What is Art Therapy? And what makes it so amazing?
Have you been wondering ‘What is Art Therapy?’ Maybe you know someone who has started seeing an Art Therapist or Art Psychotherapist – or perhaps you’ve been wondering if it might be something that you’d like to try out. You may even be wondering if Art Therapy might be a good profession for you to go into.
In this article I’m going to answer the question ‘What is Art Therapy?’ and I hope to show you how amazing and helpful it can be.
I’ve divided this article into six parts. You’ll find out:
- Part 1: Why people go to Art Therapy
- Part 2: The difference between Art Therapy and Art as Therapy
- Part 3: 12 reasons why using the arts in therapy can be so valuable
- Part 4: What actually happens in an Art Therapy session
- Part 5: Frequently asked questions about Art Therapy
- Part 6: Further reading
Let’s get started.
What is Art Therapy, Part 1:
Why do people go to Art Therapy?
You may choose Art Therapy because you are trying to make sense of something in your life, so that it doesn’t have such a bad effect on you. It might be:
- Issues from the past that are still affecting you, like bullying, abuse or loss
- Feeling worried and overwhelmed
- Feelings like anxiety, shyness, anger or depression
- Difficulties with body image
- A feeling of not knowing who you really are
- Problems with your relationships
- Trying to cope with major life changes
- Knowing you’re too hard on yourself, but not knowing how to change that
- …or it might be simply a sense that you could get even more out of life if you understood yourself better!
What is Art Therapy, Part 2:
What’s the difference between Art Therapy, and Art as Therapy?
Art Therapy is a form of psychotherapy, and involves the professional relationship between the therapist and the client, along with the therapist’s professional skills and knowledge. Art Therapists (also known as Art Psychotherapists) have to get a Master’s degree in the subject, so it’s a pretty rigorous training. (Note: In the UK, Art Therapist and Art Psychotherapist are legally protected titles; no-one can call themselves that unless they are properly trained and HCPC-registered.)
Art as therapy is basically the idea that art-making can, in itself, be very therapeutic. People of all cultures (and probably throughout history) have used art to help themselves feel better in all sorts of ways. Whether you are an art-maker or an art-appreciator, or both, you will probably understand the calming/ enlivening/ inspiring impact that art can have on you.
If you are using the arts on your own, or with someone who is not a trained and registered Art Therapist, it may be therapeutic in various ways, but it is not Art Therapy.What is Art Therapy? Click To Tweet
What is Art Therapy, Part 3:
Why use the arts in therapy?
Here are 12 great reasons for using the arts in therapy:
(and if you have more, let me know in the comments section at the end of this post!)
1. Access to your unconscious mind
It can be a wonderful way of accessing a rich source of unconscious inner wisdom, because you’re tuning into a different part of your brain, a part that gets away from the usual word-based thinking part that you usually use.
2. Clarifying and bringing insight
Your art image can bring a heightened awareness of something that somehow you’ve always ‘known’ but couldn’t quite put your finger on. Putting something on paper can help clarify things – and the insights it brings can feel deeply satisfying.
3. Making things less scary
Once something has come out onto the paper, you and your therapist can talk about it, which can help transform it into something that feels less toxic or scary.
4. When it’s too hard to say it out loud
Sometimes it may feel too shaming or exposing to put your difficult thoughts or experiences into words. Using art images can really help here, so that you can let the therapist know something about what has happened, without you having to say it out loud.
5. Gets you emotionally connected
Sometimes if you talk about something you can feel quite detached from it. And emotional detachment does not lead to much real change. Using images in therapy can help you to get a deeper, more ‘felt’ and emotionally connected quality. This can help you to move on so that you can really allow change to happen.
6. Helps you feel satisfied and more peaceful
It can feel incredibly satisfying when you have been able to find the images to convey the exact feeling of an emotional experience. You may experience a feeling of peace because something has been expressed properly that needed to be expressed.
7. You can try out new ways of being
Through art materials, you can ‘rehearse the possible’ and experiment with finding different possible ways you might live differently and more authentically.
8. You can say more
Communicating through images and metaphor can convey many different meanings, perceptions, and feelings about an experience, all at the same time. It’s much richer and fuller than non-metaphorical language.
9. If you’re very articulate, it can free you up
If you’re always very articulate and good with words, then using the arts in therapy can get you ‘out of your head’. This can be very refreshing, and open doors to new ways of expressing things.
10. If you can’t use words well, you can feel better understood
If you’re someone who doesn’t feel very articulate with words, using the arts in therapy can feel like a huge relief, because you can make yourself understood in a very direct way.
11. You can express things that cannot be put into words
Using images can be a very full and profound form of description: all sorts of qualities, atmospheres and energies can be expressed.
12. You can connect with memories in a fuller way
Things that we remember are often partly held in our senses – smell, touch, sound, texture, colour, etc. Using the arts, we can connect with and release memories in a fuller sensory way.
