Tag Archives: psychotherapy

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!





No Pain, No Gain?

Personal and professional development is a big issue in the psychotherapy world. My professional organisations (BACP: UKCP: UPCA) all demand that I engage in the stuff called ‘continuing professional development’ with the personal bit assumed to be somehow incorporated or concomitant. However, having written a book on this subject I think I am on firm ground when I say the definitions of development are somewhat sloppy. Is change the same as development?

I’m thinking about this now for two main reasons. The major push comes from agreeing to write a book chapter on the subject. Out of the fog of procrastination, some embryonic thoughts are emerging. The other impetus comes from having moved from the Midlands to the South West. The change in environment and circumstance has had a big impact on me ‘personally’ – but have I ‘developed’?

fox lodge

I think I have been freed up to experience what is around me in a new way. Of course it is unfamiliar and exciting, and perhaps in time it will all become taken for granted – but I don’t think so. It reminds me of holidays in beautiful places, where you get up every morning and are bowled over by the view; but now there is no going home – I live here! Unlike a holiday I now have the opportunity to appreciate a beautiful physical environment over a long period of time. Right now this is still difficult to grasp, whilst at the same time I feel I have a significant relationship with the place already.

Our relationship with place is something that I have been exploring here in the blog before. I see now that my proclamation of love for the boatyard was just a foretaste of what was to come. With this positive and very visceral relationship with the physical environment I feel that I am moving into new territory. If this had been an outcome of therapy, I’d call it a great success.

A great success but also a great challenge. The moving process itself was riddled with anxiety and shock, and despite the enormous gains there were many losses. It challenged me in all sorts of ways, and that, I am sure, has got to be a part of the process of development. It has to be more than reading the book and doing the ‘self reflection exercises’ that are now in every psychotherapy book I come across!

In just the same way my sketching is unlikely to develop without something toppling me off of the current plateau and making me struggle.

sketchstroud1                window 1

sketchstroud3          blckbooks

It’s taken a while to get it going again after moving house, but it’s back on track – a track that will probably be ploughed up in the summer when I attend the Urban Sketchers international symposium in Manchester. Tickets sold out within 4 minutes of going online, so even the process of booking was a challenge. I’m thinking that the workshops will demand far more, shaking me free from my comfort zones but holding out the possibility of seeing more of the world than I can at present.

There is, it seems to me, no way of avoiding feeling useless, confused, upset, de-skilled, off balance –  if any new personal learning is to take place. I think this should be part of the definition!










Fresh eyes and new perspectives

Urban sketching has taken off since last July’s course in Oxford.  Firstly, there has been another 3 day Urban Sketchers workshop based in Coventry, and secondly two of us have organised SketchCoventry, a monthly group that does just what it’s name says.

Although I’ve lived here for over 15 years, I’ve never felt particularly attached to Coventry, so when Jo Roberts and I were working on the ‘home’ project, I was very clear that Coventry was just a place that by chance I had ended up in and no more.

The 3-day workshop was all about perspectives, and it attracted quite a few sketchers who had never been to Coventry, as well as some locals like myself. We began in the Old Cathedral, abandoning any attempt at a classic perspective, which was such a liberating way to begin!



Other challenges included drawing without looking at the paper – the basis for this sketch of the cafe at The Herbert Art Gallery.


We tried a fish eye lens perspective, which was really difficult for me, as well as wrestling with the more familiar vanishing point version.


All the while I could hear other perspectives on Coventry itself from my fellow sketchers. Their reactions were very surprising! I expected them to rave about the market, Coventry’s jewel in the crown, but their appreciation of some other aspects came as a shock. My favourite comment came from a Danish woman who described the city as a “fascinating blend of the brutal and mediaeval”!

Seeing the familiar and disregarded through the eyes of others made me appreciate the city in a way that I hadn’t managed before. It’s like taking someone you’ve known for ages to a party and discovering that other people find them new and exciting. We can think that we know someone so well that there is nothing that they can say or do that will surprise us. We are sure we have exhausted all the possibilities, which can be comforting but inevitably dull. Then some one else is introduced into the picture and we realise that, after all, there were things we didn’t know or hadn’t seen.

Put a new member into a therapy group and listen in amazement as some long standing member talks about an aspect of their life that you have never heard of! Watch them shine or shrink and marvel at their transformation! Beware of thinking that you know someone ‘through and through’, whether this is you partner, parent, child – or even long-term client! Other people bring fresh perspectives that challenge our own limited vision.

We put people and places into boxes and are boxed up ourselves. Being able to open them, see round the corners, re-evaluate, is central to psychotherapy . Sketching too is a great way to re-engage with the familiar. It requires us to look at what is there rather than assume we already know what it looks like. And just in case we get too complacent about our new vision, a glance at all the other sketchbooks reinforces that there is always more to see.sketchcoventry 7 - pm drawings


PS. There are more sketches making their way onto the Urban Sketching page – I haven’t found a way to post blogs on both pages yet!


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!


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.

Words, pictures, therapy.

Words. Dense little packages that unwrap themselves, setting off spirals of reflections and sensations. Literary taste bombs bursting in the mind.

This last week they have been coming at me, not just from my work, but from the art world as well. It is Warwickshire Open studios fortnight, when I meander around various artist’s houses and studios, exploring what I like and what I don’t, and generally admiring the outpouring of creativity.

Last year I was very impressed by Jo Roberts, and went back to see what she’s been working on. This is where I met the words, embossed with a characteristic border and a sentence or two attached;  an on-going project where Jo and author David Southwell exchange a word a day online  and share their response.  More information can be found on Jo’s blog .

OOZE.  Think about it. Menacing? Friendly? What does it set off for you?20130705_130224


One of the great things about Jo is that she always sparks some response in me. I want to go home and draw! So this is my ‘ooze’. ( Thinking of French holidays, clearly!)20130709_131516

In the other part of my life, online therapy is becoming increasingly important and I’ve been reflecting upon how significant the choice of word is when counselling via email or synchronous chat. I know at the recent BACP online conference, Jeannie Wrights’ workshop explored some of these areas.

A written word sits and stares . It perseveres through time, always available to confirm or challenge our perceptions.  It can reassure us or it can confirm our worst suspicions.  We can take it to heart, squirrel it away, get it out and look at it, burn the paper it’s printed on, embroider it into the way we see the world. It perseveres for good or ill, whether a subsequent email  tries to modify it or not.

Psychotherapy has always been concerned with the conversation between live bodies in a shared space. At their best, words can convey the deepest emotions and bring us into relationship with others; they can also be bodged and fumbled attempts at communication. But the live presence enables an instantaneous feedback and mutual monitoring that facilitates negotiation.” That’s not the word I would choose.”  “Perhaps you could suggest a better one?”  In group therapy, there may be multiple choices – ‘this is how I see it’ – ‘yes, I like that phrase’ – ‘oh no, it’s too blunt’, – and so forth. Some words become shorthand for a whole series of group explorations. Side board is a memorable one. ‘This is on the sideboard’ came to mean that ‘what I am about to say doesn’t not directly follow on from anything that’s been said before, but it’s come into my head and we’ve agreed as a group that those things are important so I am going to share it with you’.

We can only communicate at depth when the meanings of the words are shared and negotiated. If my version of ‘spirit’ is not the same as yours, we need to use more words to try to clarify what I am trying to share with you. Or perhaps we need a picture?