What is Art Therapy and How Does it Help People Heal?

What is Art Therapy and How Does it Help People Heal?

Written by Samantha Davis

Have you ever noticed how hard it is to talk about your feelings, or put your feelings into words? How and why does Art Therapy make this easier?

Let’s start with the structure of the brain. An extremely simplistic version, no doubt! Picture this…

According to research, people tend to have a personality style, or way of doing things that is either predominantly left-brained or right-brained. For example, a person who is more “left-brained” is thought to be more of a ‘thinker’. That is, more logical, analytical, and structured. A person who is more “right-brained” is said to be more of a ‘feeler’, that is more creative, intuitive and emotional.

(Fun Question: Do you think you are more left or right-brain dominant?)

The difference between Talk therapy and Art Therapy

Conventional ‘talk therapy’ tends to focus on thinking, words and cognition. This is accessed through the left brain. However, often people do not have access to words.

What does this mean? Well, sometimes words and thinking can be limiting, limited, too concrete, structured, controlled, or even linear. Or we can share our experience or distress over and over, using words, even to different therapists… but often still nothing shifts… Why is this? (Disclaimer – please, no offense to talking therapists… this is subjective reasoning!)

In Art Therapy, both sides of the brain are accessed. For some clients we work left to right brain (known to unknown). For others we work right to left brain, depending where the client is at.

Regardless of how your brain is wired, getting in touch with your “right brain” can help you explore, see, understand, and work through things in a deeper manner.

Further, clients do not have to know, think or plan what they are creating (left-brain dominant). As a matter of fact, in the correct setting the creativity just happens organically. Spontaneously. It just pours out.

In Art Therapy, the process of creativity becomes the language and the vehicle for change and growth

The focus is not necessarily on talking about one’s life experiences but rather an exploration through the creative process. (What the client may not realise is that this is symbolic of one’s internal world...)

Through the creative process, clients access the physical body and sensory body through making art, which is a form of embodied expression. This method of working focuses on the use of the body as a resource for psychological regulation, release and hence, emotional healing. The art materials build capacity through their tactile, sensory and kinesthetic qualities.

Art Therapy is also experiential and experimental – in that when clients think that they have made a ‘mistake’, they can be facilitated and encouraged to see that these ‘mistakes’ are actually potential opportunities to make changes in the art... Opportunities to “fix” the mistakes and make it more manageable, acceptable or even better. This again is done using the art materials. Here the art materials symbolize one’s internal resources, training the client to learn to see choice in their outside world.

Now, let’s go back to the beginning of Art Therapy...

A brief history of Art Therapy

The emergence of Art Therapy as a profession arose independently and simultaneously in the United States and Europe in 1942.

Pioneers of Art Therapy include British artist Adrian Hill, who discovered the healthful benefits of painting and drawing while recovering from tuberculosis. Psychologist Margaret Naumburg began referring to her work as Art Therapy based on the idea of using art to release the unconscious by encouraging free association.

Two strands developed - one was a sensitive form of art teaching, the other an aspect of psychotherapy through art. Throughout the 1940's, many artists became interested in using their skills with patients in hospitals and clinics. The development of post-graduate training in Art Therapy then began in the 1970s, which further induced greater professional credibility.

So, what exactly IS Art Therapy?

Art Therapy involves the use of different art materials through which a client can express and explore thoughts and feelings in the presence of a qualified Art Therapist.

The Art Therapist provides a safe, contained and supportive space with different art materials (such as paint, clay, chalk, charcoal, crayons, markers, objects to cut and paste, etc). For many clients, it is easier to relate to the therapist through the art object, which provides a focus for discussion, exploration and reflection. The therapist and client then work together in trying to understand the client's personal process and creative expression in the session.

Art Therapy can be a very powerful process, which may enable long buried feelings to come to the surface and be acknowledged.

Why use Art in therapy?

It is often difficult to express oneself solely through the use of words. The art object offers an alternate medium or way to express, explore and work through thoughts, feelings and concerns.

How does Art Therapy actually work?

Some Art Therapists work more directly in that they focus clients into specific ways of working – whether it be through a theme, a type of picture or a specific type of art material. For example, asking a client to draw a house, a tree or to use clay.

