Understanding health care with a paintbrush

Using painting as a research tool has enabled a new understanding of creativity in cancer support, pharmacy and Aboriginal health.
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The eleven paintings in my exhibition Acclaimed and framed: Insights from eight award-winning health professionals were made as part of my doctoral research being conducted at the Charles Sturt University. Each painting represents my response to a conversation with an extraordinary health professional. Taking the paintings back to show them served to further our discussion and allowed us to delve deeper into the topic of creativity. Using art in this way helps to generate ideas, in this case, about the place of creativity in health services.


The wonderful people I interviewed come from different parts of the health system. One is a complex care manager who masterfully creates productive networks of people and services. There is an adolescent cancer services coordinator who gives voice to young people who have cancer, a rural community services director who listens to his community, so they trust him, and a health promotion officer making good progress in Aboriginal health. One nurse challenged the need for children to go to hospital for certain blood tests. She went and worked in a laboratory for a few years to create a way of doing the same tests in the home. There is also a pharmacist who has fixed the system so that older people are more likely to get the right pills at the right time, and a music therapist who walked into a hospital over a decade ago saying that they should give her a job – they did, and she has grew a whole music therapy department there. A manager, lets call him Lloyd, thought differently about mental health and his team now focuses on clients’ strengths, not their problems. This deceivingly simple idea has had outstanding results, and we will look a little closer at it here.


The painting I did for Lloyd prompted him to reflect on how his team’s approach to mental health had changed. Lloyd described it as a step-wise process, with bursts, times of activity and then what he described as introspection and reflection, and plateaus. He also described it as ‘…. an evolving service system …’ where ‘. …. everything can’t be brand new, [but] built on the past …’ He spoke about reinventing things, and through this, building strength. This is no eureka type creativity and it is not simply a matter of, using Lloyd’s words again, ‘…. tinkering around the edges, not just the prettiness’. Indeed, Lloyd’s service was (re)created. We came to this point when I showed him the painting ‘No limit’.


No Limit emerged as I thought about my conversation with Lloyd’s and it seemed to reinforce the ongoing, evolutionary nature of his team’s creativity: ‘… there’s no limit to this, this chain keeps going …. and ‘. …. we all see a ladder but maybe we all see it slightly differently, how do we work together so that we all collectively move in the right direction’ he said. I am reminded here of waves, and how an initial idea and spark of interest touches other people, where new ideas link with previous ones, like waves, rolling on, forming and reforming, eventually banding together and swelling, improvised, always shoreward.


‘We started though in our smaller team, so our mobile support team, which are teams that have smaller case loads …. it floated across our community care ….  and then we float right across our case management teams’ said Lloyd. This new way of thinking abut mental health has spilled over to different health disciplines, and to other health and welfare agencies.


As my conversation with Lloyd deepened, I came to better understand that this type of creativity is no small thing. In fact, Lloyd made a point of saying that it was a ‘…. longitudinal hard journey’. Rather than this creativity being the product of say a handful of even the most exceptional clinicians or managers, I offer that it is more likely to come from waves of activity that are omnipresent, contributory, and where the new patterns that emerge actually become the health service.


Research such as this is ‘… an intellectual adventure peculiar to the making process’ (Carter, 2004), where the arts-based researcher moves from the unknown to the known (Sullivan, 2009) instead of building on existing knowledge – it’s the other way around. The aim is to yield local knowledge and new conversations, not specificity and generalisability. I work to ‘… know ‘something’ without claiming to know everything’ (Richardson & St. Pierre, 2005) and art facilitates this.


Paul Carter says that invention can be considered a double movement of ‘….. decontextualisation in which the found elements are rendered strange, and of recontextualisation, in which new families of association and structures of meaning are established’(2007). No Limit is an artefact of this reconceptualisation. Meaning emerged as I moved ideas around with paint and collage, and as I do here in textual form. Cameron Tonkinwise describes it as a process where ‘…. each next move in the making seems to come of its own accord, with a strong, perhaps even clear, purpose….’ (2004),  For me, the character of marks on paper inform the action of my loaded brush, and the location of the next mark, fuelled, I believe, by a process aptly described by Linda Roche: ‘There is a sense of emergence or revealing that occurs outside of myself as the work develops’(2009). Margaret Somerville helps us out here too: ‘It is through these ‘modes of repetition’, the iterative processes of representation and reflection then, that the new emerges’(2007). In these ways, art provides a generative experience that includes not just viewing the artworks, but also the production and whatever else comprises a complex, larger and pleasurable whole (Leddy, 2012). In my own case, this experience is magnified through my interactions with the health professionals I interviewed, and their interaction with the artworks, as we create new understandings together.

View John Rae’s paintings .



Carter, P. (2004). Material thinking: The theory and practice of creative research: Melbourne University Press.

Carter, P. (2007). Interest: the ethics of invention. In E. Barrett & B. Bolt (Eds.), Practice as research: approaches to creative arts enquiry (pp. 15-25). London: I.B. TAuris.

Leddy, T. (2012). John Dewey. In A. Giovannelli (Ed.), Aesthetics: The Key Thinkers. London: Continuum.

Richardson, L., & St. Pierre, E. A. (2005). Writing: A method of inquiry. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), The Sage handbook of qualitative research (3rd ed., pp. xix, 1210 p.). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Roche, L. (2009). Theatre of painting: a structural exploration of the forming of an image through paint. Studies in Material Thinking 3.

Somerville, M. (2007). Postmodern emergence. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education (QSE), 20(2), 225-243.

Sullivan, G. (2009). Making space: The purpose and place of practice-led research. In H. MSmith & R. Dean (Eds.), Practice-led research, research-led practice in the creative arts. Edinborurgh: Edinborurgh University Press.

Tonkinwise, C. (2008). Visualisation as a method for knowledge discovery. Studies in Material Thinking, 1(April).



John Rae
About the Author
John Rae is a health researcher and artist.