Tag Archives: urban sketching

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! (?)

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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.

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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!

 

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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’?

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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.

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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!

 

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Waste products in the back passage

I have drawn my garden and my street so many times I can’t generate any enthusiasm for yet another try – whereas the back alley is virgin territory – as far as sketching goes, I mean. It certainly doesn’t have a virginal look about it, even though these sketches make it look cleaner and tidier than it is.

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Here the wheelie bin rules, along with difficult to dispose of hard-core, building materials and general rubbish. In my newfound role as psychogeographer-cum-urban-sketcher, I found myself pondering the links between the wheelie bin, consumerism, capitalism, and of course, psychotherapy. Psychotherapy, psychogeography, sketching – the words don’t roll off the tongue easily, but there is a fluid interchange between the three areas as far as I am concerned.

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There is probably a long established sociological discourse on the wheelie bin, but apart from this interesting research project[i], I haven’t been able to track much down yet. So these are my uninformed thoughts!

The rise of the wheelie bin could be a metaphor for the rise of consumerism and an encroachment on the public by the private. Somewhere in the 1990’s it came to replace a system where ‘bin men’ – local government employees, collected metal bins, emptied and returned them to our gardens and backyards. Now it is the householders’ responsibility to take the wheelie bins to the public space of the pavement or roadside, and the ‘binmen’, working for private contractors, empty them and return them to any point along the street.

Many recycling centres – shared facilities- have gradually been overshadowed by roadside collections. Rubbish is a private affair, unlike for example, the French system where rubbish is taken to a communal area. Litter in the street is now deemed the responsibility of the council, whereas my grandparents would sweep the pavement outside of their house and expect the neighbours to do the same.

The size of the wheelie bin – about one and a half times that of the old dustbins –has legitimised a significant increase in waste as we buy more and more Stuff, along with its packaging. The way we handle rubbish illustrates the break down of a sense of community and shared ownership, the rise of consumerism and the packaging industry as well as the commercialisation of disposal. Waste is big business.

All this can be discretely ignored if you live in a large enough house to have a side entrance, or a large front garden to conceal your wheelie bins. Those in Victorian terraces with no/ tiny front gardens are forced to live with the bins as permanent plastic Daleks by their front door, who in time become disregarded and ‘normal’.CCI24082015_2

In the 1990’s too, my local alleyways were gated as a ‘security’ measure, no longer pedestrian pathways though the Victorian Edwardian housing stock. They passed from public into private space; a space where by and large, it was possible to deposit and forget any inconvenient truths – like the link between our consumption and climate change, for example. Again, the wider the alley (posher houses) the greater the space available. Poorer people can’t get away from their rubbish so easily, it would seem. If you can afford a new build however, Eric Pickles came to your rescue with new building regulations, which, whilst freeing developers of some inconvenient requirements to consider the environment, insisted that wheelie bins must have their own dedicated space.[ii]

So what about psychotherapy? Putting our emotional rubbish out of sight and trying to forget about it is a familiar story in all our lives. What we most fear to acknowledge is the back story, where our own culpabilities and shameful secrets lie at the bottom of the wheelie bin, concealed by more acceptable rubbish. The bad things people have done to us, traumas inflicted by others, are terrible enough, but our own cruelties and complicities are often more painful to acknowledge.

We are generally ashamed of our bodily functions, of mess, shit, pus, semen, vomit. We have designed a sewage system to sweep these down to the sea and beyond – where they can poison somebody or something else. But there are other things that won’t fit down the toilet that linger in our back alleyways and wheelie bins. Humans are messy, capable of unspeakable horrors that although repressed, damage the self, others and society. [iii]

It is one of the great strengths of group psychotherapy that it can provide a space where this distressing, painful remembering can take place, witnessed by others struggling with their own back stories of mess. Acknowledging culpability, discovering regret, facing up to past actions and the responses of others – not just the therapist – can begin a process of re-integration and healing.

Look again at the wheelie bin. What can it tell us?

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[i] No. 08-2003 ICCSR Research Paper Series – ISSN 1479-5124 Hidden mountain: The social avoidance of waste Edd de Coverly, Lisa O’Malley & Maurice Patterson

[ii] Architects Journal 13 May 2015 G.Wilkinson 

[iii] Phil Wood writes about Lviv and the related attempt to forget the inconvenient and bloody history of genocide, in Walking Inside Out, ed, T. Richardson.

The urban psychogeographer-sketcher

Sketchers need to have their eyes open; the act of looking closely at the environment is fundamental. But we all see something different, have different styles, and draw a multiplicity of truths about the same street scene. The mantra of ‘draw what you see, not what you think you see’, has limited value, it seems to me, if it carries any implication that there is a correct version that we can all agree on. Of course it is vital to get beyond the assumptions that we ‘know’ what something looks like – but what emerges is never a ‘correct’ version but rather an unlimited number of unique drawings.

