“What the hell is that supposed to be?” was the question mockingly posed by one of my fellow graduate students as we were in class, contemplating therapeutic verbal responses to client artwork.  Everyone laughed at the obvious inappropriateness of this, but we all enjoyed the audacity of it and its encapsulation of our occasional frustrations as up-and-coming art therapists.  Beyond these occasional frustrations, however, we recognized the importance of treating every client’s art products as extensions of the client and that overlooking this could mark the end of the therapeutic relationship.


How can clinicians ensure that their empathic intentions are successfully communicated when it comes to responding to client artwork?  Below are some helpful pointers that will maximize the amount of respect you demonstrate and let your client know you are listening to her or him at a level that goes deeper than words.  Some may seem like no-brainers while others might seem counterintuitive.  All require focus and attentiveness in order to encourage optimal responses that support the therapeutic process and therapeutic progress:

  • Try to avoid making light of the artwork (“Yeah, yeah, that’s really nice.”).  In doing this you communicate that the client isn’t very important to you.  Instead, express appreciation that the artwork is being shared with you (“I’m glad you wanted me to see this.”).  In doing this you communicate that you are interested in your relationship with the client.
  • Try to avoid critiquing the artwork (“Why did you make it look like that?”).  In doing this you communicate that the client must meet your standards rather than her or his own.  Instead, accept each piece of artwork as valid in as-is condition (“I see this must be about something important, or you wouldn’t have made it.”).  In doing this you communicate that you accept the client as having validity and worth.
  • Try to avoid analyzing or interpreting the artwork (“I can tell by the colors you used that you must be feeling happy.”).  In doing this you communicate a preference to be perceived as an expert on the client rather than as a helpful resource to the client.  Instead, ask the client to discuss the artwork (“What can you tell me about this?”).  In doing this you communicate that you are interested in understanding the client’s thoughts, feelings, and perceptions.
  • This last one might be a shocker to some, but it’s supported by recent studies in the psychology of success: try to avoid praising the appearance of the artwork or the client’s artistic ability (“What a beautiful drawing!”).  In doing this you communicate that it is important for the client to please you rather than be honest with you and that ability, not effort, is what yields results.  Instead, recognize the effort that went into making the artwork (“You used the whole sheet of paper—that must have taken a lot of work!”).  In doing this you communicate that effort, not ability, is what yields results.


It’s worth repeating: the manner in which you respond to a client’s artwork carries as much symbolic value as does the artwork itself.  What message do your responses spell out?  With a little bit of attentiveness to the tips above, they’ll soon be sounding a lot like R-E-S-P-E-C-T.  Hit it, Aretha…


With appreciation for the important work you do,

Megan April 2012

About the Image on this Page

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