What is Art Therapy?

By Kasey Conners

Art has been around since the days of cavemen. Humans have created images of daily life on cave walls; animals they saw and hunted, gods they believed in, and plants they ate and harvested. Art spread from culture to culture where jewelry was crafted, buildings and structures were built. I think it is safe to say that art has always been a part of who humans are.

Art can be therapeutic just by actively creating something, anything. Whether is it a small craft that was prepackaged, or a sculpture that requires weeks of work to plan. Alone, art has the ability to help people focus, become less stressed, and increase mindfulness. We have all seen the “art therapy” coloring books in the checkout lines at the grocery store. For me, these are therapeutic because I don’t have to really think. There are lines to follow, to color inside of and different themed books to choose from based on my mood. Overall, I can turn off my brain and strictly focus on putting pencil to paper.

Art can also be therapeutic through using different art materials (crayon, marker, paper, clay, paint, wire, found objects) to create an image or figure that is representative of something you love, fear, hate, admire, struggle with, have overcome. This type of art is generally guided by an art therapist, a person who has gone to graduate school to understand the fundamentals of art and how to apply psychological theories to an art task (directive) for their client to work through.

Art is also a therapeutic tool to help clients gain feelings of competence and skill. One of the first things I remember being told when I began using art therapeutically was, “there is no wrong when it comes to art.” The beautiful thing with this statement is it provides forgiveness to the creative process. According to Lowenfeld, people go through stages of artistic development that corresponds with their chronological ages. A vast majority of people stop creating art (drawings, paintings) around 10-13 years of age.

Think about it. Think of the last time you honestly sat down to draw or paint something just for the sake of making it?  Now if you ask yourself why you stopped making art, what do you find yourself saying?

A lot of times people stop creating art because it doesn’t look “right.”

Having art as a therapeutic tool helps clients overcome that feeling of “it doesn’t look good.” Mainly because it doesn’t always matter how the finished art piece looks, but how it felt to make it, to think of a feeling and capture it in a creative process that results with a tangible item. An item they can talk about. By having a therapist guide the client through this, the client begins to show more security and confidence in their art. One of my favorite things a client of mine said was that he appreciated coming to session because it helped him become a better artist. In the end, therapy is there to help us feel better.

Working with children who have been diagnosed with autism, that especially holds true. By allowing a child to create art, and progress through Lowenfeld’s developmental stages, a child can begin to feel successful and accomplished. These are important feelings for anyone.

When working with my clients, I always have the words of one of my professors, “Don’t have someone do an art project/directive that you haven’t done yourself.” With having done the art projects I have my clients do, I am able to guide them through the art process easier and anticipate any difficulties that may come out of creating. By having this experience I am able to help my clients work through something that may be overwhelming for them by providing options and support.

Support also comes in the form of knowing what each client’s capabilities are. For a client that artistically is at a lower developmental stage, projects are designed to meet the client where their capabilities are. If the project is too difficult, as a therapist, I am setting my client up for frustration and possibly feelings of incompetence. If the client likes art and actively creates on their own, art projects and directives are geared more towards having the client express thoughts and feelings. The art therapist would guide the client through creating images of a time they felt scared, happy, sad etc. and provide a safe space where that client can talk about those feelings.

A lot of times, I go online to find ideas for art projects or crafts. I might modify the project/craft so it better accommodates the client, or during the process of doing the craft, I may provide more support. My role in helping a client is to provide them extra hands and experience of having previously done this craft so they can feel accomplished in creating together. For some clients, we rip different colored paper and then create a colorful mosaic by gluing different pieces onto a blank paper. Depending on the client’s abilities decides how much support I give.

Other projects may pertain more to the season. In fall I always find it fun to go and collect leaves on a walk, and then do crayon rubbings to get the leaf impression. By providing these types of activities, clients begin to feel they can do something, they can contribute. It also provides ways for clients to give a gift. With leaf rubbings, they can become thank you cards or placed in a simple frame and put up in the house. Through actively displaying the art created somewhere in daily life- feelings of pride can develop, helping to increase self-esteem, and who doesn’t like to feel good?

All in all, art can be anything from arranging some rocks at the park, drawing in sand, sitting down together and creating a seasonal craft, or an emotionally charged painting.

“There is no wrong in art!”

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  1. Relational Aspect of Art | Family Guidance & Therapy Center - […] my previous blog about art therapy, I shared how art in and of itself can be therapeutic but that…

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