As a beginner I have been trying to ‘draw what I see’, and in the words of the urban sketchers manifesto, ‘be truthful to the scenes we witness.’

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But more and more I realise that I want to draw something more. This part of the manifesto I find far more appealing: – ‘Our drawings tell the story of our surroundings, the places we live and where we travel.’ Telling a story seems to liberate me from the challenge of accurate reproduction; it catapults me forwards into new possibilities, and takes me right back to the drawings that I did years ago … and here we bump up against that word ‘doodle’ – yet again! This is what my sketchbook looks like lately – a mixture of this –

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All this has been illuminated by my reviewing ‘Walking Inside Out’  a wonderful book edited by Tina Richardson about contemporary British psychogeography. It’s a stimulating mixture of academic and literary contributions, all emphasising the impact of the physical environment on our identity.  Where and how we live, our sense of place and belonging are all bound into our relationships with others, and make us who we are. We all have an internal psycho-social landscape.

Psychogeography encourages us to look closely at what is around us, throw away the map and explore the marginal spaces, opening our eyes to the way in which we have become habituated to surveillance, social control, privatisation and consumerism. Along the way, it is witty, playful and somewhat anarchic – I thoroughly recommend it, especially to urban sketchers with social constructionist leanings.

Psychogeographers are trying to capture the emotional resonances, the social history, the political forces that permeate the streets that they walk. Like urban sketchers, they are physically in the environment they are trying to understand, experience, and describe. It seems to me that there is an alliance here that could be very productive and creative – the urban sketcher- psychogeographer; the psychogeographical urban sketcher. Maybe I could join a group – or even start one up?

 

 

 

 

 

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!

 

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

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

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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!

 

Safety in numbers? Sketching with the group.

There’s been a lot happening on the urban sketching scene since I last wrote. Inspired by the Oxford workshop, we have set up a small group who have met 4 times now to ‘SketchCoventry’. We are lucky to have an excellent art gallery, The Herbert, where we meet up, and it looks as if there may well be an Urban Sketchers workshop here in Coventry next April! This is timed to coincide with the exhibition Recording Britain that is touring the country and which I caught up with last year in Sheffield. It feels good to be involved in such a fascinating project, and amazing to think that it has all come about thanks to three of us pushing at some doors and finding that they opened!

We are a small group so far, but that feels fine to me. We meet up for coffee, decide where we are drawing and sometimes split into smaller groups; then we join up for lunch to look at the sketches. In the afternoon there is another foray, followed by more refreshments and more learning from each other’s drawings. It is very flexible and friendly, with ex-Oxford workshop sketchers making the effort to come from London, Shrewsbury and Banbury. Last 12 Months - 21

The Herbert Gallery was having a WW1 ‘family day (!) so there were lots of children clutching huge tissue paper poppies that they had made.

Sketching out in public is still a challenge, but is transformed by the group effect. I don’t feel nearly so conspicuous or vulnerable when there are two or three people drawing nearby. We give each other a sense of security and confidence; it seems that as a group we are far less likely to be interrupted or criticised than on our own. I wonder whether this is objectively the case or is something that, like a placebo, just makes us feel good.Sketch Cov2

We huddled together on the sofas in ‘Fargo Village’ to draw one of the vintage clothes stall.

The idea that there is ‘safety in numbers’ is set against a range of fears about the dangers of groups and I can see this good group/ bad group split in my therapy group too. The good version brings mutual understanding and support; the other side is the capacity to cut deep, to ignore, reject and challenge. This all reminded me of an article that I wrote for Therapy Today some time ago, and when I checked it out, this is what I found –

“Joining a group is rarely an emotionally neutral event. It holds both a promise and a threat. Depending on the sort of group, it may promise learning, companionship, support, relationship, and intimacy, for example. But it also contains a threat – of isolation, humiliation, lack of autonomy, domination, dependence, and attack. The relative force of ‘promise’ or ‘threat’ is shaped by the particular nature of the group itself, and by our previous experiences of group life.”

As far as SketchCoventry goes, there is a lot of promise and very little threat. Having said that I recognise how anxious any newcomers are about the quality of their own sketches – just like I was in Oxford last summer. The possibility of humiliation feels real, even though it is far more likely to be some internal critical voice of our own than anyone in the group. This I am sure connects with our previous, probably early, experiences in groups. It’s hard to find anyone who does not have a tale of being humiliated at school, for example…. and as for the family, that’s a whole other story brewing up for the next post!