Art Therapy FAQs

Art therapy is the intentional and therapeutic use of art making and the creative process to facilitate healing, emotional expression, creativity development, and self-understanding. The following list include some frequently asked questions that I am asked about art therapy.

How does art therapy work?

In some ways art therapy works differently depending on the hosting work site and the individual style of the art therapist. All art therapists believe that creating art enables or substitutes for verbal communication. For the most part, art therapists focus on the process of creating art and the meaning the resulting art product has for the client. Sometimes art therapists give specific directions, whereas at other times, they ask the client to decide on the direction of the work. Once an art product is created, the art therapist may facilitate a conversation based on the metaphor or themes that emerge in the art.


Do I need to be an artist to work with an art therapist?

No, anyone who is capable of making a mark or manipulating clay can participate in an art therapy session. The goal of art therapy is to create art that is meaningful to the creator, not for display in a museum or gallery.


Is art therapy only for children?

While we tend to think of art making as a special activity reserved only for "artists" and children, clients of all ages engage in art therapy. In some cases, people may need some time to get used to the idea of creating art as a means of communication. In my personal practice, I have worked with clients from the age of three years old all the way to the age of seventy-six years old.


Will doing art therapy make me reveal something that I don't want to discuss?

Some art therapists believe that part of the power of art therapy is that it can help us to communicate thoughts and feelings that we don't know how to express and may not even know that we have. For some people, it can be a frightening thought that making art will somehow trick us into divulging our unconscious. While art making can illustrate thoughts and feelings that we are unaware of, it is always up to the person who created the image to put meaning towards it. A competent and ethical art therapist will facilitate your understanding of the image in a way that allows you to discuss only aspects of the image that you feel comfortable and ready to discuss.

It is also important to know that most art therapists do not interpret images in the way that many people expect. A common misperception is that art therapists associate certain pictures or colors with specific emotions and experiences. Although some art therapists use rating scales to associate specific art styles and art elements with specific emotional conditions, many art therapists prefer to facilitate a conversation. In this way, art therapists can be more sensitive to personal and cultural interpretations. This form of working, also, allows clients to discover their own meaning for the art they create.


Is there an advantage to art therapy over talk therapy or counseling?

Different people benefit from different types of helping professions at different times in their lives. Most of us use the spoken and written word in our regular lives and have probably developed some patterns in how we typically respond to questions. Think about going to or coming home from a familiar place. Have you ever had the experience when you arrive at the destination, but barely remember the journey? That's our minds ability to do something by rote without having to concentrate on it. We can do the same thing with the written or spoken word. On one level, art therapy provides an opportunity to communicate in a different way, so that, we don't have the chance to respond in our typical manner.

On another level, communicating with and through images is a natural source of expression for humans. Our earliest forms of communication, going back to cave paintings, are through images. In addition, images are open to many interpretations and can provide us with new insights, perspectives, and directions. Such communication can provide us with a new and refreshing outlook or perspective.


What's the difference between art therapy and art education?

Although art therapy and art education can look very similar on the surface, they differ mostly in their goals. Art education seeks to teach people how to make art and to be creative. Art therapy encourages people to create art that is emotionally expressive, regardless of their formal art training. The two fields should not be looked at as opposites, but as two different methods to encourage people to engage with the creative process and art making.


I'm not looking for counseling, is art therapy only a mental health profession?

While many people think of art therapy as only applicable to traditional mental health settings, the practice of art therapy is very diverse. From the start of the profession in the United States, art therapists have worked in psychiatric settings, educational facilities, and community art studios. Given the specialized training in guiding another's creative process with the goals of emotional expression and self-growth, art therapists are particularly well suited to offer art based workshops for relaxation and wellness.


What kind of training do art therapists have?

Art therapists obtain a masters degree in either art therapy or expressive arts therapy. Throughout the two year program, art therapists take coursework in counseling and psychogy theory, the application of creativity and art making to those theories, and practicum experience. Only some jurisdictions have title protection for art therapists, which means that only those people with the proper credentials can call themselves an art therapist. If you are unsure about the laws in your area, ask the art therapist you are considering working with to provide you with their credentials.


Where can I find more information about art therapy?

For reliable resources and websites on art therapy and expressive arts therapy, please go to the Art Therapy Resources page.