That’s my art desk. It is suitably smeared with paint and certainly looks like I spend a lot of time there. But…
My brother is a painter. He paints trompe l’oile – which means fool the eye. Here is one of his paintings.
Not my style but he is good at it. Somehow that he is an artist and was also my mother’s favorite led me to avoid art, focusing instead on intellectual pursuits. Still something in me kept wanting to paint and draw. My brother once said that anyone could draw, which was not encouraging to me at all. I took the art classes in school that were required but once finished with them I turned away from painting or any kind of art for many years. I think the last thing I made was a paper mache dog that I meant to be a dachshund but looked sort of like a weird brown worm with legs and ears.
Maybe a class would help
I lived in Portland, Maine for a long time. Portland is the home to a well regarded degree- granting art college. In the early 90’s I decided to take a drawing course through their continuing studies program. I hoped to find a class for people who did not think of themselves as artists, a class that would support and encourage people like me who wanted to draw but were intimidated by the doing of it. I did not find that — the people in the course saw themselves as artists and then there was the critique of every assignment. I dropped out.
A couple of years later my good friend and I found two wild wonderful women artists who were offering classes for people just like us. And it was just what I needed. Supportive, encouraging, full of laughter — a place where my very timid artist self could creep out and start to experiment, to express myself in paint.
Along the way I discovered that I love art supplies. I loved accumulating tubes of watercolors and oil paints. Lots of them. Brushes. Paper. Canvases. I was a very well supplied pretty unproductive artist. After a while the class died out. I painted a little more. I used them in my analysis. But away from the class, just on my own I struggled to paint anything. And then I stopped. And then I gave away all my supplies.
Fast forward to the last few years when I discovered the wonderful world of online art courses. I began again to accumulate art supplies. My lust for paints and brushes and the like was reawakened. I even did a few of the projects. But I still felt inhibited. And besides I was finishing my book. I watched every video. I liked the idea of mixed media. Images of potential projects would come to me but they never came to life on paper, mostly because I hated that I couldn’t bring into being what my mind’s eye saw.
Painting and Analysis Intersect
In addition to being a therapist, I was also in Jungian analysis for a long time — we ended just over 3 months ago. It was where I could struggle with my demons and learn more about myself. You might think that therapists make good therapy patients but really, not so much.
One of the features of Jungian analysis is opening to express feelings, experiences creatively — in art or poetry or writing or dance — a transformative process. As I said above, drawing and painting I kind of consigned to my brother. He was good at; I believed I was not. But writing — now that is a different story, I write easily and without fear, unlike what happens when I attempt to express myself in pigments on paper. Whatever I painted, I then looked at with a critical eye, a judging eye rather than seeing it for what it was, an effort to express something.
My analyst kept urging me to paint. And I would — for a while and then I would stop again. It was an ongoing struggle for me. I understood that the very fact that writing came so easily to me made painting important for my growth, not as an artist but of my self.
Recently I remembered a book I read at least 30 years ago — and truth be told, did not really understand when I read it. It is a bit of a classic published in 1950, written by Marion Milner, herself an analyst. I dug out the book, On Not Being Able to Paint. And began to read it. There in the foreword was this:
It is fascinating for the reader to follow the author’s attempts to rid herself of the obstacles which prevent her painting, and to compare this fight for freedom of artistic expression with the battle for free association and the uncovering of the unconscious mind which make up the core of an analyst’s therapeutic work. The amateur painter, who first puts pencil or brush to paper, seems to be in much the same mood as the patient during his initial period on the analytic couch. Both ventures, the analytic as well as the creative one, seem to demand similar external and internal conditions. There is the same need for ‘circumstances in which it is safe to be absent-minded’ (i.e. for conscious logic and reason to be absent from one’s mind). There is the same unwillingness to transgress beyond the reassuring limits of the secondary process and ‘to accept chaos as a temporary stage’. There is the same fear of the ‘plunge into no-differentiation’ and the disbelief in the ‘spontaneous ordering forces’ which emerge, once the plunge is taken. There is, above all, the same terror of the unknown. Evidently, it demands as much courage from the beginning painter to look at objects in the external world and see them without clear and compact outlines, as it demands courage from the beginning analysand to look at his own inner world and suspend secondary elaboration. There are even the same faults committed. The painter interferes with the process of creation when, in the author’s words, he cannot bear the ‘uncertainty about what is emerging long enough, as if one had to turn the scribble into some recognisable whole when, in fact, the thought or mood seeking expression had not yet reached that stage’. Nothing can resemble more closely than this the attitude of haste and anxiety on the analyst’s or patient’s part which leads to premature interpretation, closes the road to the unconscious and puts a temporary stop to the spontaneous upsurge of the id-material. On the other hand, when anxieties and the resistances resulting from them are overcome, and the ‘surrender of the planning conscious intention has been achieved’, both – painter and analysand – are rewarded by ‘a surprise, both in form and content’.
I sat down this morning and looked at a blank piece of watercolor paper. Nothing came for what felt like a long time. And then I began to make marks on the paper. No image in mind of what I wanted it to be. I just let the brush make marks until I felt done.
As my analyst did, I often suggest to my patients that they paint or make collages or write or dance or work with clay. Most often they, like I, balk, resist, say they don’t know how or what they create isn’t any good. For some of us the road to being able to express ourselves is long and often hard, but it is worth the journey.
Maybe you can paint something today? Or write something? Or go inside a dream and explore it? Try it.