Why do you draw stillborns?
The Power of Art as a Grief Counsellor

Larissa Reinboth, illustrator, and her sister Annika Reinboth, midwife, use art to help bereaved parents endure their grief at the loss of a child. In an interview they talk about how they came to pursue the path of creating infant loss art.


Annika: How did the idea of drawing stillbirth portraits come about?
Larissa: Well, actually you came up with the idea. For a midwife, life and death can live perilously close to one another. No sooner has a new life glimpsed the light of this world, so too can it leave us again in the blink of an eye. You were already acutely aware of the need many bereaved parents felt to retain a memento of their child when you approached me with the idea of drawing their portraits. However, this concept initially confronted me with completely unexpected emotional and artistic challenges. How could I possibly live up to the task of drawing a portrait of their deceased child for bereaved parents? A picture no less, that they would in all likelihood keep for ever, and that might even help them along the road to recovery? And I realised that if I could help in such a way, I absolutely wanted to. This is how I came to creating infant loss art.

Annika: Most hospitals take pictures of stillborns for their parents to keep, and some photographers offer this service as well. How do your portraits differ from photographs?
Larissa: Photographs can be a wonderful keepsake. In many respects however, a portrait may be a more appropriate memento considering the context. To start with, a portrait resonates on a completely different level than a photograph, owing to the analogue nature of its physicality. A portrait drawing doesn’t have a shiny surface and isn’t intended for boundless reproduction in the way a digital photograph is. An original drawing exists once, as does a human being, and therefore retains a different immaterial value. A photograph is made by clicking a shutter release, whereas the lines that make up the drawing of a face are traced by the movements of a warm human hand gliding over the paper, intent on capturing more than a mere imitation of reality. This slightly abstracted representation recognises the existence of the child, the subject of the portrait, in a realm that is different and separate to ours. For me at least, looking at the photograph of a departed loved one is a little unnerving. Its realism seems artificial, almost mocking, in light of the departure of the person represented, who I can no longer see and touch in the way the literalism of the photograph makes it seem possible. For me, a drawing permits looking at somebody without being confronted by the jarring immediacy of their absence, but rather to cherish that they existed.

Furthermore, sometimes the death of a newborn occurs in a family that already has children, and siblings grieve too. In my experience, approaching the issue with them is made easier for parents and siblings alike when a portrait is at hand. A portrait is at one degree of separation from reality, and this emotional removal from realism can help children overcome trauma. Picture story books in which animals experience human emotions work in much the same way, as does the use of toys and puppets to enact real-life situations in theatre or on film.

Annika: How do you approach a commission? Can those affected make suggestions and express wishes?
Larissa: Of course they can! Every portrait is unique. To make it, I will invariably need a photograph on which the drawing will be based. But the interpretation of the photograph is open to suggestions. It is for example entirely possible to leave out such needles, tubes and plasters as may be present in a photo when I draw the portrait, giving parents the opportunity to create the portrait they would like to look at.  Over time I have of course developed a certain visual approach in terms of style. In contrast to the often seen, delicate pencil drawings on pristine white paper, my portraits look a lot bolder. I try to avoid downplaying the significance of the person or the event with ‘cuteness’ features like angel wings or butterflies and prefer to render the child with strong line work and a lot of tonal depth. My drawings tend to have quite an earthy character, in part owing to the paper I use. Its golden-brown colour gives the drawing a kind of warmth. I mostly work with oil pastel, charcoal and white calligraphy ink. However, as an illustrator I am familiar with most media. In my career I have already had such diverse commissions as creating tempera portraits on wood, or encased pencil drawings on acetate in an epoxy resin mould. Technically almost anything is possible, you just have to ask.

Annika: Often times bereaved parents and families find it really difficult to process this experience. How can an artistic approach help them cope?
Larissa: We have depicted our dead in art for millennia. This tradition is part of human cultural practice. Through images we dignify, memorialise and honour our dead, making their departure slightly easier to bear. You will be hard pressed to find any civilisation, past or present, that does not cultivate some visually representative element of the deceased in their mortuary practices. The visualisation of our dead bears witness to a mature engagement with death, which after all is an inevitable fact of life and one which all of us will have to face in the end.

Annika: In that case I invite all readers to browse your website! Thank you for your work and commitment - I am sure your portraits are helping many bereaved parents such as those I meet in my work.
Larissa: I sincerely hope that too.

How do I  commission
a portrait?
Portrait Gallery
Press and Media
This interview first appeared on Grief & Solace in German.