Drawing In

First poems, now pictures. Why?

A resident’s eyebrows at the climatic note of his favourite song

They say you really start to see things when you draw them. Recently, we’ve been experimenting with drawing, the notion of Goethe’s gentle methods always on our mind. We’ll probably never be a Rembrandt (though we are learning and improving). But the process of spending time looking, and learning to look by drawing, reminds us of why ethnographic drawing was integral to ‘classic’ anthropology and why it is being revived by visual anthropologists and communication scholars today. 

Our journey has been supported by close involvement with the Nordoff Robbins PhD researchers, some of whom have been drawing for a while, especially Maren Matell and Wendy McMahon. And, as with so much of what we do in our research (and our lives), we’re guided by memories of the late Mercédès Pavlicevic, music therapist and – artist extraordinaire (Mercédès designed the three book covers for our triptych on the SMART project). 

Apple tree in Tia’s garden, M Pavlicevic, 2010, detail

For Mercédès drawing was a way of knowing and a way of knowing things that might otherwise go unnoticed or unspoken. It was a way of knowing what might be difficult to convey in words. As Gary wrote in his memorial essay (Ansdell 2018: 55), ‘some ideas need to be seen before they can be understood’. In this blog entry we suggest also that some things need to be drawn before they can be seen before they can be understood as ideas. 


Drawings do a lot. They can show us relational engagements between people in a scene. They can convey emotions, facial expression, gesture, postures. They can document the ways that people are placed, and place themselves, within particular scenes and settings. And, unlike photographs (which contain virtually ‘everything’ registered by the film or digital device), drawings are selective. Drawings at once simplify and complexify an image.

But, one might ask, surely, an image that contains, ‘everything’ is better? If you can use a photo, unedited (more on that below), why ever would you not? A photo shows you the ‘real’ person (in two dimensions). Why not simply markup, highlight or point to what you want the reader or fellow-researcher(s) to ‘see’?

One answer is linked to our ethical responsibilities (more on that below). Another answer is linked to what we’re trying to do with an image. Sometimes, for some purposes, a photograph is ‘better’. But other times, you might want to ‘zoom’ in, to consider only one part of an image, ‘uncluttered’ by background, or things that might divert the eye (think of colour-staining a slide for a microscope or astronomical image, think of Goethe’s many documentary drawings of plant morphology [Goethe 1972]). Sometimes, in other words, you might want a ‘prepared’ image for examination. And whether a slide made up for a microscope or a portrait of a person, the image is produced to guide the eye, to support it to see certain things from certain angles, and in certain ways, more clearly. But there is at least one other answer, linked to what drawing does for the person who draws, and to philosopher Wittgenstein’s admonition that we need to, ‘‘look and see … don’t think but look!’ (DeNora 2014: 7). 


Looking – at a photo or anything else – can be intensive, but it can also be cursory, indeed, illusory. Wittgenstein said that our eyes tend to follow particular paths such that we notice what we ‘expect’ to notice. What we ‘see’ tends, in other words, to derive from and reinforce hidebound expectations.  Our ‘vision’ takes shape in our minds and in ways that project identity on to what we seem – merely – to ‘see’. We add to images things that are not there because we think they ‘must’ be there (emperor’s beautiful clothes), and we subtract things that are there (a gorilla in the very middle of a basketball game [Simons and Chabris 1999; DeNora 2014:  6-7]). When either of these things happens, it is because – as Wittgenstein put it –  we are thinking more – and looking less (DeNora 2014: 110). 

But if we’re looking to draw something, we have to look intently. While ‘looking and thinking’ are never inseparable, adding drawing, or trying to draw, into the mix can be of help. Drawing can be used to as a corrective to the, often tacit, habit of leaping to conclusions about ‘what is there to see’. It is, in John Law’s sense (Law 2004), a ‘brake’ on perception. Drawing – even quick drawing – slows us down. It requires us to ‘stay with’ things. A photo, these days, can be taken in a fraction of a second.But it takes time to capture a line or the placement of a hand or an eyebrow. And when we put that eyebrow on a page and see that it looks ‘wrong’, when we erase and try again, we begin to see how we were not really looking at the thing properly, how maybe we took for granted that our subject looked a certain way. Attempting to capture an image with pencil and paper can ‘tell us’ what it is we have not seen. 

