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Derealisation and Realism

Multiple definitions of derealisation:

1) Derealisation is a mental state where you feel detached from your surroundings. People and objects around you may seem unreal. Even so, you’re aware that this altered state isn’t normal. (Slivinski, 2021)

2)Feelings of being alienated from or unfamiliar with your surroundings — for example, like you're living in a movie or a dream. Feeling emotionally disconnected from people you care about, as if you were separated by a glass wall (Mayo Clinic, 2023)

3)Derealisation is where you feel the world around is unreal. People and things around you may seem "lifeless" or "foggy". (NHS, 2020)

Deep Chaos Within in progress,  2023 

My painting practice is hinged upon defining my ideas through realism and capturing figures with a likeness to nature. I have been considering my relationship with realism painting and the themes of anxiety that I am working with and have recognised that this style of painting with a heightened attention to detail is a means of exercising control; control being something one lacks in a state of anxiety or derealisation. I came across a quote “Hyper-awareness can also make a person’s thinking abstract,” (Hall, 2016, 60). The act of applying focus to something outside myself serves as a way to combat this hyper-awareness that manifests itself as anxiety that is abstract and uncontrollable by nature. I have therefore considered that my artistic identity and my attachment to realism painting, is likely defined by my anxious behaviours. Having acknowledged this, I have considered anxiety’s relationship with identity, and am interested in the idea of layers. The layers of the self that one projects to the world versus what is below the surface, the layer that exists between reality and a dream during derealisation, and how I may translate this to the layering of paint on a canvas. 

While considering this idea of layers within identity, I have returned to Caravaggio and Artemisia Gentileschi’s embedded self portraits. Beyond referencing these Baroque realism painters for their pure aesthetic value, I wrote an essay previously regarding their use of the embedded self portrait as a means of elevating their artistic personas. However I have now been considering the embedded self portrait’s role as a deeper reflection of their personal identities. Specifically Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath in which he has painted himself as the beheaded Goliath. The act of using his own image as the slain giant, whether it was to stimulate interest in his artistic persona, or if it alludes to the fact he views himself as a remorseful villain, (Stone, 2006, 36) gives insight into the many layers that exist within his identity. (Rudd, 2021, 31) Gentileschi also toyed with her identity in her Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting in which she has "used the self to convey symbolic concepts." (Rudd, 2021, 33) Since I am interested in expressing my experience that is so deeply interlaced with themes of identity, I believe self portraiture that is more obscure like this and less literal, will be a compelling way to visualise my experience.

The baroque tradition of glazing itself, deals with application and stripping of layers of glaze. I plan on applying a layer of dark glaze to the patterned area of my painting in Deep Chaos Within, and the act of wiping away sections of glaze would be like lifting that veil or fog that exists between the versions of the self, the dream and the reality within an anxious mind. 

The Pre-Raphaelites and Poetry

I am currently writing haiku poems as an exercise to accompany my art practice. Writing short poems has allowed me to focus my ideas and really consider what are the most important feelings or themes I am trying to convey.  

A restricted breath

A murder of crows descend

deep chaos within

This raw discomfort

A real place veiled by a dream

An Entanglement

Butterflies erupt

A dark fog clouds Clear vision

Am I dreaming now?



I came across a project initiated by William Sieghart in which he prescribed poems to people across the UK at literary events that he called The Poetry Pharmacy. He believes "Suffering is the access point to poetry for a lot of people: that's when they open their ears, hearts and minds."(Seighart, 2017, 18) I have started to consider this concept within my own art and my audiences response to my work. The book is a collection of poems that Sieghart has compiled to help people process their human experiences of emotion. 

