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What is Art Therapy?

There are many different variations of therapy available in order to better treat psychological disorders. Finding the right solution to a mental disorder is often much more difficult than diagnosing the disorder in the first place. 

In the physical medical field, if a doctor were to prescribe a penicillin shot for someone with a broken leg then the symptoms would still exist and the treatment would be wasteful. This is no different than a psychiatrist recommending the wrong therapy for a patient. Every person is unique and will respond differently to treatments and therapies. As a result, there have been hundreds of new ways to treat people. One such example of these variations is art therapy.

Art Therapy Defined

As defined by the American Art Therapy Association, art therapy integrates psychotherapeutic techniques with the creative process in order to improve mental health and well-being. To put it more simply the process of art making to improve the mental, physical, and emotional wellness of a therapy patient. 

By helping an individual utilize the creative process, the goal is for a patient to use visual arts to explore self-expression and hopefully gain personal insight, mindfulness and develop new coping skills through the art therapy sessions. As a patient creates their art, they can analyze (along with a professional art therapist or social worker) what they have created and how it makes them feel. This exploration into their art will help them to look for common themes and conflicts that are affecting their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in a negative way. There is no requirement for artistic ability or talent and people of all age ranges can participate, including young children, teens, and older adults

Some of the most common techniques used in art therapy are:

  • Drawing
  • Painting
  • Coloring
  • Sculpting 
  • Collage making
  • Finger painting
  • Doodling
  • Scribbling
  • Pottery
  • Carving
  • Textiles

When Is Art Therapy Used?

Art therapy is a fairly common psychotherapy technique and can be used to help treat several issues and disorders much like music therapy. Research has shown that art therapy, in particular, can help to improve communication/social skills and concentration while also reducing feelings of isolation through the use of art. Additionally, benefits of art therapy are often increases in self-esteem, confidence, and self-awareness

Some of the more common issues and mental illnesses that art therapy can be used to treat are:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity
  • Anorexia
  • Bulimia
  • Aging or geriatric issues
  • Cancer Patients
  • Compassion fatigue
  • Substance abuse
  • Stress
  • Heart disease
  • Cognitive impairments
  • Family member or relationship issues
  • Autism

Some situational examples of when art therapy or expressive therapy can often be of assistance are:

  • Adults experiencing severe amounts of stress or emotional conflicts at work or home.
  • Children suffering behavioral or social issues at school or home.
  • Children or adults who have experienced a severely traumatic event.
  • Children with learning or human development disabilities.
  • Individuals with brain-related injuries.
  • People experiencing mental health-related problems such as a eating disorder.

How Does Art Therapy Work?

By using a wide variety of creative art-related methods, an art therapist will help their patient to expand on their creative expression in an attempt to help them better understand themselves through art media.

Unlike a typical art class where the focus is on technique or creating specific outcomes, art therapy is focused on the artist. People that suffer from the effects of emotional trauma, physical violence, domestic abuse, anxiety, and depression typically have a tendency to withdraw emotionally.

 A lack of verbal communication is often the first symptom to be noticed and can make treatment very difficult if the patient is not comfortable speaking about their issues. The art therapist’s goal is to get them to express their thoughts and feelings non verbally in order to be able to better treat their patients. 

Some of the settings where art therapy is most commonly deployed are:

  • Art studios
  • Colleges and universities
  • Community centers
  • Correctional facilities
  • Elementary schools
  • Group homes
  • High schools
  • Homeless shelters
  • Hospitals
  • Inpatentien offices
  • Private mental health and therapy offices
  • Residential treatment centers
  • Senior centers
  • Women’s shelters

A History of Art Therapy

For as long as humans have been around we have used artistic expression as a means of communicating stories, ideas, and documentation. The humans that dwelled primarily in caves are the oldest examples that come to mind. In the centuries since those times, art has become quite an important fixture in culture and history. We now understand the significance of art as an expression of emotions. 

The formal origins of art therapy began in Europe during the middle of the 20th century. British artist Adrian Hill is credited with coining the term in 1942. During this time, there were thousands suffering in sanatoriums from tuberculosis and it was observed that their drawings and paintings worked as a creative outlet that provided freedoms they could not experience. 

Art therapy soon began to spread to mental hospitals through the work of another British artist named Edward Adamson. He observed and furthered the study on the connection between artistic expression and emotional release. In 1964 the British Association of Art Therapists was founded. 

Since then, art therapy has spread across the world. The American Art Therapy Association was founded in 1969. The Professional Association for Art Therapy in Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore came into existence in 1987. Over time, art therapy has continued to evolve and develop within the world’s top higher education institutions. New forms of research and practices are always in development. 

What Does an Art Therapist Do?

In order to be recognized as an art therapist, a person will have to be highly trained in both therapy and art. For example, to be certified as an art therapist in the United States, a person must have: 

  • A Bachelor’s degree or higher in a related field to art therapy such as psychology, counseling, art, or art education
  • A designated number of hours in studio art, displaying proficiency in activities such as drawing, painting, and sculpting and a portfolio of some of their work
  • A designated number of hours in the field of psychology
  • Letters of recommendation

As illustrated above, becoming an art therapist is no easy task. As a result of these requirements, they are typically masters in terms of using art as a communication tool. Art therapists will work with people of all ages, races, creeds and may work with individuals, couples, families, or groups of people. 

Their main focus is to pick up on the nonverbal symbols and metaphors being expressed in art and through the creative process — especially concepts difficult to express verbally. Art therapists are highly trained to understand the roles that colors, textures, and various other details of art may play in the psychological process. These details, while seemingly insignificant to the untrained, are highly important factors that can reveal the thoughts, feelings, and psychological disposition of the artist. 

What to Expect From Art Therapy

As with just about all forms of therapy, the first session of art therapy will typically consist of talking to the therapist about why you are there and learning about what the therapist can offer. Together, the two of you will come up with a treatment plan that will involve creating art. Once the creation has begun, the therapist will observe your process without interference or judgment, taking notes as to how you go about creating your work. 

Once the piece is finished — but sometimes during — the therapist will ask questions based on the choices you’ve made and how you feel about the artistic process and anything relating to your thoughts, feelings, memories, and experiences related to the art and how easy or difficult it was to create. Details based on choices made during the process will come up and better help the therapist to understand your specific creative process

The Takeaway

Art therapy can help people suffering from emotional issues to process what they are going through and begin the healing process. Traditional therapy relies on honest communication between the therapist and their patient, and sometimes that is not very easy to achieve. Art therapy lets the subconscious take hold and allow the person to show, not tell, what their emotions and feelings are.

There is a long history of art being used by humans for various reasons. Since the days of cave paintings, we have used art as a communication tool. Within the last century, we have finally begun to realize just how effective a communication tool it can be in relation to mental health issues. 

Talking with a qualified therapist can of great benefit to many, but sometimes there are things too difficult to talk about. There might be issues that a person doesn’t even recognize and could not talk about them even if they wanted to. Art therapy allows for a different way to communicate and offers an abstract way for someone to present their thoughts, feelings, and emotions as opposed to simply talking about them verbally. 


  1. How Art Therapy Is Used to Help People Heal (verywellmind.com)
  2. About Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation (aapmr.org)
  3. About Art Therapy (artherapy.org)
  4. Art Therapy (psychologytoday.com)
  5. The History of Art Therapy (adelphipsych.sg)
  6. About BAAT (baat.org)

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