Art Therapy Techniques: 3 Self-Portraits

March 2, 2011

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Woman In Yellow ~ Sara Roizen~ 2010
I do not paint a portrait to look like the subject, rather does the subject grow to look like his portrait.    –Salvador Dali
Art therapists use countless approaches and techniques when working with individuals and groups. Sometimes specific therapy techniques are also called “interventions” (not to be confused with the dramatic drug “interventions” we watch on TV)!
Although an art therapy intervention may be presented in a specific way, the ways in which an individual or group may respond are infinite. Therefore, even though interventions tend to be specific, they must always be presented with the unique individual in mind. Art therapists are trained to make interventions based on what they feel about their client’s needs at that moment.

In traditional “talk” therapy, interventions take place through the therapeutic dialogue. In art therapy, the therapist is able to blend the verbal process with the visual process.  

The “3 Self-Portraits” experiential can be a powerful and transformational process for many. Below is a description of how I have introduced this technique to clients:
If this is the first time creating the 3 self-portraits, I tend to use dry materials such as oil pastels, chalk pastels, colored pencils, or markers. This can be an emotionally charged experience, and wet materials (such as paint) tend to be more regressive and are more likely to trigger emotional “flooding” in the client. Whenever possible I give the client the highest quality paper that I have available. If this kind of paper is not available, then of course even white computer paper will do.
Create 3 different self-portraits on 3 separate pieces of paper.
1) how you see yourself
2) how you think others see you
Hungry Ghost II ~ Sara Roizen ~ 2010
3) how you would like to be seen  
I encourage the self-portraits to be more abstract in nature for two reasons. One reason is to prevent the artist from getting overly caught up and distracted by trying to create a perfect “likeness.” The other reason is to encourage the artist to think “outside of the box” and free them up to explore with color, lines, and forms. The individual may work on the portraits in any order that feels natural, and may even alternate between drawings during the time period.
I recently used the “3 Self-Portrait” technique during an art therapy group for clients who were newly diagnosed with HIV. It was a talk therapy group, and I was invited by the therapist to be a “guest art therapist” and lead the group for a night. The group had been meeting for a few weeks already, and so there was a level of warmth and overall comfort among the members.
The group expressed a great interest in making art, but were understandably a bit apprehensive at the same time. I encounter this all of the time when working with adults in particular. Many adults haven’t made art since they were children, and there is often a great deal of anxiety related to the pressure to create “a masterpiece.” For this reason I spent the first few minutes of the group addressing the client’s anxiety and even exploring some of their earliest memories with art. As the group members spoke about art making as a child, they became increasingly eager to “play and explore” again using the art materials. As always, I emphasize the importance of the process over the product, and encourage clients to ease into the experience while relaxing expectations about the finished piece.
The group members clearly took this advice to heart, because a few minutes later they were all working away silently – completely immersed in their art making. When I gave them the 5 minute time check towards the end, I was met with requests for more time! (I am always amazed by how quickly the art process can transform a group in this way).
As the group members shared their self-portraits, the process unfolded organically as it so often does. One client shared a portrait that showed a close-up of one of his eyes. He told us that he had been “afraid of the image” at first because of what a strong image it was. He revealed that most people are caught up in his physical features (specifically his beautiful eyes). He felt that even though people saw his eyes, they did not see through his eyes – and therefore did not truly see him.  The eyes are often referred to as “the window to the soul.” Here is an example of art therapy and working with metaphors, to express one’s feelings on a deeper level.
Another group member was touched when he realized that his “future” self-portrait portrayed himself in a hopeful light. When he shared this the other group members realized that their future self-portraits were all hopeful as well. This surprised many of them, as they had associated being newly diagnosed with HIV with a bleak future. The self-portraits revealed hidden strengths in each of the clients and helped to imbue them with a sense of hope and purpose.
With this group, the dialogue evolved very naturally as a result of the process. Some groups may need a little more guidance from the group leader. Below are some examples of questions that might encourage group discussion.
Questions to encourage further exploration and provide insight might include:
·      Which portrait was the easiest to create? Which one was the most difficult?
·      Do you see any similarities between the portraits? What are the differences between the three?
·      Speak as if you are the image. What do you need to feel complete as the image, or do you already feel complete?
·      Were there any surprises in creating the portraits?
·      If you strongly dislike one of the portraits, what would the image need for you to like it?
·      If this was done in a group setting and the members have built some trust with one another, you may invite group members to share what they see in each other’s portraits. (Often the sharing of images can encourage very powerful exchanges among members).
If you are interested in some of my past posts about art therapy techniques, just click on the “Art Therapy Technique” label in the right hand corner of my blog. Topics include techniques such as: mask making, mandalas, and altered books. 
A-part ~ Sara Roizen ~ 2001

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