How to understand drawings and paintings: Online course by Prof. Dr. Zoltán VASS

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The Scribble and the Anatomy of the Line

Institute of Projective Drawings

Scribbles are everywhere

...on the side of a notebook, on benches, on playground paving stones, on walls and in public bathrooms.

The psychological interpretation of scribbles (doodles) is an excellent field for the study of everyday psychopathology.

You can find  art therapy techniques here as the Nonexistent Animal Technique or the Draw-A-Couple Technique.

According to Freud: „to the keen observer they (symptomatic actions) often betray everything, occasionally even more than he cares to know. He who is familiar with its application sometimes feels like King Solomon, who according to the Oriental legend, understood the language of animals” (Freud, 1901/1960 p. 162).

These office scribbles were produced while talking on the phone. The spasmodic, nervous movements and the tense, tangled lines are good expressions of the subject’s tension—at the same time, the act of scribbling allows the subject to release a part of their tension.

The spontaneous scribbles produced while talking on the phone or in meetings are especially interesting.

Conscious control is relaxed during scribbling and the subject openly reveals what is on his mind. A spontaneous doodle by a university student drawn in the margin of his notebook during a lecture. 

While the conversation occupies conscious attention, the content appearing in the scribbles is less controlled, preconscious material.


Because it was not created with the intention of representing something, it just came about, while the person making it was doing something else.

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In spontaneous scribbles, the efficiency of censorship in the psychoanalytic sense is reduced in a manner similar to the case of dreaming.

This is the reason why spontaneous scribbles and doodles can be very honest and they can express contents of the unconscious.

How To Understand A Spontaneous Scribble?

The two most reliable methods are the interpretation of associations and the anatomy of the line (Vass, 2012).  Let’s quickly review these in turn.

(1) Association

In order to solve the scribble ”puzzle” you need to know the circumstances during which the scribble was made (the situation). You need to know what the person was talking about while scribbling, and his or her own associations.


  • What do you think of when you see the scribble? 
  • What is it similar to?
  • What do you think it’s about?

(2) Anatomy Of The Line

The other tool is the anatomy of the line. The line can contain coded emotions and psychological concepts.

Always examine:

  1. how the line starts, 
  2. how it continues,
  3. how it ends?

Anatomy Of The Line: Basic Guidelines

According to psychological research (see Vass, 2012):

  • lines illustrating positive words contain more curves,
  • negative ones in contrast are more angular,
  • the number of angles and curves are often a function of emotional intensity,
  • irregular, zig-zag and sharp lines correlate with anger, hate, pain,
  • the rising line often signifies strength, energy, ambition,
  • the descending line indicates weakness, listlessness, depression in many cases.

Of course, you cannot directly translate these observations into interpretations as if you were reading a dictionary. However, they can be a good guideline to understanding scribbles.

So how exactly is this done in practice? This will be revealed in the next chapter.

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Now It's Your Turn

  • Do you ever catch yourself doodling the same thing over and over again? What you tend to draw reveals honest information about you.
  • Start collecting scribbles or doodles and stay tuned – you will learn more in the next chapter.
  • What are your thoughts on spontaneous scribbles? Let us know in the comments below!


Freud, S. (1901). Psychopathology of Everyday Life. New York: Macmillan.

Vass, Z. (2012). A psychological interpretation of drawings and paintings. The SSCA Method: A Systems Analysis Approach. Budapest: Alexandra.

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  • Prof. Zoltan Vass, PhD is University Professor of Psychology and Head of the Faculty of the Psychology of Visual Expression, Károli University, Budapest.
  • He has published over 20 books and 400 scientific articles in 7 languages.
  • His method of Seven-Step Configuration Analysis (SSCA) awarded several scientific prices.
  • On SSCA, 7 scientific symposia were organized.
  • It has led to the establishment of 3 accredited clinical trainings and a postgraduate faculty with a total of 1622 participants.
  • It is taught or referenced in 152 courses in Hungary, Romania, Germany, France, Russia, China, Israel etc.

International appraisals of the SSCA Method

Prof. Dr. Diane Waller MA(RCA) DPhil, FRSA, OBE

Emeritus Professor of Art Psychotherapy, Goldsmiths, University of London

“This is an extraordinary work
different from the work already in the public domain in that it proposes a new, much more complex approach to the interpretation of drawings and paintings"

“It opens up avenues
on the long-debated efficacy of projective drawing as diagnostic and therapeutic tools"

Prof. Catherine T. L. SUN

Professor & Head, Department of Counselling and Psychology, Hong Kong Shue Yan University

Prof. Dr. Carlos R. Hojaij

Clínica Psiquiatria Biológica Brasil, São Paulo

“Fantastic (!!!) ... No doubt it does deserve a world wide publication, for it will be very useful to so many professionals researching and working in art therapy and any one interested in expression and psychology"

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Institute of Projective Drawings