The Art and Psychology of Ink Blots


Google is commemorating the 129th anniversary of Hermann Rorschach’s birth with a special Google Doodle today. Rorschach was born on November 8, 1884 in Zurich, Switzerland. His father, an art teacher, encouraged him to express himself creatively through painting and drawing. As a child Hermann was known as “Klecks,” thanks to his love of klecksography – the art of making images from inkblots.

In a popular 1890s parlor game, spots of ink were dropped onto a piece of paper and the paper was then folded in half, so the ink would smudge and form a mirror reflection in the two halves. After unfolding the paper and letting the ink dry, guesses were made as to what the images looked like. A book, Gobolinks, published in 1896, features inkblot monsters (“gobolinks”) as prompts for writing imaginative verse.

At the time of his high school graduation, Hermann Rorschach was torn between a career in art and one in science. Rorschach decided to study psychiatry, but he still had an artist’s eye. Remembering his childhood inkblot paintings, he wondered why some people often saw entirely different things in the same inkblots.

While still a medical student he developed the inkblot test as a way of delving into the subconscious. He began showing inkblots to children and analyzing their wildly varying responses. After years of conducting these tests on over 400 people, in 1921 Rorschach published Psychodiagnostik – a book describing how inkblot tests can be effectively used in psychoanalysis.

Rorschach died just a few months later, at 37 years of age, from complications of a ruptured appendix – and before his idea had been accepted as a therapeutic method. But soon after, Rorschach’s method became popular in the U.S. By 1939, the Rorschach test had its own institute in New York. Everybody took the test, including Albert Einstein and President Roosevelt. It was one of the most widely used psychological tests up until the 1960s.

The inkblot test is like staring at clouds: when you see a meaningless shape, your brain tries to make sense of it by organizing it into a recognizable pattern. Such pictures, proponents argue, can speak volumes about what’s on your mind.

Some believe the Rorschach test can reveal underlying mental issues that patients themselves may not be aware of. For example, in some cases, focusing on tiny details around the edges of the images is seen as evidence of obsessive-compulsive behavior.

Critics say the test is unscientific and even dangerous because it relies on the ­therapist’s interpretation of patients’ answers, and it is not often used anymore. But the Rorschach test does ask a ­fascinating question: what does your imagination reveal about your ­personality and creativity?

Take an Ink Blot Test online using Rorschach’s 10 original inkblots. (It’s fun to do, but don’t expect the results to be very scientific.)

Have students create their own inkblot art and use their imaginations to decide what it is.

Make some colorful Inblot Creatures, in this children’s activity from the Art Studio at The Eric Carle Museum.

Download a PDF: Like Surprises? Make an Inkblot Picture! from the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Try these additional Inblot Projects, turn the pages in the Inkblot Flip Book, and view a series of Inkblot Videos, all from the author of Inkblot: Drip, Splat, and Squish Your Way to Creativity.

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