The Advantages of Belonging to a Group – My Interpretation of ‘A Sense of Belonging’

Guardians-TitleIn this post I’ll give you my interpretation of ‘A Sense of Belonging’, the first painting in my new series ‘Guardians’.

A Sense of Belonging Website Social Media
A Sense of Belonging © 2018 David Denton

The ‘Guardians’ series has been designed as an antidote to my previous series ‘The Seven Gates’. If you don’t know anything about that series, this video will get you up to speed:

So the ‘Guardians’ series will be all about things in my life that help me to keep depression at bay. They won’t all be relevant to everybody but if you suffer with depression there may be something that could help. If nothing else it should be comforting to know that someone who has had severe depression, and at one point couldn’t see a way out, can now paint a colourful image like ‘A Sense of Belonging’. There is hope.

Let’s start with why it’s so great to belong to a group. Off we go then.

The first thing you need to understand is this: I’m a freak.

A geek.

A nerd.

All of those words that get used by bullies and are generally perceived by society as negative.

Here are some facts to prove my geeky nerdy freako credentials:

  1. My favourite Daredevil artist is Alex Maleev.

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2. I love Hammer films, especially ones that star André Morell.

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3. I love many black and white films.

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4. And Farscape.

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5. And Thunderbirds.

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6. I enjoy Chiptune.

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7. And Screamo.

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8. And Acid Jazz mixed with a bit of Cathedral choir singing.

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9. My favourite book is The Terror by Dan Simmons.

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10. And this is my phone:

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I think you get the idea. I’m a right weirdo.

Now I don’t mind being a weirdo. I like what I like and I couldn’t care less about what I’m supposed to like. If something’s great, it’s great.

The problem comes when I think about where I fit in. Where do I belong?

I used to play Warhammer and paint the miniatures. I joined a club, but I didn’t fit in. The other people there were really friendly and they were really into Warhammer and role playing games as a hobby – really into it – and I wasn’t. I didn’t know all of the character stats off the top of my head and I often had to look up rules. So I left.

I used to regularly attend the Celluloid Screams horror film festival in Sheffield. I didn’t fit in there either. I wear a red coat for starters.

I’ve got a season ticket for Doncaster Rovers. I definitely don’t fit in there. Every match some lucky individual in the crowd wins a box of 12 Pukka pies. I really don’t want to win. I’m a vegetarian. Yep, I don’t fit in at the Rovers.

The problem with not fitting in anywhere is that it is easy to feel alone in the world.

This isn’t good for someone prone to depression.

For me, feeling alone was a great excuse to push other people away and isolate myself even more. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy. It went something like this: I’m so different from everyone else. I feel like I’m all alone. So I’m jolly well going to make sure that I am alone, by Jove. Well that’s how my subliminal thinking went, but possibly without the Victorian colloquialisms. A study by Brigham Young University showed that loneliness is a greater health risk than obesity and is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. So the irrational desire to be lonely and alone is not a healthy one.

I really needed to feel as though I fit in somewhere. To feel like I belong.

In the last three years, I’ve taken up a new hobby.

Board gaming. (Here we go again with all of the geekiness.)

Before I continue, this series of paintings is all about improving your mental health. My end conclusion won’t simply be to play more board games and you’ll feel loads better. It will be much wider than that. Stick with me, it’ll all make sense in the end.

My love of board games came about when I discovered games like Pandemic, Eldritch Horror and Legends of Andor.

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These were fresh new games. First of all they’re all co-operative games. Either you all win or you all lose. No-one gets knocked out and has to sit and watch two hours of the game being played just to be polite (ahem, Monopoly). These are games where more interesting choices have to be made. They really get you thinking.

Since then, I’ve also played some competitive games and I really enjoy those too. Things like Alien Frontiers and Charterstone.

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I played these games with my wife and we both had a great time. But I watched videos on YouTube of people playing these games with their friends. Four or more people sitting round a table. Laughing. Joking. Having a good time. And I wanted a bit of that.

I searched for board game clubs in the area and I found a local club. I plucked up the courage and went.

Now, despite not having been officially diagnosed, I severely suspect I suffer from Social Anxiety Disorder. Even if I don’t have the label, I still panic in any social situation to the extent where I have been known to vomit. So going to a club, alone, was a big step for me.

I didn’t need to worry. I was instantly welcomed into the club and a group of six of us played a game of Carcassonne, a tile laying game. And we were laughing, joking and having a good time.

s820677207579784711_p58_i3_w800Since then I have become a regular and have a core group of people who I play with. But even when they’re not there, I feel quite happy to just turn up and play with whoever is there. It really is a welcoming environment. There are not many places where you can meet a stranger and then within five minutes be having fun with them.

It’s great to feel like I belong somewhere.

It’s strange, but something as simple as a rectangular bit of cardboard, some tokens and some rules has led to me having friends and being… social. I never thought I’d actively want to go out to a place where other people may be and – horror of all of Satan’s dastardly horrors – maybe even talk to some people.

And who would have thought that watching Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop – come on, I did warn you I’m a geek – would have led to another friendship. My wife happened to mention that we watched Tabletop on a course she was attending and amazingly someone else watched it too with her partner! We now regularly meet up for gaming nights and again, it’s social and a lot of fun.

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You can imagine the impact that all of the above has had on the state of my mental health.

So what are the benefits of belonging to a group?

