Touch Drawing: An Interview with Deborah Koff-Chapin

Photo of Deborah Koff-Chapin, creator of Touch Drawing
Deborah Koff-Chapin

“If I had to give everything up but one thing, I would continue
Touch Drawing. It’s core to my being.”  —Deborah Koff-Chapin

By Cat Saunders

One of the gifts of interviewing people is that I get to meet some amazing people. Some of them are well known; some are not. Then there are those who will be famous, given enough time for word to get out. Deborah Koff-Chapin is one of those people. She is an artist who lives on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound.

I first heard about Deborah through friends and The New Times (April 1990). Then I met her in September of 1990 when she sang for a wedding where I presided as minister. I was awed by the power and depth of her voice. It was as if her soul came forth as sound.

Later I received a postcard from Deborah offering me an opportunity to do a Touch Drawing session with her. She explained that in these sessions, called “Inner Portraits,” she would draw spontaneous images for me for about two hours while I could also draw. We arranged a day and ended up spending five hours together. She did 30 “inner image” drawings of me and I did 22 drawings of my own.

I was stunned by Deborah’s work and its correspondences to my own drawings and to my own self-knowing. Without her knowing me personally, Deborah drew images which resonated deeply within my core, including both female and male images, images from my childhood, two or three images of past lives I already knew, and an image of one of my shamanic animals. Most powerful for me was one image which I instantly called “the face of my soul” (pictured here second in her row of drawings).

In the weeks following, I used the drawings for healing work, setting them up before me and then writing spontaneously, imagining that the drawings were speaking to me. Now, a year later, these images–hers and my own–are still speaking to me. Touch drawing is a simple and powerful technique for expressing and integrating the mysteries of your inner self. And it is a beautiful gift for the inner child in us all.

Cat: How did you invent the process of touch drawing?

Deborah: I had been studying art in New York City at Cooper Union and I had given myself fully to the world of abstract art. In my last year, there was something moving inside me, asking me to find myself again.

What I consider the seed of touch drawing was a time when I was doing a doodle and on it I wrote, “What’s wrong with drawing a human face?” The only work taken seriously in the art world at the time was abstraction, so that doodle felt like a dirty drawing!

Touch drawing emerged on the last day of my last year of school in 1974, when I was already in the midst of major soul opening. I was helping a friend in the print shop. He asked me to clean a glass plate with a paper towel to remove the ink. I put the paper towel down on the inked plate and something inside of me said, “I want to play!” I wanted to see what would happen if I moved my fingers around on it.

When I did that and then picked the paper towel up, I was literally blown open. I started laughing hysterically! I crawled all over the floor to find more paper towels and did more drawings. Images poured directly out of me. I used the word “revelation” very carefully, but that’s how it felt.

After that, touch drawing became my lifeline. I would make drawing after drawing–mainly faces–and then put them up all around me on the walls to reflect on them. I soon realized I wasn’t just drawing. I was externalizing my own inner process. I was actually “sculpting” myself–transforming my inner being as I did each new image.

It would be like this: “Here’s how I feel right now. Draw it. Sigh. Shift. Have a new feeling. Draw again. Sigh. Shift.” I did this process without words or context. I knew it was for my survival.

Cat: One of the things I noticed when we did our drawing session was all the pain that poured out of me, even though I wasn’t particularly aware of pain that day. I remember after doing a dozen pain-filled drawings I thought, “Now I’m going to draw something pretty!” and out came a skull. You mentioned that you did years of drawing much pain before the joy started flowing.

Deborah: Yes. Those initial drawings were ecstatic, but after that all the pain poured out. There’s something about drawing with your hands, without any tools, that allows the body to speak directly. The body doesn’t lie–or even pretend.

I know what you mean about trying to draw something beautiful. You won’t get beauty if it’s not true. You might get an image of somebody trying to be beautiful, but you won’t get something beautiful unless you’re truly feeling that way in your core.

I remember one series I did on a night when I thought I was going to die. I didn’t understand metaphor, that there was just a part of me dying. I thought, okay, they’ll find me dead in the morning with all these drawings all around me. Even though there was this pain inside of me to release, there was something about creating with the pain that brought another dimension into it. I did 99 drawings that night!

I think also of the time when I was in labor and did touch drawing. I had to be in the hospital, at Virginia Mason, because there were complications. But I was allowed to bring a drum, and I had a friend ink the drawing board for me so that it was ready.

I remember the feeling of the contractions as I was in the act of doing touch drawings. Drawing allowed the feeling to spread out all over my body. It shifted my pain to creative energy. That series was printed in Woman of Power.

The human condition, even suffering and pain, can shift with the addition of creative energy. When there is no place to turn and the pain seems overwhelming, creativity can redeem that pain. I think a lot of great art comes from that. But I don’t want to hold that as the only way. My path has been to take me to something different.

Cat: Pain and creativity are often linked. But you’re saying it’s not the only way to make great art.

Deborah: Right. I made an absolute choice in my life to find another way. One day, shortly after discovering touch drawing, I was walking around the streets of New York City when I heard the word within, “Health.” I got a feeling about health and nature.

Nature is healthy. Nature is creativity. There was something in me needing to be in touch with nature in a healthy way that would lead me to creativity. In that instance, I shifted out of the whole notion of the “tragic artist.”

Cat: Would you talk about how you do a session of “Inner Portraits?”

Deborah: I consider it a sacred ceremony. I set the drawing boards out for you and for me and show how to do touch drawing. You are invited to do touch drawings yourself while I’m drawing, although that’s not a requirement. Next we meditate with our eyes closed. And then, more importantly, we meditate while open-eye gazing at each other.

During this time, it feels like we are sitting at the altar of the soul. We are opening ourselves to be with the god and goddess within each other, so that we can see those deep inner faces. After a time of that, we draw.

At that point, I don’t try to do anything. I know that I’ve opened and I have my intention. One after another, the images are right there. I can’t even stop. I feel an impulse, a kinesthetic impulse. It’s not that I see anything. I may feel the shape of a forehead of an energy pattern and I just follow that.

Generally I draw for two hours nonstop. I totally immerse myself in each inner portrait. There may be anywhere from 8 to 40 drawings created, each a work of art in its own right, aside from its personal significance.

Cat: Can you do that with anybody?

Deborah: So far I have. The important thing is willingness and openness on the part of the other person. If someone is full of skepticism or a kind of curiosity not bred from a pure intention, I might have difficulty.

Cat: I know you do other kinds of painting, your art is now on cards and in a book, you sing, you’re getting into media work more, and you are collaborating with other artists on projects. What is your first love?

Deborah: If I had to give everything up but one thing, I would continue touch drawing. It’s core to my being.

This interview was originally published by The New Times in November 1991.

Deborah Koff-Chapin is the creator of SoulCards and SoulCards 2, which are available at bookstores or To read another interview with Deborah, please see “From Paper Towels to SoulCards.”

Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is also the author of Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available through Amazon). Contact Cat by emailing her or by calling 206-329-0125 (24-hour voicemail).