Personally, I like to work non-directively – meaning when appropriate, I usually explain to clients that they can use the art materials in any way they wish: provided it is safe for the client, the studio and the therapist. With this approach, the client leads and proceeds at their own pace. I find this more empowering for the client.

Overall, the emphasis is on the process of making art rather than only the aesthetic product. This means that the art created does not need to be ‘good’, aesthetically pleasing, or even realistic.

In this field, there is NO right or wrong way of making art.

Who can or should engage in Art Therapy?

Contrary to popular belief, one doesn’t need a particular stress, issue or life experience in order to need to go to Art Therapy. In general, Art Therapy has proved to be beneficial and helpful for adults, teenagers and children of all ages, both in individual and group settings.

Art skill or therapy experience is NOT a prerequisite for attending Art Therapy, and no judgments are made on the quality of the work produced.

Personally, I always say that “Art Therapy helps a person become better at being themselves” (note I am quoting myself here, Sami Davis 🙂).

Is it better to experience Art Therapy individually or in a group?

Art Therapy is useful for both individual (one-to-one sessions) and in groups. You may choose either – depending on your personal requirements, budget, and availability.

How does one become an Art Therapist?

Art Therapy is a Postgraduate or Master’s Degree currently only available internationally (not available in South Africa yet… *but watch this space*). Art Therapy Training takes place over 2 years on a full-time basis. For more information about studying to become an Art Therapist, go here.

What's the difference between art lessons and Art Therapy?

There is a huge difference! Art lessons involve learning and development of art techniques and skills such as painting, sculpture and/or drawing. The focus is on the end product in terms of its aesthetic value. So in art lessons, there is a goal to better one's skill. Hence, there may be judgments or expectations around the art product: getting it ‘right’ or ‘perfect’.

Art Therapy is an engagement in the process of art making in the presence of a trained and experienced Art Therapist, who provides a safe and nurturing non-judgmental space. The focus in Art Therapy is on the process of art making, instead of only on the resultant art image or product.

Again, there is no right or wrong in Art Therapy and no judgments are made on the artwork.

If I do art on my own and it feels therapeutic – is it Art Therapy?

This is seriously a question I often get asked! Well, it IS great to do art and be creative. There may certainly be a sense of relaxation, and even relief and yes it may feel therapeutic. But is it Art Therapy?

Hello – where is the ‘Therapist’ in this equation?! 😉 The therapist plays a pivotal role in holding the space and containing whatever comes up without needing to know, fix, solve or rescue.

So after all of that, what are the actual benefits of Art Therapy?

In Art Therapy, you don’t have to know what you are creating or why. The emphasis is on the spontaneous process facilitated in Art Therapy. Hence, it allows access to parts of the brain that may not be immediately accessible solely through language.

The art image becomes like a 3rd object. It is often easier for the client to talk about the picture (the 3rd object that is separate from the self) than about inner feelings (which we often don’t know, understand or have words for).

Also – the art image, being a 3rd object, still exists long after the session has ended. This allows for clients in therapy to go back and reflect on the images when appropriate as part of the ongoing therapeutic journey. Parts of the image can also be changed, broken down or built up again in a different manner. This helps people ‘see’ things from a different perspective both in the picture and in their lives. And yes, you are welcome to even call this creative problem solving!

The picture contains layers of symbolism from the client’s inner world. But it’s often easier to access these thoughts and feelings through the art image ‘out there’.

In summary, the art acts like a ‘bridge’ in communication

It’s actually quite challenging to try to describe an Art Therapy experience in words. So, the art plays the role of a ‘mediator’ between left brain-thinking and right-brain feeling. Between the known and the unknown. Between the conscious and the unconscious. With this advantage, the art allows for a deeper access to layers of the unconscious and the unknown, so that growth, development, healing and transformation can occur.

I would like to leave you with this... Art Therapy can be a life-changing reparative experience. It is quite something and so important to be seen, witnessed, heard and acknowledged without judgment, in the presence of another, when one is at one’s most vulnerable and at ‘play’. The play is the act of being in the moment with another... Without expectations of knowing or getting it right.

