Be the Artist

Be the Artist: Storytelling with Rorschach Inspired Inkblots

Hermann Rorschach was fascinated with a person’s perception of what they see. What kind of stories do you see in inkblots? Image: Lisa Kay Tate

This summer’s Be the Artist 2020 highlights art created with a specific purpose in mind.

The Purpose: Perception with Inkblots

When psychiatrist and amateur artist Hermann Rorschach first created his inkblot tests in the early 20th century, he might not have known these simple inkblots would remain a recognizable image in everything from psychiatry to fine art to pop culture for more than a century.

Rorschach was born in 1884 in Zürich, Switzerland. As the son of an art teacher, he wanted to be an artist before he decided on medicine. In school, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, he had even gained the nickname “Kleck” (inkblot), because he loved drawing and sketching.

When Rorschach began studying medicine he kept his artistic sensibilities with him, including how people use all their senses to absorb and perceive art. In 1918, he first began to design his “inkblot” puzzles (inspired by a similar inkblot study he admired by another Swiss psychiatrist named Syzran Hens) while he was working at a mental hospital in Switzerland. Every individual can look at a shape or image and basically shape the image in their head to fit their perception.

Rorschach and his inkblots have been the inspiration of books, art, fictional characters, and similar inkblot tests designed by other doctors.

When he tested these puzzles (some in black and white and some in color) on both patients of the hospital and other volunteers he also came up with a coded interpretation of people’s response. Over time, as more people took these tests, he found similar patterns to what people of a certain personally traits saw.

Rorschach died suddenly at age 37, due to a ruptured appendix not long after publishing his studies in a book on Psychodiagnostics. Soon, other individuals in fields from medicine, art, forensics, and even anthropology begin using the test for their own purposes, each using their own ways of coding interpretations. Others have created their own inkblot tests using their own designs and methods. Today, many of the common interpretations of the inkblots have been revealed, making it harder for some to make an objective observation of what they see.

In this short Ted-Ed look at Rorschach’s designs, it shows that even today, some experts feel his designs have long been disproven, while other reviews still find it very effective:

Rorschach even acknowledged the doubt people may have had towards his inkblot tests in his book, Psychodiagnostics: A Diagnostic Test based on Perception:

“It is always daring to draw conclusions about the way an individual experiences life from the results of an experiment,” he noted.

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Rorschach’s most popular images have found their way into fine art and pop culture, as their designs are seen from fine art prints to note cards and wrapping paper. Alan Moore’s popular comic series, The Watchmen, also featured the controversial character Walter Kovacs, who took on the alias of Rorschach and features an ever-changing inkblot design for his mask.

No matter whether some professionals today feel is an important clinical tool or an outdated mode of study, Rorschach’s inkblots remain recognizable worldwide.

A “Jabberwocky” hidden in an inkblot.

The Project: Inkblot Storytelling

In this project, inspired by Rorschach’s inkblot, we will not be administering any tests for personality of mental health. Instead, we will use the inkblot method as a means of creative and interpretive storytelling.

Rorschach grew up in an artistic home, which is a big part of his fascination with people’s interpretation of visual images, but in order to create our inkblot story we first have to create inkblots.

One easy way to do is with some plain white cardstock or drawing paper. Fold the paper in half and open it back up. On one side of the crease, ad a few drops of India or acrylic ink, or craft or acrylic paint. You can use any color ink you want, or different colors on one pattern. Fold the other half and open it back up for a mostly symmetrical inkblot pattern.

To find a story in and inkblot, you have to create the inkblot first by dripping some ink or paint on a sturdy piece of paper, folding it to smear the ink, then opening it back up to reveal the shape.

Look at his image and think of what story comes to mind. It may be from a novel, old children’s picture book or comic. It may be from a cartoon, television series or movie. Whether classic or contemporary, there is a story hidden somewhere in that inkblot image.

The inkblots waiting for their stories to be told.

Once dry, there are two ways you can use this inkblot as a storytelling prompt:

Draw directly on the inkblot. This works best with inkblots in lighter colors. Use markers or colored pencils or thin paintbrushes to draw lines over and around the image that will turn in into the story.

Draw an entirely new image, using the inkblot’s shape and pattern as inspiration. You can do this in any medium, and then display the drawing directly next to the original ink blow as sort of diptych (two piece) painting.

This inkblot looked like twin families, so we created at some twins based on the adopted families of Leia Organa and Luke Skywalker.

If you want to involve others, make copies of one inkblot and give it to friends and family. When everyone has finished their “stories” gather them together and see how many different stories are inspired by one simple image.

Don’t worry if you don’t see something right away, or try too hard to find something you don’t see. If different people and cultures through the centuries could create beautiful original elaborate stories just by looking at the patterns of stars, we can discover at least one favorite story hidden within an inkblot.

You just need to let your imagination tell you what it is.

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This post was last modified on June 22, 2020 2:55 am

Lisa Tate

Lisa Kay Tate is a veteran feature writer with nearly 25 years experience in newspaper, magazine and freelance writing. She and her husband, a history and world geography teacher, live on the edge of "New Texico" where they keep busy raising their two geeklings and sharing space with their dog, Sirius Black, and cat, Loki.

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