So drawing is an important partner in the business of looking, seeing and thinking about things. Drawing is perhaps less about the ways of the hand than the ways of the eye, or at least, it is a way of training our eyes to see – more, differently, troubling or queering habitual assumptions. And that means that drawing offers a means, potentially, for getting, literally, closer to our subjects because drawing is an intimate art: as we draw, we are imaginatively, sometimes empathically, engaging with our subjects. While drawing, and taking in what we learn about a subject by drawing, we may be thinking, wondering – when did her hair go white, was it laughter that produced those lines around his eyes, how was it that his face is only shaved today on one side, or why does she repeatedly pat her knee like that? We turn over in our minds potential questions, theories, hunches and ideas and in ways that are unobtrusive, that are attentive but that try hard not to disturb (Ansdell and Pavlicevic 2010). 

And so, for us, drawing is a prosthetic technology – just like a pair of prescription lenses, drawing can extend visual capacity. To draw is, at least some of the time, to be heavily surprised. What the eye and hand produce can surprise the mind. And this means that drawing is a technique that supports ethnographic understanding.


For these three reasons, the process of looking and making marks on paper, and the resulting representations, are now part of our ‘gentle methods’ repertoire. As already described in other entries in this blog, we’re spending a lot of time watching (re-watching, pausing, rewinding, fast-forwarding, playing without sound, playing without image) video footage of people in musical processes. 

We have been working with short video clips, indexing, second by second (often split second). Sometimes the ratio of time spent per minute of video has been more than 10 hours, which we like to think of as enlargement to the power of 600 x 1. We write up in detail what each person in the frame is doing, their interactions, what they do in and with music, their gestures and facial expressions, the movements of hands, feet, eyebrows. We look at how each participant uses materials (e.g., a walking stick as a drum beater, a Zimmer frame as a dance partner), how people sit in their chairs (and which chairs), and how they move about the visible space… We sample – exemplary moments, moments of specific musical processes (e.g., cadences) and according to time intervals. (On our process of choosing good examples for analysis, the two entries on ‘cherry picking’ and ‘cherry arranging’

We look at people as physical wholes, in groups, and we look at specific physical parts of people, such as hands, eyes, mouths, chins, feet. And we look at all the people in the setting, all of them together – younger, older, care staff, residents, music therapist… All of this fine-grained detail is in turn linked to broader analytical questions about people – all the people – together, in musical engagement and how, by observing that engagement, we can learn more about people and about what caring for music can do for people. We have been looking at people in relation to repertoire, social and occupational roles, person-centred ‘pathway’ case studies, particular musical devices, features, tropes and the integration of music with types of activity and interaction… And at a certain point, and for specific reasons, we then go to the drawing board….


The process of drawing is two-fold. First, we trace, carefully, using tracing paper over a still shot from the video. We trace the outline of bodies, and parts of bodies, the positions, and facial expressions. This means that we can return to the precise moment in the film and lay the transparent traced image over the video image to check and cross-check that its contours are accurate. Second, we draw and fill in details, add colour. And at this stage, very importantly, we take care that recognisable features are altered – of people and of place. 

So, for example, if we are interested in exploring and conveying a specific facial expression, we might subtly alter the shape of a nose or chin, the colour of skin or hair, the body shape. But we will retain the shape of the mouth, the placement of eyebrows, the chin. 

Cadential suspense at 1.57

Similarly, if we are trying to depict a moment of dancing, we might change many features but also try to retain the basic postures, the signs of fitness or frailty present in the original image. 

Blue glove tea dance

So too, if we’re interested in what someone’s hands are doing, we might alter skin tone and hand size but maintain the hand’s position. 

Hands in flight

As a way of anonymising, the cartoon offers important resources. It sidesteps the debate around whether, and how, to blur or block out a face in a photo (recognising that in some cases, an actual photo, with face obscured, may be preferrable if you want to hold on to the in situ background detail – for this drawing is less good). So drawing also helps us think about when it may or may not be necessary to refer to photographic images (and when it might be useful to use mixed media, a blend of ‘real’ and drawn images). 

But we change details for reasons that go beyond anonymisation, and here is where we believe that drawing, and diagrams, have important affordances in their own right. And thinking about when we change things in a drawing takes us back to where we began, with Goethe, his notion of gentle methods, and the idea of multiplicity in unity. 


