"The image and the particulars of the environment are conduits for the experience of soul. 'Sticking with the image' is a restatement of the Gnostic passage 'Recognize what is before your eyes, and what is hidden will be revealed to you' (the Gospel of Thomas).
"The process of staying with images applies to every aspect of the art therapy experience, from the first phases of making a painting to the dialogues we have with it afterward. The most effective way to work with people suffering from acute psychosis is to help them make perceptual contact with images in a therapy of attunement to the structural features of the environment. 'Can you see red in the picture? Can you touch it? Where is the doorway? How many trees are in the picture on the left? Which color attracts your eye first?' These simple questions evoke a sense of presence. Feelings of attunement to environments and movements are the basis of our therapy.
"My early use of art in treating psychosis concentrated on just this phenomenological process of becoming aware of what was present in the image (McNiff, 1973, 1974). We always began by looking at the physical qualities of pictures, and discovered that everyone in a group, therapists and patients alike, has a limited awareness during preliminary observations of paintings. Through a sustained process of viewing and discussing pictures, our perceptions became more differentiated and visually aware.
"Preliminary observations are typically carried out through habitual modes of perception that do not give us time to be affected by the image and changed by it. Looking at the image becomes a meditation. The longer we look, the more we see, and the more the image influences consciousness.
"Staying with the image is as essential to the psychological interpretation of paintings as it is to the structural analysis that I have just described. The depth and precision of psychological reflection is determined by the extent to which it corresponds to the physical characteristics of the image. The two modes of inquiry are closely connected.
"In my work, the psychological dialogue is always based upon a careful observation of the structural aspects of the image. The feelings we have about the image, the stories we tell about how we made it, the reminiscences it evokes, the things that the images say to us, and the things that we say to them are always closely attuned to physical qualities. We focus on the visual qualities of the specific tree, animal, color, or shape rather than speak about them in a generalized way. I am more interested in a careful observation of the details of the particular tree that is drawn than a general discussion about the significance of 'trees.' Psychological significance comes from relating these visual characteristics to the intimate details of the interpreter's life.
"We view interpretations as metaphors, verbal responses to the image, analogies that we make to other aspects of our lives, and translations of the visual image into other art forms poetry, movement, sound, performance. Art is constantly being interpreted by art in a sequential process of creation, metaphoric movement, and image-making that refreshes the soul. Our medicine views interpretation as an unending process of attunement.
"Some might take 'sticking with the image' as an interpretive fundamentalism that discourages responses not structurally present in the image. The maxim is not intended as an authoritarian doctrine of literal observation. And I do not think it inhibits the imaginative transformations of art. The method is intended to affirm the presence of 'the other' and to assure that our creative responses do not deviate from treating the actual image before us.
"Painters are likely to have more than one response to their pictures, and this multiplicity affirms the generative powers of art. It also manifests the variability of human tastes and observations. The singular presence of the physical image prevents the variety of responses from becoming chaotic or fragmenting. Our meditations are always grounded in the presence of a particular picture."