Art Therapy

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Art has always been cathartic for me. As a child, whenever I was mad, my mom made me color. I furiously would scribble away and soon enough, my anger would have passed and I felt better. Not realizing it then, but that was a form of art therapy. I’ve always loved art, creating it myself and going to museums worldwide. I graduated with a Bachelor’s of Arts in Psychology and a minor in Art. I merged my two loves, psychology and art, and am headed towards a career in Art Therapy, thanks to my early experience with the healing powers of art. I’d like to talk about what art therapy is, who it is for, and how it helps people.
Art Therapy

From American Art Therapy Association’s definition of art therapy:

Art therapy is a mental health profession in which clients, facilitated by the art therapist, use art media, the creative process, and the resulting artwork to explore their feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts, foster self-awareness, manage behavior and addictions, develop social skills, improve reality orientation, reduce anxiety, and increase self-esteem.

Art therapy is relatively new as we know it. But art has been around as long as our human history. Cave drawings were humans’ first communication and the first art. Art therapy started in the 1940s in the UK and in America simultaneously. Art therapy definitions can vary due to the approach – art as therapy and art in therapy. Some of the founders were Adrian Hill, Edward Adamson, Edith Kramer, and Margaret Naumburg. All contributed to different forms of art therapy as we know it today. The artists, Hill and Adamson, both focused on art therapy as a self-expression tool to overcome struggle in life as they were both patients with terminal illnesses. Naumburg and Kramer were psychoanalytic followers and used Freudian and Jungian psychology in their forms of art therapy. Naumburg used psychoanalytic methods in her art therapy, such as transference and free association. Kramer was unique to using art as the primary method for therapy – art in therapy. Kramer interpreted clients’ art so as to understand their unconscious. With different founders, art therapy branched out to have many different forms.


Art therapy is used as an instrument to help clients through whatever they’re going through – mental and/or physical illnesses, behavior problems and addictions, and many other reasons. It is not simply an art lesson or therapy session. While there are many forms of art therapy, such as Person-Centered, Cognitive, Behavior, Gestalt, Narrative, Adlerian, Family (Systems) and more, the basic idea is for the client to improve their life through art. Creating art, the process and the finished product, can be very cathartic and healing. Art therapy can benefit all populations; however it is most used with children and the geriatric, addiction sufferers, and the terminally ill. It is also used in prisons and for disaster and trauma relief. It aids anybody who needs or wants to improve their quality of life. Art therapy is used in many different settings, such as schools, hospitals, offices, prisons, and can be offered in group or individual format. In some instances, just the process of creating art, through painting, drawing, sculpture, or photography is alleviating enough. Art can be used to open up a quiet, withdrawn person to be able to be talk about their problems and as a result, be able to resolve their issues. Then there are other forms of art therapy, where the interpretation of the art is just as important as creating the art.

anxiety into artThere is a large arsenal of art therapy assessments, tests, and tools. Psychological assessments can also be used to analyze clients. One of the best objective tests is the empirical, reliable and valid assessment tool: Diagnostic Drawing Series (DDS). It is a standardized three picture art interview. With a drawing archive and DDS Rating Guide, art therapists can contribute to the diagnostic process of mental health disorders. It is the most researched art therapy tool. Creating mandalas is a popular tool in art therapy. Originating in Buddhism, Jung was the first to interpret meaning out of them. Another projective test is road drawing. A client is asked to draw a road. The road represents the client’s life, history, experiences, and future goals or ideas. There are concerns over the projective tests in art therapy due to the lack of empirical evidence for them. The other main concern is the interpretation of these projective tests. Earlier art therapists used specific assessment tools, usually based on Freudian and Jungian psychoanalytic constructs, to interpret clients’ artworks similar to how psychoanalysts would interpret dreams. This type of interpreting is not scientific and interpreting is a tricky thing to do. If a therapist does interpret a client’s artwork, the therapist should always ask how the client interprets it first. They should work together to uncover any hidden symbols and meaning in the artwork. Interpreting art is not a fundamental tool in all art therapy, but mostly used by psychoanalysts or pseudoscientists.

road drawing
Here is a joke that has gone around in the art therapy field: A child is asked to draw her parent’s job. The teacher interprets her drawing to be that of the mother as an exotic dancer. In reality, the mother works at Home Depot. Before a big blizzard, she was selling out of snow shovels. When she had the last snow shovel in the store, many people were trying to buy it off her. Clearly, art can be interpreted in many ways. But the important lesson is to have the client/artist interpret their own art. Although it may be interesting to learn what your personality is based on what you draw, it is not scientifically accurate; interpreting can sometimes cause more harm than do good.

Interpreting Art JokeIn one of my art therapy classes as an undergraduate, we discussed different tools that some art therapists used. One in particular stayed with me. The professor/therapist had each student do an art project as if we were clients. She gave everyone a plain mask and a large selection of art supplies – markers, crayons, paint, glue, feathers, glitter, and little craft things. She then gave us one objective: if you were a superhero, what would your super power be? Then, create your superhero mask based on that. Everyone had a wonderful, fun time making their masks and coming up with powers and names. Not only did everyone benefit just from creating art from a simple project; but when we were done, we talked about everyone’s masks. A hidden insight was that the power or powers you chose, said so much about your personality without you even realizing it. No two of the masks were even relatively close to looking alike. Some were silly and looked as if a child made them; others were very detailed and beautiful. The point of that exercise was to improve your mood through creating art and also to learn something about your personality that you may have not thought about before. She went on to say that in the art therapy session, it would focus on the personality traits that the client revealed. This would spark another conversation into a more psychological domain. 

Superhero Masks

As for credentials, art therapists need a Master’s degree in a related psychology field. He or she may become Registered (ATR), Board Certified (ATR-BC), or licensed as an art therapist (LCAT). After receiving a Master’s, potential therapists also need to pass an exam and complete a set number of hours of direct client contact. They will need many of the same credentials as any other therapist or counselor. A therapist can further their training and get their Doctorate, if he or she chooses.

Art therapy is only the beginning. There’s music therapy – listening to and playing music. There’s dance therapy, where the focus is on expressive movement. There’s even drama therapy for the theatre type. If there is something that you do that makes you happy, that can be considered a therapy of sorts. Art therapy isn’t about how good your art is, as many fret over that. Art therapy is about what the individual client gets out of creating art. The emotions associated with creating or finishing something and the emotions of discussing the art, interpreting or revealing meanings hidden in the art; these emotions come to light and then a therapist can go a step further and treat the client. I, personally, cannot wait to go on to graduate school to pursue my career in art therapy. It is a wonderful way to help people of all backgrounds who are going through many different issues or problems. Hopefully, this has been informative and entertaining to read and learn about the growing field of art therapy. What are your thoughts on art therapy? Do you have any questions that I could answer for you?

Georgia O'Keeffe quote

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