Studies have been carried out that link belonging to a group (or groups preferably) to positive physical and mental health. Belonging to a group has the equivalent effect on physical health as stopping smoking or drinking alcohol. (http://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316) Social connectedness has also been shown to have a positive effect on depression in terms of both recovery and preventing a relapse. (http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0004867417723990)

For me, the day-to-day benefits are:

  1. It gets me out of the house.
  2. I meet my friends regularly and possibly even make new friends.
  3. I laugh. A lot.
  4. It gives me something to look forward to every week.
  5. It provides routine and a structure to my week.
  6. I learn new skills, both socially and in terms of the activity I’m doing.
  7. I am being social. (Crikey!)
  8. My mind is fully engaged in an activity rather than listening to my inner thoughts.
  9. I feel alive.
  10. I don’t feel alone.

That’s not a bad list for just going out once a week and playing a few games.

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I’m not advocating that everyone goes out and joins a board gaming club, although if you want to I’m definitely not stopping you. But I am advocating joining a group, even better, more than one group. That way if one group stops meeting up you’ve got another as back up. The reason for the group meeting up doesn’t matter; it could be a book club, a walking group or learning a new skill at night school. I’m sure you can think of many more examples.

I realise that when suffering from depression and anxiety the thought of joining a group can be paralysing and feel seemingly impossible. But that’s the mental illness talking. Enlist a friend or family member to support you and maybe join a group with you, even if it’s just for the first few sessions to give you time to find your feet. You don’t have to do it all on your own.

So join a group, get out there and have some fun. The benefits are immense. You may just get to feel like this:

A Sense of Belonging Website Social Media
A Sense of Belonging © 2018 David Denton

I’d be interested to hear if you’ve had a similar experience from belonging in a group. Leave any questions or comments in the box below and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.

For more information on my art visit http://www.daviddentonart.com

 

If I have made you vaguely interested – by some miracle – in board games, here’s a video that will give you some pointers for games that could get you into the hobby:

And the top 10 Gateway games on the Board Game Geek website are:

1 Ticket to Ride Europe
2 Carcassonne
3 Codenames
4 For Sale
5 Sushi Go! or Sushi Go Party!
6 Pandemic
7 King of Tokyo
8 Kingdomino
9 Splendor
10 Patchwork

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How to Create a Strong Focal Point in a Painting – The making of ‘A Sense of Belonging’

One of the things I wanted to work on after the completion of my last series of paintings, ‘The Seven Gates’, was really emphasising the focal point of my paintings. So for the first painting in my new series, ‘Guardians’, this is what I concentrated on.

You now have two options: watch the video below to find out how to create a strong focal point or continue reading this post which gives the same information but you get to read it at your leisure.

Okay, you’ve decided to read on. Excellent! Let’s have a look at the six main areas I worked on to really show off my focal point:

  1. Position
  2. Lead-in lines
  3. Warm/Cold colours
  4. Saturation
  5. Level of Detail
  6. Contrast

Let’s have a quick look at the theory.

Position

The Rule of Thirds is a simple rule used to help compose an image. Simply divide the canvas into thirds both horizontally and vertically. The four places where the lines intersect are visually pleasing places to put a focal point of a painting.

Focal Point 1

Lead-in Lines

Lead-in lines are used to direct the viewer’s eye to the focal point. They are generally lines that start at or near the edge of the canvas and go towards the main focal point. A road winding its way towards a house is a good example of the use of lead-in lines.

Focal Point 2

Warm/Cold Colours

Choosing colours carefully can also help in focussing the viewer’s attention. Cold colours tend to recede into the background whereas warm colours push themselves to the front and shout out, “Look at me!” in a big booming voice. Look at the example below. Which flower is supposed to be the focal point?

Focal Point 3

It also helps that the warm colour has a cold background to really push it forwards.

Saturation

Strong saturated colours draw the attention while muted colours recede into the background. Using saturated colours on the focal point help to really show it off. Compare these two flowers:

Focal Point 4

Level of Detail

Another way to show off your focal point is to add more detail into it than the rest of the image. Imagine taking a photo of someone. The focus is on the person’s eyes making them really sharp and detailed. The background will naturally blur as it’s out of focus.

Focal Point 5

Contrast

Our eyes are naturally drawn to areas of high contrast within an image (the difference between the lights and darks). This can be used to our advantage. Try squinting at the image below and notice how the flower in the top left-hand corner still stands out.

Focal Point 6

So these are the things to take into account when planning a composition. Now let’s have a look at this in practise.

A Sense of Belonging Website Social Media
A Sense of Belonging © 2018 David Denton

Here’s my latest painting, ‘A Sense of Belonging’. In the next section of this post I’ll take you through my thought processes as I planned this image.

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This is the original drawing for the painting. This in itself took a long time to produce. I had to take my initial idea of belonging to a group and create a character (or characters) from this. If you’re familiar with the way I work with free association then skip the next paragraph. If not continue reading.

I wrote down the central idea at the top of a piece of paper and then used free association (the mental process by which one word or image may spontaneously suggest another without any necessary logical connection) to derive a list of words. I tried not to think about why I’d chosen these words, I just put them down and considered the implications later. Then I looked at this first list and saw which word(s) jumped out at me. Again, I didn’t think why, I just went with it. I chose one of these words, started a new list and then repeated the free association. Making lists for each of the words that jumped out was time-consuming but it generated a lot of ideas. Finally I repeated this whole process a third time, seeing which words jumped out and made new lists from them. I did it three times because I think that this stops me from skittering about on the surface and forces me to delve deeper. Many times I will reach one of the third level lists, a word will spring from my mind and I’ll think ah, that’s what this is all about. Using all of the lists, I looked for suitable words to mould the direction of the painting. Some of the words that hit me in this process were ‘gears’, ‘particles’, ‘new links’ and ‘warmth’. With these words and others in mind I designed the main character.

