Photoshop as a Therapy: One Year of Experiments and What I’ve Learned From It

I don’t know if you’ve ever been to therapy. Usually, what happens when you start seeing a psychologist – or a therapist – is that you go there and talk. You talk about what’s been filling your mind lately, you talk about whatever you feel like. And you continue talking each time you go there, not really knowing if something is happening, but you continue. Talking and talking. Until, at some point, the magic happens: that knot which was obsessing you at the beginning, which was leaving you sleepless at night, that knot is loosened. You have no idea when it happened or how, but it did.

Now, my experience with Photoshop this past year has been exactly like a therapy. I can recall when it started. I was teaching at a workshop in Rome and I felt stuck. I had to make a little sample illustration to show our students how I processed a morning walk into creative material for a story and my mind was blank. I remember I had a lot of fear and cold hands. I took a wax pastel from the pencil case and I started drawing something on a notebook. It looked like a dog. I drew another one. Then I drew two trembling sticks that turned out to be a woman’s legs. And I went on. At the end of the afternoon, I had filled lots of pages with this casual drawings.

Instead of throwing them as I would normally have done, I decided they deserved my trust. Afterall, hadn’t I been looking for a more instinctive way of illustrating? And what’s more instinctive than doodles? Borrowing a working method I had so many times seen used by a dear illustrator friend, Laura Savina (check her beautiful work here), I scanned them all and opened each file in Photoshop. I chose the doodles I liked most and started playing with them. Moving the dog from the left corner to the center of the paper, changing its color, adding the woman, transforming the woman into a man, moving everything all over again. At the end, I got these two illustrations. Minimal and raw, but, for once, deeply mine.



It was exactly one year ago. After these illustrations – which were, by the way, used for an exhibition – I decided I would pursue this method. There was something relieving, liberating, playful in it. And the total lack of planning scared me, it’s true, but it was also very attractive. Like with therapy, I kept trying.

At first, it felt confusing. I enjoyed the fact that I could feel free while drawing – or scribbling or stamping – on paper. I had completely stopped worrying about making a pretty drawing and my goal was to see where my hand – and not my brain – would bring me. Yet the lack of planning was something quite hard to stand for a person like me. I envied my friend Laura, the “mind” behind this method, and her way of creating illustrations like “accidents”. Anyway, I went on.

For some time I adapted the method to my needs, allowing myself a little planning before starting playing with Photoshop. Within a couple of months, though, I realized I could trust the method and that, actually, I got best results when I didn’t have no idea about what I was going to do with the computer. I started experimenting, mixing new and old doodles, building a little archive of material that could always come to use – mostly drawings of plants, scribbles and all sorts of spots. I hadn’t realized it yet, but without the pressure of control and pre-established ideas about what I thought I liked – or I wanted to like – my taste, my own, unique taste was slowly coming out. And spots, little imperfections, and trembling lines were definitely part of it.     

I’ve worked in this way for almost one year. I remember the joy and the total surprise when out of a bunch of senseless gouache spots this illustration came out.



Here nothing besides the animals (which were made with wax pastels and then digitally colored in white) has been drawn. What I knew before starting was that I wanted a wood. It came out just by playing with spots in Photoshop.

I could go on and on showing you examples of how this method changed my approach to illustration experiment by experiment. I call it a “therapy” because it really loosened a lot of knots and fears and it helped me know myself better. Without it, I wouldn’t have been able to grow and improve. Especially, I saw these changes:

  1. I got rid of anxiety. After the first moment of panic due to non-planning, I started trusting my instinct, realizing ideas often come when you stop thinking and you start doing. The fear of the white blank page – and the anxiety connected – doesn’t come if you start filling that page with whatever comes to your mind. Sense comes after, I promise it comes. This works in Photoshop and on real paper too.
  2. I understood what my taste is. Photoshop has allowed me to experiment quickly and without limits, pulling me out of the paper+pencils comfort zone I was stuck in. I’ve worked without prejudices, confirming things I already knew about my taste and surprising me with a lot of new discoveries.
  3. It changed my way of drawing. Since I realized I like the way I draw in sketches and doodles more, I started developing that kind of style. Now I don’t need much elaboration in Photoshop because on paper things look already like I want them.

Of course, this is what worked for me. But what about you? What about your “therapy”?