Art Therapy Collage

What is art therapy and how is it helpful?

What Is Art Therapy?

Art therapy is the process of using creative activities such as painting, drawing, photography, collage, writing, etc., to heal, explore emotions (and their origins), and boost self-esteem and self-awareness. Art therapy can be practiced with a licensed art therapist who can help guide you and glean deeper meaning from the art you create, identify thought patterns and emotions, and provide a therapeutic framework with which to practice artmaking. Art therapy can be practiced on your own as well.

In this article, we’ll explore how art therapy came to be, common art therapy techniques, its benefits, how it differs from expressive arts therapy, how it differs from an art class, and how art therapy is being applied at Magnolia Recovery Programs. We’ll even give you some easy tips on starting your own art therapy practice!

The Origins of Art Therapy for Mental Health

Human beings have been making art for a variety of purposes for over 40,000 years. Art has long played a pivotal role in healing processes for humans in the form of sacred paintings, symbols, and carvings. But “Art therapy” as we know it today within the psychology field began in the early 1940s. Adrian Hill, an artist from Great Britain, coined the term “art therapy” as a result of his own art practice of painting and drawing while recovering from tuberculosis. He noticed while doing these art therapy activities that his art practice resulted in many unexpected health benefits. Hill published his ideas about art therapy in his book Art Versus Illness in 1945. Hill believed that “the practice of art, ‘in sickness and in health,’ could turn society away from war by making artistic creativity more appreciated,” and that art therapy should be incorporated into basic healthcare for everyone.

Margaret Naumburg and Edith Kramer also moved the art therapy field forward in the same era as Adrian Hill. Kramer, who was a visual artist as well, believed deeply in the power of the creative process to heal. She was one of the first to verbalize the benefits of artmaking to express anxiety, anger, and pain. 

Margaret Naumberg, known in the field as the “mother of art therapy” founded the Walden School in New York City in 1915. Naumburg believed that children who had the opportunity to express themselves in a creative way would experience healthier development. In fact, she thought that creative processes were just as effective as a form of therapy as verbally expressing one’s thoughts and feelings. She went on to write several books about expressive art therapy: Studies of the “Free” Expression of Behavior Problem Children as a Means of Diagnosis and Therapy, Schizophrenic Art: Its Meaning in Psychotherapy, and Dynamically Oriented Art Therapy: Its Principle and Practice. These books were foundational in developing the art therapy field we know today.

The Art Therapy Field Today

The American Art Therapy Association (AATA), the leading organization of art therapy for professional art therapists, has 5,000 members across the U.S. AATA supports masters-level clinicians working in hospitals, schools, veteran’s clinics, psychiatric facilities, community clinics, crisis centers, senior communities, and more. Recruiter.com reports that demand for art therapists has grown about 2% per year since 2004, and is expected to keep climbing.

Common Art Therapy Techniques and Mediums

You don’t have to be a skilled artist to benefit from art therapy—and the ways you can apply it are nearly limitless. Art therapy includes a wide variety of mediums, such as:

  • Drawing and sketching
  • Painting (watercolor, acrylic, oil, finger paint, etc.)
  • Collage
  • Mosaic work
  • Mandala work
  • Sculpting and pottery making
  • Carving
  • Textile work (weaving, knitting, crocheting, sewing, quilting, embroidery)
  • Photography
  • Filmmaking
  • Mask making
  • Printmaking

What Is Expressive Arts Therapy?

Some mental health professionals differentiate “art therapy” and “expressive arts therapy” from one another, categorizing practices rooted in visual arts as “art therapy”, and non-visual forms of art as “expressive arts therapy”. Expressive arts therapy involves artforms that are more performative to express psychological processes and emotions, such as:

  • Writing (poetry, songs, stories, essays, plays, journaling, etc.)
  • Drama (acting out scenes, creating a play, improvisation, role playing, etc.)
  • Dance
  • Movement
  • Singing
  • Playing an instrument

While some experts in the art therapy field separate these two types of creative therapies, there are opportunities to express emotion with both types.

What Are the Benefits of Art Therapy?

Even one hour of art therapy can reduce stress and have a positive effect on your mental health—and you don’t have to be an accomplished artist to reap the benefits. With many of its positive benefits having been studied and documented in clinical trials, just a few of the emotional, psychological, and physical effects of art therapy include: 

  • Increased self-esteem
  • Increased confidence
  • Increased self-awareness
  • Decreased anxiety and depression
  • Improved social skills
  • Improved cognitive and sensory motor function
  • Improved emotional resilience
  • Reduced stress

Art Therapy and Art Classes: How They’re Different

In an art class, students learn various technical skills in a particular medium; for example, learning to draw three dimensionally or knit a blanket. Over time, students gain more and more fine art skills and build more sophistication in the pieces of art they create. 