To help me design the creatures I made a couple of models:

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This all fed into my drawing. My first consideration was the position of my focal point. I decided that the main creature would be the one on the left looking at the viewer. So I positioned this on the upper left intersection of the thirds lines.

Drawing Photo Blog Thirds

The pair of cogs meeting was a secondary focus so I put them on the lower right intersection.

Drawing Photo Blog Lead In Lines

The other aspect of composition I’d thought about were the lead-in lines. The tentacles were perfect for this as they would lead the viewer’s eye directly to the face of the main character. The next stage of planning was colour. This was particularly exciting because my last series primarily consisted of greys.

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The Insidious Whisper © 2016 David Denton

I decided to use warm colours for the creatures and cool blues  for the background. This helped to make the creatures stand out from the background. You can see from my colour plan below that the main creature is almost completely surrounded by blue, pushing it out towards the viewer. You’ll also notice that I’ve made the focal point the most saturated part of the image. Again, this is a subliminal message to the viewer that this is the focal point.

Belonging Plan Colour Flattened

Now let’s look at the painting process.

A Sense of Belonging Sky Hills

My first task was to roughly block out the image so it looked roughly like my colour plan above. Then I put a lot of time into refining the image. I started in the far distance painting the sky and hills. I used just the three primary colours and white for this part of the painting. The important factor was that I used three primary colours that tended towards cooler hues. This is very subtle but it helped me to achieve two goals:

  1. The warm focal point will really stand out against the background.
  2. Using cooler hues creates a sense of distance.

The other thing that you’ll notice, especially if you squint at this image, is that the contrast is very low. The hills originally had even less contrast but it made them look as though they were 30 miles away so I had to gradually increase the darkness of the dark tones until the illusion of distance was correct.

The sky and hills were painted pretty quickly. Detail wasn’t needed in this area and I actively blurred parts of this area to make it appear out of focus.

A Sense of BelongingCreature 2

My next job when refining was to get the characters looking right. I worked on this secondary character first, almost as a test for the main character. I added a lot of detail into this creature including the stitches and tiny hairs to represent the fur. These foreground characters were still painted with three primary colours (and white) but I switched to three warm primary colours. This again would help the main characters stand out against the cool background. Now came a tricky balancing act. I had to make the shadows on this character dark but not as dark as the main character. Remember I need the contrast to be the highest on the focal point. There is only a slight difference in the finished painting but it is there. Also to reduce the contrast slightly I added a thin yellow wash over the highlight in the eye. Once I was happy with this creature I moved on to the main focal point.

A Sense of Belonging Creature 1

On this main creature I used my darkest black. I don’t use black paint. I mix my blacks from the three primaries. I use a lot of blue, a bit of red and a tiny bit of yellow. How’s that for a specific recipe? It’s hard to give specific ratios because it depends on the paints used. But the process I use is to mix a very dark purple and then add a tiny amount of yellow to make it a very dark grey. In the centre of the eye I’ve got this black right next to a spot of pure white, the highest level of contrast within any part of the image.

Originally the creature on the right had yellow tentacles and the main one had orange ones. The problem was that the yellow tentacles had a higher level of contrast which made the secondary creature look like the focal point. A bit of repainting later and the main creature was sporting some dandy yellow tentacles.

You’ll notice that the saturation on the face of the creature is very strong. There’s very little grey here! I had to keep refining this throughout the painting process. If the saturation wasn’t quite strong enough I added some thin washes of colour to give it a boost. It was subtle but incredibly important in focussing the viewer’s attention.

Again I had to be subtle but this main creature has slightly more detail than the secondary creature. I even added tiny shadows where the stitches enter the fur. I spent a lot of time on this creature.

A lot.

A Sense of Belonging Stitches

Once I’d got the main creature looking good, I then had to go back and tackle the background creatures.

This was pretty tricky. To create a convincing sense of depth in the image I had to gradually reduce the saturation, contrast and level of detail as I went further back into the image. The other issue to bear in mind is that any creatures that were on the same plane had to have the same saturation, contrast and level of detail to show that they on the same plane. This also applied to the hills which I was constantly tweaking to fit in with the creatures level with them. What made it even harder was that there were so many different levels of creatures, as can be seen in this image.

A Sense of Belonging Bckgrnd Creatures

 

One problem I had in creating this painting was making sure that the creatures actually sat in the environment rather than looking as though they were floating in space.

A Sense of Belonging Water

I tackled this in three ways:

  1. I put some sections of the tentacles below the water line. In the image above the left half of the large yellow tentacle is in the water and has a dark shadow under it. The right half is out of the water and has reflected green light from the water coming up under its lower edge.
  2. I added reflections that matched the tentacles.
  3. As a final touch I added some dripping water to the underside of the tentacles as if they’ve just come out of the water. You can even see where the drops hit the water in the lower right hand corner of the image above.

All of this adds up to the final image:

A Sense of Belonging Website Social Media

I think you’ll agree that the main focus is definitely on the creature on the left. I used a lot of subtle techniques but it all works together to create the desired effect. There is another way that I focussed the viewer’s attention but I’ll leave that up to you to work out. You can leave me your thoughts in the box at the bottom of this post.

If you’ve got the time to watch it the video below contains more detail on the subject of creating a strong focal point and also looks at painting water and creating fur textures.

In my next post I’ll look at the meaning behind this painting. See you then!

Signed Limited Edition Prints of ‘A Sense of Belonging’ are available from my website.

All images are printed at 1440 dpi on a heavy-duty textured paper for sharp, detailed, vibrant prints.

