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What Is Art Therapy? A Comprehensive Guide
art therapy

What Is Art Therapy? A Comprehensive Guide

Art can be subjective, but the therapy objectively works.

When we listen to a song with melodies that move us, when we take in a painting that touches a heartstring, or when we read a poem that captures our very emotions, what’s one common phrase we use to describe the sensation? “It speaks to me.” Art truly can have that effect – that feeling of communication directly with its beholder.

But of course, we know songs can’t rearrange their notes just for us, oil and canvas can’t talk, and poems aren’t penned with a specific reader in mind, so how can art seem to speak to each person so potently? Because ultimately, it’s not the art that’s “speaking,” it’s the artist who made it.

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Art is much more than pretty notes or colorful paint or well-framed photos or rhyming words; art is one of the most powerful modes of human communication. And while art can be used to express ideas on politic, love, history, culture, and more, it can also be used to help express, interpret, and process emotional and even traumatic sentiments with which people are dealing.

In that context, art is created not for the benefit of a potential consumer, but for the benefit of the artist herself or himself. In that context, art is a part of the therapeutic process, and for some people art therapy it may well be the most important part of that process, no less.

Art Therapy Defined, Briefly

painters palette on bed
(Photo by Shayna Douglas on Unsplash)

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes art therapy as follows: “therapy based on engagement in artistic activities (such as painting or drawing) as a means of creative expression and symbolic communication especially in individuals affected with a mental or emotional disorder or cognitive impairment.”

Granted, we’re taking a broader view than that, as music, poetry, creative prose, dance, photography, sculpting, and so much more can all be forms of art therapy, but the key point is this: art therapy is real therapy; it is a recognized and effective treatment option suitable for people with varying degrees of mental health concern.

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Art therapy is often used in tandem with other therapeutic support, including but not limited to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), psychoanalysis, pharmacological regimens, and more.

Most practitioners of art therapy are trained and licensed professionals who use their craft, if you’ll allow a modest pun, to help patients dealing with everything from childhood trauma to grief to anxiety and more. Which are indeed the very same types of issues a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist might also address.

How Does Art Therapy Work, Practically Speaking?

artist paints with multitude of available colors
(Photo by russn_fckr on Unsplash)

Sometimes, it’s hard to voice what we’re feeling, even when we’re being led by a trained therapy professional. This can be because we’re just not comfortable with sharing our thoughts or emotions, because we really don’t know quite what’s going on within us, or a combination of both. Art therapy provides a means of expression and processing thoughts and emotions that can accompany talking or can be effective without verbal communication at all – which is one of the reasons it’s a great therapeutic tool for those individuals who have issues with speech and communication.

Art therapy can take the form of painting, whether with watercolors or oils and brushes or with the fingers or anything in between, of drawing, be it doodles or precise renderings, of coloring or collages, of sculpting or woodwork, and so much more. Any tangible activity that allows a person to create something physical that is informed by their thoughts and feelings can be effective art therapy.

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Led by a competent art therapist, during the creation process the client will find new associations between events, experiences, thoughts, and feelings, will be better able to express sentiments previously suppressed or even repressed, will be able to redirect negative thoughts and emotions away from themselves, and will, ideally, find a helpful emotional outlet not previously available, especially when other therapies have been tried and proven unsatisfactory.

Do You Need to Be a Good Artist for Art Therapy to Work?

woman draws outside
(Photo by Daria Tumanova on Unsplash)

Not at all. You don’t even have to be a halfway competent artist; you can think of yourself as anything but artistically inclined and still benefit greatly from art therapy. Have you never been any good with drawing or painting representationally? Go abstract with your art and even stick with the simple blending of colors and amorphous shapes. 

Are you anything but confident in your diction? Write simple, even silly poetry, as long as you work in the words that describe your emotions. 

Try your hand at photography even if you’ve never done anything but phone selfie snaps. Make up new words to a favorite tune, words that describe your own feelings. Try knitting or needlepoint. There are dozens of ways to create wall art, so you can surely find one in which you take some pleasure and that serves as an outlet for your thoughts and emotions; the quality of final product is essentially irrelevant, it’s the creation process that counts – and, of course, the emotional and mental processing that goes with it.

Art therapy for children

Art therapy is a great practice for children who are dealing with mental health and emotional issues precisely because it does not rely heavily on language, because kids often lack the language to express just what they are feeling. And frankly, they may lack the capacity to truly understand what they are feeling, vocabulary present or not.

Under the guidance of an art therapist, a child can create art that mirrors his or her feelings – be these fears, traumas, longings, and so forth – and helps the child process the sentiments, or at least gives the therapist a better understanding of what the young patient is feeling, therefore letting the therapist create a more informed and actionable plan for future treatments.

Are There Any Potential Disadvantages to Art Therapy?

hands working on art markers on table
(Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash)

Yes, but they are more than outweighed by the benefits in almost all cases. Some people – and here we’re talking about some adults, as this issue is rare with children – will simply not be open to art therapy. If a patient writes off art therapy as silly or superfluous or is otherwise decidedly averse to the practice, it’s best not to push it on them, as the result may be a more closed-off patient rather than someone whose mind is opening.

Art therapy can also, at times, lead to more stress, not less, if a patient becomes frustrated with his or her work. This can happen based on difficulties with a given medium, based on time constraints or logistical constraints at play during a session, and other factors.

Finally, like any therapeutic intervention, art therapy may simply not be the best treatment option for a given patient, no fault of art therapy writ large. A good practitioner of art therapy is one who can tell when it’s not the right avenue for treatment and can redirect a client to other options.


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