Art therapy involves the use of creative techniques such as drawing, painting, collage, coloring, or sculpting to help people express themselves artistically and examine the psychological and emotional undertones in their art. With the guidance of a credentialed art therapist, clients can "decode" the nonverbal messages, symbols, and metaphors often found in these art forms, which should lead to a better understanding of their feelings and behavior so they can move on to resolve deeper issues.
When It's Used
Art therapy helps children, adolescents, and adults explore their emotions, improve self-esteem, manage addictions, relieve stress, improve symptoms of anxiety and depression, and cope with a physical illness or disability. Art therapists work with individuals, couples, and groups in a variety of settings, including private counseling, hospitals, wellness centers, correctional institutions, senior centers, and other community organizations. No artistic talent is necessary for art therapy to succeed, because the therapeutic process is not about the artistic value of the work, but rather about finding associations between the creative choices made and a client's inner life. The artwork can be used as a springboard for reawakening memories and telling stories that may reveal messages and beliefs from the unconscious mind.
What to Expect
As with any form of therapy, your first session will consist of your talking to the therapist about why you want to find help and learning what the therapist has to offer. Together, you will come up with a treatment plan that involves creating some form of artwork. Once you begin creating, the therapist may, at times, simply observe your process as you work, without interference or judgment. When you have finished a piece of artwork—and sometimes while you are still working on it—the therapist will ask you questions along the lines of how you feel about the artistic process, what was easy or difficult about creating your artwork, and what thoughts or memories you may have had while you were working. Generally, the therapist will ask about your experience and feelings before providing any observations.
How It Works
Art therapy is founded on the belief that self-expression through artistic creation has therapeutic value for those who are healing or seeking deeper understanding of themselves and their personalities. According to the American Art Therapy Association, art therapists are trained to understand the roles that color, texture, and various art media can play in the therapeutic process and how these tools can help reveal one’s thoughts, feelings, and psychological disposition. Art therapy integrates psychotherapy and some form of visual arts as a specific, stand-alone form of therapy, but it is also used in combination with other types of therapy.
What to Look for in an Art Therapist
An art therapist has the minimum of a master’s degree, generally from an integrated program in psychotherapy and visual arts at an educational institution accredited by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). The initials ATR after a therapist’s name means he or she is registered with the Art Therapy Credentials Board (ATCB). The initials ATR-BC means the therapist is not only registered but has passed an examination to become board-certified by the ATCB.
- American Art Association website accessed December 20, 2016.
- Slayton SC, D’Archer J, Kaplan F. Outcome studies on the efficacy of art therapy: a review of findings. Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association. 22 April 2011; 27(3): 108-118.
- American Art Therapy Association Masters Education Standards June 30, 2007.