Sales help me to continue spending time creating this tutorial and the above video for you dear reader.

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If you’ve got any questions or comments please leave them in the box below and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.

Dark Thoughts: The Meaning Behind ‘The Seventh Gate’ Part 2

If you missed Part 1, Click Here. Approximately two years ago, I started this series of paintings to visually show how depression has affected me. This experience of mental illness is unique to me, but from reading around the subject there is a lot of crossover with other people who have suffered and who are suffering with depression. But before I launch into the meaning of the last painting let’s have a little recap on the story so far.

For my post on the meaning behind each individual painting just click on the relevant title.

Descent From Möbius Wood

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Depression is something that I’ve suffered with on and off since I was in my late teens. I can be feeling perfectly well mentally, and then something, I don’t always know what, will trigger the illness and my mood will start to head downwards. This first painting in the series is a reminder to me to always be on guard and do my best to keep myself mentally healthy. (For some tips, Click Here.) I haven’t had an episode of depression in the last four years despite having some traumatic life events. Some of the thought patterns associated with the illness have crept in at times, but fortunately I’ve been able to counteract them. I know all too well that I will keep returning to the tree pictured above, and I know the consequences of allowing it to take a hold and drag me down. But what are those consequences?

Welcome

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One of the first subtle signs that something was wrong, was a desire to cut myself off, to isolate myself. When I am beginning to get depressed, it is a very seductive idea. I have always been able to justify this need  to myself, and sadly, it has resulted in the end of many friendships. The illness uses this tactic to divide and conquer, to get me on my own so that it can continue to work on my thoughts without the chance of being disturbed.

The Insidious Whisper

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It took me a long time to work out that my thoughts weren’t my own. The illness enlisted the helps of ‘The Whisperer’ who has an incredible knack of hiding and passing off unhelpful thoughts as perfectly natural. I was thinking the thoughts in my head, so they were my thoughts, obviously? I didn’t realise how my healthy thought patterns could be changed with the sole aim of making me feel worthless. But depression does this with alarming ease.

Stiff Upper Lip

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While ‘The Whisperer’ worked on my thoughts, the illness puts another safeguard in place to protect itself: the ability to put on a brave face. It didn’t want me telling people how I felt because that may get me the help that I sorely needed. So I smiled and hid my emotions. Over time I learned to let some people in and share what I was going through. But depression had got this covered too.

Skin the Shine of the Rain

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Telling people how I really felt just opened the floodgates. Because I was feeling so terrible, it led me to say and do hurtful things: destructive actions designed to wreck relationships. If you know that I’m suffering with depression, to say that I’m difficult to be around is an understatement. Breaking any ties that could potentially help me is the modus operandi of the illness.

I Will Walk Into Your Parlour

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Its arsenal of destructive weapons doesn’t stop there. The next step was to make me want to see just how low I could go. I actively wanted to become more depressed. Yet again, this was a seductive idea. It was a massive effort to get out of bed and even when I did, I spent a lot of time lying on the floor. My aim was to melt into it and achieve some kind of safety. I’m not sure how that would have worked, but that was my thought process. Lying on the floor was a way to escape the insufferable mental pain that I was in. But as the depression had correctly calculated, it just made me worse.

The Seventh Gate

The Seventh Gate Twitter

And so we reach the final painting.

After all of the above, you may be thinking: I know where this is going. There is only one way this story ends. You attempted suicide.

But no. I didn’t.

The real end to the story is equally as dramatic but not in the way you’d expect. I’ll explain…

You would be partially correct: my thoughts certainly turned towards death. When you’re that far down, it’s pretty much the only way to go.

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I’ve touched on vicious circles before because depression is a jumbled mass of vicious circles all spiralling down. Here’s one of them for your delectation:

I often had the thought that I wanted to die. I wasn’t going to commit suicide. I had made a promise not to. Even without the promise I’m not convinced that I would have done anything. But during periods of depression I tend towards obsessional thoughts, and this was one time it worked in my favour. I became obsessed with the promise, and that was the thing I held onto tightly.

And yet I wanted the pain to end. I spent hours in bed wishing that something would happen to me in the night, some bizarre medical incident resulting in me never waking up. My other fantasy was that a button would appear in my bed, a small red plastic button in a polished metal surround. The button would be set into the mattress. I knew if it appeared, I would press it without a second thought. The purpose of the button was to erase me completely from history as if I’d never been born. A cliché maybe, but thoughts don’t have to be original to be real and agonizing.

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Before I carry on, I’ll point out that I don’t have this impulse now. The thoughts occasionally pop into my head, depression will always try to gain a foothold somehow, but I dismiss them instantly. The thoughts appeared natural when I was suffering from excruciating mental pain. But now I’m not under that level of pain, I can remove these thoughts easily. They are poor attempts at usurping my more positive mood that I’m not going to let creep back in.

But what about the vicious circle? Well, these thoughts of death preoccupied me. They were in my head so often that they became routine. They made me feel worse. They made me feel that death was my only way out. And as I felt worse, I thought about them even more. A vicious circle. This is the point where obsession conspired against me: I became obsessed with the idea of death. I think the reason why it comes back into my head even now is because being obsessed with these thoughts was a way of life for me.

Imagine this scenario: you are locked in a room and have no water. One of the walls of the room is made from thick unbreakable glass. On the other side of the glass is a two litre bottle of water, and you can’t get to it. As time went on and you became thirstier and thirstier what do you think your thoughts would turn to? Yes, you’d become obsessed with the one thing that is going to release you from the pain: the bottle of water. So it’s not really a surprise that I became obsessed with my perceived solution.

