Tag Archives: portraits

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!


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!)

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.