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Drawing to Express Feelings

It is not possible to write about drawing and the expressive arts as taught by Natalie Rogers without, also, including other art forms such as writing, dancing, music, or drama (Rogers, 1993). She explained that the different art forms interplay and enhance each other. She calls this the creative connection (4). For instance, a client could draw to express her feelings and then gain further understanding by writing about her drawing (78).

Therefore, according to Rogers (1993) what one writes about drawing applies to the other expressive arts as well. She wrote of using arts in a supportive setting to promote growth and healing. She emphasized it is the process, not the product, that is important. It is about drawing to express feelings, not about creating a “pretty” picture (2).

The philosophy underlying her work is based on person-centered theory which was developed by her father, Carl Rogers. He emphasized the therapist’s role as being empathic, caring, and congruent (3). Natalie developed her interest in art through her mother who had been an artist (Preface, XV). Natalie discovered healing through the arts for herself and suggested it for her clients. Their feedback told her it was helpful (5).

Natalie described three conditions are needed to foster creativity. They are psychological safety, psychological freedom, and offering stimulating and challenging experiences. She explained psychological safety as defined by her father involves accepting the client unconditionally, not evaluating the art, and empathetic understanding. He defined freedom as permission for any type of symbolic expression (14). Natalie further explained that this freedom refers to symbolic expression and not any and all types of behavior. The expressive arts are an ideal means for symbolic expression (17).

Natalie found the first two conditions alone were not enough because it is possible to talk about creativity without becoming involved in the process. She found it necessary to supply art materials along with suggestions to stimulate creative juices (18). It was also important to tell clients that participation in art activities is voluntary so that they never felt like they were under pressure to create (20).

The benefits of expressive arts are to identify and be in touch with feelings, explore unconscious material, release energy, gain insight, solve problems, and discover intuitive, mythological, and spiritual dimensions of the self (96). It is possible for clients to transform repressed feelings into constructive energy (70). It is also useful for people who are highly rational and verbal. These clients tend to discuss their problems without experiencing any feelings (96). An advantage that drawing has over the other art forms is that the images are lasting. One can continue to reflect on a particular drawing for as long as one wants (70).

Natalie goes on to explain that color, line, and form can reveal energy levels as well as feelings. Colors can be brilliant or dull, and lines can be jagged or smooth (69). Art can put clients in touch with anger, greed, fear, or any other feeling clients might prefer to hide (71).

Natalie cautions against the psychoanalytic technique of the therapist interpreting the drawing for the client which can cause resentment and inhibit future drawings (102). She suggests some methods to help the client interpret her own drawing. For instance, the artist could write several sentences to accompany the art which start with, “I am,” “I have,” or “I feel.” The client could entitle the image or list five words that spontaneously come to her as she looks at the picture (78).

Art therapy is also recommended for serious disturbances such as eating disorders and cutting behavior in order to improve verbalization and symbolic expression. This helps the client to understand how inner feelings relate to harmful behaviors (Dean, 2007, citing Bruch, et. al., 1973, 58). Art work aids in the sublimation of these behaviors (Milia, 2000, as cited by Dean, 2007, 66).

Sanson, et. al. (2004 as cited by Dean, 2007) describe drawing strategies for managing self-harm and eating disorders that include various theories such as cognitive and interpersonal restructuring, dynamic intervention, family therapy, and behavioral modification, all of which can be adapted to the use of art therapy (58). Themes in the art of eating disorder and cutting clients can include depictions of weapons, fire, blood, and death. Preferred colors are often red and black (Gerber and Jacobson, 1982, as cited by Dean, 2007, 68). Most striking are slashes and X’s drawn over body parts (Spring, 1993, as cited by Dean, 2007, 65).

Dean (2007) describes a case study of Bonnie who suffered from an eating disorder as well as cutting behavior and suicide ideation. In group art therapy, she was shy and timid, often refusing to speak for long periods of time. However, the images she created were filled with rage, sexual themes, and hearts with holes. She was often unable to keep the art work contained to the paper. When asked for associations to her art work, she would shrug in puzzlement demonstrating a disconnection between her thoughts and feelings. She did, however, possess an intellectual insight into her problems as stemming from an alcoholic father and an untreated, bipolar mother who had abandoned the family. There was suspected but unproved sexual abuse by a relative. Her father was oblivious to this abuse. Gradually, over a period of years, Bonnie was able to improve her self-esteem with the help of art therapy. She was eventually able to sublimate her destructive behaviors using art and to generate alternative solutions to problems that had previously seemed insurmountable. Her art work slowly changed from violent depictions to images representing her current experiences. After breaking up with a boyfriend, she still drew a heart with a hole, but now she included an arrow through the hole which transformed as it emerged on the other side of the heart. The arrow lacked a point and connected to her face which had both a smile and a frown. She terminated treatment soon after that drawing but returned for maintenance appointments and was doing well with a long term relationship and a stable, skilled job. She was contemplating returning to school to pursue a college degree (70-78).