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But aren’t these thoughts of death selfish? It is hard to describe the mental agony I was in. I could compare it to a 360 degree vice constantly crushing my head. Or a thick black fog surrounding  me and only me that exerts a tremendous pressure on my psyche. Or living at the bottom of the deepest ocean in the murk, with disturbing creatures encroaching on my territory while everyone else is in the sunshine. But it doesn’t touch on how bad it was. And I just wanted it to stop. I don’t think that’s a selfish thought. Being selfish is nicking all of the best chocolates from the lower tray of a box of chocolate before the top layer has been finished. Wanting to escape extreme misery and pain is not selfish.

But eventually, I found a solution that didn’t involve an imaginary red button, and it was by accident: I left teaching. Gradually the depression started to lift and I was able to start helping myself to get out the negative thought patterns. I’d done some work on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) in the past, and at the time it hadn’t work in the slightest. But in my new state of mind I was able to put some of the ideas into practice and climb out of my depression.

Now we get to the dramatic ending that is laced with a huge dollop of irony.

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A couple of years after I’d been at my lowest point of my life, things were going really well. I was happy. I was enjoying my new job as a gardener; I’d always had a healthy lifestyle and working outdoors, getting loads of exercise really suited me. I loved being active. I was in my early forties and felt like I was starting a new life, one where I was physically and mentally fit.

Then I had a heart attack.

I only fitted into one of the risk categories, family history, and that was enough.

I had an angiogram that revealed I had a severe blockage in one of my arteries and also lurking around in that area was a blood clot. I knew it was pretty serious because that night I was rushed to another hospital ready for having a stent fitted the next morning. Then something happened that showed that the situation was probably even more serious than I’d originally thought. I was in one of the hospital beds opposite the nurses’ station. They were going over the patients’ notes in turn, discussing the care that each person needed to receive. Then it came to my name. And their voices dropped to hushed whispers.

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Oh dear, I thought, or words to that effect.

So I came up with a plan. I’d read somewhere – and this may or may not be true – that a large percentage of people died in their sleep at about 4am. As this idea came into my head, I instantly decided not to sleep. There was no way I was going to die that night. I was going to stay awake and fight. Okay, it was more like stay awake, and desperately try to keep my eyes open, but you get the idea.

The phrase ‘dripping with irony’ perfectly sums up that last paragraph. Not long ago, I had spent a whole year of nights wishing that death would come for me. Two years later, when this could have become a reality I fought for life. I had been through a full year of hell and made it out the other side. There was no way I was dying that night.

So the plan worked and I made it through to the next morning.

The next morning I had a stent fitted and things were back to looking rosy. The consultant told me at a later date that she was worried about me and things could have been very different. I like to think that I managed to prevent that very different outcome from occuring. I probably just made myself tired. But it’s a good thought.

This little tale goes some way to illustrating that no matter how bleak things seem, it is possible to get through periods of severe depression. At my lowest, I couldn’t see how I would ever have any positive emotions again. I could only see one way out. If you’d told me then that two years later I would be fighting for my life – the exact opposite of how I felt at that time – I would have laughed in your face.

I’m not going to pretend that the entirety of my life consists of happy happenings, happily happening through every happy happiness filled day. Life isn’t like that despite what people would like you to think from their posts on social media.

The Seventh Gate Twitter

Life is certainly a mixture of good and bad experiences, and now I feel more able to deal with it. My paintings have helped me deal with the unhelpful thought patterns that arise from depression. I catch myself thinking a particularly negative thought about myself and ‘The Insidious Whisper’ pops into my head. Or I think about becoming isolated, and ‘Welcome’ appears in my mind’s eye. Or perhaps, my mind drifts to thoughts of death. I remember that ‘The Seventh Gate’ is not perfectly symmetrical. There are other options to pressing the red button. Look for the asymmetry.

What is your interpretation of this painting? I’d be interested to read any comments you have.

If you are currently being affected by any of the issues above seek advice from your doctor.

Useful Websites

http://www.samaritans.org/

https://www.mind.org.uk/

 

 

 

 

The Meaning Behind ‘The Seventh Gate’ Part 1

Normally in these posts, where I look at the meaning behind my paintings, I first write about my own experience and then detail how this fits in with the piece of art. For this final painting in the Seven Gates series, I’m going to do something different: I’ll start by looking at the various elements in the image and then I’ll talk about my experience in the next post to see their relevance.

Probably the first thing that you’ll notice about this painting is the red circle. If you’re familiar with the rest of my work, you’ll know that the worlds I paint tend to be lacking in colour. Most are grey, to be exact. So this splash of red may be a surprise. I’ve composed the image so that this red circle is the focal point. Wherever you let your eyes roam, they will always return to this point.

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Just as the viewer is drawn to the red light, so is this small figure in the lower area of the image. Although he is not immediately apparent, the contrast between him and the red platform will eventually draw your eye to him.

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The pose of each creature suggests someone reaching out for a welcoming and comforting hug. Yet the twisted nature of the torso and head hint more at being smothered and crushed like a Boa Constrictor would. I designed the creatures with the idea of obsession forefront in my mind. I worked again with free association in the planning process and the words that repeatedly appeared were ‘tornado’, ‘whirlpool’ and ‘black hole’. So I used the idea of two curved lines continually twisting downwards as the basis for my design. I also played about with the location of the ribs and pelvis to suggest that the bones are moving fluidly within the creatures’ bodies and constantly shifting.