Drawings are less, and more, than exact likenesses of any one individual. Their divergence from likeness is one reason they are so highly valued in the study of natural history. When a botanist draws a leaf or a plant it is because they want to capture the manifold, possible, potential variations that make it whole (this leaf, that leaf) and how a plant manifests itself  in time (root, leaf, flower, fruit, seed). For these reasons, any one drawing can be understood to be more than a snapshot. Instead it conveys, as Borthoft (2013) puts it, ‘multiplicity in unity’. 

Multiplicity in unity is very different from the reductive notion of ‘unity in multiplicity’ – the abstracting out from each individual common traits and then returning to brand each individual as yet one more ‘type’. Multiplicity in unity recognises instead how each individual may share family resemblances with others but is, at the same time, unique.

So while a photo is an image of one individual, a drawing, by contrast, can be produced such that it is neither an exact likeness of an individual in one moment, nor an abstracted type or composite of many individuals. Instead, it can arrange lines on a page such that its subject can be shown, all at once, in terms of its diversity and variegation. A drawing can transcend this duality to depict the manifold ways that an individual – plant or person – may manifest itself, himself, herself (the mercurial changes in how we might feel, second-to-second – sorrowful, exuberant – or what we might be able to do, from one time or setting to the next, how we can be both a child and an adult at once). The drawing Goethe commissioned from French botanist, Pierre Jean Turpin, of an imaginary plant that depicted in one image a diversity of form that it would never exhibit in an actual example in the world, serves to illustrate what is meant by multiplicity in unity. 

And it serves to remind us of how we need to recognise that there may a great deal of intra-categorical difference between individuals, sometimes perhaps an even greater degree of intra-categorical difference than inter-categorical difference. And that we should not brush aside these intra-categorical differences in an attempt to make individual phenomena conform to our ideas of what they ‘must’ be like, categorically (DeNora 1991: 100). Under some circumstances, a yew tree and a rose have more in common than they have apart (suffering from drought, for example, giving shelter to birds, putting down roots). Under some circumstances, two roses have seemingly more differences between them than do a rose and a yew tree. Brent Dean Robbins describes this notion in relation to Goethe’s botanical study:

“In practice, the ethical responsiveness initially emerges either through a bracketing or, sometimes, a surprising and perhaps even violent shattering of our habitual ways of seeing so that we no longer see past the phenomenon toward our abstract categories, such as “this is a leaf”. Instead, the particularities of the organism’s form emerge from outside the boundaries of our understanding into the shape of a concrete, palpable insight of its magnetic, vital structure which comes into being through the sustaining activity of a vigorously active yet receptive consciousness” (Robbins 2006:7).

As with botany, so too with people. Keeping the ‘whole person’ in the picture, imaginatively engaging, depicting acts or people in and across time, changing recognisable details to anonyise but also to depict multiplicity in unity – these things allow us to consider how the eyes, mouth, hands, and postures we depict are both unique to specific individuals and shared, across individuals – including ourselves. It lets us consider how these gestures and moments contain and speak to the individual in the round, across various moments and (in our case, musical) situations. And that in turn returns us to how it is probably misleading to speak too generally, and without slow, gentle attention, about ‘people with dementia’ since, understood socially, temporally, and ecologically, it might be more accurate to say that all of us share in the problem of living associated with certain brain injuries or memory problems. We share these problems in living because all of us exhibit varied qualities and capacities (communicative, cognitive, emotional, empathic) over a moment, day or decade. We share these problems in living because the ways that environments come to be furnished – with materials, representations, communicative media – have consequences for the kinds of problems in living we notice, and from whom. 


Thinking about those consequences highlights, of course, how drawing – as a representative medium – has politics. It is vital that the hand, the pencil and the brush do not overly emphasise dis/ability or reinforce stereotypical assumptions about people, that we do not reduce the manifold to a unity in multiplicity. So too, we need to think about how it was we came to choose to anonymise in the ways we did. Why, for example, are some people are portrayed wearing jewellery or with what seems to be a recent manicure and others not? Why do we choose the colours we’ve chosen (bright and pastel, mostly, as it happens)? When the drawings raise questions like these, they give us a resource for eliciting from each other our often-implicit and unconscious assumptions and attitudes about people and processes. 