By contrast, in an art therapy setting, the emphasis is not to hone your fine art techniques, but rather to create the space to express emotion—especially difficult ones. By expressing those emotions through creativity, participants are able to experience a form of catharsis, allowing their feelings to leave their body, and be seen, acknowledged, and honored by others. In a group setting, participants present their inner thoughts as an external object or creative “product” that they can use to discuss their feelings with others in the group, which may feel less vulnerable for some than simply talking about any difficult feelings in real time.

Process, Not Product: Why Creating Art Is Healing

Creating art and expressing your feelings through visual or expressive arts helps us build self-awareness and prompts self-reflection. These processes allow participants to arrive at new insights about their lives and their emotional state, helping them learn how to self-regulate and keep perspective when experiencing difficult, uncomfortable emotions. Over time, art therapy can help accept negative feelings rather than push them down.

In her book Essential Art Therapy Exercises, Leah Guzman, ATR-BC, writes, “completing a piece of art can bring feelings of accomplishment, empowerment, and satisfaction to someone who is suffering from depression.”

Art therapy can provide participants a way to express themselves without talking—especially if they don’t feel like talking about their feelings in a given moment. Art therapy activities such as drawing, painting, or sculpting can drop defenses and allow participants to explore emotions that they didn’t know were bothering them.

How Magnolia Clients Benefit from Art Therapy

At Magnolia Recovery Programs, we have begun incorporating a weekly art therapy practice in working with clients. All week, clients at Magnolia engage in a full schedule of Process Groups run by clinicians who target the pain and trauma that underlie and often cause addictive behavior. Clients at Magnolia spend most of their weeks processing their life stories and learning to understand their triggers so they can move forward in their lives. The goal is for them to leave Magnolia having rebuilt a strong sense of self.

Their weekly art therapy practice allows Magnolia women to take a slight step back from that deep, integral work that they do in Process Group for the rest of the week, and allows them to express their emotions in a different way—with art. 

What Magnolia Clients Say

So far, women at Magnolia are loving their art therapy time on Friday afternoons. Below are a few thoughts from the women after completing an art therapy session:

“I’m happy that we wrote down our affirmations and we’ll hang them up so that I’ll remember to tell it to myself every day.”

—Magnolia client

Magnolia clients made collages that represent their intentions for the next 30 days.

Art therapy collage
Art therapy collage

“I feel so relaxed now.”

—Magnolia client

“I feel empowered.”

—Magnolia client

“I feel like I’m looking forward to working on myself more after having completed this session.”

—Magnolia client

5 Easy Art Therapy Projects You Can Do

If you’re itching to start your own art practice by yourself or with clients, here are 5 easy exercises that do not require many art supplies:

  1. COLLAGE: Set an intention for the next 30 days. Using colorful paper, scissors, and a glue stick, arrange a mosaic that represents your intention.
  2. PENCIL DRAWING: Sit for 5 minutes and evaluate your current state of mind. What feelings are with you at this moment? Think of a landscape that could visually represent your current mood. Use a pencil to sketch the landscape you’ve visualized.
  3. JOURNALING: In a journal, as quickly as possible (without thinking too much), finish the following statements:
    1. I want
    2. I need
    3. I hope
    4. I expect
    5. I fear
    6. I wish
    7. I am
    8. I love

What surprises you about what you’ve written? What feelings come up? Spend 10 minutes reflecting on the statements you’ve written.

  1. WATERCOLORING: Think about something you’re grateful for. Maybe it’s a person in your life, a place, an object, or an experience you recently had. What is the impact of this thing you’re grateful for in your life? When you think about how this has affected your life, what do you feel in your body? What emotions do you feel coming up? If you had to visualize these feelings, what qualities do they have, and what do they feel like in your body? Do they have colors? Shapes? Are any images coming up? Name them to yourself. With a credit card, draw 2-3 boxes on watercolor paper. Write down the feelings that came up during the meditation at the bottom or top of the box if you wish. Then paint the feelings that came up. You can use a variety of watercolor techniques, and experiment. These can be as abstract as you like, or you can draw them with a pencil first. This is your space to play. 

5. DANCING: Check in with yourself. What’s your current mood? What feelings do you want to evoke in the next 1-2 hours? Find a song on YouTube or in your music library that matches the feelings you want to embody. Listen to that song on headphones, and move your body the way it wants to.

References

  1. Guzman, Leah. Essential Art Therapy Exercises. Rockridge Press: 2020.
  2. Kaimal G, Ray K, Muniz J. Reduction of cortisol levels and participants’ responses following art making. Art Therapy. 2016;33(2):74-80. doi:10.1080/07421656.2016.1166832.
  3. “Art Therapy.” Good Therapy. https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/art-therapy. Last updated: April 18, 2016.
  4. “Art and Music.” Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. https://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/behavior/art-music. Last updated: October 27, 2020.
  5. “Art Therapy.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_therapy. Last updated: November 10, 2021.
  6. “Adrian Hill.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adrian_Hill. Last updated: February 7, 2021.