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Art Therapy in Perspective: Beyond the Drawings and Colours

Healclinic Team
Categories : 
Last Update : 
Oct 8

Whats in this article?

  • History and development
  • What is Art Therapy
  • Health Issues treated by Art Therapy
  • When is Art Therapy used
  • What to expect in a session
  • Techniques and Exercises
  • Where do Art Therapists Work
  • Benefits of Art Therapy

History and Development

Art has always been used as a means of communication, self-expression, group interaction, diagnosis, and conflict resolution throughout the time in history. For thousands of years, various cultures and religions around the world have incorporated the use of carved idol, charms, several sacred paintings and symbols, during the healing process in totality. 

The term “art therapy” was coined in 1942 by British Artist Adrian Hill, who discovered the healthy and lovely benefits of painting and drawing while recovering from tuberculosis himself. In the 1940s, several writers in the field of mental health began to describe their work with people in treatment as “art therapy.”

As there were no formal art therapy courses or training programs available at that time, these care providers were often educated in other disciplines and supervised by psychiatrists, psychologists, or other mental health care professionals.

The establishment of art therapy as a unique and publicly accepted therapeutic approach only took place recently, in the mid-20th century. The emergence of art therapy as a profession arose independently and simultaneously in the united states and europe. 

What is art therapy?

Art therapy involves the use of creative techniques such as drawing, painting, collage, colouring, or sculpting to help people express artistically and examine the psychological and emotional undertones signified in their art. With the guidance of a credentialed art therapist, clients can "decode"  various non-verbal messages, symbols, and metaphors often found in these art forms, which should lead to a better understanding of their feelings and behaviour so they can move on to understand and then resolve their deeper issues.

Health issues treated by art therapy

 Art therapy benefits people of all ages. Research indicates that art therapy improves communication and concentration and helps reduce feelings of isolation. Art therapy has also been shown to lead to increase in self-esteem, confidence, and self-awareness. 

Positive results and benefits in art therapy may often be achieved by those facing issues such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Substance dependency
  • Stress
  • Posttraumatic stress
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity
  • Aging and geriatric issues
  • Cancer
  • Compassion fatigue
  • Heart disease
  • Anorexia
  • Bulimia and other eating disorders
  • Cognitive impairments
  • Family or relationship issues

Art therapy allows people to express feelings on any subject through a creative flow of work rather than with speech, it is believed to be particularly helpful for those who feel out of touch with their emotions or even feelings. Certain individuals experiencing difficulty discussing or remembering painful experiences may also find art therapy thoroughly beneficial. 

Recent research suggests art therapy may help individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia and personality disorders see improvement of some of their symptoms, although trials are still being conducted. 

When is Art Therapy used

Art therapy helps children, adolescents and adults explore with their emotions, improves their self-esteem, manages addictions, helps relieves stress, improves symptoms of anxiety and depression, and helps cope with a physical illness or any disability. Art therapists work with individuals, couples, and even groups in a variety of settings such as private counselling, hospitals, wellness centres, correctional institutions, senior centres, and other forms of community organizations.

No artistic talent is necessary in order for art therapy to succeed, because the therapeutic process is not about the artistic value of the work, but rather about finding associations between the creative choices made and a client's inner mind and thus life. The artwork can be used as a springboard for reawakening certain memories and then telling stories that may reveal various messages and beliefs from the unconscious mind. In many cases, art therapy can be used in conjunction with other psychotherapy techniques such as group therapy or even cognitive-behavioural therapy.

Some situations in which art therapy can be utilized include:

  • children with learning disabilities
  • adults experiencing severe stress
  • children suffering from behavioural or social problems at school or at home
  • people experiencing mental health problems
  • individuals suffering from a brain injury
  • children or adults who have experienced a traumatic event

One review of the effectiveness of art therapy found that this technique helped cancer patients undergoing medical treatment improve their quality of life and alleviated a variety of psychological symptoms too.

What to expect in a session

As with any form of therapy, your first session will consist of you talking to the therapist about why you want to find help and learning what the therapist has to offer. Together, you will come up with a treatment plan that involves creating some form of artwork. Once you begin creating, the therapist may, at times, simply observe your process as you work, without any form of interference or judgment.

When you have finished a piece of artwork—and sometimes while you are still working on it—the therapist will ask you questions along the lines of how you feel about the artistic process, what was easy or difficult about creating your artwork, and what thoughts or memories you may have had while you were working on it. Generally, the therapist will ask about your experience and feelings before providing any observations.

People often wonder how an art therapy session differs from the regular art class.

Where an art class is focused on teaching technique or creating a specific finished product, art therapy is more about letting the clients focus on their inner experience. in creating art, people are able to focus on their own perceptions, imagination, and feelings. Clients are encouraged to create art that expresses their inner world more than making something that is an expression of the outer world.

Art Therapy Techniques and Exercises

Certified art therapists will typically have a comprehensive understanding of the powerful effect that the creative process can have on those undertaking art therapy. Art therapists often use psychological, spiritual, and artistic theories in conjunction with clinical techniques to achieve the desired therapeutic outcome. The approach has proven to be beneficial even for non-verbal individuals and professional artists. Common techniques used in art therapy include:

  • Painting
  • Finger painting
  • Doodling
  • Scribbling
  • Sculpting
  • Drawing
  • Using moulding clay
  • Carving
  • Making pottery
  • Making cards
  • Using textiles
  • Making collages

Where do Art Therapists work?

Art therapists practice in a variety of traditional settings including hospitals, rehabilitation care units, assisted living centres, psychiatric facilities, senior communities and schools. They also work in some less familiar settings like wellness centres, forensic institutions, clinical research facilities, detention centres, and crisis centres.

Private practice is also very common for professionals who specialize in art therapy.

Benefits of Art Therapy

The benefits of art therapy are numerous, and here are nine ways it can help on the path to holistic wellness:

  • Improve and work towards self-management
  • Helps in decreasing symptoms of depression
  • Improvise on communication skills
  • Address various past traumas
  • Reduce levels of stress
  • Helps improvise problem-solving skills
  • Building up self-esteem
  • Mitigating certain painful symptoms
  • To provide for a positive distraction

Art Therapy does have a tremendous potential to be a way of life for those who aim to live a wholesome life. It works for those who want to engage in an expressive outlet leading towards their overall betterment in terms of physical and mental wellbeing.

Article Courtesy: Trishna Patnaik, a BSc (in Life Sciences) and MBA (in Marketing) by qualification but an artist by choice. A self-taught artist based in Mumbai, Trishna has been practising art for over 14 years. She says, "It’s a road less travelled but a journey that I look forward to everyday." Trishna conducts painting workshops and works with clients as a art therapist 1:1 in Mumbai and other metropolitan cities of India. 

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