Musical moments

One way of questioning these assumptions is, now and again, to – literally – paint ourselves (or some of our willing colleagues) into the picture. To use our own features and set them in to the context of the ‘scene of care’. There can be something slightly disturbing, analytically, perhaps at times also emotionally, about this kind of visualisation. We are using it in a way that is similar to how we use poems – to evoke, and then query, our representations of, and empathetic identification with, participants and their situations. In other words, a drawing or cartoon offers us an occasion to reflect on our own assumptions. and our reactions to ‘seeing ourselves there’ is a way of gaining a kind of momentary, virtual experience of of what it might be like to be us, there (remembering that this is imaginative – only time will tell us…). So drawing can help to ‘draw out’ what was otherwise ‘invisible’ in our orientation and assumed knowledge. We are currently writing a longer piece on this topic, setting it in context of recent work on auto-ethnography, visualisation, and how the visual can sometimes ‘make’ the future (DeNora 2021: 111; Hara and DeNora 2014).

Top: Tia; Gary
Bottom: The Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra Research Team, in the poses of actual residents in Hill House. Left to Right: Raymond MacDonald (in his graphic score, orange shirt), Tia DeNora, Robert Burke, Maria Sappho Donohue (with their permission)

For these reasons, along with poetry, drawing is now part of our gentle methods repertoire. We are not trying to ‘make art’ out of what happens in Hill House. We have no desire to publish a ‘cartoon book’. We are cautious about some of the romanticising images we have seen in other places, of ‘old folks’ enjoying (or being ‘revived’ [sic] by the ‘magic’ of music) -that will be a topic of a future blog. But if drawing is documentation, elicitation device, a way of exploring, technically and imaginatively, what we otherwise might not know we know, we are – drawn to it. If it helps us to see what we might otherwise not have noticed, and to think about what we see, not see what we think, we are also grateful for the ways that drawing – draws us in. 


Ansdell, G. 2018. Sketches of Mercédès’ Imagination. British Journal of Music Therapy 32, 2, pp. 52-7.

Ansdell, G and M. Pavlicevic. 2010. Practicing Goethe’s Gentle Empiricism: The Nordoff Robbins Research Heritage. Music Therapy Perspectives, 28, pp. 131-40.

Bortoft, H. 2013. The Form of Wholeness: Multiplicity and Unity. In Context, 29, https://www.natureinstitute.org/article/henri-bortoft/the-form-of-wholeness

Causey, A. 2017. Drawn to see: Drawing as an ethnographic method. North York, Ontario: University of Toronto Press.

DeNora, T. 2014. Making Sense of Reality: culture and perception in everyday life. London: Sage.

DeNora, T. 2021. Hope: The dream we carry. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

DeNora, T. 1991. Fast, Faster, Fastest: Comment on Chambliss’ ‘The Mundanity of Excellence’. Sociological Theory 21, pp. 99-102.

Hara, M. and T. DeNora. 2013. Leaving Something to the Imagination: “Seeing” New Places through a Musical Lens. Pp. 659-72 in J. Richardson, C. Gorbman, and C. Vernallis (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Law, John (2004) After Method: Mess in Social Science Research. London: Routledge 

Ledford, H. 2018. The lost art of looking at plants. Nature. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-01075-5

Metell, M. (2019). How We Talk when We Talk About Disabled Children and Their Families: An Invitation to Queer the Discourse. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy19(3). https://doi.org/10.15845/voices.v19i3.2680

Further reading

Alfonso, A. I.  and M J Ramos. 2004. New graphics for old storiesRepresentation of local memories through drawings. Pp. in Alfonso, A I, L Kurti and S Pink (Eds), Working Images: Visual Research and Representation in Ethnography. London: Routledge.

Goethe, J. W von. 2009 [1790]. The Metamorphosis of Plants. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Halstead, J. and R. Rolvsjord. 2015. The gendering of musical instruments: what is it? Why does it matter to music therapy? Nordic Journal of Music therapy 26, pp. 3-24.

Kuschnir, K. 2016. Ethnographic Drawing: Eleven Benefits of Using a Sketchbook for Fieldwork. Visual Ethnography 5, 1, pp. 103-34. 

Lyon, P. 2020. Using Drawing in Visual Research: Materializing the Invisible. Pp. in L Pauwels & D Mannay (Eds)The SAGE Handbook of Visual Research Methods. London: Sage Publications.

Puurveen, G. A. Phinney, S. M Cox and B. Purves. 2015. Ethical issues in the use of video observations with people with advanced dementia and their caregivers in nursing home environments. Visual Methodologies, Vol 3, 2, pp. 16-26.

Wiles, R, A Coffey, J Robinson and S Heath. 2011. Anonymisation and visual images: issues of respect, ‘voice’ and protection International Journal of Social Research Methodology Vol. 15, No. 1, January 2012, 41–53 

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