Some other common themes that were evident in the free association phase were: hospitals, needles and scalpels. In keeping with this, the building is based on architectural elements from Doncaster Royal Infirmary.

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I based the ends of the spikes on the building on the exact shape of scalpels.

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And the main tower was also based on two parallel scalpels.

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One feature of the building which probably won’t be apparent is the use of the golden ratio. This idea comes from mathematics but is often used in pieces of art. Its use gives objects and images a visually pleasing aesthetic. I wanted the building to be a contradiction between a place the viewer finds appealing and something disturbing and oppressive. The golden ratio made it appealing and the colour scheme, size and shapes gave it the other qualities. This is all well and good, but it was a pain to plan all of this out using the golden ratio.

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The last visual element – and again, it was a complete pain to work like this – is the symmetry of the image. I wanted the composition of the painting to focus the viewer towards the red light. The symmetry makes it feel as though there isn’t another option than looking at the centre.

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And yet, it’s not perfectly symmetrical. But more on that next time.

So those are the main elements of the image. I’ll let you consider the meaning of the painting. What would happen if the figure walked on to the red platform? What is the significance of the medical imagery? Why isn’t the image perfectly symmetrical? I’d be interested to read any comments you have on the subject.

See you next time where the meaning will become clear.

For Part 2, Click Here.

The Making of ‘The Seventh Gate’

The genesis of this painting started a year ago when I was originally working on the fourth painting in the series. It was going to be called ‘Don’t Think of Pink Elephants’.

Did an image of a pink elephant pop into your head just then?

I’d be surprised if not because it is pretty much impossible to tell yourself not to think about something. The painting was all about obsessional thoughts and the difficulty one has in controlling them. I wanted to paint an image of 365 creatures that were all identical. As I’ve written before, the repetition necessary for the meaning of the painting to have an impact gave me severe hand pain. So the project had to be shelved. But for the first time here are some photos of from the development of the idea:

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365 toy soldiers
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The set-up taken from a different angle
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Creating toy soldiers with four arms
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The fully lit mock-up of the four armed soldiers
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A test version of the painting created in Photoshop
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Again in Photoshop, ensuring the correct perspective of the figures for the final piece

The design of the creature was based on the idea of a whirlpool constantly twisting around on itself. Here are a few shots from the iterative design process to show you the subtle evolution:

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My final design choice

For the first time, here is a photo of how far I actually got with the painting:

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As you can see I only managed to paint the bottom left hand corner, about 20% of the image, before my hand gave way. During the painting process, I thought it would be great to render the creature at a larger scale. Really great. But this thought went away for a while…

Leaving obsession, I decided to work on other things. I completed the paintings ‘Stiff Upper Lip’, ‘Skin the Shine of the Rain’ and ‘I Will Walk Into Your Parlour’.

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But eventually, when I came to the final painting, obsession reared its little head again and I decided to resurrect an old creature. Finally I was able to paint it at a much larger scale.

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As usual, I started with some free association and from there I decided on the best location in Doncaster to visit to gain inspiration. In this case it happened to be the Doncaster Royal Infirmary. I set off armed with my camera and went looking for interesting architectural features.

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Okay, maybe they aren’t the most interesting architectural features for the general public, but they suited me just fine. I decided in the end to work with three main aspects:

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The columns on the front of the main building
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This repeating triangular roof
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And this repeating triangular roof

I also wanted the final image to be symmetrical forcing the viewer to the centre of the composition. This also brought the series back full circle to match the (almost) symmetry of the first painting:

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So with these elements in place I set to work in Photoshop planning out the main composition:

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One feature that I included in the final plan that never made it into the painting was the crowds at the bottom. I liked them because they showed the scale of the creatures but didn’t quite fit in with the overall theme. So I ditched them. I also corrected the perspective on the creatures in the final image.

The next stage was to decide on a colour scheme.

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I knew I wanted the red light in the centre so that was fixed from the start but I was open to the colours surrounding it. These are the three colour schemes I thought about and even from this small test, I preferred the middle one; it was the most unsettling. Even so, I tried out a few colour schemes on my plan. Suffice to say, the middle one was still the best.

The painting process was fairly straightforward for this painting. The main problem (and it was a huge one) was the symmetrical nature of the image. The boards I work on are 76cm long. So when I was painting, I was constantly pushing the board from side to side: a few brush strokes on this sides, slide the board over, the same few brush strokes but mirrored on the other side, slide it back and repeat. And repeat. I’m surprised the board didn’t set on fire from the friction with the easel. I was glad when I got to paint the centre of the image. It meant the board could stay still for once.

The other problem with the symmetry was it hampered the fluidity of my painting. I couldn’t spend an hour or so on one side, seeing where the paint took me, and then replicate this on the other side; it would have been too different. So I had to paint in a very disjointed and methodical way. Not my favourite experience and one of the reasons this painting took longer than normal.

Another decision I had to make was the perspective on the creatures. I wanted repetition in the painting but should every creature look identical as if the image was taken with a very long lens? Or do I have the viewpoint right in amongst the creatures and have them in the same position, but painted from a different perspective? I went back to the theme of the painting and the viewer definitely had to be right in the thick of the action. Cue lots of reference photos of my wife stood on a step-ladder doing the various arm poses. She had to be raised up to give the right viewpoint and make the creatures look huge.

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The only other real problem was the painting of the black tower. I had to gradually change from a dark red, blending all the way through to black and then subtly head towards red again at the bottom. Seems tricky, but not too bad. Mmmm. An hour’s work, make a small mistake, try to correct it by remixing a previous colour, find out this is stupidly difficult, find out that the blending isn’t smooth enough, and it’s back to the start and time to try again. Repeat this six or seven times for a fun-filled experience.

