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Sketchnoting as Visual Tone Poem

I just spent the week up at the Esalen Institute up in Big Sur, California. I was there for a workshop exploring relational constellations, a process I remember studying during my psychology days but never having any real experience with.
A person selects others to represent various roles and physically places them in standing positions in a starting tableau. The people representing various roles may know who or what they represent, or they may not. Most of the time, all that’s shared about the tableau is the roles being represented. From there, the tableau comes to life as the representatives start moving in ways they feel called to, based on only their position, the energy of the tableau dynamic, and the role they are representing (if they know it). It is uncanny how deep, how accurate, and how meaningful these unknowing movements and interactions become, and there is a level of profound healing that occurs for the person who is watching their tableau unfold, for the representatives within the tableau, and for others who are witnessing the experience. It is seriously powerful stuff, and visually powerful stuff as words are not really necessary.
As I went through the week’s workshop, I took sketchnotes (as I often do) of the things and moments I wanted to remember. I was originally going to upload and share them with you here, yet as I was scanning and resizing the images, it occurred to me that – much like the relational constellation work – there was something much deeper going on here.

Recognizing the Shift

In the beginning I used to take sketchnotes as a comprehensive whole on a page. (I create graphic recordings, and the practice is similar.) Here’s an old example of what I’m talking about style-wise:
Jeannel King's sketch notes of a presentation by Olympic athelete Ruben Gonzalez
In my sketchnotes, I’d try to capture the entire “song” of a presentation on a single page. However, over the years I’ve noticed a migration away from this need to wanting to capture a single powerful idea, moment, or “note” from the experience on a page. This style really started to emerge in my work for the 2012 Sketchbook Project, using the subject “Uncharted Waters” as the prompt. It was a visual journal that told a story, with each two-page spread communicating a complete thought in the story, like this one:
It was an output for a specific project, but Uncharted Waters began to change the way I organized my thoughts on the page, as well as what I wanted to focus on in the capture. The need for capturing “everything” like the old-school sketchnotes was slipping away, and I was being drawn to being more present for the moments that mattered. When my Aunt Vicki was diagnosed with liver bile duct cancer later that year, I found myself turning to my sketchbook and filled three volumes in the weeks between her diagnosis and her death.
I wanted, NEEDED, to create at least a page a day to process what I was experiencing. . . and there was so much happening in each day that I truly had to find the moment that mattered most, the single representation of a swarm of feelings that could play the “note” for that day. The resulting work, Sidelines, was the first time I recognized my sketchnoting as a sort of visual tone poem.

What’s a (Visual) Tone Poem?

The tone poem goes back to the compositions of Franz Liszt. Liszt composed thirteen works from the late 1840’s through the 1880’s which he identified as tone (or symphonic) poems, and they expanded the understanding of how orchestral compositions could be structured. Traditionally, a symphony was composed as a series of movements: in the tone poem, the musical work was self-contained. Additionally, instead of telling a specific story or narrative, the compositions were designed to inspire listeners to imagine imagine scenes, images, or moods.
And this is where my sketchnoting gets tonal.
By focusing on capturing a moment instead of a story, an entirely different story unfolds. Each moment/page becomes the next note in the visual composition. I’m not focusing on continuity, I’m not focusing on an overarching narrative being created: instead, I listen for the moment that has the most resonance, capture that, then listen for the next. It is only when the sketchnote composition is completed and viewed as a whole that a greater story emerges from the collection of scenes, images, and moods. Like the visual constellation work, it ends up being seriously powerful stuff that surprises the viewer with its level of insight and connection.
Here are just a few images from my Esalen sketchnotes:
And these:
While a narrative emerges, the intent wasn’t to create a narrative so much as to merely follow one emotional or experiential “note” to the next. Do you need to know my narrative or backstory to feel the qualities of the visual tone poem? I don’t think so. Without knowing what I was thinking, my workshop participants related and responded strongly to the feeling of my sketchnotes. Do I need to know what my narrative or backstory is when drawing these images? No. I honestly don’t know what’s about to come next, let alone what it’s leading to. Like the relational constellations, it’s almost more powerful not to need to know all the details. And like the relational constellation work, that stuff doesn’t reveal itself until afterwards, when I view the individual drawings as an entire piece and the poem’s true insight emerges.
Do you know what I mean? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. . . I’d love to hear what you think about all this.
And as always, I cannot wait to see what you draw forth.

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