Artistic inspirations: false colors.
Article Type: Essay
Subject: Impression formation (Psychology) (Analysis)
Author: Johanson, Greg
Pub Date: 09/22/2008
Publication: Name: Annals of the American Psychotherapy Association Publisher: American Psychotherapy Association Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2008 American Psychotherapy Association ISSN: 1535-4075
Issue: Date: Fall, 2008 Source Volume: 11 Source Issue: 3
Accession Number: 187049617

Practicing and teaching experiential therapy deals with the issue of seeing and being seen. It is a tricky issue where one can miss the mark by seeing too much or too little. Often it is knowing too much that gets in the way.

For instance, I'm out on the street one day and see a figure walking toward me. It is mysterious at first, too far away to be distinguishable. So, my senses are open. I'm taking in information on many levels. Then I recognize that it is Ralph. Thud! Down comes the curtain. I'm no longer open, because I know all about Ralph. Ralph is a boisterous, self-confident kind of guy.

Because I'm confident in the way my imagination habitually colors Ralph, I miss the little clues that reveal that today Ralph is not so self-assured. He has just come from the post office where he picked up a letter telling him his cousin has been killed in Iraq. There is a held-in, but not so hidden, grief for those who have eyes to see. My eyes don't see because of my certainty that Ralph does not major in intimacy or vulnerability.

It is a struggle to find ways to not know too much, to be mindful and open to the nuances of the present moment. One resource that Ron the founder of the Hakomi Therapy, put me on to was the book Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier, the story of the famous painter Vermeer and his celebrated painting by the same name that has also been made into a movie.

In the story, Griet is a servant who grinds and lays out paints for Vermeer to use each day. He is working on a painting of a girl in a scene with a table, pitcher, and map. Griet thinks you should paint what you see, using the colors you see. So, she is confused when Vermeer does not order blue paint even though the girl model is clearly wearing a blue skirt. He starts putting in black where the skirt should go. Then he uses ocher for the girl's bodice, though it is yellow and black. He uses grey instead of white for the wall. They are all seemingly false colors.

Finally, Griet is so flustered that she puts out an ultramarine color along with the other ones Vermeer has ordered. When he is annoyed and asks why she has done this, she replies that the girl is wearing a blue skirt.

Vermeer takes the opportunity to teach her. He opens the window and asks her what color the clouds are. She responds with, "Why, white, sir." When he asks again, "Are they?" she adds that there might be a little grey, and that it might snow. He continues by saying that she can do better. He asks her to think of her vegetables. Are the turnips and onions the same white? Suddenly she understands. "No. the turnip has green in it, the onions yellow." "Exactly," says Vermeer. "Now look at the clouds again."

Griet's eyes are open in a new way. She notices that there is some blue in the clouds, also some yellow and green. She becomes excited and starts pointing. She had been looking at clouds her whole life, but she now feels as if she is seeing them in the moment for the first time.

This story inspired renewed sensitivity as well as training exercises where we invite students to look at each other's faces and notice first impressions. Then, what is it like to hold the impression lightly while looking again? If the person appeared strong or needy overall, can we then be open to letting in the minute signs of the child behind the appearance, what the person believes is possible and not possible in the world, what the person is comfortable showing and not showing, what the person expects or longs for in a relationship with us? Can we begin to accommodate new information that might or might not fit our original impression? Can we be, as Fritz Perls once put it, the bull's-eye the arrow hits every time?

Meister Eckhardt once said that we do not find God by a process of addition, but by a process of subtraction. Sometimes, like Griet, we can find one another through a humility that does not presume certainty and is willing to look more carefully.

Gregory Johanson, MDiv, PhD, LPC, is a Fellow of the American Psychotherapy Association and a Fellow of the American Association of Integrative Medicine. He is currently the Director of Hakomi Educational Resources in Chicago, IL.
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