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And that’s the creation of this series done. All finished. It’s been a long job but I’ve enjoyed the ups and the downs. I’ve learned many, many things from this series of seven paintings and I’m looking forward to starting my next project. Thank you very much for reading and I’ll be back soon with the full meaning behind this painting.

If you have any questions or comments please leave them in the box below. I’d love to know what you think about this painting and the process I went through. See you next time!

The Desire to Go Deeper Down: The Meaning Behind ‘I’ll Walk Into Your Parlour’ Part 2

In my last post – Click Here if you missed it – I detailed how depression led me down a path where I actively tried to see how depressed I could get, to see just how far I could go down.  Now I’ll look at how this all fits in with my painting ‘I’ll Walk Into Your Parlour’.

Firstly, let’s look at the title: it’s fairly obviously a reference to the Mary Howitt poem ‘The Spider and the Fly’ which has the first line:

‘Will you walk into my parlour?’ said the Spider to the Fly.

In the poem, the spider eventually charms the fly to a dinner party where the delicacy on the menu is Pie and Mushy Flies. Munch, munch. In my painting, all of the charming and seducing has already been done and I’d reached the point where I would willingly enter the spider’s abode. I actively wanted to seek its slathering maw. The composition echoes this idea of a spider’s web with the lines of the descending walls converging on the centre of the eye.

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There are lines bisecting these converging lines that complete the web-like structure.

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As I’ve written about in a previous post, the walls were inspired by a location in Owston Ferry that had terrified me as a child. I dreaded the thought that I would fall into the water and be consumed by the darkness.

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Last time I also detailed how I would lie on the floor for extended periods of time in a misguided attempt to escape the severe mental pain I was suffering. The walls in the painting represent pain. It took me a long time to choose the colour that best felt like pain to me but I was happy with this cool blue-green that I finally mixed. At the bottom, the walls are melting and flowing down into the eye. This is exactly what I was trying to achieve by lying on the floor. I thought that I could dissolve into the floor and get away from the pain. Funnily enough, I never managed this superhuman feat.

Something that is easy to miss in the painting – especially looking at it on a tiny screen – is the small figure in the upper lefthand corner:

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I don’t want my paintings to reveal all of their secrets at first glance – after all depression heavily guards its secrets and intentions – so the man walking down the stairs was intentionally kept small. By this point, the depression was almost fully in control and there was very little left of me. My thoughts almost exclusively belonged to the illness. The tiny part of me that was left was being guided to a false safety. What will the man do when he reaches the bottom of the stairs? In my mind, he steps off into space without a single second’s pause. We’re back to the title again…

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In each of my paintings, I’ve included a creature. For this one, I wanted a creature so huge that only a small part of it would be seen: the eye. You can imagine the rest for yourself. The idea on which I based the creature was safety. That is what I thought I was going to get by going deeper into depression. I used my usual process of free association in the planning phase of the painting and a number of interesting words came up that somehow related to safety in my mind: ‘creation’, ‘start of life’ and ‘many animals’. At the time, I didn’t consider how they were related but on looking back I wondered whether this was a desire to restart the world, to move away from the pressures of modern life and begin again.

Everyone will have a different view on what the pressures of modern life are, but for me they revolve around an endless cycle of working too many hours and having no life just so that you can buy stuff or do things to make you happy. The only thing is, the initial high of purchasing new stuff wears out incredibly quickly and the next ‘must have’ pops into view. All of these purchases and expensive experiences are then posted on social media for all to see, get envious about and work even harder (or take out loans) to then pay for even better stuff and experiences. None of this made me happy. For me the opposite is definitely more true, spending time with people I care about engaging in simple experiences makes me happy. When I think back to my childhood and the favourite of my granddad, it’s this: walking home from school with him, talking about what we’d done that day and eating some fresh strawberries that he’d just picked from his garden. The cost? Hardly anything. How much was it worth? A stupid amount of happiness.

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I recently watched a documentary about a woman dying from cancer and someone said to her that no-one on their death bed wishes that they’d bought more stuff or had more expensive experiences, they wish they’d spent more time with loved ones and I think that’s very true. So for me, this creature had to represent a return to simpler times, although not necessarily a return to some rose-coloured glasses past. This would be a fresh start with less work for everyone, a lot less stuff and less of a focus on image and more on enjoying the experiences we have in a mindfulness type fashion. This is my idea of safety from the modern world.

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Many animals were used in the creation of the creature: Sea Anenomes, Wolf Fish, Fangtooth Fish, Regal Horned Lizards, Leaf Beetles, Blue Poison Dart Frogs, Common Vampire Bats (for the creature’s nose – as an aside if you want to see some really strange noses, search for bat noses, they’re very impressive) plus I added a few slug-like tentacles as a garnish (I couldn’t resist!). All of the constituent parts swirl around towards the centre as if in a whirlpool; vicious circles are a huge part of depression and I wanted to show this visually. One of mine – there were many – went something like this: I lay on the floor because I was depressed, this led to more feelings of worthlessness, so I became more depressed etc.

I gave the creature a cataract to blind it. This was to show that the depression didn’t treat its attack on me personally. It was the same as any other illness. It went about its business without ever seeing its victim, it just got on with the job of making me depressed.

And if you think I’ve made up the iris of the eye because it looks too intricate and gorgeous, here’s a photo of a magnified eye:

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It’s almost stranger than bat noses.

Depression took me to some very dark places. The idea that I went there willingly scares me. But now, if I ever found myself back there I hope that I would be able to spot the spider’s web that I am diving into and take steps to avoid it.

