What Is Art Therapy?

In 1942, British artist Adrian Hill coined the term "art therapy" when he realized the therapeutic value of drawing and painting during his recovery from tuberculosis. He encouraged his fellow patients to engage in art projects as well. Soon after, psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental healthcare professionals began to employ similar techniques in their work.

Art therapy gradually developed into a recognized field thanks to major contributions from individuals like Florence Cane, Hanna Kwiatowski, and Margaret Naumburg, the last of whom is widely regarded as the founder of the American art therapy movement. At its core, art therapy embraces the idea that creative expression can overcome language limitations, thereby promoting access to self-awareness and healing.

How Does Art Therapy Work?

Like traditional therapy or counseling, art therapy aims to help people — especially those dealing with psychological or emotional difficulties — achieve a greater sense of well-being. Both traditional therapy and art therapy are facilitated by licensed mental health professionals. The key difference between the two methods comes down to the primary techniques utilized in work with clients — namely, verbal discussion versus hands-on creative tasks.

While art therapy has been shown to provide benefits to patients with a variety of issues, it doesn't always work for everyone. Limited results may occur when individuals resist full cooperation due to skepticism about the efficacy of art therapy and/or doubt in their own creative abilities.

What Are the Goals of Art Therapy

Because art therapy is used to treat a large spectrum of psychological, emotional, mental, and physical issues, the immediate and long-term goals of a therapy session can vary widely from one patient to the next.

Adults often seek out art therapy to help cope with recent and past trauma or to combat mental and behavioral difficulties

Some art therapists work exclusively with children. As a primarily nonverbal, sensory-based activity, art therapy can provide a number of benefits to children on the autism spectrum who face difficulties expressing themselves verbally. Art therapy also assists children with ADHD, mood disorders, and trauma from past experiences by helping them learn to cope with strong emotions and to self-regulate mood or behavior.

Art therapy provides benefits to adult patients as well. Adults often seek out art therapy to help cope with recent and past trauma or to combat mental and behavioral difficulties like anxiety, depression, eating disorders, stress, or substance abuse. For these patients, the goals of an art therapy session typically include the following:

  • fostering increased self-awareness
  • regulating emotions and behavior
  • processing complex thoughts
  • improving self-esteem

Art therapy is less commonly employed to help patients maintain cognitive and manipulative skills. Finally, for some individuals, art therapy simply provides a safe space to express themselves and explore their interests through art.

Art Therapy Techniques

Art therapists work with individuals in a variety of settings, including private-practice offices, schools, hospitals, crisis centers, mental health clinics, and rehabilitation facilities. In each of these locations, patients may attend sessions individually or as part of a group, depending on their needs and preferences.

Art therapy techniques include drawing, painting, sculpting, coloring, and collaging

Individual sessions allow for more focused attention between the patient and therapist and are ideal for individuals who might feel shame or embarrassment. While group sessions involve less personal attention, patients receive the added benefits of decreased isolation and increased relatability. Group therapy also often leads to the development of secondary support relationships between group members.

Art therapy techniques include drawing, painting, sculpting, coloring, and collaging. Techniques can be modified for different patients. Children may use finger paints rather than working with brushes, for example. Similarly, sculpting might involve traditional carving methods or hand-molded clay. Neither previous art experience nor natural ability is required to participate in and benefit from treatment.

The design of an art therapy session is similar for all clients, but children and adult patients often have vastly different experiences within this set structure

Art therapy sessions typically begin with patient assessment. For a client visiting for the first time, this involves detailed information gathering. For return clients, assessment is typically a brief discussion regarding their current feelings and any important updates since the last visit. Therapists then introduce patients to an artistic exercise or task. During this task, therapists observe and assist as needed. Afterward, therapists engage in a discussion with the patient, focusing on reflection and analysis. Topics may include thoughts, feelings, moods, or memories prompted by the activity.

The design of an art therapy session is similar for all clients, but children and adult patients often have vastly different experiences within this set structure. Adults engaged in art therapy often tackle long-term, complex issues or trauma. For children, shorter attention spans and less life experience mean art therapy typically focuses on active engagement with the present, exploring thoughts and feelings as they occur.

Art Therapy Techniques

Health Issues Treated by Art Therapy

Considering artistic activity a therapeutic tool comes naturally to many of us, which explains the surging popularity of adult coloring books and mandala smartphone apps in our busy, modern world. Art can be both universal and restricted, chaotic and serene, concrete and abstract. Art therapy harnesses all these infinite possibilities to help facilitate healing, growth, and increased self-awareness.

Clinically, art therapy is used to help treat dozens of psychological, mental, and physical ailments. In the sections below, we explore five of the most common issues: stress, childhood trauma, addiction, loss/grief, and depression.

Benefits of Art Therapy

How to Become an Art Therapist

Like any aspiring clinical professional, art therapists must complete extensive education, training, and certification procedures before beginning work in the field.

At minimum, entry-level art therapy work requires a master's degree with relevant coursework in creative processes, psychological development, and clinical assessment. Graduate programs typically also require at least 100 supervised practicum hours and at least 600 supervised hours within a clinical art therapy internship. After graduating, aspiring art therapists must pursue licensure in order to begin professional practice. National licensure is available through the Art Therapy Credentials Board. State-regulated art therapy licensure is also available in certain jurisdictions.

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Art Therapy Program Overview

How to Find an Art Therapist

There are a number of ways to find qualified art therapists in your local community. Consider asking friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, or your primary care doctor for recommendations. You can also search for licensed therapists online using a basic search engine or one of the dedicated directory websites listed below.

  • Art Therapist Locator The American Art Therapy Association helps users find licensed professionals on its website. Search by location or click and drag the easy-to-use map to find an art therapist near you.
  • Find a Credentialed Art Therapist The Art Therapy Credentials Board provides free database listings of professionals across the United States. Users can search for an art therapist by location, credential, or last name.

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