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Understanding Art Therapy

If I had a gold coin for every time I got asked what art therapy was I would be a rich lady-or at least able to afford gold-class cinema tickets with an extra-large popcorn. So what exactly is art therapy and what can it offer?

Anyone who can recall the gleeful feeling of finger painting and creating messy concoctions of sand, ink and raw pasta as a child cannot deny that art making has a soothing quality that can be immersive and freeing. Like music, art making is an age old practice that has the power to unify people as well as foster emotional expression and offer a different means to tell a story. Art can also add significant richness to a therapeutic relationship and healing journey. Put simply art therapy is the use of art materials and making in a therapy-based setting. Art therapists are trained to use art-based processes to support common goals, including emotional expression, insight and the development of healthier coping strategies. Art therapy is suitable for people of all ages, demographics and abilities, who may or may not have art interest or experience.

Mr Cat

Children exemplify how art can assist us to process, make sense and honour our experiences through physical expression. Imagine a young girl who idealises everything. Everything is perfect; an illusion of bubbly fun. But below the surface lies the emotional consequences of many unnamed trauma’s and unsavoury experiences. She cannot speak of these feelings but they explode out in aggressive outbursts at school. In an early therapy session this young girl creates a paper cat. At first he is beautifully adorned. But over the course of therapy as Mr Cat begins to speak, purr, yell and demand, he gets sick, ugly, turns purple, cries and dies and then is reborn several times over. The girl expresses many of the things she cannot speak about herself through Mr Cat. He becomes her voice when she is unable to find her own. For many children art therapy goes hand in hand with play.
Sometimes I get asked if art therapy is more successful with children. But if there is a bias, it is only because children have not been fully molded by a society where verbalisation is favoured over all else. Our innate quality as humans is to make sense of our experiences through symbolism, metaphor and story.
Different types of art therapy
The Mr Cats of the world may not always be easily conjured. Thankfully art therapy has multiple forms and styles, varying between therapists and shaped by various schools of thought, theories and research. My recommendation for anyone wanting to try art therapy is the same for any health practitioner; shop around to find the right fit. All art therapists are trained counsellors so on any given day if you want to just chat, they can chat. But they also have a wealth of creative ways of reflecting, problem solving and forming that ever so important therapeutic relationship. For those of us that haven’t been terrified into thinking a pencil mark must be withheld unless we are the next Picasso, art materials can offer a welcome third party into the room. An art therapy session may involve collaging, drawing, painting, scribbling, exploring senses and materials, art based games, imaginative play or stories and a whole range of other things. It may simply be a quiet space for you to create and reflect.

Pencil Perfectionist

In cases of trauma, disability and oppression the benefits of art therapy may be more easily observed. But it can also be helpful for a range of mental health, existential, relational and environmental difficulties. Imagine a lady who enters into art therapy complaining of anxiety, fatigue and failure. She has high expectations of herself and her self criticism has little mercy. The lady states that she only draws in lead pencil and her drawings are refined, erased and redone to perfection. As the art therapists gently explores and tugs at the origins of the ladies self-doubt and criticism through conversation, she encourages her to explore other art materials and processes. Despite only making abstract mark with crayons, the lady squirms with the discomfort of mess and fights the urge to throw it immediately in the bin. Can you see the parallel process here, that art materials can be used to gently and gradually challenge and reflect the lady’s difficulties? With guided support art based processes can, over time, become a conversation with the self.


In summary art therapy is adaptable to a range of settings and issues, regardless of whether imagery is ready or able to be made. ANZATA  summarises that art therapy can encourage clients to  express feelings that may be difficult to verbalise, explore imagination and creativity, develop healthy coping skills, improve self esteem and confidence, identify issues and concerns, increase communication skills, improve motor skills and communication and identify blocks to emotional expression.

Further Resources

So while some days I may feel like I can make my wealth from the question “what is art therapy” it is becoming more widely practiced in Australia. Art therapy exists the world over and is utilised in a vast range of community and clinical settings. In its simplest form art offers a refuge and has done in the homes and journals of many, many individuals. If you want to find out more about art therapy in Australia and it’s effectiveness take a look at the ANZATA website; the professional body for art therapy in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore.They also have a directory of registered art therapists.


Understanding Art Therapy

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