Tag Archives: uniqueness

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.

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The personality of door locks: unlocking defences

The shed on my allotment has a very basic lock, with an enormous chunky key. It could hardly be simpler, but still there is a knack to getting it to work – a slight jiggle, twist to the left before right. It has its own personality, I think.Untitled artwork But so too does the gate to the whole allotment plot, and that is a serious piece of work . Chunky, tough,resilient – but it still needs that little extra bit of coaxing. Come to think of it, my front door, the office, the side gate  – all need their own special handling. After a while these small idiosyncratic adjustments come automatically; it’s only when someone new tries to open the lock and finds it difficult that I remember there is a knack. Otherwise it is just another of those habitual fine tunings that go unnoticed.

What I do notice is the struggles I sometimes have with unfamiliar door locks, and how exasperating it can be when the owner arrives and merely puts in the key and turns it! Once I was left the key to water a friend’s plants whilst they were away and couldn’t get the door to open, with obvious and embarrassing consequences. The following year, after several lessons in door opening technique I was entrusted with a new set of plants. This time I managed to get in but somehow in the process set off the alarms which then refused to stop! Now she asks her neighbour to water the plants.

Locks, of course, are a form of defence against the intruder, which like locks themselves come in all shapes and sizes. We lock ourselves and others into certain positions to defend against aggression, fear, intimacy, and the Other.   I’ve never found lists of ‘defence mechanisms’ very useful; the transactional analysis language of  rackets seems to me livelier and more interactive and although we might not use the word, group therapy members are pretty good at spotting each other’s rackets.

What happens in these groups goes something like this: gradually as the members interact, they begin to work out what it is they are each doing to block communication and preserve their own versions of themselves, others, life and the universe. They arrive in the group locked up, and the group process may in time begin to unlock them, one lever or pin at a time.  There is a great variety of locks with a host of security features, but as far as I can see, there are ways of ‘picking’ the majority. What is needed is patience and skill. The group learns the skills, and as long as they are patient and keep returning, eventually something will click. My experience with actual locks and keys underlines their idiosyncrasy. Recognising that everyone has their own unique take on whatever ‘defences’ they employ is part of the skill of the group. We protect ourselves with similar processes that have been specifically adapted for our own unique context and experiences. I think that we are much more liable to engage with any ‘unlocking’ process if this particularity and uniqueness is recognised.