How Shall I Use Art in Therapy? Let Me Count the Ways


How Shall I Use Art in Therapy?  Let Me Count the Ways

Okay…Valentine’s Day is rapidly approaching, and the title of this month’s column is a spin-off of “How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.”  You get the picture—I’m trying to be seasonally thematic while at the same time introducing you to the idea that the use of art in therapy can take on several different forms, depending on the needs of the client.  If you’ve never thought about how a client’s needs can inform your selection of artmaking approaches, here are some familiar-sounding therapeutic goals that pair nicely with artistic endeavors:

  • Promoting relaxation.  The creative process has a tendency to yield an alert state of calmness and an improved focus on the here-and-now.  This was once called “flow” but is now being referred to as “mindfulness”.  People who engage in the creative process provide subjective reports of increased concentration and decreased muscle tension.  The creative process also helps integrate somatic/affective/cognitive operations by involving the body in balancing the experience of emotion and the experience of thought.
  • Encouraging positive leisure activities.  The aisles at stores like Hobby Lobby and Michael’s tell it like it is; our culture has a knack for pursuits that are productive—they result in the creation of an end product.  Individuals who have difficulty finding something productive to do in their leisure (non-working) time often fall into the hands of the law; I don’t have the statistic on hand, but there’s an astounding number of people in American prisons who committed their offenses during their leisure time. Recreation therapists are aware of this and devote their careers to helping people discover positive leisure activities in an effort to cut down on things like incarceration, hospitalization, and recidivism.
  • Building skills and confidence.  As one of my clients recently said, “Sometimes you have to get it wrong in order to get it right.”  This insight was stated after he’d gone through several sheets of scratch paper en route to the image he was trying to create—and ultimately succeeded in doing so.  Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2006, Random House) put it another way: “Everything is hard until it becomes easy.”  As clients take on art projects, they are exposing themselves to higher and higher levels of task difficulty.  By mastering the ones at the bottom of the totem pole and then gradually adding increased complexity, they have the opportunity to experience success in a real-time, tangible way.
  • And—last but not least—generating more discussion in sessions.  This is the approach most non-art therapists take when they bring artmaking into a session.  Asking a client to create something and then verbally reflect upon it is not art therapy (because the agent of change is the words, not the art process), but it is a valuable endeavor in and of itself.  Enough said!


The next time you are thinking of using art in therapy, stop to consider what the client’s actual needs are.  Not everyone is going to benefit from verbally reflecting upon her/his art products.  Does your client need to learn how to de-stress? How to fill her/his down time?  How to adopt a “can-do” attitude?  Expanding your understanding of therapeutic art applications will result in the expansion of your client’s horizons.  Now that’s a pretty picture.


With appreciation for the important work you do,

Megan February 2012

About the Image on This Page

This is a thumbnail of Abstract Art, posted to The Public Domain website by Mitch Featherston in 2012. Click here for more information.