Although it can be tempting at times, clients are better off when clinicians resist the urge to analyze or interpret client art products. Analyzing and interpreting communicate a preference to be perceived as an expert on the client rather than as a helpful resource to her or him, which in turn interferes with the therapeutic process. The person who has the most expertise on the meaning of the client’s artwork—regardless of the client’s age, developmental level, culture, or other demographic characteristic—is the client.
Clinicians who have been formally trained in art therapy have also been trained in visual literacy. When they look at a client’s art products, they note developmental features, emotional indicators, formal elements, graphomotor factors, and symbols/signs. They are also aware that significant information about a client’s cognitive, psychological, and physical strengths and limitations can be obtained by observing her or his approach to artmaking. Knowledge of how all these things integrate to yield message and meaning is useful in assessing client progress or regression.
Even so, formal training in art therapy emphasizes that the client’s verbal and nonverbal responses to her or his own art products is a primary means of evaluating self-awareness, self-esteem, and self-image. With or without formal training in art therapy, it’s best practice for a therapist to ask open-ended questions about the art products rather than inform the client of the therapist’s impressions about these products. In seeking the client’s input, the therapist communicates an interest in understanding her or his thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. Asking open-ended questions about the art products also suggests that the therapist values a client and her or his expressions beyond a superficial level. For many clients, it may be the first time another person has acknowledged them in this way.
In short, save your analyses and interpretations for your own art products. After all, the only person you’re an expert on is yourself!
With appreciation for the important work you do,
Megan September 2012