To a person looking from outside in, self-portraiture in therapy could appear to reinforce egotism and narcissism. This is especially true in an age when appearance is deemed to be so important.
But Aristotle said, “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.”
Now, with over three decades of facilitating art, at various times for graduate students, psychotherapists, medical doctors, and clients,…. I hav found that self-portraiture is one of the greatest tools in my repertoire of psychotherapeutic techniques.
Self-portraiture, no matter the technique used, can facilitate the: identification of self and affect (functional or not), establishment and strengthening of a recovery identity, foreshadowing of a deeper level of recovery and/or potential for relapse or violence (toward self or others), grieving, processing of addiction, trauma, physical illness, and chronic pain, processes for self-soothing, affirmations, and self-love, and a place to anchor positive visualizations for the future.
While there are many ways to draw the self, for therapeutic purposes, my favorite is one that was used by Elizabeth Layton, blind contour self-portraits.
Elizabeth Layton first began drawing at age 68, while depressed over the death of her alcoholic son. Just before the moment of her son’s death, the nurse “pushed” her out into the hallway, where Elizabeth waited, standing alone as her son died.
Through large portions of her life, Elizabeth had been in and out of psychiatric treatment (including 13 episodes of electroshock) for bipolar disorder with poor results. She had been married to an alcoholic and admitted to co-dependency. While grieving the loss of her beloved son, and the circumstances of his death, with her sister’s urging, she took a drawing class. Elizabeth studied and practiced a blind contour drawing technique, commonly used in most college level art programs, and unknowingly, spontaneously, she incorporated a form of free association. Her first drawing was of herself standing alone in the hospital corridor. This first drawing by Elizabeth is reminiscent of the painting, The Scream by Edvard Munch.
Free association is a technique that was practiced and made known by Sigmund Freud. Ludwig describes free association and/or stream of consciousness writing in the following manner, “write down, without any falsification or hypocrisy, everything that comes into your head” (Wikipedia, Feb 12, 2015). As a certified expressive arts therapist, I would add that for this process, a student or client is to write, draw, paint, act, sing, or say everything that crosses your mind without editing, no matter how seemingly insignificant.
By focusing on sorrow and loss in her drawings, Elizabeth created paintings that were authentic, painful, and powerful. After six months of painting autobiographically daily, she was relieved of her lifelong experience of depression. Her depression never returned, and thanks to the tireless work of journalist Don Lambert, she exhibited her artwork at the Smithsonian Museum as well as a multitude of galleries and other museums.
Her drawings chronicle her growth and awakening. At first, her art is despairing and very personal. Then her art began to take on global topics such as the Jonestown mass murder, coupled a deep awareness and concern for mankind. Later, she approaches allegedly taboo subjects with a great amount of humor. One painting that comes to mind is an image of her, a senior woman, in a pink see-through negligee. Through the negligee you can see sagging breasts, sun spots, wrinkles, and you can also see a twinkle in her eye as she gleefully dances away from her husband’s outstretched hand. In these paintings she welcomes aging with acceptance, compassion, and joy.
In the mid-1990’s, I spoke with several cognitive and neuropsychologists. My question had to do with the effects of the hand-eye coordination and motor skills used to paint a self-portrait, while not looking at the paper (blind contour process).I asked if there was any chance that this drawing process mimicked EMDR, a well- known trauma treatment modality. I asked this question because of the positive results I was seeing in my clients. All of the neuropsychologists agreed with me, that yes, this is likely a non-traditional “internal” form of EMDR. That said, quantitative medical researchers need to follow up with this hypothesis to be sure it has merit.
It is important to note that Elizabeth’s success was fostered by art, but also by her high level of motivation and determination. By her report, she painted one painting a day for the rest of her life, as if a prescription. As stated previously, Elizabeth had experienced electroshock as a form of mental health treatment. Maybe that experience, the experience of electroshock, was what fueled the fire underneath her motivation.
Art can heal, yet to heal from art, you must paint authentically, and you must paint authentically – monthly, weekly or daily. While you can paint on your own time and receive benefits, the guide of a licensed and certified art therapist will deepen and enhance your experience.
E. Hitchcock Scott has been in the Trauma and Addiction Services for 34 Years, “FELLOW” for The International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation, Planning Chair for the Creative and Expressive Arts Therapy Educational Track for the WCSAD 2018 and 2019. www.artspeaksoutloud.org, firstname.lastname@example.org 310-880-9761
THERAPEUTIC BLIND CONTOUR SELF-PORTRAIT DRAWING
Handout by Ericha Scott, licensed as E. Hitchcock Scott, PhD, LPCC917, ATR-BC, REAT
“Elizabeth Layton had gone through the whole course of
modern psychiatry over 30 years and it hadn’t really changed
her life. Then she takes up drawing and cures herself.”
Items Needed for the Exercise.
1) A face mirror on a stand, or a mirror may be held up or propped up so the artist can see his or her face clearly.
2) A lead pencil, a charcoal pencil, or very soft and very dark
pencil will be best.
3) Large drawing paper (about 22” by 28”), acid free is preferred. Taping the paper down to a drawing board or table top prevents shifts and distraction. Remember that the goal of the exercise is to focus on the image in the mirror, not the paper. This helps one bypass known in-formation that may be “stereotypical symbols of reality” (Ault, 1989). It is important to draw only what you see, and not what you think. (Isn’t this the point of therapy, to help people see reality more clearly?) NOTE: Betty Edwards, and most academic art programs, borrowing from artists such as Rodin and Picasso, use the blind contour drawing technique in traditional beginning art classes.
4) A full set of colored pencils (no eraser).
The initial directives given to Elizabeth by Pal Wright, art teacher for Ottawa University.
1) Draw honest and definite lines.
2) Don’t erase, if you make a mistake, if your line strays a bit too
far, make it work for you.
3) Make your drawing fill the sheet of paper, go to the edge.
Elizabeth suggested that while looking in the mirror;
1) You draw the edges or the outlines that you see in your face.
2) You draw VERY slowly and creep along those edges with your eyes (in your mind).
3) Draw every little jiggle. Begin with; your eyes, then nose, then mouth. Next fill in the outline of your face and the details that you missed. Last, fill in all of the background of the drawing with coloring and shading.