What is Art Therapy?

“I believe we can, at any time, pick up a paintbrush and create a new fork in the road to travel that may lead us each to our authentic home, which is deep within, and outward again to our right place in the world.”  Pat B. Allen (author of Art is a Way of Knowing)

“The longest journey in the world is from the head to the heart.”  unknown

Art therapy is a creative approach to emotional healing using the client’s art work as a means of self-expression, catharsis and a guide to deeper understanding.

*Art therapy offers a safe opportunity for the client to engage in the creative process during which the client’s symbolic experiences are witnessed, validated, supported and mirrored.
*Art therapy is client centered. It begins where the client is at. Art therapists trust that each individual subconsciously knows what is required for his or her own healing. If provided with a safe opportunity and environment clients will naturally gravitate towards expressing what they need to express in order to heal.
*A picture is worth a thousand words. Art therapist trust that images provide a more direct route to subconscious material than words. In our world we are programmed to verbalize, censor our words and narrow down meanings. Like dreams images can hold multiple meanings, are less censored and can reveal our deepest wishes, fears and desires. Images open up possibilities rather than narrowing them down.
*Art therapy can be less threatening than verbal counseling because the client does not need to formulate coherent thoughts right away. The art can be a starting place for the client and aid her in understanding and communicating her experience. In fact, I often find the art work to be miles
ahead of our conscious thoughts. When viewed and reflected upon the unconscious can be integrated into the conscious thereby promoting healing.
*Art therapy helps clients. Clients committed to an art therapy process gain a deeper understanding of their inner experience. With understanding comes the motivation and ability to change, or accept what cannot change.
*Art therapy is beneficial to people of all ages from children to the elderly
*Art therapy can be done individually or in small groups.

How Does Art Therapy Work?

Art therapy requires the following conditions before it can work:

1.Safety – boundaries need to be set around the therapy that honor and uphold the client’s experiences. Uninterrupted time, a welcoming supportive environment, consistency and the therapeutic relationship all need to be in place for art therapy to occur.

2.Availability of materials and opportunities for creative expression

3.The therapeutic relationship.

The Role of the Therapist

The therapist does the following:

1.honors, upholds and protects the conditions for safety

2.Witnesses, validates and mirrors the client’s creative process without judgement

3.remains deeply present and emotionally available for the client throughout the therapeutic process. This requires the therapist to be thoroughly “in tune” with her own emotional experience of the therapy and have her own outlets/support for working through these emotions

4.offer and example and experience of a healthy, meaningful, supportive relationship for the client.
Once these conditions are in place art therapists believe that clients will naturally engage creatively in their own healing process.

What a Typical Art Therapy Session Looks Like

1.The therapist arranges the space in a welcoming way with a variety of art materials available.

2.The therapist welcomes the client to the space and offers the materials to the client. Sometimes the therapist might do a beginning ritual such as lighting a candle to symbolically mark the start of the session. If the client is having trouble beginning the therapist will offer a starting point.

3.The client engages in whatever they need to do for that day while the therapist, remains present and mirrors the client’s experience back to him/her. The therapist lets the client know when 15 min. are remaining in the session.

4.The client and therapist reflect together upon what was created/ experienced throughout the session. If the client is a child this may not occur and the whole experience of therapy may remain in the symbolic and metaphoric.

5.The therapist does an ending ritual with the client and ends the session.


Written by Janis Dyck, Certified Art Therapist