I hope that you have gained some interesting insights into the exciting world of Art Therapy. So, what has stood out for you? What did you learn? You are welcome to share your comments or ask questions by sending me an email.

Curious about Art Therapy?

Please note that one can only legitimately use ‘Art Therapy’ with clients once you have undergone a registered Art Therapy training (which is only available internationally) and are then registered with the HPCSA. For more info on an international Masters in Art Therapy, go here.

Art Therapy Courses / Workshops in South Africa

Mandala Workshop (via Zoom)

Mon 9 Aug 2021 (National Women's Day)  |  4 SPACES LEFT!

A Mandala is a Sanskrit word for a ‘sacred’ or ‘magic circle’. Mandalas have been used for centuries in meditative and creative practices. This half day workshop is designed to help you relax and unwind and get into a space of being in the present moment through art, visualization, letting go in order to access a spontaneous, innate creative place within yourself. A real treat!

Full Fee: R680

Learn More

Art Therapy Taster Workshop

Thurs 19 August 2021  |  6 SPACES LEFT!

Short 2.5 hour online taster session where you can find out about Art Therapy in South Africa as well as have a short hands-on experience of both exploring Art Therapy and gaining awareness of the theories that underlie the practice.

Full Fee: R450 R400 (Early Bird ends 6 Aug 2021)

Learn More

Art Therapy 1-Day Intro Course (via Zoom)

Mon 30 Aug 2021  |  6 SPACES LEFT!

This one-day course is aimed at introducing you to the dynamic and exciting process of Art Therapy and how it can be applied to adults and children of all ages. An exciting combination of learning, experiential art-making and questions and answers in a group environment. No art experience required!

Full Fee: R1450 R1350 (Early Bird ends 10 Aug 2021)

Learn More

Art Therapy 3-Day Seminar: Part 1 (via Zoom)

27-29 Sept 2021  |  4 SPACES LEFT!

CPD points for HPCSA registered professionals.

An ONLINE introduction to the process of Art Therapy including theory, case studies, experiential art making, exploration, sharing daily plus journaling. Less intense, lighter, shorter and cheaper than the 5-Day Intensive Course.

Full Fee: R5250 R4950 (Early Bird ends 16 Aug 2021)

Learn More

Art Therapy 3-Day Seminar: Part 2 (via Zoom)

4-6 Oct 2021 or 11-13 Oct 2021  |  7 SPACES LEFT!

*NEW* Advanced Online Art Therapy 3-Day Seminar – after completion of the Art Therapy 3-Day Seminar or the Art Therapy 5-Day Intensive course – this ADVANCED or TOP-UP Seminar is built on previously explored concepts and group experiences.

Full Fee: R4950 R4800 (Early Bird ends 18 Aug 2021)

Learn More

Create - Connect - Reflect Workshop (via Zoom)

3 Sept 2021  |  8 SPACES LEFT!

We are all fighting two invisible enemies – Covid-19 and mental health challenges. Each one of us has experienced significant life changes and loss – whether it is of a physical, emotional, financial or social nature. We have all been affected. Many of us are in a state of stuckness, confusion or in limbo. Uncertainty, […]

Full Fee: R580 R550 (Early Bird ends 10 Aug 2021)

Learn More

Art Therapy Vision Board Workshop (via Zoom)

TBC - Run for existing groups upon request

A combination of colour, pictures, words and Art Therapy techniques to identify, explore and creatively set goals for 2021. Lay the foundations for the New Year! No art experience required.

Full Fee: R600

Learn More

Art as Communication (via Zoom)

2021/2022

(This course runs online for 8 consecutive weeks)

An online experiential art making workshop and exploring of images within a group format, whilst introducing basic Art Therapy theoretical ''concepts''. Various art materials are used as a means of self-expression and communication.

Full Fee: R4950 R4650

Learn More
Art Therapy for Corporates

Creative Workshops for Corporates

Run on request for existing groups

Tailor-made for organisations and corporate settings! Various creative interventions available, which encompass a uniquely developed and researched methodology utilizing practical, creative and experiential learning rather than the traditional 'learning from lecture and notes' approach.

