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Art Therapy-- Not magical and not like an art class

Updated on August 30, 2010

It's not a mystical, magical thing

Mural in New London, CT.
Mural in New London, CT.
Artwork I made for design class
Artwork I made for design class
Artwork I made on my own.
Artwork I made on my own.
Artwork about me for art therapy class.
Artwork about me for art therapy class.

Art Therapy Isn't.....

I was thinking today about an incident that happened to me. This woman came up to me after my group and after she had had a visit with a patient and asked me what the patient's drawing meant. She wanted to know what it would all mean. I told her the only thing I could tell her was that the patient was quiet when she was coloring it in. The woman had taken a class in art therapy and she had a dictionary about color so she was going to go home and look it up. I didn't say anymore about it. My thoughts went to the reasons why looking up colors that she used is not a good idea.

Some people think that art therapy, or that therapy in general, is really mind reading. We'll tell people things that they're thinking or going through or just know things that they don't want other to know.Some people think that therapist will know things that the client doesn't know about themselves. And if we get mad at a client, we'll use our powers for bad things. People might think that art therapy is more like mind reading than talk therapy because some people have symbols in their artwork and a client might think that a symbol can be interpreted as something else instead of what it means to them.

It doesn't help that there are dictionaries about color or books that basically say, "If you draw this, it means this other thing." But my point is that therapy is not like this. An art therapist should not start telling a client that using red and black most definitely means the person is depressed. It matters about behaviors. It matters about what the person says about the artwork. If a person is using a lot of black and red because that was the colors of their high school football team or because they really like tomatoes with pepper, and on top of that, client doesn't act depressed, then that theory doesn't apply to them.

Art therapy is about what the client says about the artwork. And each therapist has their own theory. For example: I'm a Feminist Jungian type of therapist. I think that people have patterns of behavior that repeat in their life until they notice them and choose to stop them. Societal expectations and gender roles hold people back from pursuing what they want or being the type of people they would like to be. If something's on a person's mind, it will come out whether I ask questions about it or not. For artwork, I like to ask people questions like "If your artwork were a type of music, what type of music would it be?" or "If your artwork was a type of food, what type of food would it be?" I don't ask "why," or "what inspired you to make that?" because the answer most likely is going to be "because I felt like it" (that would most likely be my answer). People don't have to be realistic in their artwork for it to be expressive. And they're not coming to me for me to be an art teacher to them. For my personal self, I like there to be a question or a memory I have in mind while doing the artwork or a "directive" to the art because I get to know more about myself that way. But in practice, I mostly let people choose what art materials they would like to use. I do this because it's probably been a while since people have done art and they just have to experiment with the art materials.

Freudian, humanistic, and behavioral art therapists would most likely practice a lot differently. Some might use more directives. Also, art therapist can choose the medium or style they'd like to use, such as comic books style, clay, photography, graffiti, and others. Some art therapists are more about what symbols a person used and not what the person said about the artwork. But they are trained so that they are not impeding a person's personal growth, assuming that's why they're coming to therapy.

So, therapy is not mind reading. Therapists don't tell you things about yourself that you wouldn't know about yourself. And they don't tell you things that you don't know about yourself. Also, art therapists have different styles, however, it's supposed to help in your art and growth.

Art Therapy Vs. Art Teacher

I've been through art classes and I've done my art therapy internships working with clients and explaining the difference between the two. One client in my internship had to be told not to come back to the art therapy sessions. Another dropped out when it became obvious that the person was no longer interested in doing art therapy.

The reason the client was asked to leave art therapy was that he continued to see it as a free art class. He kept saying he wanted to learn art techniques from me and the other art therapy intern. His art was very realistic. He simply wanted it to be as realistic as possible. He wasn't happy with it. A majority of our conversations were about his "worth." He kept saying he wanted to figure out what his drawings were worth so he could sell them on the street. He wanted to know his "worth." This tells me a lot about where he was, psychologically.

The other client started testing limits of what was allowable in an individual art therapy session. She would ask if her friend (and lover's sister) come attend. She wanted to make bookmarks one session for her church's sale because she didn't have time otherwise. It was difficult to manage but once there were clear rules about not doing these things, she decided not to come back. At that point, the art therapy sessions were mostly about dealing with her panic attacks and healing from PTSD. They were not about making things for her to sell. It seemed that she was being guarded about working on the actual issues at hand.

Art teachers have a goal for the end of the semester. When I took my first art class, we focused solely on perspective. Everything related to how we can tell if an object is close or far away and the proper lighting for that. We could draw what we wanted within the guidelines of one- or two-point perspective. Mostly, the goal for the semester was to achieve some sort of realism.

In another art class, we wrote notes about what we liked and what we thought could be improved about a piece of art. In another class, we lined up our artwork and talked about what worked and what didn't. It was a conversation to improve our skills and techniques. It also gave us language for how to critique. I remember being hurt a time or two by a mean critique, especially if I thought I did something well.

Art therapy, on the other hand, can use directives or art materials for expression. In some cases like open studio, art is done in a group without any direction or teaching. I know this appears like an art class. In the strictest form of open studio, no one says anything about anyone's work. The artists aren't even allowed to talk about it to others. I've heard that sometimes they even open the studio to the public and warn that there is to be no talking about the artwork.

Art therapy isn't only for expression, though. It can be used for meditation. Some directives encourage repetitive use of lines in order to un-focus the mind. Other directives help people to find images or make an image that is comfortable for them.

There have been many classes where we gather our artwork and put it up on the wall. We each comment on themes or use of color or materials. Also, we can say what we want and people comment about their thoughts or feelings that emerge from seeing it There is no judging technique or style. There have been a few times when comments have hurt me. Also, some people don't want to mention that there's a huge phallic looking object in your artwork or they don't use tact when point this out.

I've heard through the grapevine that some art therapy includes movements that are supposed to get participants to use the non-dominant parts of the brain. Other use of movements in art therapy are supposed to loosen up the brain and body to get ready for art materials. I've participated in one session where a guided imagery was read before an art directive was given.

For me, when I sit down to do my own art therapy, I have a question or a memory in my mind. I feel that this has helped me to manage my emotions so that overtime I've been less rough around the edges and snappy. I didn't realize that the anger that had been with me for a long time had followed me everywhere and leaked out onto unsuspecting people in my life. To address the issue directly would have made me more angry or intellectualize the emotions.

In art therapy sessions, I've been very clear that this is not an art class because confusion can occur. Art therapy is about expression, not about learning techniques to be a realistic artist.


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    • RachaelLefler profile image

      Rachael Lefler 

      3 years ago from Illinois

      Cool, thanks for this article, I'm considering art therapy as a possible graduate school program choice/career path. I'm currently an art history student with some studio classes. I know I need to take more psychology classes though. Where did you learn art therapy? When did you know that it was what you wanted to do?

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      i like this article please tell us more about your self VenusPandora


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