Poetry as an art form is visually stimulating and I believe it could be interesting to consider as prompts for my paintings. John Everett Millais' painting Ophelia is the foundation of this idea. As I was viewing the painting at the Tate Britain I was overwhelmed by its air of peacefulness, beauty, and idealisation, and thought it was contradictory to the actual reality of "madness" or the loss of ones mind as Ophelia experienced in Hamlet. Losing control of your thoughts to that extent is not a tranquil, transcendental experience as Millais tactfully tricks us into believing, it should rather be likened to something as dark and as horror striking as Satan Devouring his Son by Francisco Goya.  In Ophelia's death passage  , Shakespeare has romanticised her death and elevated her character into somewhat of an ethereal being. Therefore, I feel that Millais' depiction of Ophelia captures the poetry with uncanny accuracy, and his obsessive realism and attention to detail makes the image more devastating.  It is not only an event that he is depicting, it is a feeling of overwhelming melancholy and loss. There is a line from the passage that manifests the specific moment I am trying to convey in my work in progress Deep Chaos Within. The line reads, "As one incapable of her own distress". (Shakespeare, 1948, 112). I keep returning to this quote and questioning whether my visual decisions are staying true to this sense of distress that is crucial to defining the experience of derealisation. I consider Ophelia in relation to my own work and think that mental health or anxiety is a subject that people tend to shy away from or be deterred from, so the act of writing poetry and making compositions based off of them that are initially visually alluring overstimulating with detail is a way to initiate a certain level of engagement with my audience. 

Materiality and Pattern

In taking inspiration from William Morris' overwhelming use of intricate patterns that twist and turn and weave in and out of themselves I return to this idea of layers, and layering symbolisms. My interest in layering symbolisms within floral and earthly motifs brought me to  think of The Unicorn Rests in a Garden. Every fruit, flower and piece of foliage has been carefully picked to symbolise a different idea. The similarity i saw between my use of pattern and the repeated floral motifs in this medieval tapestry led me to begin thinking of my painting beyond the realm of tradition and consider its potential to take on the qualities of a tapestry. Tapestries have historically been used to tell stories so I wonder if experimenting with the materiality of my painting and allowing it to be displayed as one, whether it be by displaying it on loose canvas or fraying the edges, would contribute to the story I am trying to tell. 




During my research I also read The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which was a critical response to the treatment of women in the 19th century, in which the protagonist with a nervous disposition is prescribed bed rest by her physician husband. She proceeds to have a nervous breakdown and becomes consumed by her belief that the yellow wallpaper is alive and there is a woman trapped inside of it that she must free. The story ends with her in a state of psychosis tearing down the wallpaper with her bare hands to help the women, who is ultimately her, escape the confines of the patterned paper. There are a lot of similarities between this story and my experience of derealisation and I found it interesting that the author and I both use pattern as a vessel to explain an experience like this. The story provoked some interesting visual imagery that I would like to explore more in my work in terms of what a pattern can do to describe anxiety and mimic a dreamlike state. The act of the protagonist ripping up the pattern ties back to this idea of the layers within one's identity. In the protagonist's case her anxiety contributed to the loss of her identity, to the point where she hallucinated a different version of herself. I wonder how this could translate to my canvas being ripped or having something as fragile as paper be featured in some way in my work.  

At the Victoria and Albert Museum I saw that Kehinde Wiley also responded to the story. While I processed the story in therapeutic way, he focused on the story's patriarchal context and developed a series of portraits to highlight the societal struggles black women are faced with. I found it very interesting to see how we had taken different things away from the story.


William Morris and John Henry Dearle, The Bullerswood Carpet, 1889

The Unicorn Rests in a Garden, 1495-1505

Kehinde Wiley, The Yellow Wallpaper, 2020

Charlotte Perkins Stetson, The Yellow Wallpaper, 1892


Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Hedges, E.R. (1992). The yellow wallpaper. London Virago Press.

Hall, W. and Madness Radio (2016). Outside mental health : voices and visions of madness. United States: Madness Radio. pp. 60.

Mayo Clinic (2017). Depersonalization-derealization disorder - Symptoms and causes. [online] Mayo Clinic. Available at:

NHS (2020). Dissociative disorders. [online] Available at:

Rudd, N. (2021). The self-portrait. London, United Kingdom: Thames And Hudson. pp 31-33

Shakespeare, W., Edwards, P. and Hirschfield, H. (2019). Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 112.

Slivinski, N. (2021). What Is Derealization? [online] WebMD. Available at:

‌Wilson, M. (2020). Symbols in art. London ; New York, New York: Thames And Hudson, 60.

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