Tag Archives: imagination

Drawing out emotion

I’ve spent 3 interesting days in Bristol sketching in an urban sketching workshop that has stirred me into writing, as well as drawing! Back in 2014 when I signed up for my first urban sketchers workshop in Oxford, I wrote about the challenge of learning new things and teaching styles. This Bristol workshop was led by the same three instructors (Isabel Carmona, Victor Swasky and Miguel Herranz) so it inevitably prompted memories. Since 2014, I’ve done quite a bit of sketching and they have run a lot of courses, so we meet again older and wiser! (?)


The other big difference was the project, for having written about ‘what’s the point’ of urban sketching, here was something with a clear purpose; we were sketching at Elm Tree Farm, run by the Brandon Trust, to showcase their work with vulnerable adults. Len Grant, also a participant of the 2014 Oxford workshop, was there with his expertise, having sketched for a number of projects in Bolton, to inspire us to engage with people whilst drawing. So a group of 15 friendly and interesting sketchers swarmed over the farm, talking with whoever they could find and sketching away like mad.

One of the interesting themes was finding a balance in drawing between information and emotion. At first glance this sounded like don’t put too much ‘stuff’ in your drawing, and let rip with colour, but of course nothing is that “black and white”.

It’s not that easy to convey emotion; emotion is slippery and subjective. Where I see panic, you might see excitement, for example. Between despair and joy there are many subtleties, and expressing them challenges everyone’s preferred style. Emotions find their way between line and colour in ways that are frankly, mysterious.

How emotion is expressed varies too. I am used to, comfortable with, reading emotion from small gestures and expressions and exploring what is going on. I don’t see that the person who shouts or cries has any greater capacity to feel than the person who sits tight lipped and rigid. Expressed emotion and experienced emotion are not necessarily the same thing: We can feel something powerfully and hold it in our hearts. It will probably change if and when we share it – but the silent version can be as big a disturbance as any screaming, fighting, shouting, weeping outpouring. There are some beautiful paintings by Vilhelm Hammershoi that, for me, make this so apparent.

Somewhere there is an elusive balance between containment and expression. Either ends of the spectrum give us difficulties in relating to others. We can be drowned by, or starved of feeling in a relationship, and much of group therapy is involved in discovering a rewarding mixture where there is mutuality; learning to both contain and express emotion in ways that acknowledge the other; learning to communicate how we feel without dominating or controlling.

How this translates into drawing is very much work-in-progress! I would love to finding a balance in sketching between the explicit and the implied, giving enough to enable the viewer to fly off in their imagination and make their own story.


This relates to a style that I really enjoy – a composition of small frames, each giving a glimpse of the overall scene. I think it plays into my ideas about multiple versions, fragmentary glimpses, paradoxes, the multidimensional selves that are so apparent in groups.

It’s a style of sketching that seems to me playful, and so much fun that it verges on the ‘not really sketching but messing about’ boundary. Interestingly the other thing I drew that  felt similarly playful  was a map. Here I am trying to draw all the pieces together to make sense of the whole – there are so many links between sketching and psychotherapy!





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.

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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 more you know …

This is a new stage for me. I’ve got 3 of my paintings hanging in Gallery 150 in Leamington, and have been to my first ever private view. Imagine you are 6 years old, and have had your picture chosen to go on the classroom wall for parent’s evening. That’s my feeling about it, but my fellow exhibitors seem to be more grown up, weary even; I suspect that this is a fleeting excitement, so I’m making the most of it. 20140513_204733-001

They pictures look different in the gallery. In my ‘art room’ they were the only paintings in an unruly landscape of clutter, whereas in the gallery they are surrounded by others, and have to hold their ground in the exhibition as a whole. So it seems that just like people, paintings are shaped by their context! The transformation that takes place when someone I have worked with in one-to-one therapy joins a group is always surprising, even though by now I know it is inevitable. I see them in a different light, and discover new angles and perspectives which hopefully they appreciate also. I hadn’t paid attention to the analogous process going on in galleries and exhibitions.

In fact, I’ve never given much thought at all to ‘curating’ until now, when I discover that there is a whole academic discipline complete with MSc’s and PhD’s, international organisations, research and so forth! Once you walk through the door labelled ‘sketching’ you discover its Tardis- like qualities. It leads into drawing, painting, sculpture, galleries, artists’ societies, workshops, courses, curating ….There is a whole universe, fully inhabited and busily working away, which existed outside of my awareness. I find that both exciting and daunting – it’s easy to assume that you know your environment, when in fact what you know is only the smallest fraction of what is going on!

Here comes the link again with group therapy. What you know is only the smallest part of a very complex environment. New group facilitators say to me ‘I can’t understand what is going on in the group ’, expecting me to have sussed it out – after all, I’ve been running groups for SO long!

I do spend a lot of energy ‘trying to understand’. There is both the process of trying to ‘fit the pieces’ together, and of discovering pieces that you never knew existed. That’s the free associative, imaginative type of understanding that I find can be so rich and rewarding. However, the most important thing to understand is that the ideas we have are always limited and partial. There is always more.


Leaving    2

These are small, 9″ x 12″ acrylic paintings, titled ‘LEAVING’  and numbered 1-3 in an arbitrary sequence. Leaving   3 Arrange them as you will, and create your own stories around them!Leaving    1

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.

Imagination and psychotherapy: Drawing things out

Drawing from the imagination has always been a favourite activity of mine, but because of my skills deficit it usually ends up as some abstract doodle. Now I’m being challenged to take it further, and the results are surprising. 20130502_145822 The task in the drawing class was to use this collection of dried cordyline leaves  as a basis for some imaginative work using charcoal.

After an hour or so of various attempts, largely in the form of landscapes and ponds, this picture emerged. It seemed to draw itself, very quickly in the last thirty minutes of the class and it took me by surprise. It’s not my usual stuff at all, and I felt quite moved by it.the wig

Later it made me think about the phrase ‘drawing out’. In the conversations that make up psychotherapy, we are often drawing things out; trying to see more clearly that which has been obscured, buried, denied. Sometimes what emerges is painful and shocking, but not always. There moments when what emerges is surprising and beautiful. We can think of this as revealing something already present but hidden, or as I would want to claim, as a more creative process. In the conversation, a new possibility or image is co-created by client and therapist.  It is a drawn from the interplay of memory, intuition, experiences – and imagination.

The relationship between psychotherapy and imagination has engaged many theorists and practitioners for years. All of the writers that were influential in my development as a psychotherapist find a significant place for it – Marion Milner, Stephen Mitchell, Bob Hobson, and Winnicott, of course, are just a few that spring to mind immediately.

I think of empathy and imagination as different but related. The capacity to tune in to another’s emotional state seems partly hard wired into our neurological systems, although we could all cite examples of people who seem to have missed out on this particular piece of wiring!  But imagination takes us beyond this. When I am trying to grasp, intellectually and emotionally, the other’s reality, I am not only tuning in to ‘what is there’, but translating it into language. I use visual imagery a lot, sharing with clients the image that comes to my mind in the attempt to understand them. Sometimes it doesn’t speak to them, and is discarded. At other times the image seems to capture something significant for them, and enables them to see their own experience in a subtly different way.

This can be very powerful in group settings, where one person’s image can serve to draw out others that complement or animate each other in surprising and refreshing ways. Drawing together, whether with charcoal or with pictures in the mind,  can bring us to some unexpected and stimulating places. Imagination  is fundamental to the task of doing things differently. We can together imagine all sorts of scenarios and emotions that go beyond those familiar rehearsed experiences that often bring people into therapy in the first place. Without this creative element, we could only draw the same picture over and over again.