Klorer (2006) in a family systems approach, describes using art therapy with traumatized families. Issues to explore in therapy are individual reactions to the trauma, exploring the role each person plays, helping each family member to communicate their needs, and helping family members to find support, either from one another or outside of the family system (118).

In exploring individual reactions, Consoli and Klorer (1995) as cited by Klorer (2006), recommend that the first session include asking each family member to make a picture about what happened. This brings the issue to the forefront in the beginning. Even in families that are colluding in silence, there is often one member who is willing to draw the problem from her perspective, irrespective of how others might feel. Four year old Julie was such a child. She and her sister had been shot by their mother who then killed herself. The sister died. Julie needed to talk about this tragedy, but her father was uncomfortable discussing it. Julie drew what happened while describing the incident and asking her father why her mother shot her and her sister. Her father couldn’t answer why, but Julie’s drawing enabled him to become more comfortable discussing the tragedy (118, 119).

When it comes to exploring roles, Klorer explains that in a family crisis prescribed roles can become exaggerated. For example, the organizer could become more rigid or the hyperactive child could become more stimulated. Conversely, existing roles cold shift. For instance, a mother who is usually nurturing might relinquish that role to a daughter. As roles shift, other family members could find themselves in a state of disequilibrium because they no longer have a secure place in the system. A case example is 12 year old David who began taking on the responsibilities of his dying father. This was a huge burden that didn’t allow him to express his own feelings of grief because he didn’t want to portray weakness. David’s picture showed him at the center of the drawing and larger than everyone else with his arm on his mother’s shoulder. Upon seeing this picture, his mother realized how much stress he was under and that she had been promoting that role for him. She and the therapist devised ways for David to not feel he had to take care of her (120, 121).

When it comes to communicating needs, Riley (2002) as cite by Klorer (2006) suggests sometimes the therapist can help the family accept the event as a life changing experience by reframing it as a catalyst for change to occur. A case example is Mr. L. who brought his children into therapy because they had witnessed the murder of their mother. The children drew their mother in the picture as if nothing had happened. Their father omitted her, “because she is dead,” he explained. The children then began engaging in avoidant behavior. One put his picture over his head and announced, “It’s raining.” The other child copied and both began giggling. In subsequent drawings when asked to draw their mother, both children refused to draw her. It was clear the children needed to find a way to grieve their mother as did the father. The therapist suggested a memory book of happy memories of their mother as well as those depicting the tragedy. Both the father and children participated in this process. The children were gradually able to conceptualize their mother and drew her inside a heart “because she will always be in our hearts.” The art helped them to reframe and express their grief (121, 122).

As to helping a family find support, Klorer (2006) describes a family in therapy because the father had murdered the daughter. The mother’s own unresolved grief made her incapable of meeting the other children’s basic needs let alone dealing with their grief. When the children spoke about their father in one session, the mother was so despondent she was unable to lift her head off the table. The mother’s sister, who had previously played a maternal role in their extended family, was invited to be a part of the family art therapy so that a support system could be built for both the mother and children. The aunt was instrumental in helping the children express their feelings. Prior to her joining therapy, the children drew only happy pictures of the entire family including father and sister as if nothing had happened. The aunt did not want to collude with that false image and drew pictures expressing her rage over what had occurred. The children then realized their unexpressed feelings were acceptable and began drawing a wide range of emotions including anger and sadness (122, 123).

In conclusion, this research has explored the use of art therapy to express feelings. Natalie Rogers (1993) described how all the art forms interplay and enhance each other in “the creative connection” which is also the title of her book. The paper looked at the use of drawing to help clients with eating disorders or cutting behavior. The research also described how families who are victims of trauma can express their feelings through art. Drawing can be transformative for a wide range of people. It can be spiritually uplifting for those who are healthy, and it can help in the recovery of clients with serious problems or mental illnesses.

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