“Understanding” abstraction

Someone (who works in design) asks me how to “understand” abstract paintings. Obviously there has to be an entry point for non-representational, non-figurative art. Although I think the word “understand” gives too much emphasis to Left Brain / analytical and reductive approaches to what is an art work, it is helpful for some of us to have a way of thinking about abstraction. So I did a drawing summarising my process of painting. Even the basic idea that I am seeking to echo the natural can quickly provide a point of entry.




mark-making and psychiatry


……………………The Transcendentalist tradition includes Thoreau and Walt Whitman. My understanding of art making is based on the foundational process of meaning making. Walt Whitman in his great long poem “Song of Myself”, catalogs the many extensions and manifestations of the life force he perceives through the fog of his experience. Walt Whitman had been a nurse or orderly during the Civil War and had witnessed the trauma of the “real” world. His ability to nurture a sense of wonder in a life that included exposure to great trauma is instructive. In “Song of Myself”, he lists the many activities and old world occupations in the same way he describes the power of Nature to instil awe and wonder.

Thoreau describes the wonder and peace he cultivated in himself by living in the woods. In “Walden”, he lives in simplicity and lists the subtle changes in the ecosystems around the lake. The meaning of his life emerges from these days he spent away from the crowd. He died soon after leaving his stone edifice on the edges of the lake.

For me, art making is like this : being awake to the numinous lustre of Nature, the inspiration of sincere people, the integrity of honest creativity, the possibility of escaping the hierarchies of the narcissistic society we have inherited.

This is how what I do in the therapy room is similar to what is done in the studio. I am hoping for meaning to emerge out of the detritus of our lives. I go further and act as an instigator of meaning. Textures of paintings are like the rough edges of my patients’ narratives. Colours are like the nuances of mood as they flow and fluctuate in the lives of my patients. Structures in a painting are like the cognitive formations and relationship systems in the stories my patients tell.

This is how psychiatry and art inter-integrate into a single experience.


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Left hemisphere / mere words



OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy paintings are like notes from the Unconscious, as I try to understand the experience of this sensual world.

 Being a psychiatrist, that work involves searching for the deeper narrative behind and below what my patients describe to me. Seeing it, feeling it, calling it by name and finally holding it long enough to work with the story. The same process is happening in my art practice.

Although my style has become more unbound, organic and sculptural over time, the underlying theme has always been a meditation on the felt experience of human being. The felt experience (as opposed to the analytical deconstruction of our lives) is what is both terrifying in it’s painful grandeur as well as electrifying in its promise of beauty and truth.

 Our lives are surface phenomena that suggest a deeper story and each painting seeks out the bedrock arc of a day, a week, a year as may be. Just as each session of psychotherapy seeks the resonances from the Deep of the human Unconscious. I gave up trying to completely separate my work as a psychiatrist and my work as a painter once I realised they involve a similar seeking after Depth. Truth. Presence.

The universal language of colour, figure and form coalesce into these blocks of Time called “paintings”, Time and Space apparently captured inside 4 lengths of wood and heavy layers of paint, accented with natural objects such as stones, bark and other detritus.

 Each painting has an emotional tone and a degree of conflict between chaos and order, just the same as each day provides a similar interplay of head and heart, bookended by dawn and dusk. “


“My technique involves “hitting” the canvas and leaving it. Hit and run. Find a place to recuperate and rehydrate as my canvases are often large and I travel through many layers over days to weeks. I wear a gas mask and sweat it out. The music is probably on the strong side.

 I collaborate with the forces of perseverance and win over the better angels of our nature : experience, inspiration, freedom of action, daring, refusal to give up on a painting. I am a veteran of many failed campaigns in which the rubbish picture becomes the underlay of a memorable success.

My technique is “Get Out of Your Own Way”…….if you have an eye for colour and form, and you can turn down the volume of your L hemisphere  conceptual mind, the painting will emerge in its own way. This is the most enjoyable part for me….the suggestion of standing aside as something makes its mark on the canvas. Whether you call it the Unconscious, Nature, Spirit or a slice of the Narrative of my patient that day , the joy of painting is standing aside and seeing what has manifested. Its the antithesis of narcissistic self-absorption.”

painting after an MRI experience


Inside the MRI…. The sounds are fast staccato bass notes seemingly pitiless , robotic and arriving as if some kind of aural torture…The space is grave-like. Yet somehow hypnotic and soothing. …Like floatation tanks, things are seen in the mind’s eye, if you can go with the flow. They ask “Are you claustrophobic ?” Am now I guess…

Doctor Friend in Hospital


It is very hard to be both a patient recovering from serious surgery who is also a senior doctor. Some people say doctors are the worst patients. Maybe this is because we understand the thinking and processes behind the behaviour of those “looking after” us. It is very challenging when doctors who are temporarily patients have to self-advocate because they are not getting what they perceive appropriate or necessary treatment. For example, you may be suffering pain from an operation but have to argue for more or different pain relief. Hospital policies may prevent you accessing appropriate analgesia or sleeping medication in the needed amounts, or a negative dynamic might arise between you and nursing staff, reflecting long-bubbling tensions between the two professions. Anyway, I have seen doctors have an extra hard time as patients. I wish this would change as the overall health system becomes increasingly transparent and subject to critique. If doctors have a hard time in hospital because of  a dysfunctional dynamic, how challenging a time must the non-doctor patient have.

The image reflects pain as well as war paint.


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“I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was – I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost.” ― Jack Kerouac, On the Road

Kerouac was a prolific, inspiring writer (one of the Beats) who developed a true stream of consciousness style. His most famous book On The Road was a great example of this. The darker side of his life is the fact that he eventually swore off his old friends like Allen Ginsberg, and returned home to live with his mother. He slowly drowned himself in alcohol with occasional appearances on tv in the early 60s. He died of alcohol-induced liver failure. Despite this, he remains a towering figure in the firmament of the great writers. He is interesting here as an embodiment of the creative life. And a warning from the Dionysian Muse that the creative life can be dangerous too.

A Political Poet

The poet Adrienne Rich (1929-2012) wrote “We have become a pyramidic society of the omnivorously acquisitive few, an insecure, dwindling middle class, and a multiplying number of ill-served, throwaway citizens and workers [resulting in] a kind of public breakdown, with symptoms along a spectrum from acute self-involvement to extreme anxiety to individual and group violence.”

She was a poet and a critic of modern capitalism. She attacked the misuse of words such as “freedom”, saying they had been “pimped” and disstorted to support the dysfunctional society in which her poetry existed:

“Capitalism presents itself as obedience to a law of nature, man’s “natural” and overwhelming predisposition toward activity that is competitive, aggressive, and acquisitive. Where capitalism invokes freedom, it means the freedom of capital. Where, in any mainstream public discourse, is this self-referential monologue put to the question?”