art therapy

art therapy

When someone hears the term “therapy,” he or she most likely thinks of lying on a couch, talking about his or her life to a therapist. While traditional psychotherapeutic techniques, commonly called “talk therapy,” are the most widely used form of therapy, art therapy can act as yet another tool for unlocking an individual’s emotional growth potential. Art therapy uses the creative process to tap into emotions that might be difficult to deal with through more traditional forms of psychotherapy, and it may be more useful for certain therapy-seeking individuals than other methods.

According to the American Art Therapy Association, art therapy has been practiced by professionals since the 1940s. At that time, two things were happening. Therapists were beginning to notice the artwork produced by people with mental illness, and child development experts were beginning to take a look at how children expressed their personal development through art. It became apparent that artistic expression could be a valuable tool for individuals suffering from emotional problems. The therapeutic community also began to recognize that the creative process could aid a child throughout development, pointing to the possibility that artistic expression could help anyone develop toward his or her personal goals.

Art therapy uses the creative process of making physical artwork to help patients express emotions, gain insight, alleviate stress, deal with past traumas, strengthen cognitive skills, and awaken a sense of pleasure in living. What a patient chooses to express through their artwork and how those expressions are interpreted are determined by the patient. The therapist simply guides the patient through the process, asking questions to help determine the meaning behind the signs and symbols represented in the artwork. While there is no definitive meaning for the symbols, metaphors, and signs that appear in a patient’s artwork, art therapists are trained to listen to the way an individual discusses his or her art in an effort to flesh out the meaning unique to that person.

People suffering from the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, find art therapy especially useful. Traumatic experiences such as abuse and neglect can make it very difficult for an individual to talk openly with another person, even if that other person is a therapist. Expressing the emotions surrounding childhood sexual abuse, wartime experiences, or an assault through the creative process can help a patient get to the bottom of what is bothering her without having to express those feelings in words.

Art Therapy For Children

Children also benefit greatly from art therapy. Because they haven’t yet developed the vocabulary or self-awareness to talk about their emotions, children often turn to art as a way of expressing their feelings. Therapists may use art therapy as a way to determine what is going on in the child’s home, whether or not a child is being abused, or what emotional or cognitive disorders a child may be suffering from.

The Art Therapy Connection, or ATC, in Chicago, Illinois uses art therapy to help troubled children and teenagers. The non-profit organization uses art therapy as a way to help students who are doing poorly in school learn coping skills that will help them achieve greater academic success and build healthier internal emotional support systems. The organization claims that art therapy can help children and teenagers express themselves, giving them learn self-control through self-exploration.

Art Therapy For Stress

The use of art therapy doesn’t have to be restricted to these groups, though. Vicky Barber, an expert in the field of art therapy who practices in the United Kingdom, believes that anyone can benefit from regular artistic expression. She sees it as a way for people to manage daily stress, and she also sees it as a way for individuals to learn to communicate with each other. She suggests art therapy as a way for groups of professionals to build more effective communication patterns as a team, making the group more productive.

Creating art can help an individual manage stress, too. Drawing, painting, and sculpting all provide distraction from the issues of daily living, and the effects of art therapy seem to mimic the effects of meditation. The creative process is very engaging, having almost a hypnotic effect. Committing to regularly creating art is also a form of self-care, which is important for anyone dealing with stress and anxiety. Art therapy involves more than just drawing random pictures. lists several different directed art therapy assessments.

  • The Mandala Assessment Research Instrument involves the use of mandalas, designs said by Carl Jung meant to signify the effort of the self toward reunification. The client picks a mandala from a group of different designs and another card of a specific color. The client then draws the mandala using only the color he or she chose. The therapist asks the client to talk about the meanings gleaned from the experience of drawing the mandala. The Mandala Assessment Research Instrument is based on the theories of Joan Kellogg. She believed that the mandalas chosen by an artist revealed parts of his or her personality as well as his or her psychological condition.
  • The House-Tree-Person assessment, or HTP, is one of the most well-known and widely-used assessments in art therapy. The client is asked to draw a house, a tree, and a person. The therapist asks the client to give specific details about the drawing. These details point to the underlying emotions of the client.
  • The Diagnostic Drawing Series involves three phases. The patient first draws anything they want to on a single piece of paper. The therapist then directs the patient to draw a second picture of a tree. In the third part of the assessment, the patient is asked to illustrate his or her emotions using shapes, lines, and colors. The therapist interprets these pictures based on use of color, blending technique, and design.


The American Art Therapy Association lists other assessments such as the Belief Art Therapy Assessment and the Cognitive Art Therapy Assessment. These directed assessments add structure to art therapy sessions and allow the therapist to gain insight into the thoughts, motivations, emotions, and experiences of a patient.

What to Look for When Choosing an Art Therapist

When choosing an art therapist, it is important to seek out professionals who hold a master’s degree in art therapy or master’s degree in therapy with an emphasis on art therapy. The American Art Therapy Credentials Board, or ATCB, is the governing body that registers and regulates art therapists. If someone is a board-certified art therapist, he or she will hold an ATR-BC credential. Art therapists can be found in hospitals, private practice, schools, social work organizations, and the judicial system.

Art therapists are not the only therapists who use art therapy techniques. A therapist might ask a client to use artistic expression as part of the therapeutic process, integrating creative projects such as making masks, painting, drawing, or writing poetry with “talk therapy” techniques such as cognitive-behavioral therapy or dialectical behavioral therapy.

Art therapy is a relatively new form of psychotherapy. For those who are new to the therapeutic process or have a limited emotional vocabulary, art therapy can be an invaluable tool for self-expression. Art therapy also offers anyone the chance to relax through the creative process. Taking time out to draw, paint, or create craft projects is a way for individuals to get away from the daily grind and reinvigorate their senses.

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