Thursday, May 21, 2009


A long time ago in a previous life, I took an art therapy class. I was really interested in the intersection between art and therapeutic processes, being an artist and a family therapist at the time, and I eventually incorporated a number of art techniques into my work with families. Sometimes I would have the whole family work on an art project together, the point not being what they produced, but rather that along the way most of the family dynamics would reveal themselves during the process.

I especially found this experience moving, for some reason, when the dads would be involved. I guess that's because it seems like you don't often see fathers doing activities with their kids in public much beyond organised sports (at least where I'm from you don't). And to see a whole family down on the floor drawing together, the adults sharing crayons with the kids, (crayons usually being the kids' domain) always touched me.

One of the art therapy techniques that I picked up and modified a bit once I got to Paris and started taking night classes at Parsons, was the scribble drawing. In art therapy there is a consciousness about that tender passage point between going from the white page in front of you, to putting marks on it. You want to start out gently, without overwhelming people's sensations. For example you wouldn't want to use a liquid medium right away because it could be evocative of blood or other bodily fluids. And since I worked a lot with child abuse victims at the time, that was a really important point to me.

So I memorised the suggested way to start out with the simplest of tools. You can begin with a fresh piece of paper and a pencil. First instruction: put a dot anywhere on the page. There we go! The pristine aspect of the page is broken, transcended, might be a better word - and we're already in different territory. Second instruction: scribble - go ahead, let loose! Third instruction: faster! Forth instruction: Now take a new piece of paper put the pencil in the middle, close your eyes, hang on to the page with your other hand, and scribble for one minute. I'll time you. GO.

Time's up.

Then you'd have the person put the pencil down and take a look at the drawing. What do you think? Do you see any interesting shapes in there? A duck? A moon? A sailboat? A snake? OK, now turn it around and look at it from all the different sides, what do you see now? Then you'd have the person take up the pencil and color in some of the images they had identified. I didn't get in to interpreting any of the images (always more reflective of the person gazing upon the drawing than the person who did it, I think) but rather we just walked through the gate together - they had just made their first scribble drawing, from an empty space to a full page, and it was fun along the way.

And I loved, and still love, doing this exercise myself. I do it all the time to loosen up at the beginning of a drawing/painting session. And once I got to Paris and started taking my continuing ed class in figure drawing at Parsons (Parsons was pretty expensive and I could only afford one class at a time and still stay in coffee money), I had and instructor named Bill MacHenry who suggested we do an exercise of one minute, graphite or charcoal on the page, hand always moving - fast - and only looking at the model, no looking at the page until the minute was up. Gorgeous! How fun. Plus, there they were, my two loves (art and therapy) colliding with each other and melding.

The really fascinating thing I noticed in doing this exercise while gazing upon a model was that the masses of energy and form in the drawings had come through via an instinctual level - you could discern the figure, and the emotion in the pose once it was on the paper, without ever having analysed it or made conscious decisions about how to represent it on the page. No measuring, just gazing and hand perpetually moving. And at the end of the minute - it just existed, in another form in front of your eyes once you did take a look at the page.

Needless to say, I've stuck with this exercise and use it a lot to loosen myself up whenever I feel tight or frustrated or simply want to change tracks when doing my art. This drawing "Center" feels like a really good example of the experience - charcoal with a touch of white chalk, done in maybe 3 minutes with just a few indicative lines added in during, say, the last thirty seconds - in order to coalesce the figure and add some light/dark values, et voila! It exists. Amazing fun.


Sharon Wright said...

Superb! And utterly fascinating! The figure is solid, and alive, real and believable. Amazing!

Aliaena said...

Thanks so much for your visit and comment Sharon. Great to hear from you.

dodo said...

A very, very interesting post. I know little about art therapy- enough to find it fascinating though.
Thank you!

Liza Hirst said...

This is a really interesting and inspiring post, Aliaena! I will try the excercise and perhaps, if they feel like it, do it with my pupils who come to my painting classes every week. Your drawings are amazing! Thank you!

Lucie G said...

I like the sketch very much, and how interesting everything you explain about art therapy and these different techniques!

Aliaena said...

Thanks very much for your visit Dodo, I'm glad you've found it interesting. Art Therapy is really fascinating. All the best to you!

Aliaena said...

Hi Liza! Thanks so much for your comment, and please do let me know if you decide to do the exercise with your students. I would love to know how it turns out. Thanks also for the encouragement. Bisous!

Aliaena said...

Hola Lucie, Wonderful to hear from you again. Glad you liked the post and let me know if you decide to try it - would love to know how it goes for you. Besos, Aliaena

Anonymous said...
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S said...

I am always scared of the blank white page or canvas, even when I can’t wait to get started painting or drawing. I’ll have to try the dot. That’s the icebreaker!

My son is 3 and a half and we color a lot together. They teach him at school to stay in the lines / ne pas depasser. So he tries really hard to do that. I recognize it’s good to learn this way for his motor skills and to have discipline, but its also stressful, as every time he goes outside the lines, he points it out as a big failure. I designate empty pages (inside cover pages, etc.) in the coloring books as scribble pages. I can see he gets fed up coloring, and then he says he wants to do “Gribouillage!! Maman!!” and so--- as you say, he “lets loose.” He needs scribble time. So your post is poignant to me for that - and it is interesting to think about different sorts of artistic energy. Funny how something one might make in 5 minutes can “come out better” than something one might have labored on for 5 hours.

May I say, your work is so beautiful!

Theresa Rankin said...

This is really stunning! One of th best gesture and mass drawings I have seen! Thank you for signing on to my blog!

Barbara M. said...

Hi Aliaena,

I'm impressed by your powerful drawing all the time. This was an excercise we did at art college called contour drawing. But mine never looked like this. You have such total dynamism in your work.
I love the description of the therapy rules too. Interesting. When I paint I start at the other side -- smearing
red, orange yellow onto the canvas
then smoothing out the ground. After that things calm down some. Good to know this would be wrong for someone who'd suffered as a child.

Super blog.

Take care,


Anonymous said...

Art therapy. Fasinating. I've only recently become interested in the subject. The dot thing though is an idea that goes beyond therapy. No matter what you intend to do you've got to make a dot. When I'm doing a demo and I'm nervous about it I know all I have to do is make a start. Any start. And very shortly I'm doing my job. Same concept as the first step/journey thing.

Still dig those drawing you do. Thanks for putting them for us to see.

magicmyst said...

Hello Aliaena, I have immensely enjoyed reading your blog. Your scribble drawings are amazing. I have tried using this method in the past as a warm up tool in life drawing. Your looseness and end results are tremendous. Thankyou for so much dialogue, it is very fascinating to hear about life in France an your inspirations. Kay