Learn More
Art Therapy in Education

Art Therapy Workshops for Educators

Run on request for existing groups

Tailor-made Art Therapy workshops for groups of educators, art teachers and councillors working in school settings. Choose from a 2 hour mini-workshop or a 1-Day Art Therapy workshop...

Learn More

Art Therapy Courses / Workshops in South Africa

Mandala Workshop (via Zoom)

Mon 9 Aug 2021 (National Women's Day)  |  4 SPACES LEFT!

A Mandala is a Sanskrit word for a ‘sacred’ or ‘magic circle’. Mandalas have been used for centuries in meditative and creative practices. This half day workshop is designed to help you relax and unwind and get into a space of being in the present moment through art, visualization, letting go in order to access a spontaneous, innate creative place within yourself. A real treat!

Full Fee: R680

Learn More

Art Therapy Taster Workshop

Thurs 19 August 2021  |  6 SPACES LEFT!

Short 2.5 hour online taster session where you can find out about Art Therapy in South Africa as well as have a short hands-on experience of both exploring Art Therapy and gaining awareness of the theories that underlie the practice.

Full Fee: R450 R400 (Early Bird ends 6 Aug 2021)

Learn More

Art Therapy 1-Day Intro Course (via Zoom)

Mon 30 Aug 2021  |  6 SPACES LEFT!

This one-day course is aimed at introducing you to the dynamic and exciting process of Art Therapy and how it can be applied to adults and children of all ages. An exciting combination of learning, experiential art-making and questions and answers in a group environment. No art experience required!

Full Fee: R1450 R1350 (Early Bird ends 10 Aug 2021)

Learn More

Art Therapy 3-Day Seminar: Part 1 (via Zoom)

27-29 Sept 2021  |  4 SPACES LEFT!

CPD points for HPCSA registered professionals.

An ONLINE introduction to the process of Art Therapy including theory, case studies, experiential art making, exploration, sharing daily plus journaling. Less intense, lighter, shorter and cheaper than the 5-Day Intensive Course.

Full Fee: R5250 R4950 (Early Bird ends 16 Aug 2021)

Learn More

Art Therapy 3-Day Seminar: Part 2 (via Zoom)

4-6 Oct 2021 or 11-13 Oct 2021  |  7 SPACES LEFT!

*NEW* Advanced Online Art Therapy 3-Day Seminar – after completion of the Art Therapy 3-Day Seminar or the Art Therapy 5-Day Intensive course – this ADVANCED or TOP-UP Seminar is built on previously explored concepts and group experiences.

Full Fee: R4950 R4800 (Early Bird ends 18 Aug 2021)

Learn More

Create - Connect - Reflect Workshop (via Zoom)

3 Sept 2021  |  8 SPACES LEFT!

We are all fighting two invisible enemies – Covid-19 and mental health challenges. Each one of us has experienced significant life changes and loss – whether it is of a physical, emotional, financial or social nature. We have all been affected. Many of us are in a state of stuckness, confusion or in limbo. Uncertainty, […]

Full Fee: R580 R550 (Early Bird ends 10 Aug 2021)

Learn More

Art Therapy Vision Board Workshop (via Zoom)

TBC - Run for existing groups upon request

A combination of colour, pictures, words and Art Therapy techniques to identify, explore and creatively set goals for 2021. Lay the foundations for the New Year! No art experience required.

Full Fee: R600

Learn More

Art as Communication (via Zoom)

2021/2022

(This course runs online for 8 consecutive weeks)

An online experiential art making workshop and exploring of images within a group format, whilst introducing basic Art Therapy theoretical ''concepts''. Various art materials are used as a means of self-expression and communication.

Full Fee: R4950 R4650

Learn More
Art Therapy for Corporates

Creative Workshops for Corporates

Run on request for existing groups

Tailor-made for organisations and corporate settings! Various creative interventions available, which encompass a uniquely developed and researched methodology utilizing practical, creative and experiential learning rather than the traditional 'learning from lecture and notes' approach.

Learn More
Art Therapy in Education

Art Therapy Workshops for Educators

Run on request for existing groups

Tailor-made Art Therapy workshops for groups of educators, art teachers and councillors working in school settings. Choose from a 2 hour mini-workshop or a 1-Day Art Therapy workshop...

Learn More