What happens in Art Therapy? Click To Tweet
What is Art Therapy, Part 4:
What happens in Art Therapy sessions?
(I am referring to individual, one-to-one therapy sessions here, as opposed to group Art Therapy sessions, which are different).
It’s really hard to describe 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 therapist, because that depends entirely on you and her/him, and what you create together. But I can 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 therapist does while you make your art image
- What you and your therapist do once you’ve made your image
- How long a session lasts
- What happens to your artwork
Where is the Art Therapy session held?
Art Therapy sessions take place, as with most other forms of counselling and psychotherapy, in a private room where the client and therapist can know that they will not be interrupted. Sometimes the therapy room will be some kind of art studio; or the Art Therapist may be using a more traditional-style counselling consulting room.
Will there be a waiting room?
There may be a waiting room; but 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 is in the therapy room?
There will usually be a comfortable chair for you, and one for the therapist. There may be a rug, cushions, lamps and pictures on the wall, to make it feel more homely. There will often be art materials (such as paints and brushes) visible on shelves, or set out on a table. You may notice a sand-tray on the floor or on a stand. There may be shelves or a plan-chest 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; but if there is no sink in the room, there will be access to one nearby. Many Art Therapists also keep a pack of wet-wipes in the room, for cleaning your hands after using chalks or paints.
How does a 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. Whereas sometimes, for some clients, the art-making and other non-verbal communication may take precedence, with almost no talking.
Most often, there’s a combination of talking and art-making.
What art forms are used?
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 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.
Buried feelings may come up
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 feelings, and any feelings that lie hidden under the more obvious feelings (for example, underneath feelings of overwhelm, or anger, you might notice deeper feelings of sadness or longing).
These deeper feelings are the feelings 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 helps 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.
You may feel calm and pleasure
You may also 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’!)
You may feel fed up
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 therapist do while I make an art image?
Your therapist stays sitting quietly, thinking about you and about how she can best understand and help you. She is calmly ‘holding the space’.
Does the therapist make art too?
Art Therapists do not usually make art in the session themselves, but it is not unknown. If it seems appropriate and therapeutic for you, your therapist may use the materials alongside you.
Some therapists take notes during the session, but most don’t
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 her presence) if you wish to, and ask her to explain anything you don’t understand
What happens after I make my art image?
You may wish to continue working
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.
You may wish to take a step back
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.
Your therapist helps you reflect, and offers her thoughts when appropriate
When you are ready to share and talk with your therapist, she will help you to reflect on your feelings and thoughts. Both of you consider and discuss what emotions and associations get brought up by your artwork. You may also tell her how it felt to be sitting there and experiencing the process of making art in the session.
It’s not like talking with a friend or relative
Being with another person in this way is a very particular experience. It feels very different from talking with a friend or relative.
The connection you feel with the therapist can sometimes feel very deep (especially once you have built up more of a relationship). This can feel both wonderful and scary; but safety is built-in through many therapeutic boundaries.
Unlike the other relationships in your life, where you have to have 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 her challenging or upsetting things.
How long does the session last?
An Art Therapy session will commonly 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. (There are sound theoretical reasons for this, even though it may seem unfair sometimes!).
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, although she may take it (securely) to professional supervision from time to time.
Eventuually, you may take your artwork home if you wish
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.
What actually happens in Art Therapy? Click To Tweet
What is Art Therapy, Part 5:
Frequently asked questions about Art Therapy
If you’ve read through Parts 1-4 above, and still have a question about what happens in Art Therapy, or what is Art Therapy, read on and see if you can find the answer here.
Does the Art Therapist analyse and interpret the art?
If you mean, does the therapist think ‘aha, my client has drawn a cigar – I know what that means!’ – then the answer’s no! The therapist’s aim is to help you figure out what your image means to you. They can offer their ideas, but only as suggestions, to help you find what fits and resonates with you. It’s a very collaborative process.
If there’s no art-making in a session, how can it be called Art Therapy?
Art therapists have a thorough training in psychotherapy, which means that they are equally able to work with the client’s many other forms of expression, whether that’s through words, facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice, mood, pace of speech, postures, etc.
Art Therapists are also artists themselves, and as such they are particularly sensitive to the needs of creative people, and of people who would like to develop their creative side.
Who goes to Art Therapy?
All types of people. It’s amazingly versatile, and can meet people at whatever level they are at. Many of the people I work with have experienced difficulties with anxiety or depression, have experienced a trauma, or would just like a bit of added insight or processing of something that’s going on in their life right now.
Art Therapy can also be an effective treatment for a range of mental health diagnoses.
Does Art Therapy happen in groups, or one-to-one like counselling?
Art Therapy can happen in groups, just as talking therapy can, and this is different from one-to-one work. I specialise in working with clients individually.
Do you have to be arty or have special skills to go to Art Therapy?
