Art therapy

Art therapy is a type of psychotherapy that uses art and other artistic mediums to help people explore and express their thoughts and emotions in a unique way.

With this kind of therapy, the idea is to use art as a way of communicating. Art therapy can be useful if you find it difficult to say what you are feeling - particularly if you are experiencing confusing or distressing emotions. The act of using physical objects, such as paintbrushes and paper, may also help you to feel more connected to the world around you. 

As well as helping those who may be struggling with their mental health, art therapy can be beneficial to a wide range of people, including young children, the elderly and those in the justice system. Experience or skill in any artistic mediums is not required, as your work will not be criticised - it is more about the emotions expressed and felt throughout the process.

What is art therapy?

Differing from many other psychological therapies, art therapy works as a three-way process between you (the client), your therapist, and the art itself. Offering an opportunity for creativity, this type of therapy can help you to express and explore emotions that may otherwise be difficult to put into words.

Art therapy sessions can work on either a one-to-one basis or within a group depending on what you need. Therapy can be carried out in a variety of settings including private practices, community centres, prisons, schools, or hospitals. Sessions typically last around 1-1.5 hours, taking place on a regular (weekly or bi-weekly) basis.

What happens during art therapy?

During each session, you can be as involved (or uninvolved) as you like. If you are in a group setting you may simply wish to sit back and observe for the first session or two. Before you start therapy, you should have a consultation with your therapist so you can discuss what has brought you to art therapy and what you hope to gain from your sessions.

As part of your therapy, your art therapist may ask to display your work in an exhibition. This can be useful as it often helps individuals to accept their own emotions and feel more accepted by others. This may be because their experiences are presented in a way that is easier for others to understand. If you don't want to exhibit your art, you may find the simple act of framing it helpful. Many people say they feel as though the frame acts as a barrier, keeping the emotions within the picture safe.

Sometimes it is difficult to find the words to describe your emotions or how you are feeling. Art has the potential to heal. The art-making process and creative therapies can be a reparative and a holistic approach for people to develop new ways of being and relating while gaining a deeper understanding and appreciation of yourself, and building on self-empowerment.

- Eden O Shoro, MA, HCPC, BAAT therapist shares her thoughts on the creative approach to change through art therapy.

Close-up of a canvas, with random strokes of blue paint in various shades

Who can benefit from art therapy?

The versatility of art therapy makes it accessible to a wide range of people. It can be particularly beneficial to those who have found it difficult to express themselves through other forms of talking therapy.

Art therapy tends to look at issues in a different way and can help you tap into emotions that may have previously been buried or ignored. Many people say that art therapy helps them feel as if they have a greater sense of control and choice compared with other talking therapies. 

You can try art therapy at any age. Art therapists work with children, young people, adults and elderly clients with a wide range of abilities, difficulties, diagnoses, and goals. People who may particularly benefit from art therapy include:

  • Those with mental health problems - art therapy is recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as a treatment for schizophrenia, coping with addiction, and other mental health conditions.
  • Those experiencing high stress or low self-esteem - art therapy has shown to be helpful in improving self-esteem, relieving stress, and improving symptoms of depression and anxiety.
  • Those with learning difficulties - art as therapy can be helpful to those who may not be able to verbalise what they feel clearly.
  • Those on the autistic spectrum - art therapy can help to improve communication skills and offers an easy way for participants to express themselves.
  • Those in the justice system - art therapists often work in prisons to help offenders deal with their feelings in a healthy way.
  • Those with dementia - tapping into the creative part of the brain helps to lower stress levels and restore a sense of personal identity.
  • Those with a chronic or terminal illness - this type of therapy can help patients regain a sense of control, freedom and self-expression. It can be particularly helpful for those with cancer, as it can help to explore confused or difficult thoughts and feelings.
  • Anyone who finds it difficult to talk about their feelings or feels distanced from their emotions.

Being creative in a safe, therapeutic environment can be revitalising and may help lift your mood. The sense of freedom and lack of judgement that is felt within art therapy can be cathartic and unique when compared to other more traditional forms of psychotherapy. By creating art and exploring creativity in a therapeutic environment with the support of a trained professional, you can have the space to explore and understand complicated feelings, uncover new ways of expressing yourself, and focus on how you can communicate in ways other than with your words.

What artistic mediums are used in art therapy?

The beauty of art therapy is its versatility. While, of course, there is the option to work with paint and canvas, there are many other mediums to choose from.

Painting

Putting paint to paper is one of the purest forms of art and allows you an immense amount of freedom. Being faced with a blank canvas may be intimidating at first, but your art therapist should guide you by giving you prompts and exercises. With painting you can use bright, vivid colours or more muted, dark colours to help represent what you are feeling or would like to say. Don't worry if you have never painted before, your therapist will be able to teach you basic techniques so that you're able to explore the medium to its fullest.

Crayons or chalk

Allowing you to blend and create unique effects, many people like to use crayons and chalk within art therapy. Crayons may also instil happy memories as they often represent experiences from your childhood. If you have an effect in mind, don't hesitate to ask your therapist for guidance so they can tell you the best way to achieve it.

Sculpting

Typically using clay or some other pliable material, sculpting 3D models can help bring your emotions to life. You can also work with duller colours if you find bright hues too stimulating. Much of sculpting involves trial and error, so feel free to experiment with different concepts and materials.

Drawing or illustrating

You may feel happier with a simple pen or pencil to draw what comes to mind. Again, if you want to, you can add colour and shading with different coloured pens and pencils. Speak to your art therapist about the type of drawing you want to do and they will be able to help you pick the right set of pens/pencils.

