Pallavi Tomar, M.Phil – The Therapist in My Canvas

Tristine Skyler (Playwright) by Bill Hayward
Tristine Skyler by Bill Hayward

Sometimes words fail us.

The intensity of certain emotions, the rawness of certain experiences and the profundity of certain thoughts touch those aspects of our being that lie beyond the realms of expression in words. Certain situations are so intense and deep seated that it becomes difficult to simply explain them. They are to be felt, experienced and acknowledged in their own form.

Such instances are not far divorced from a therapist’s chamber. Along the course of therapy we chance upon that secluded corner in the clients narrative where mere words are not enough. It is then that a therapist may seek a platform where communication is permitted beyond words as a means to explore the unspeakable; where communication is based on a deep underlying trustful relationship which does not solely depend on the surety of meaningful words. This is exactly where a therapist may require a substitute to carry forward the psychotherapeutic work till words return to guide it further.

That is what a blank canvas can help establish and bolster.

But what are those aspects that may make the use of a blank canvas in therapy analogous to the work of a therapist? This innocent question came to me when I decided to sit and sketch one evening post a hectic day. By the time I had finished I found myself looking at it and reflecting at its content. It was almost like my work was speaking to me! This instance made me reflect on how art and a blank canvas may assist in propelling therapy through patches of seeming stagnation. This article seeks to ponder on a few of these aspects.

Let’s reflect for a bit on a therapist’s office and a blank canvas!

The experience of walking into a therapist’s office is in many ways similar to the possibility a blank canvas poses to us; the experience of being unsure, uncertain of what is to come, and the mystery of what we may express about ourselves, to ourselves, and to the other! This act of stepping into the unknown and delving further into the mysteries of our own identity may scare and even challenge us.

Joanne Baldinger (Painter) by Bill Hayward
Joanne Baldinger by Bill Hayward

The unconditional positive regard a therapist extends towards a client resonates with the blank canvas that accepts its artist with no pre-existing hues or shades. It provides a safe haven in its barrenness suggesting an acceptance of whatever is brought to it. The moment an artist picks up the brush and mixes the colours, signals the commencement of an alliance between the artist and his canvas. With every stroke of the brush, and with each splash of colour on the canvas, a gradual relationship between the artist and the art work begins to develop.

Jerry Iverson (Painter) by Bill Hayward
Jerry Iverson by Bill Hayward

Deep seated emotions and experiences within us can surface at the most unexpected of times. The work that develops on a canvas is then like the exploration of few such aspects that remain hidden within us, without the appropriate words to express them. They reside in us and wait for the unexpected moment when they may pour themselves onto the canvas.

The canvas mirrors to the artist the image created, just like a therapist reflects back the significant themes to the client in therapy. The art work may not instantly lead to the moment of understanding; however it inherently involves an expression of an aspect of the artist. The confusing play of colours that began on the canvas finally progresses to clarity as the artist begins to develop an understanding of the work.

This creates space for further self-reflection and meditation on the contents that have been shared by the artist. It opens new doors for exploration and facilitates movement into those crevices that have been in the dark for too long.

When words fail us in therapy, we may be on the brink of discovering something more potent. This is when a therapist may seek to replace his space with that of a canvas, to provide the client with a space to concede those traces of their beings to flourish that may escape expression in a regular therapy session, and to help them, to finally move towards an expression of those painful aspects that reside beyond the boundaries of words.

Pallavi Tomar

Pallavi Tomar is a licensed Clinical Psychologist practicing in New Delhi, India. She earned her MA and BA in psychology from Delhi University before she went onto completing her M.Phil in Clinical Psychology from Manipal University in India. She is passionate about art and mental health and enjoys spending her free time reading, writing, painting and traveling.


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