Portraits: Patients and Psychiatrists

Wellcome Trust Arts Award 2009

Working Process 22/10/09

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 I began this project in July 2009 by spending time researching at the Wellcome Trust Library. I was interested in psychiatric ideas throughout history and especially in holistic theories about the mind and the body, the humours, medicinal plants, minerals, animals and the history of psychiatry. In particular Culpepper, Hippocrates, Paracelsus, Boehme and the Doctrine of Signatures, Foucault, Robert Burton and Galen.

 In August 2009 I made my first appointments. Dr Tim McInerny (Forensic Psychiatrist) had approached other Psychiatrists  with our proposal and found a range of Drs who where enthusiastic about the project and who had patients who where also interested in being subjects. So with there contact details I began to organise the meeting with the psychiatrist and patient, this may be a meeting at their hospital ward or office, a medical centre or an individuals home. Who I meet first Depends on the schedule of the doctor and patient but preferably I meet with the psychiatrist first who will introduce me to their patient and tell me about their patients history.

 When I meet each individual I conduct an informal interview process, which lasts about an hour.


When I meet the psychiatrist I ask them questions, for example…

 What inspired you to become a psychiatrist? What are your interests outside of your job? What do you have in common with your patient? Do you take any medicine or have any health problems?Are you attached to any landscapes, animals or plants?. Etc

 When I meet the patient I ask them the following questions

 How is your experience as a patient? Can you tell me about your life before you where a patient? What would you like to do when you are out of hospital? How would you describe your relationship with your psychiatrist? Other patients? How do you find your medication? Can you tell me about your understanding of your diagnosis? Etc

 (We then carry on our discussion exploring some of the ideas raised through the interview.)


Normally we will have a break at this point and then begin the drawing after the break.


When drawing each person I think about which position I would like them to sit in, this may or may not relate to the content of the interview. Once we have arranged the sitting position(I normally sit very close to the sitter )I begin drawing directly onto the copper plate,(I normally start with the eye) if there is a radio available we may listen to this if the patient would like.

So far I have drawn in the art therapy room at River House, Bethlem Hospital, in a corridor at Kentish Town medical centre, at a patients house and at my house.

I find it very interesting and insightful to enter into the patients and doctors environment. It is a very different world for me and I find it helpful to understand both the living/(and or) working atmosphere of the doctor and the patient.

 I can feel the pressure psychiatrists are under from being in the hospital environment and how little time they have to play with, some of my meetings with them are time pressured -they have to leave at a certain time etc. I find this difficult as I feel under pressure to be very fast both with the conversation and with the drawing. Patients on the other hand generally have more time and can talk about different kinds of subjects, I have found the patients to be very open and generous with what they share with me and doctors to have been more reluctant to engage in any personal details, this can make them slightly more difficult as subjects. Although overall they have been able to sit still for longer than patients.


For the first twenty minutes of the drawing I ask the sitter if we can be silent so I can concentrate on drawing the main features of their face while they are still relatively alert. After this we can talk, this helps the sitter to keep awake and alert during the drawing and it is normally a nice relaxed conversation. Depending on the individual, I may draw them for 45 mins or for one hour and a half if they are comfortable. Some have fallen asleep, some have moved a lot and some have been perfect models.

 After the drawing I thank them, show them the drawing, which they normally find very interesting and then ask them to imagine what kind of images and ideas they would like to see in the portrait. Sometimes they have very strong ideas of what should be there and sometimes they just want to leave it to me. Interestingly the patients normally have more to say about this, they definitely don’t want certain things and do want others. They leave and I stay and make notes and a sketch which includes the first ideas I have about how the composition and ideas for the drawing  might work.

 I then pack up and make my way home from the venue on buses and trains with a very heavy folder filled with copper. Referring to my notes and drawings I begin to plan the subjects I will draw to complete the portraits. I email the grant museum at UCL to ask about animal subjects, I email the rock room at UCL about mineral subjects and the anatomy room for anatomical subjects. I make a list of plants that relate to the individuals character and diagnosis referring to the uses of plants in the history of medicine and I email this list to Jane Knowles the head gardener at the Royal College of Physicians .

Once I have appointments I bring the copper plate with the drawing of the patient or doctor to the museum and I begin to draw parts of the subjects I am interested in, joining them with parts of the person, clothing or background. This process is very organic and I am often surprised by the outcome. Sometimes there are things that I don’t know how to find, I email friends or post on Facebook what I am looking for, for example I found a violin this way and dried cannabis leaves. The plate normally travels from location to location, each time imagery is added, all drawn from life and ends in a large collage/composite that represents the imagery that felt most important in the case of each individual.

 I normally work on a few portraits at once as it is easier to organise and keep busy this way. The normal working time is a few weeks  to a month for each one. When the drawings are complete they are ready to be etched. I bring the palate to East London Print studio. Here I prepare the plate for immersion in ferric chloride by covering the back of the plate and immersing it in acetic acid solution for  5 mins and then in ferric chloride for 1 hour and 20mins approx. I then clean the plate and begin to ink up in colour that relate to each individual. I then print the etching on the press and leave to dry for one week. After this I hand colour the work with Japanese inks and eventually it is ready to scan and is finished.


NB-This has been my experience of the working process of this project to date, almost half-way point. This process may adapt and change in many ways until the projects competion in Febuary 2010.

Written by gemmaanderson

22/10/2009 at 2:03 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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