Photography

For some people, the simplicity of taking a photograph is more appealing than drawing or painting. Use a camera to capture parts of your life - things you find beautiful, things you wish you could change or even pictures of friends and family. Your art therapist can offer help and advice about the different photography techniques you can use and may also talk you through the development process.

A close-up of a young woman holding a camera in her hands, standing outside in a forest with scattered autumn leaves.

Found objects

Many artists create art from objects they have found. If you have kept hold of certain objects that feel as if they represent how you feel - try creating a piece of art with them. Turn them into a sculpture, decorate them or simply frame them. If you don't have any objects like this, go for a walk somewhere and work with objects you find on your way; you may even want to experiment with flower pressing.

Collaging

Collaging is a simple activity that can really help you make sense of your feelings. Cutting out pictures or words and sticking them onto a collage board gives you freedom and will bring out your creative side. Try to pick a theme or emotion you want to explore and make a mood board.

What kind of activities do you do during art therapy?

During your art therapy sessions, your therapist may ask you to try specific activities. These are designed to help you explore your emotions and feelings in a new, creative way. If there is anything you would particularly like to do, be sure to let your therapist know so they can help you. Your art therapist is there to guide you throughout the process, so don't be shy about asking questions if you don't understand the activity.

The types of art activities you will be asked to do will depend on the nature of the issue(s) you are exploring, as well as the art therapist you are working with. You may be asked to try and:

Paint your emotions

Your therapist may give you an emotion to paint (for example, anger) or they may simply ask you to paint how you are feeling in that moment. Making use of colour and shading can really help to depict certain emotions. It is also important to remember that everyone experiences emotions differently, so don't worry if your painting looks different from someone else's.

Create an art journal

A lot of people find writing in a journal therapeutic, but you may want to keep a visual journal instead. Fill your journal with drawings or scribbles about how you’re feeling. Try to draw something every day. This will help you to keep in touch with your feelings and will prompt you to consider your actions.

Make a mandala

A mandala is a circular, meditative symbol that is found in many Eastern religions. Take a look at examples and then create your own, either drawn in sand or on paper. You may then want to use your mandala as something to meditate with, or you may want to frame it somewhere in your house, so that you can look at it when you need a moment of calm.

A close-up of colouring pencils and a simple mandala, ready to be coloured in.

Paint in the dark

Not worrying about how your picture looks can be incredibly liberating. Painting in the dark allows you to paint from the heart and adds an element of fun. Seeing how everyone's paintings look when the lights go on can also be a wonderful moment.

Draw in the sand

Drawing shapes and pictures in the sand can be very therapeutic - which is why Japanese Zen gardens often incorporate patterns in the sand. Use your fingers or some tools to create patterns and then simply clear the pattern and start again when you want. You may even want to get yourself a small Zen garden so you can make patterns when you need to calm yourself down.

Draw something big (or small)

Using your entire body to draw something can help to relieve stress and tension. Experiment with different tools and methods of painting on big canvases until you find something you like. Once you've drawn something large, why not draw something very small? The subjects of your large and small drawings may reveal something undiscovered about yourself.

Create a self-portrait

Self-portraits and portraits of others are common subjects within art therapy. You may simply be asked to draw a self-portrait of what you see when you look in the mirror, or you may be asked to draw another version of yourself.

Paint someone you've lost

If you have lost someone close to you, it can often be cathartic to remember them through art. Bringing happy memories to life with a painting or sculpture can give you closure and create something to remember them by.

Create a calming collage

Collages are great because they are so easy to do. A common art activity is to create a calming collage full of images, colours and words that relax you. This can be used whenever you feel the need to get away from everything, offering a brief window of escapism.

Draw a visual autobiography

Drawing your autobiography helps you to look back in a non-confrontational way. Draw happy moments, sad moments and all those other moments in-between to see how they've shaped you. Your art therapist may then ask you to continue this drawing into the future - exploring what you want to happen after therapy.

Paint your dreams

The dreams we have at night can be surreal and may make no sense at the time. Painting or drawing them can help you understand the symbolism behind them and provides you with a unique and unusual subject matter.

Work on a group project

Working with other people can help to develop teamwork and communication skills. It also helps to open your eyes to other people's experiences and may help you to come up with more creative ideas.

A close-up of worn paintbrushes grouped together.

What qualifications should I be looking for in a therapist?

Art therapists and art psychotherapists are regulated by the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC). This means that their title is legally protected, and only individuals that are registered with the HCPC can call themselves an art therapist. 

The HCPC requires art therapists to perform to a certain standard, to continue their professional development, have relevant education and training, as well as to adhere to certain ethical and conduct standards. Your therapist should be able to provide evidence of their registration with the HCPC so that you can verify their status.

What other types of art therapy are available?

There are a wide variety of art therapies available for you to try and explore. There’s no right or wrong way of undertaking therapy - it’s important to find a method that works best for you and your unique circumstances. 

While current research suggests art therapy may be beneficial, many studies undertaken have been small or have offered inconclusive results. As with all types of therapy, the results and effectiveness can vary greatly for each individual. If one type of therapy isn’t for you, it’s worth exploring other kinds that may be a better fit.

If the freedom of expression offered by art therapy appeals but you aren’t sure if it is the right medium for you, you may want to try exploring dramatherapy or music therapy, or discover more about different types of therapy and treatment available, and the different types of professionals.

Find a counsellor or therapist dealing with Art Therapy

All therapists are verified professionals.