If you have your own interpretation of my painting, please let me know in the comments box below. I’d be interested to read them.

For my interpretation of the final painting in this series, ‘The Seventh Gate’, Click Here.

The Desire to Go Deeper Down: The Meaning Behind ‘I’ll Walk Into Your Parlour’ Part 1

Depression plays the long game. It doesn’t have to rush. Gradually chipping away at a person’s defences is its modus operandi. Its long-term strategy against me was so effective that as it reached its ultimate goal it actually enlisted my services. I’ll explain:

If you’ve read my previous entries in this series then you might have guessed that by a certain point I was deep into severe depression. What you might not have guessed is that I was enjoying it. Yes, enjoying it. And so we reach the meaning of this painting:

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Now this is not the sort of enjoyment that you may get from seeing your favourite football team score against local rivals, or from eating a really gorgeous sprout covered in mustard and gravy, or indeed the pleasure derived from blaming a sneaky trump on a small child and getting away with it.

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No, it was an odd, perverse enjoyment. The key to this enjoyment comes from the foundations that the depression had patiently built up over time.

Let’s imagine a scenario: Bob lives down the street from you. He seems like a nice enough fellow, pleasant to talk to and is good to his mother. Terry is another of your neighbours, a trustworthy type of guy. Terry often talks to you about Bob. “Often” is an understatement. He talks to you about Bob constantly. If you’re not distracted by something else, Terry’s there, popping up and telling you all about Bob. And what Terry has to tell you is not good. Bob is a bad chap. He’s worthless. Everyone who knows him hates him. Bob is the lowest piece of scum that ever dribbled off the underside of a rancid hummus machine (is there any other type of hummus machine?). Terry tells you about Bob constantly for months and months filling your mind with his vile invective.

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But the logic is simple: Terry is trustworthy – you believe that completely – therefore Bob is evil.

The next step is to pretend that all human compassion has been surgically removed from your brain. Okay? Done that? Then let’s continue.

Now imagine the pleasure that would be derived from watching someone as completely irredeemable as Bob suffer. How delicious that would be? Mmmmm…

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Back to reality. As you have probably guessed, Bob and Terry were parts of my psyche. Bob was my self-perception and Terry was the depression taking control of my inner monologue and constantly telling me how bad I was. The depression also removed any form of compassion for myself. It’s not that surprising to find out that I enjoyed my own suffering.

Now let’s take another logical leap: if I enjoyed my own suffering then surely going even further down would give me even more pleasure. It makes sense. In an odd, perverse kind of way.

And so I set off on a journey to see just how deep I could go, to see just how severely depressed I could become. What does this look like? How can you envisage this mental process? Well, for me, it had a physical component, one that was visible to anyone with a secret drone spy-cam. I would lie down on the floor. Anywhere on the floor. It could have been in the kitchen, bathroom, hallway, living room or even in the smoking room.

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Okay, I don’t have a smoking room. That was a lie. A fantasy maybe. If I smoked that is. Anyway, you get the idea. I would lie down wherever I happened to be and just lie there. For a long time.

Some people may think that lying down on the floor for long periods of time doesn’t sound that bad. On its own, it’s not. But it was accompanied by severe mental pain. The best way to describe it is as being surrounded by a thick fog that exerts tremendous pressure on your mind accompanied by constant repetitive thoughts of how awful you are. The mental pain was different to the worst physical pains that I’ve felt which have tended to be sharp and unendurable. This pain was dull, ever present and intense. It was also unbearable.

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“We don’t even ask happiness, just a little less pain.”
― Charles Bukowski

There was another component mixed into this: the depression told me that being on the floor was safe. It would relieve the pain. If I could sink into the floor, let myself dissolve away, everything would be okay. In reality, all it did was make me suffer even more. It gave me no escape route. I had no inclination to do anything that may give me positive pleasure or even distract me from the pain. Lying on the floor as an escape was a dead-end that served only to take me further down, which is exactly what the depression wanted.

Yet miraculously, I still managed to get myself to work without fail. I think there was a small part of my brain that was fighting for me. It knew that if I had a day off work, I would spend the majority of my time on the floor. I would never go back to work and that would be the end of me.

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In writing this, I’m trying to unpick what was happening in my brain during these times and I’m making everything sound logical and neat. But in reality, everything was a huge gloomy mess. Making sense of what was happening while I was deep into depression was impossible. Even with support from a ninja depression master, I don’t think that I would have worked out what was going on in my head. If everything was clear it would be easier to fight and depression doesn’t want that. It’s got an end-game like many other physical illnesses and this will be explored in the final painting of the series.

I’ll finish on a positive note. During the times detailed above, I never thought that I would get better and yet I haven’t partaken in any floor-hugging antics in the last four years or so. As I’ve written before, this doesn’t mean that I’m cured – I’m going to be on my guard against depression for the rest of my life – but it does mean that I’ve taken steps that have helped me. If this extreme mental pain returned I would at least have some knowledge of the depression’s methods and aims, that might allow me to fight back. It’s a bit like fighting a boss battle in one of these new fangled computerised videographical games: the first time you go up against it, you’ve got no idea what’s happening and it hammers you into submission, the next time you enter the battle armed with information and a chance to beat it. And in hopeless times a chance means hope, which has to be a good thing.

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In my next post, I’ll look at how all of the above fits in with my painting ‘I’ll Walk Into Your Parlour’. See you next time!

I’d be interested to know whether this post has developed your knowledge of mental health issues or whether you have had a similar experience. Let me know in the comments.

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