Art therapy is a type of psychotherapy that utilises art and artistic mediums to help people explore their thoughts and emotions in a unique way. The idea behind this type of therapy is to use art as a primary means of communication, something that can be useful for those who find it difficult to verbalise their feelings. Being practical and using physical objects, such as paintbrushes and paper, often helps people to feel more connected to the world around them.
As well as helping those with mental health issues, 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 art is not required, as your work will not be criticised - it is more about the emotions expressed and felt throughout the process.
Keep reading to find out more about this growing form of therapy, what it entails and how it could help you.
On this page
What is art therapy?
Differing from many other psychological therapies, art therapy works as a three-way process between the client, the therapist and the art itself. Offering an opportunity for creativity and expression, this type of therapy helps to communicate emotions that may otherwise be difficult to verbalise.
Art therapy sessions work on either a one-to-one basis or within a group depending on the needs of those taking part. The therapy can be carried out in a variety of settings including private practices, community centres, prisons, schools and hospitals. Sessions will typically last around 1-1.5 hours and should take place on a regular basis, for example once a week or once every two weeks.
During the therapy session you can be as involved (or uninvolved) as you like - if you are in a group session you may simply wish to sit back and observe for the first session or two. Before your therapy starts 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 you to accept your own emotions and feel more accepted by others. This may be because your 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 like a barrier, keeping the emotions within the picture safe.
Who can benefit from art therapy?
The versatility of art therapy makes it accessible to a range of different people. It can be particularly beneficial to those who have tried other forms of talking therapy and found it difficult to express themselves.
Art therapy tends to look at issues in a different way and can help participants to tap into emotions that have previously been buried or ignored. Many people also say that with art therapy they feel as if they have a greater sense of control and choice when compared to other talking therapies.
The following groups of people are thought to benefit particularly from art therapy:
- Those with mental health problems – Art therapy is recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as a treatment for schizophrenia and related conditions.
- 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/terminal illness – This type of therapy can help patients regain a sense of control, freedom and self-expression.
- Anyone who finds it difficult to talk about their feelings or feels distanced from their emotions.
Being creative in this type of safe, therapeutic environment can be revitalising and often lifts 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.
Different art mediums
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. Take a look at the list below for examples:
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 muted, darker colours to help represent what you are trying to convey. Don't worry if you have never painted before, your therapist will be able to teach you basic techniques so you are able to explore the medium to its fullest.
Allowing you to blend and create unique effects, many people like to use crayons and chalk within art therapy. Crayons may also instill 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.
Usually this is done with 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.
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.
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.
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 some objects you find on your way - you may even want to experiment with flower pressing.
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.
During your art therapy sessions, your therapist may ask you to do certain art 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 you are exploring and on the art therapist themselves. Below is a list of examples of the kind of activities you may be asked to do.
Paint your emotions
Your therapist may give you an emotion to paint (for example, anger) or they may simply ask you to paint the emotion you are feeling then and there. 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 to other peoples.
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 drawing or scribbles about how you’re feeling and 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 on, or you may want to frame it somewhere in your house so you can look at it when you need a moment of calm.
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 simple 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
Using your entire body to draw something can help to relieve stress and tension. Experiment with different tools and methods of painting on big canvasses 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.
Draw 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 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 - drawing 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.
What qualifications does an art therapist need?
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". Your therapist should be able to provide evidence of their registration with the HCPC so that you can verify their status.
What our experts say
- Mind-body and expressive therapy for embodied stress, trauma and physical symptoms
- Living a creative life 30th January, 2018
- ‘Out of what door do I go, where and to whom?’: from anxiety to flow8th February, 2017
- Working creatively with survivors of childhood sexual abuse
- The important connection between creativity and therapy24th November, 2015