Art therapy, also known as art psychotherapy, is a very unique field that combines the benefits of psychotherapy with creative modalities. Through artistic interventions, clients can address their difficulties, engage in self-expression, heal from past traumatic experiences, and be immersed in the therapeutic process. In art therapy, the process of creating the artwork is just as important, if not more so, than the final product.
In an art therapy space, there are three key elements: the client, the therapist, and the artwork. The therapist creates an environment of safety in which the client’s emotions are contained and the artwork allows one to self-express. For many children, having the space to be themselves, the opportunity to share what is important to them, and the ability to express their thoughts, all while being creatively engaged, can have a monumental impact on their self-esteem, sense of self, and ability to process changes. Through their artwork, children showcase the unique universe they have in their minds. Subconscious thoughts can also be brought to the surface in the artwork.
Art therapy is a very sensory experience. Watercolor paint, for instance, is a very fluid medium, whilst colored pencils are much more controlled. Different materials evoke different emotions and have different properties. The unique element of artwork in a therapy session is that what is depicted can either parallel or be opposite to what is verbally expressed. Children often work through metaphors. The art created in an art therapy session is indicative of one’s thoughts and experiences however does not have to be a literal representation of what the child is going through. It allows clients to speak without using words.
Using artistic methods to express thoughts and share past experiences can be particularly helpful for children who are non-verbal, struggle verbally expressing themselves, or are unable to verbalize traumatic experiences. The artwork can also provide a buffer in which sharing thoughts is allowed to come naturally, which is especially important for shy or quiet children. Using art materials that one is already familiar with provides a sense of comfort and safety, especially when describing or thinking about difficult experiences.
Therapeutic goals established by the client and the art therapist help guide the sessions. In art therapy clients are able to use artistic approaches to share their inner thoughts, cope with family changes, foster emotional expression and recognition, improve abilities to communicate needs, enhance problem-solving skills, and provide opportunities for choice-making. The skills learned and developed in art therapy sessions through art making can be applied to situations outside of the session. At the core, art therapy provides a safe space for individuals to express themselves in an unapologetic way, which in and of itself, can influence positive changes in one’s life.
Article written by art therapist Mira Kheyman