Tag Archives: sketching

The portrait and the case study: getting beneath the surface

I have discovered portraits. Of course I knew they were out there, and I’ve even tried one or two pencil sketches myself, but this is serious. Pushed into new territory by this term’s art project, I find myself wrestling with two paradoxical demands. I want to paint or draw a portrait of a real person and capture something of their likeness, which for me involves a lot of smudging and tweaking and attending to fine detail; at the same time I want bold big brush strokes, ‘unrealistic’ colour and speed.   Talent and experience have enabled many good artists to combine the two, but I’m a beginner here. The project has led me into looking at artists work that I wasn’t familiar with. Luc Thymans, David Bomberg, Gerhard Richter ,Maggie Hambling, for example – all painted portraits that I am appreciating with a new sense of awe.

I am fascinated by the way in which the slightest touch can transform the expression on the face that I am creating. Charcoal is beautiful in its smudge-ability, each messy fingerprint transforming an expression. I become engrossed in rubbing, smudging, erasing, adding and subtracting charcoal – mainly from the drawing but there’s a fair amount on me as well. Much of the time I use my fingers. There is something sensuous about stroking across the emerging face, feeling out the contours beneath the skin, blending the chalk and charcoal into flesh. In fact, I decided that I had to be very selective about whom I wanted to draw in this way – up close and personal with Ed Miliband made me feel slightly queasy.DSCN0559

At the same time I am writing about case studies in psychotherapy: as so often happens, images and words resonate with each other. The case study is a focused examination of one unique therapeutic relationship. It may serve to illustrate or challenge some general themes or theoretical point, but if it is to come to life be it must pay attention to the subtleties of individual relationships, emotions, behaviours and thoughts. We need to have a sense of the way in which a particular history, context, and lifestyle infuses the ‘problem’. We are depressed, or manic, or suicidal, or narcissistic in our own unique way, I believe, whilst sharing a common experience.

Most people have noses but that doesn’t mean if I can draw one, I can draw them all. An understanding of anatomy does not on its own produce a lifelike drawing:  the case study, like the portrait, is trying to capture the vitality and uniqueness of the subject. Not just the subject, either, because there is a relationship involved in both examples – the patient or client and therapist, the model or sitter and the artist. The gaze of the other, however much downplayed, is always implicated. The perspective of the therapist or artist can never be whitewashed away.

I have been writing about this from a therapy perspective for ages, it seems. But it suddenly hits me afresh when I am struggling to get beyond my own limitations in drawing. I can feel myself being magnetically pulled into familiar responses; the same old marks on the paper, even though I know I am being confronted by a task that requires more.  My own comfort zone, in drawing as in psychotherapy, will not do justice to the person in front of me.


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!

Psychotherapy and writing fiction.

Somehow if I go away I do far more drawing.  The Peak District looked stunning with the hills streaked in snow, although my attempts to draw the sweeping landscapes were just that – attempts!   But I did like this one of my friend’s front garden. Untitled artwork 2013-04-03 (06.02.43-272 Now, back home in a familiar landscape, writing has taken over.  At the same time as the next episode of the Wednesday Group is taking shape in my mind, I am busy thinking about the links between psychotherapy and fiction writing.

The Wednesday Group involves creating members of a therapy group and exploring their lives and interactions, as well as those of group therapists. The context of the fiction obviously connects with my working life as a group psychotherapist but I wonder whether, if I was writing a completely different story, it would be all that different.

It is a cliché that in the process of creating a fictitious character they begin to come to life. …. but they do. Writer and characters begin to develop a relationship, and the writer discovers more through giving them time and attention. They reveal themselves, or that’s how it seems to me. When I first wrote about Stevie, the main character, I had a very sketchy idea of who she was. She gradually lets me see different aspects, tells me more about herself, and even acts out in front of my eyes. In many ways it is like getting to know a client; being patient, not jumping to conclusions, working hard to get a sense of what it feels like to be them, trying to see the world through their eyes.

Trying to see the world through another person’s eyes, and being able to hold onto our own vision is for me one of the central aspects of psychotherapy. What I understand about human development, attachment, psychodynamic patterns, thoughts and feelings, embodiment – the assortment of accrued information or even wisdom that I gave gained – this all has to be integrated with a concentrated attempt to sense how it is to be the other.

That is what happens in the writing too. I am trying to get a feel for the characters, looking at the world from their perspective, not mine. Of course, these are all people who live in my head or on a computer screen – rationally I can’t divorce them from my own experiences and perspectives. But it is the magic of creativity that liberates them from those confines and sets them free to be themselves. Then if I want to get to really encounter them, I can’t assume that I already know and understand them. There is always more to be discovered, just as there is more to the people in our lives and to us as well.  And as for that maidenhair fern I have been trying to draw, there is obviously far more to get to know there too.


The colourful therapist

It’s been a good week for drawing, and for meeting other sketchers. I’ve seen some very impressive painters too, but I’m at the stage where colour  seems a step too far – or so I tell myself. But then look at this, from the latest episode of The Wednesday Group. Doodling on the iPad is never colourless. Somehow in my mind this is completely different from the drawing that I do. Is this dissociation?  Pencil split off from iPad?

Stevie's volcano of anger

Stevie’s volcano of anger

I had another interesting conversation this week with a poet and writer, talking about styles of writing, and the sorts of books we prefer. I ‘m not very patient with descriptive, carefully crafted prose unless it can carry me along with an energetic story line. I want to know what happens next, rather than how sensuously the voile curtains are catching the breeze through the open French windows…. if you see what I mean. Is this somehow related to my focus on line rather than colour?

Maybe this plays out in the therapy room in my search for a coherent narrative, and a degree of impatience with the colour? I wonder what the colour consists of in this case. It isn’t the same as detail, because those are often fascinating. It’s very hard for the beginner to draw hands and feet, but unless you get them right, the figure never looks real. That carries over into therapy. There are certain details that jar, or don’t make sense, that have to be looked at much more closely. There are key areas that you have to work at repeatedly in order to begin to grasp the whole figure.

So what could colour mean in this context? And what makes a colourful psychotherapist? In our attempt not to overwhelm or impose upon the other person in the room, do we end up as 50 shades of grey? (That would make a great sketch, incidentally!)  I’m going to ask Phillipa Perry – she stands out for me as a potentially colourful psychotherapist. Anyone else you can suggest?