group, it may promise learning, companionship, support, relationship, and intimacy, for example. But it also contains a threat – of isolation, humiliation, lack of autonomy, domination, dependence, and attack. The relative force of ‘promise’ or ‘threat’ is shaped by the particular nature of the group itself, and by our previous experiences of group life.”

As far as SketchCoventry goes, there is a lot of promise and very little threat. Having said that I recognise how anxious any newcomers are about the quality of their own sketches – just like I was in Oxford last summer. The possibility of humiliation feels real, even though it is far more likely to be some internal critical voice of our own than anyone in the group. This I am sure connects with our previous, probably early, experiences in groups. It’s hard to find anyone who does not have a tale of being humiliated at school, for example…. and as for the family, that’s a whole other story brewing up for the next post!


Mad machines, mad times.

Rowland Emmett is probably best known as the creator of the fantastic machines in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, although that represents a fraction of his work. The current exhibition at Birmingham Art Gallery brings together a substantial collection of both his drawings and machines, many of which have not been seen in public for many years, if ever.

2014-05-28 12.13.33

Emmett was an artist and designer who had a highly successful career as a cartoonist and illustrator. The collection in the exhibition demonstrates his impressive skills. A child of a comfortable, upper middle-class family, grandson to Queen Victoria’s engraver, he was highly tuned to the distinctions of class. His machines poke gentle fun at the golfers and aviators, the tea drinkers and the toast eaters.

He was fascinated with trains and invented a fantasy railway company that featured engines with personality such as Nellie. After the First World War, he was commissioned to translate his cartoon railway into reality at the Festival of Britain show in London. Initially reluctant, he agreed and his miniature railway became one of the hits of the show.[i]

The exhibition is fascinating, fun, and informative. Although full of children when I went, it was the adults who appeared most delighted, grinning ear to ear. The children looked slightly bemused, for it is redolent with the last century, rather than this.2014-05-28 12.39.40

Anyone with an interest in drawing and design will enjoy this, but it also captures the psychotherapist in me. What was going on in the imagination of this man? He was born in 1909 and lived through two world wars, dying in 1960. He worked in aircraft design in Birmingham during the Second World War and his daily life must have been immersed in war. In response, seemingly, he created a fantasy world in exquisite detail of Edwardian ladies and gentlemen and railway lines. There is no anger, aggression or violence in any of his works: they are gentle, witty, charming, and fascinatingly clever. Cogs, levers, arms and pedals animate a series of characters and repeating motifs: cats, birds, teapots and flowers all wait to be identified in the cacophony of moving parts.

The exhibition includes a televised interview between Roland Emmett and Malcolm Muggeridge, where Muggeridge applied the adjective ‘mad’ to Emmett’s machines. In response, Emmett said that he thought the machines were very sane. It was the people who were mad – and it is easy to see how he might think that living through the times that he did.



(i) I wonder if the fascination with railways is a peculiarly British affair. Dad/Grandad’s miniature train layout in the attic is the standard cliché of middle class post war England: Thomas the Tank Engine has delighted and entertained thousands of us: The Railway Children must be one of the most successful films made. What about Murder on the Orient Express? Then I think of Turner’s beautiful painting and our national love affair with the steam train. What is it about trains? Whatever it is, it certainly hooked Roland Emmett. The psychoanalytic interpretation of our fascination with trains would make interesting reading. I must do some research here!


The importance of doodling

Learning to paint seems a serious project at the moment, with only the smallest signs of progress. Light relief has come in the way of doodling.

I have a long history of doodling, which has seen me through hours of staff meetings, lectures, conferences, and workshops .Talking on the phone is another great opportunity to draw patterns, fantastical landscapes, and weird animals, on whatever lies to hand. Proper drawing gets done in sketch books, which are always somewhere else when you want them. Doodles are the product of whatever is at hand – the biro and a ‘to do’ list usually. Recently I’ve been doing them whilst sitting in front of the TV. It’s that same divided attention which seems to free up the doodle line and make the viewing/listening experience so much more entertaining.

I feel as if I have been doing this for as long as I remember, and have never taken it seriously. Two things have challenged that lately. The first was posting a tv doodle on twitter and finding that quite a few people enjoyed it.buildings The second was even more puzzling.

In the art class this term I have been working on a series of small acrylic paintings of figures walking away from the viewer. More than once I have been asked what I am copying, and when say that it’s in my head, am met with ‘How can you do that? ‘as if it’s some strange talent. It’s happened often enough for me to think more about imagination. I’ve always believed that imagination is something that everyone has but not everyone develops. People who are musical tell me that of course I can sing, I just need to practice and enjoy it, and I see imagination in the same way. As a therapist I’ve always encouraged people to value and nurture their imagination, that their dreams and phantasies are significant and valuable parts of who they are, and that their creativity is precious. Yet here are people in the art class who are proficient painters telling me that they can’t produce anything ‘out of their head’ and need something to copy. What is going on here?

Copying is wired into us: It’s the bedrock of our development . All our skills from movement and language to relationships start from copying and mapping others. My granddaughter complains that I can draw better dogs than she can, and sets about copying mine – but I am confident that once she can draw ‘my’ dogs she will soon be drawing her own. But these recent experiences have made me appreciate how potentially fraught that transition is, from copying the other to creating your own version. And of course I am not just thinking about painting and drawing here.