No! You don’t have to be ‘good at art’. It isn’t about that. You may think that you couldn’t possibly put how you’re feeling into an art image, and that you wouldn’t even know where to start. But actually, you’ll likely find that this isn’t a problem. A trained Art Therapist will be able to help you connect with your feelings and thoughts through your images, and/or through the process of creating the images.
Plus, if you don’t want to make art, then you don’t make art. And that’s fine. Personally, I feel comfortable whether or not my client wants to make art in the session. They get to choose.
How will I know what to talk about, or what to draw/ paint?
At first, it can feel very strange to be sitting with a relative stranger and somehow feel you’re expected to ‘come up with something’. But don’t worry! Your therapist will understand that you may be feeling quite uncertain and anxious. She or he will know how to help you get over your nerves and get started.
Some therapists may suggest an activity for you to try; others will help you get started by encouraging you to talk (if you feel like talking) or just touching some of the art materials and seeing what marks they make. You don’t have to have an idea already in your head of ‘what to draw’ – although you may sometimes find you feel strongly that there is something you really want to draw or paint.
If drawing and painting feel a bit daunting, you might prefer to work with ready-made materials like postcards, pictures from magazines, cards, miniature objects in a sandtray, stones or shells (your therapist will guide you).
Isn’t Art Therapy just for children?
Art Therapy works extremely well for children. And it works extremely well for adults. All kinds of adults.
Is the art the thing that is most healing about Art Therapy?
In all kinds of psychotherapy and counselling, including the Art Therapies, the very most important thing that helps the therapy to be effective, is the quality of the relationship. Study after study has shown this.
Whatever the style of therapy, the theories the therapist subscribes to, the amount of talking or art-making or anything else: none of that is as important as the quality of the professional relationship between the therapist and the client.
How do you do Art Therapy online?
This is something that Art Therapists are really just starting to explore. Currently, I tend not to include art-making during an online session (although I wouldn’t necessarily rule it out) but sometimes my online clients may create artworks in between sessions (emailing me the photos, if they wish, before our next session). We will also sometimes talk in terms of imagery and metaphor, perhaps more than some online counsellors might.
Is Art Therapy more beneficial than ‘traditional’ therapies?
I think it depends on the therapist, and certainly on the client too, and what the client wants and needs. I think that Art Psychotherapy can help people access certain understandings about themselves quite quickly – it can sometimes provide a bit of a short-cut to get to some important inner stuff. But I am a big fan of other types of psychotherapy too, and I think there’s a place for all of it.
Would anyone else need to know that I am in therapy?
Most private clients prefer to keep the work entirely private. There is normally no reason why your family, friends, doctor or employer would need to know that you are going to Art Therapy, unless you choose to tell them. If there is another professional that you want your therapist to speak with, such as your doctor or care co-ordinator, you should discuss this with her.
Your therapist will discuss limits to confidentiality at the start of treatment, and will give you a form to sign to show that you have understood this.
If you are using some form of health insurance, your therapist may be obliged to discuss your case with your insurance company – this is one of the reasons why many Art Therapists prefer not to work with insurance companies.
If you are having Art Therapy in an NHS setting, such as a Mental Health outpatient unit or hospital ward, then certain medical staff will have access to your records.
I find my art group/ class very therapeutic. How would I know whether I should see an Art Therapist individually as well?
Certainly, being involved in the arts on any level can be therapeutic and helpful in lots of ways, and that’s wonderful! Connecting with our creativity, especially when it also involves collaborating with or working alongside other people, can be really positive, satisfying and constructive.
I think that you might have a sense, deep-down, of when you need something more – when you need to find someone very experienced who can provide something that is particularly geared to you and the issue that you are currently struggling with.
You might be looking for a therapist to help you manage feelings of shame or confusion or distress; it can be very difficult to work through those feelings successfully on your own. The empathy, recognition and understanding of your therapist can be absolutely crucial in enabling you to gradually discover, manage and accept parts of yourself that perhaps had to stay hidden before.
How do I find an Art Therapist?
Check with the professional organisations that regulate Art Therapy in your country or State. In the UK, where I am based, you can contact the British Association of Art Therapists. (If you are a registered Art Therapist outside of the UK, do let me know in the comments below, of the professional organisation that you belong to, so I can add it to the resources section).
How often should I have sessions with my Art Therapist?
The way I work is one-to-one, usually once a week at the same time each week, until you reach your goals. The work is entirely unique and tailored to that client. It is very boundaried and contained, and these limits provide a great sense of safety and structure for the work.
What is Art Therapy, Part 6:
For more information about Art Therapy, you may like to visit the following websites:
I hope that this article has helped answer the question, What is Art Therapy?
Is there something you’re still curious about, with regard to what happens in Art Therapy?
Or maybe you’re a fellow Art Therapist and you feel there’s something I’ve missed out in this blog post?
Please write in the comments below – I’d love to hear from you!