It’s really hard to describe what happens in an Art Therapy session, because no two sessions are the same. I can’t tell you about the really important stuff, the life-changing and moving moments of insight and relationship with your Art Therapist. This is because that depends entirely on you and her/him/them, and what you create together. But in this article I’m going to give you some idea of the basics about what happens in Art Therapy sessions, such as
- Where an Art Therapy session takes place
- What is in the therapy room
- How a session starts
- The balance of talking and art-making
- What art forms are used
- What the Art Therapist does while you make your art image
- What you and your Art Therapist do once you’ve made your image
- How long a session lasts
- What happens to your artwork
If you’d like to know more about how and why Art Therapy can be so effective, read my longer article ‘What Is Art Therapy?’
(I am referring to individual, one-to-one therapy sessions in this article, as opposed to group Art Therapy sessions, which are different).
Where is the Art Therapy Session Held?
As with most other forms of counselling and psychotherapy, Art Therapy sessions take place in a private room where the client and therapist can know that they will not be interrupted. Sometimes the therapy room will be set up as an art studio; or the Art Therapist may be using a more traditional-style counselling consulting room.
There may be a waiting room. However, if the therapist is working from their own home or studio, you may have to wait outside the building until your session time. If you came by car, you could sit in it; otherwise you may prefer to pass time in a nearby shop or cafe (you’ll soon become an expert in timing your walk from there to your therapist’s office!)
What about online Art Therapy?
Nowadays, especially with Covid-19 in mind, many Art Therapists are working with their clients online. This can be a very effective way of working. It means that you will need your own private space for your sessions, and of course you will need to have some materials to hand. Your Art Therapist can talk with you about the kinds of materials that could be helpful, and where to get them. You can use your smartphone, tablet or laptop for your online art therapy sessions.
What is in the Art Therapy Room?
There will usually be a comfortable chair for you, and one for the therapist. A rug, cushions, lamps and pictures on the wall might make the room feel homely. You might notice art materials (such as paints and brushes) on shelves, or set out on a table. A sand-tray may sit on a low table. There may be shelves or drawers full of paper; alternatively the paper may be kept in a portfolio or sketchbook ready for access. If the room is overlooked, there will normally be blinds or frosted glass on the windows, to keep the session private. Some Art Therapy rooms have a sink, which is useful for washing hands, brushes etc. Many Art Therapists also keep a pack of wet-wipes in the room, for cleaning your hands after using chalks, clay or paints.
How Does an Art Therapy Session Start?
You and your therapist will sit down. You might want to start by talking about something that’s on your mind; or you may prefer to start by getting some art materials out. Your therapist might give you some basic guidance about using the materials, especially to start with.
Should I Expect Mostly Talking, or Mostly Art-Making?
Sometimes in a session there may be no art-making at all — just talking and thinking together with your therapist. Most often, though, there’s a combination of talking and art-making. And sometimes, the art-making and other non-verbal communication may take precedence, with much less talking.
What Art Forms are Used in Art Therapy?
Art-making could include painting or drawing, making something out of clay, using a sand-tray, creating a collage out of magazine clippings, working with postcards, arranging stones or shells, or even working with puppets. Some Art Therapists, particularly Integrative Arts Psychotherapists, include poetry or movement too – it depends on their particular interests and skills, and it also depends on your own preferences and needs. You may be sitting at a table, or on cushions on the floor – it depends on what is comfortable for you, and for your therapist. What will you create? Who knows – there’s no right or wrong. You may be silent for a while, as you focus on using the art materials.
How Will I Feel as I Make the Artwork?
I can’t tell you! You will feel however you feel, and that will vary. And it’s all okay. You may notice yourself feeling calmer and more spacious inside, as you work. You might become aware of feelings of pleasure and satisfaction (and yes, this can happen even when you don’t consider your work to be ‘great art’!)
As you create your artwork, you might notice some kind of internal shift as you move into a more reflective mood. You may become more aware of your emotions, including any feelings that lie hidden under the more obvious feelings. For example, alongside feelings of overwhelm, or anger, some people notice deeper feelings of sadness or longing. These deeper feelings may be ones that you usually avoid and cover up (often unconsciously) in daily life; but the therapy session creates a safer space for you to look at and learn to manage them.