So let’s celebrate the doodle, as one possible way to cross this bridge. It’s informality and scruffiness might be just what is need to draw out (!) our own imaginative powers.

When and whether to give up

This post has taken a long time coming. I’ve been pulled in different directions, between the continuing struggle with portraits, and the challenge of line drawing without any shading. But In my heart there is a clear favourite. I have been working with oil paints for the first time, trying to paint a child’s portrait from an old family photograph. I have worked on it for months, rubbing out, repainting, going over and over it to try to correct the faults and bring it to life. It has consumed hours of my time but was only a partial success, as you can see.photo Then one afternoon I just gave up on it and rubbed the face out completely.

At what point do you decide to stop working at something? This is an important question, both personally, and professionally. How do I decide whether or not I am banging my head against a brick wall, or knowing the importance of  hope, just rolling with the frustrations? I have a lot of experience in working for years with particular people, and I know that genuine change is piecemeal and takes far longer than our culture thinks it should. At the same time, I work with a service that offers very brief, time limited counselling,  and  I recognise that even in this micro format, psychotherapy can make a positive impact. In this context, it is necessary to make quick judgements about which clients will benefit from the limited resources available; despite the misgivings and failures, I see this as a valuable skill for therapists to have.

In my own group I am free from the external pressure, but am still trying to make judgements about what works best for the group and its members. Years ago, there was a group member who had sat in the group for a very long time, and despite sporadic periods of talking, was largely a silent participant – or passenger. The language is important.  He showed no signs of movement within the group, or in his life outside, despite all our efforts. I reached a point where I put him under a lot of pressure to interact differently in the group …. and he never came back. This was someone who had been a part of the group for years and years, and it had a huge impact, especially on me. I had talked it through with supervisors and colleagues, had tried a range of alternatives before reaching this point – but even though I could justify my actions, I never felt good about what happened. It has stayed with me throughout my professional career. Giving up is not a comfortable choice.

So what about the painting?

The problem, I thought, must lie in the original drawing. I didn’t understand the face well enough, so needed literally to go back to the drawing board. I’m more familiar with drawing, unlike oil painting, and I can play around with the marks more readily. So I produced this, which isn’t going to get ripped up and put in the bin. photo-1

The same approach works in the group. If we can’t get to where we think we want to go by one route, then let’s rethink. Is there another way? Or are we heading in the wrong direction? And just as in the drawing, often we have to go back to the beginning. Where are the roots of the distortion, the discomfort? Let’s see if we can move forwards by understanding more about the basic structures that have shaped someone’s life, the bones that the flesh sits upon.

This sort of understanding does not come easily. There is no psychodynamic formulation that can simply be applied. All of it is hard won, just as in the portrait, for even though I might have grasped something, will it enable me to paint it again without repeating all the same mistakes? We will see!

Drawing in order to see.

Drawing can teach us how to see.  John Ruskin’s work first introduced me to this idea years ago and  since then it’s become a mantra in all the drawing classes I’ve been to.  It’s been in my mind a lot lately, and led me to discover the Ruskin Teaching collection at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, online at http://is.gd/XRHATO

I’m intrigued by the way in which the act of sketching gradually unwraps the object in question. In the effort to draw something, more and more becomes visible. It was only through drawing the teasels  in the garden  that I came to appreciate the beautiful design of the leaves; like folded paper boats with the stem as a majestic mast, each catching little pools of water to entice  passing traffic to stop a while.

Sketching the squash that is taking over my garden fence similarly revealed another previously unrecognised design; the joints are like major road junctions with flowers, fruit and tendrils all emerging from the same area.squash These sorts of details don’t immediately strike me. I have to look ‘properly’, and that is what sketching involves.  But there is always more!  There is a step beyond, where I stop trying to faithfully reproducing every leaf or junction, but convey what I have understood with simplified marks.  First I have to see it, then draw it, then discover how it really looks and redraw until I have ‘got it’. Next I need to digest this knowledge and draw whatever it is simply, economically, authentically, symbolically.


There’s a similar process in writing, but I wouldn’t have framed it in this way without the sketching link. I’m thinking here about the various characters in my fiction writing. First I have to get to know them, and as I note down their story I find out more about their families, their relationships, their history, geography, and culture. I discover how they look, what clothes they like to wear, and how they speak. I’m creating a drawing and discovering all sorts of details that I didn’t know when I first began to write.

Then as they become life- like and substantial, I have to condense all this information into one or two phrases, or even words. Every time they enter the scene I can’t regurgitate all the information I have about them and expect to keep the story alive. Writing ‘The Wednesday Group’ largely rests on dialogue – it’s supposed to be a psychotherapy group, after all! That’s what we do – we sit in a circle and talk, hopefully to each other! Learning how each of the characters speaks and then capturing it in the writing is the key requirement here.

Perhaps as young children we can see more of the complexity. As we grow we have to learn to condense and simplify in order to create a manageable pathway through our experiences. We learn shortcuts and often lose the wonder in the process. There’s another article brewing here about short cuts in therapy, but that’s for later.  Right now it feels good to be back at the beginning stage, rediscovering what is in front of my eyes … if only I go and find my sketchbook!

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!