When you first encounter a painting, sculpture or photograph, you generally relate to it through your emotions. While a work of art may or may not always contain meaning or symbolism, it usually stimulates your senses and leads you to experience feelings. Even if you have never had a formal art class or learned to draw, it's likely that if given a pencil and asked to make spontaneous lines on a piece of paper, your image will convey movement, gesture, shape, and/or action—the visual elements of emotion.
Art therapists have a longstanding tradition of prescribing image-making to prompt expression of feelings, often by asking people to draw, paint, or sculpt "how you feel." It's one of the fundamental approaches in the field that distinguishes art therapy from verbal techniques that ask people to simply talk about their emotions. Author Erica Jong once wrote that imagery is a form of emotional shorthand. I interpret this to mean that while we may use paragraphs of prose to describe an emotional experience, images allow us to communicate simply and directly. At its core, art therapy embraces the paradigm that creating images cuts to the chase when it comes to expressing feelings.
Art therapist and Gestalt practitioner Jayne Rhyne introduced me to the idea of asking my clients to use art materials to depict emotions as a starting point for self-expression and communication. Rhyne studied with Gestalt icon Fritz Perls at Esalen Institute in the 1960s and took her cue from his philosophy of keeping clients in the "here and now" during sessions. In line with Perls' thinking, she suggested to her clients that they use image-making to express what they were feeling in the moment. Decades before somatic approaches to treatment became popular, she also asked people to explore how their feelings were connected to body sensations—in other words, using what's going on with your muscles, your breathing, and your posture as the basis for artistic expression. That mode of using the expressive arts in therapy is now commonplace in art, dance, drama, and other creative approaches to treatment and particularly with mood disorders, stress reduction, and trauma and loss.
Art therapists, psychologists, and counselors have subsequently adapted the idea of "how do you feel right now" in a variety of ways. Children, for example, might be asked to draw faces expressing "mad, glad, sad, and scared" to help them communicate their emotional experiences to the therapist. An activity commonly called a "body scan" is another popular iteration and involves using an outline of a body as a platform for using drawing, collage, or paint to depict where emotions are felt in the body. It's a technique that is proving to be particularly useful with people who have posttraumatic stress symptoms because it often helps them to visually identify distressful body sensations related to trauma reactions. While there are other similar directives, many art therapists, myself included, take a more free-form approach and simply ask clients to use color, shapes, lines, or images to express feelings when appropriate to the goals of therapy.
Rhyne actually conducted research on what she called "emotional constructs," studying individual's drawings of feeling states such as calm, angry, depressed, and other emotions. Adult participants were simply asked to draw abstract representations of various emotionally laden mind states. Interestingly enough, the results of Rhyne's study pointed to some consistency in visual elements within feelings categories. For example, "sad" and "melancholy" were generally expressed with downward curving lines; "happy," "joyous," and "cheerful" had curvilinear and upward movement. "Depressed" included downward movement, while "excited" included less constricted, more outward-reaching lines and shapes.
But lest you begin to think that drawing your feelings is just an exercise in deciphering your emotional state, that's not the point of exploring how you feel with pencils, paint, or clay. Nor will just drawing "happy" or "cheerful" automatically lead to a more positive state of mind. But because art-making is a sensory experience that actually can lead to changes in mind and body, exploring both positive and negative feelings through image-making, accompanied by some good talk therapy, can refocus your emotional outlook in a fashion similar to cognitive-behavioral therapy [CBT]. It's also a practice worth repeating over time—and you learn more about that in the next installment, Cool Art Therapy Intervention #4.
© 2010 Cathy Malchiodi.
Rhyne, J. (1979). Drawings as personal constructs: A study in visual dynamics. Dissertations Abstracts International, 40(5), 2411B.