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 have 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 for bipolar disorder with poor results. While grieving the loss of her beloved son, and the circumstances of his death, 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 daily, she was relieved of her lifelong experience of depression. Her depression never returned and she exhibited her artwork at the Smithsonian Museum.
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. This 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. In the past, 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 autobiographically and authentically, and you must paint autobiographically and authentically – weekly or daily – with the guide of a licensed and certified art therapist.