Tag Archives: painting

Searching for home in dark places

The word ‘home’ is dripping with emotional colour. It evokes so many images, tangled with family, security, memory – and all so different for each one of us. I’ve been collaborating with Jo Roberts on a project called just that – ‘Home’ – and it has led us down some very diverse pathways.

I am interested in the feeling tone, the emotions that the word conjures up; a sense of security, of comfort, of being held, of belonging, of things being alright, for example. Because of who I am and what I do, however, it is the absence rather than the presence of these elements that strikes me most forcibly. Most of my working life is spent trying to come to terms with and ameliorate the effects of the lack, the loss or the inadequacy of the emotional ‘home’.

Psychotherapy as I understand it is a relationship between therapist and client that emotionally involves all parties. As a therapist, my own personal experiences are very relevant – although I don’t usually talk about them, they inform my understanding and responses. I can travel to some dark places with people and feel ‘at home’! In the world of therapy, that all seems unremarkable, and it is only recently that I have begun to appreciate that these dark places, translated into my new ‘art’ world, have a different impact.

Maybe it’s a peculiarity of the art groups I belong to, but there don’t seem many gloomy or miserable images in the room. Cheery blue skies, winding lanes, sun -dappled paths, copied holiday photos, and a spattering of flowers. It took me a while to realise that I was a bit out of step.IMG_0203

Searching for Home

‘Hope you’re not still feeling like that’, someone said, looking at my grey landscape.

There has been a lot of publicity lately about mental health, and how as a society we need to be more tolerant and less fearful of the wide range of psychological struggles that are going on in those around us – and how we need to invest to create a decent healthcare system that responds to this need. There is still a stigma lurking around ‘mental illness’ despite efforts to overturn this, and once outside of my familiar world of counselling and psychotherapy, I can sense it. It has taken me by surprise, this subtle pressure to tidy away the darker and messier bits of myself lest they cause any disturbance to others.

Much of the pressure comes from myself of course, because I have internalised those unspoken rules about what makes an acceptable person. We absorb these rules in the process of becoming a member of any society, without even being aware of it, and this process of internalisation is brilliantly efficient at maintaining the existing definitions of who and what is acceptable. The gold standard person is still white, male, heterosexual, of a certain social class, of ‘sound body and mind’ – and those of us who fail the test in any or all parts have to struggle with our own harsh self judgments.

Maybe an important part of the definition of ‘home’ is a sense of acceptance; home is a place where we can put down the burden of self-criticism and feel comfortable, however and whoever we are. How on earth do I do that in a painting, I wonder?





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.

Portraits: How we portray ourselves and others


The art class has come to an end for this term, and it has finished with a collage. Some of us found it hard to shake off memories of school gluing and sticking projects, even though we were told that dried pasta was definitely not to be included! photo-1Maybe that injunction helped me into a more grown up preoccupation with language and meanings, and the relationship between portrait, portray, betray, trait and traitor[i]. I’m thinking about emotional connections rather than etymology here – the sort of links and associations that sparkle through creative conversations in the therapy room.

I thought about that apocryphal story of people in the past who feared that if they were photographed, their soul would be captured in the image. Good photographs, like good portraits, are indeed trying to capture more than a ‘likeness’, reaching towards some other dimension of the person that they see before them. Could this be a betrayal?

Portraits can be treacherous. They may reveal an unacknowledged and unwanted aspect of our appearance.  Our image of ourselves is constructed though that full frontal gaze in the mirror, where we can adjust and tweak some of the less attractive elements. My grandmother used to have one of those dressing table mirrors in three sections, so that you could see yourself in profile too . They seem to have gone out of fashion. Maybe we can only handle one version of ourselves these days, shying away from those glimpses in shop windows where the size of our nose or the double chin become so obvious.

Many portraits are designed to flatter – think of all those gloomy paintings hanging in most National Trust properties to promote the virtues of the owners and their dynasty. Great artists do something different, even when commissioned to display a success story of some particular character. I’ve been reading Andrew Graham Dixon’s book, The History of British Art, and am thinking here of Hans Holbein the Younger’s portrait of Henry 8th. Along with the grandeur, Holbein has captured the brutality and ruthlessness of the man. As Graham Dixon says, he looks like a thug.

So personality shines through. I’m not convinced that the concept of ‘personality trait’ is very useful but there is no doubt that we all have preferred and characteristic ways of negotiating relationships, and perhaps this is what can also be revealed in a good portrait.

One of the ideas that I have found helpful to work with in groups is the notion that we all carry around an image of ourselves. In our minds we have a small self-portrait that we are convinced truly represents who we are, and we behave in ways to reveal or conceal this character. Therapy groups are places where people show their self-portraits and work terribly hard to convince everyone else that these are true likenesses. What always happens is that after a while this image gets challenged. ‘That is not how we see you’, they say. ‘This image doesn’t fit with who you are, here and now. Maybe once upon a time it was accurate, but not anymore. Why are you holding on to this image of yourself?  Why do you need it?’

It is a conversation that in different forms comes up again and again for every group member, and those who work with it will in time be able to paint very different, more subtle portraits both of themselves and of others.

[i] ( If you are a Wednesday Group reader, you might like to know that Stevie wanted to add ‘milk tray’ to the list!)

Less is more – or could be.

Painting is not something I am comfortable with, so this term’s project to produce a landscape has not been easy. Having to work on something over a period of weeks is another challenge – when it comes to paint I have an even shorter concentration span than usual. Of course, like most things that challenge us, it has produced some unexpected and interesting results.

I started with an imaginary landscape called ‘The Dreamboat’ that had an estuary, promontories, two boats, and maybe a light house.  It is still ‘The Dreamboat’, but this is what it is currently looking like. The light house was first to go, followed by one boat. Then some rocks appeared in the foreground, and the other boat vanished. Now the rocks have gone too. I’ve painted the sea over and over again, gradually discovering that I can reinvent the scene almost endlessly as I try to convey a mood or atmosphere. The subtleties of tone become increasingly significant as the features are painted out. DSCN0446-001

Less is more even when painting, I have discovered. Gradually taking away the obvious landmarks and recognisable features opens up another way of communicating. It makes me think about silence. In psychotherapy, silence is significant, and even noisier in group therapy than in individual work. I must have spent a lot of hours sitting in groups where no-one is speaking. We look around, gaze the floor, stare at the ceiling, glance at the clock and examine each other’s shoes.  Read a few episodes of The Wednesday Group and you will see the importance of footwear in group psychotherapy!

At some point someone (probably me) asks what is happening in the silence and we might struggle to put the thoughts we have been having into words. Sometimes it is the tone of the silence that is important. How does it feel, what sort of atmosphere, what does it convey? Then we are into the same territory as landscape painting, I think.  Often we end up talking about an image – someone will try to describe how they have experienced the silence in visual imagery, and we share our reactions to this imaginary scene or landscape.

How do you convey the subtleties of experience in words or images?  We are not all poets or painters, and words can be clumsy and crude, just as images too can be clichéd and lifeless. Taking away the easy phrases or formulaic images might leave us with a seemingly empty canvas or silent space.  It might, however, spark the realisation that under the surface of life there is more going on than we thought.