Your therapist is there to help you become more familiar with the difficult feelings so that you become more able to regulate them. As you become more skilled at emotion regulation, your feelings won’t have the same power over you as they once did.
If you find yourself feeling bored, hopeless, frustrated, annoyed or defeated when you are in the process of making your artwork, that does not mean you’ve failed in any way; it is just part of the therapy work and needs to be processed (talked about) with the therapist. In therapy we know that whatever we struggle with in everyday life, is sure to be struggled with in the therapy too. That’s how we can work with it and create life-shifting change. Try to let go of any expectations, and start to practise allowing yourself to just be however you are in this moment.
What Does the Art Therapist Do While I Make my Art Image?
Generally, your therapist sits quietly, thinking about you and about how they can best understand and help you. They are calmly ‘holding the space’. Art Therapists do not usually make art in the session themselves. However, if it seems appropriate and therapeutic for you, your therapist may use the materials alongside you. Most Art Therapists do not take written notes during the session, but some do like to work this way, in order to record important things you say. If your therapist takes notes, you should feel free to ask to see the notes (in their presence) if you wish to, and ask them to explain anything you don’t understand.
What Happens After I’ve Made my Art Image?
It depends. You might want to continue to draw or paint as you talk. The action of your hands can have very calming effect and stop you getting too overwhelmed as you talk and think about difficult stuff. Or it may feel better to stop working, and lay the image out on the floor, wall, or table – somewhere where both of you can see it equally, and reflect on it from a slight distance. When you are ready to share and talk with your therapist, they will help you to reflect on your feelings and thoughts. Both of you can consider and discuss together what emotions and associations get brought up by your artwork. You may also tell your Art Therapist how it felt to be sitting there and experiencing the process of making art in the session.
Is it like Chatting with a Friend?
Being with another person in this way is a very particular experience. It feels very different from talking with a friend or relative. Unlike the other relationships in your life, where there has to be plenty of give and take, in the therapy relationship you can explore you in as much depth as you need. And you’re talking to someone experienced and wise, who knows how to listen properly, stays grounded and calm, and doesn’t freak out when you tell them challenging or upsetting things. The connection you feel with the therapist can sometimes feel very deep (especially once you have built up more of a relationship). This might feel both wonderful and perhaps a bit scary. Safety is built-in through many therapeutic boundaries.
How Long Does an Art Therapy Session Last?
An Art Therapy session will typically last either 50 minutes or one hour (group sessions will be longer). Art Therapists are trained to see boundaries as very important – and this includes time boundaries. If you arrive late to your session, you will probably not be offered extra time at the end to make up for it.
What Happens to the Artwork?
At the end of the session the therapist will normally keep your artwork and store it safely and confidentially. The therapist will not show your work to anyone else, apart from taking it (securely) to professional supervision from time to time. Eventually, when you and your therapist agree that therapy has reached the number of sessions needed (or the number of sessions available) you will have the option of removing all your artwork to keep at home, if you wish.
How Do I Find an Art Therapist?
You can find someone via one of the online directories, for example Welldoing.org, Counselling Directory or Psychology Today. Look for a therapist who is an HCPC registered Art Therapist/ Art Psychotherapist, as this registration shows that the therapist has had a full Art Therapy training (this is applicable to U.K. only; other countries have different registrations). Counsellors and psychotherapists often use arts modalities in their work, too; although this isn’t Art Therapy, it can still have a lot of value.What actually happens in Art Therapy? Click To Tweet
What’s Your Experience?
Have you been a client in Art Therapy? What was your experience, and what would you like others to know about what happens in Art Therapy? Let us know in the comments below.
To find out more about what happens in Art Therapy, and why Art Therapy is so effective for helping people with anxiety, depression, and growth, read my article ‘What Is Art Therapy?’ And if you’re interested in discussing whether online Art Therapy with me could help you with anxiety, depression or personal growth, see my page Psychotherapy, Art Therapy & Counselling Colchester
For anyone interested in becoming an Integrative Arts Psychotherapist, or for counsellors and therapists who want to add to their skills, you may like to read ‘Integrative Arts Psychotherapy: Using an Integrative Theoretical Frame and the Arts in Therapy’ by C.L. Vaculik and G. Nash (2022). Note: I’m not impartial in this recommendation: I wrote one of the chapters, and one of my paintings is on the cover 🙂