What is Art Therapy and How Does it Work?

What is art therapy? Using pencil and paint with your art therapist

When I tell people I’m an art therapist, they often ask, what is art therapy and how does it work? Art therapy combines visual expression with psychotherapy to help people explore thoughts, feelings and experiences with the guidance of a therapist. Creative expression has psychological and physiological benefits, and reflecting on art promotes problem-solving, insight and fresh perspectives. Its action-oriented nature is energizing and motivating. Like talk therapists, art therapists are knowledgeable about a range of counseling theories. These theories inform their treatment style so understanding your options can help you find a therapist who can best meet your needs.

How Does Art Therapy Work?

The depth and complexity of our emotional lives can be difficult to capture in words. We all have moments when we say things like, “I can’t even explain how angry I am” or “There aren’t words for my grief.” Art-making activates different parts of your brain that process sensory experiences, memory, motor skills and emotions. The integrated nature of art therapy can help you get beneath the surface of logic and intellectualizing for deeper processing because your brain and body are fully engaged. My favorite analogy to explain art therapy is driving on a road. Talk therapy is like a single-lane road, but art therapy is like a 2-lane road. In art therapy, if you feel stuck, you can move back and forth between the art lane and talk lane, which gives you more options to get to your destination.

In art therapy, you can draw, paint, collage, sculpt, craft. You can use any imaginable material – markers, crayons, pastels, acrylic paint, watercolor, clay, paper-mache, found or repurposed materials (boxes, leaves, scrap wood), yarn, fabric and more. Some art therapists use photography and digital art-making. There are many considerations for the choice of materials. Your therapist will consider age, disability/ability, client preference, therapist experience, available space, and client’s therapy goals.

Who Can Do Art Therapy?

Art therapy can benefit people of all ages and you don’t need artistic skill or training. The therapist will tailor therapy to meet your needs, with consideration for age, ability/disability, identity and cultural background. Art therapists work in a variety of settings, such as outpatient therapy, schools and hospitals. People with many different issues use art therapy, for instance, eating disorders, grief, ADHD, chronic illness, anxiety, depression, trauma. Individuals, groups and families can use art therapy.

The Art Therapist’s Role

The art therapist’s role is multifaceted. When you get started, your art therapist with ask about your background, primary concerns, and goals. The therapist will monitor and review progress. They’ll supply art materials and offer guidance on technique if you need it. Your art therapist will suggest art tasks designed to address your issues, and they’ll observe your art-making process. They’ll also ask questions about the meaning of the imagery, and they’ll reflect back ways it might connect to your concerns

There can be some variation to the way different therapists work. For instance, some art therapists make art alongside their clients. Some art therapists don’t necessarily offer specific tasks so artmaking is open-ended. Some combine artmaking with other therapeutic practices like movement, guided imagery or meditation. No matter their style, you should feel empowered to ask questions about their approach and options to personalize the experience.

Benefits of Using Art Therapy

Art therapy is a way to access subconscious thoughts and feelings. Your imagery draws from sensory and emotional experiences. Art therapists can’t ‘read’ your art the way a fortune teller will read your palm. Instead, they’ll pay attention to the choices you make – imagery, colors, placement, use of materials – and ask questions about your intention and the meaning. This can bring up thoughts, feelings and associations that you weren’t necessarily focused on as you created the art. You might consider art therapy if you ‘get stuck in your head’ or feel like you logically understand your problem, but can’t get to the deeper roots,

In addition to bridging the gap between words and feelings or memories, art offers a nonlinear way of exploring experiences. We tell stories linearly so they make sense – first this happened, then that happened. Art allows you tell a story that doesn’t have to be sequential. For instance, if you’re trying to help your therapist understand what happens when your family gets together, you can offer details in one image, regardless of the sequence and time span. You and your therapist work together to make sense of complicated family relationships based on the image. There’s a reason people say, a picture is worth 1000 words.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, art therapy is for anyone who’s open to trying it. Of course, people who like artmaking are likely to enjoy and benefit from it. However, people who haven’t made art in a long time often find it helpful because they can release the ‘stuff’ in their head and  maybe even have fun. Appreciating your art once you find deeper meaning in it can be surprising and confidence-building. A remarkable benefits of art therapy is that you’ll have a record of your efforts to grow and heal – your art.

Please reach out if you want to schedule or learn more about getting started. I’d love to talk with you about helping you heal.