Art Therapy Ideas, Tips, and Techniques
Art is a vital part of how we express ourselves, providing a medium for creatively expressing thoughts and feelings that may be harder to explore emotions using art in order to reflect on how we think and feel.
When used correctly, art therapy can help to unpack and resolve emotional issues while improving mental health and providing a creative outlet for thoughts and feelings. Here’s everything you need to know about art therapy.
What is art therapy?
Art therapy (also known as creative arts therapy) is a form of therapy drawing on a combination of art and psychology, using creative activities and the examination of art to support self-reflection and self-awareness, build emotional intelligence, and process unresolved conflict or trauma.
The term was first coined in 1942 by Adrian Hill, a British artist who used painting and drawing to support his recovery from tuberculosis. Hill wasn’t the first to link expressive arts and therapy, however; while he established the term of art therapy, many psychologists had previously incorporated art into their treatments and linked it to a number of psychological benefits.
What are the benefits of art therapy for adults and children?
Art therapy is useful for both children and adults. Children usually have more limited emotional intelligence than adults, and may lack the language or understanding to express their thoughts and feelings in words alone.
Through art therapy, children can experience a safe space cultivating social/emotional learning using art projects as an easier medium for expressing themselves. For this reason, art therapy projects can play an important part in school counseling.
Adults, meanwhile, can suffer from all manner of complex traumas and emotional or behavioral issues that can be difficult to address, explain or understand directly. Art therapy provides a means of self-reflection which is less direct and allows thoughts and feelings to be explored more comfortably.
As well as being used to unpack and resolve specific psychological or emotional issues, art therapy has more general benefits — for example, it relieves stress and reduces anxiety. This is part of the reason mindfulness coloring and drawing books have become more and more popular in recent years.
However, these books aren’t true examples of art therapy, as one of the major principles of art therapy is that the artistic processes in question should be used to inform and guide traditional forms of group or one-to-one therapy, such as talk therapy.
As with other therapies, art therapy can be highly effective in teaching participants coping skills, social skills and mindfulness. It can be used for a variety of purposes, including:
- Trauma therapy.
- Speech therapy.
- Grief activities.
- Mental health activities.
Art therapy is linked to other therapy forms and counseling activities, such as music therapy, play therapy, and social work activities.
How to get the most out of art therapy?
When directing art therapy, you should tailor the art activities and techniques you use to the needs of your participants. Certain activities work better for children, while others are more effective for adults.
Try to build a wide range of unique art activities for teens, children, and adults.
Different art therapy techniques may aim to unpack different issues. For example, some therapy activities may focus on self-esteem issues, others may try to address anxiety, and still more may aim to look into deeper-rooted issues of unresolved trauma.
These activities should then be connected to group or one-to-one talk therapy. The art your participants create can be used to inform valuable discussion of specific emotions, ideas, or issues identified through the creative process. That being said, it’s important to allow your participants to carry out their creative process uninterrupted so they can focus on expressing their thoughts and feelings without any external influences.
Working as an art therapist will usually require that you already have qualifications in art, psychology, or both. However, there’s always room to learn more to continually improve techniques and learn new ones, so consider taking extra courses to build your knowledge and learn new techniques.
Art therapy exercises
Many different types of artistic expression can be used in art therapy: painting activities, drawing activities, collage art, decoration, sculpting, and more can all be used effectively as part of art therapy treatment. If you need inspiration, try some of the following art therapy activities.
1. Postcard therapy
This activity works well for children and young people who may find it difficult to address people or situations that have hurt them in some way. The only materials needed are blank, two-sided postcards and colored pencils, pens, or crayons.
Ask your participants to reflect on a person or situation that has made them feel sad, angry, embarrassed, or hurt. They should think about how they felt in the moment, how they feel looking back, and what they would say to the other person now if they could.
They can then write down their thoughts and feelings on one half of the lined side of the postcard, and write out what they would say to the person on the other. On the other side of the postcard, they can draw, paint, or color a visual representation of how they feel or felt.
These writings and drawings can then be used to inform a discussion of their thoughts or feelings that digs deeper into the specific issues at play, helping the participants to come to a deeper understanding of why the person or situation made them feel this way, and how they can address this healthily and productively.
2. Family sculpture
This method is often used in other branches of therapy, particularly family therapy. Similar to its use in other forms of therapy, art therapy uses this technique to guide a discussion of family dynamics and the issues that relate to them. It centers on using simple sculpting materials to create a physical representation of the participant’s family and their dynamics and relationships — all it requires is some simple modeling clay, Play-Doh, or similar material.
Start by discussing the importance and significance of the family, and get participants to reflect on their own family and the different dynamics at play, in particular how this shapes the way they communicate with their family.
Next, ask the participants to sculpt simple representations of their family — they can do this literally by sculpting their family members or create a more abstract representation by using different shapes or objects to represent them. After they’ve sculpted their family, get them to position them in a situation that reflects the way the general family dynamic.
The shapes that the participant uses to represent their family can then be used to inform a discussion on how they feel about different family members and the relationships between them. Ask what the different shapes represent to uncover how the participant feels about each family member, and use this as a springboard to explore other issues relating to the family.
3. Intention sticks
This art therapy activity is a good way of setting personal resolutions and goals, encouraging emotional growth, confidence, self-esteem. Before the session, get the participant to take a walk outside somewhere calming, such as in a park or woodland. Ask them to focus on their breathing, and think about their surroundings, before beginning to think of what goals and intentions they have for the future.
Whilst on their walk, they should find some sticks or branches to bring to the session. These branches and sticks can then be painted before writing words and phrases on them related to the participant’s goals and intentions. Provide different colors and textures of yarn for the participant to wrap the stick in to further decorate and personalize it.
Afterward, discuss where the participant walked, how their surroundings made them feel, why they picked the words and phrases they used for the intention sticks, and how they aim to achieve these goals going forwards. The participant can take their intention sticks home and hang them somewhere that they can look at regularly as visual representations of their goals.
4. Therapeutic dream catcher
Our subconscious plays a key role in how we process emotions, experiences, and trauma, and often this manifests in the things we dream about. This therapeutic activity allows participants to explore what their subconscious may be telling them through their dreams.
Start by asking participants to keep track of their dreams and nightmares in a therapy journal for a few weeks, noting down major details and images and how the dream made them feel. At the start of the session, ask them to reflect on these dreams for a few minutes, then provide them with pieces of paper showing a dream catcher.
Below the dream catcher, instruct participants to draw a representation of the positive aspects of their dreams and how they made them feel. In the center of the dreamcatcher, ask them to do the same for the negative emotions and nightmares they may have experienced. They can do this through words, phrases, colors, and images.
Afterward, discuss what the participants have drawn and what that might represent in terms of their subconscious. This activity can provide a helpful springboard for discussing and reflecting upon deeper, more complex psychological issues stemming from unresolved conflicts or traumas fixated upon by the subconscious.
For people with self-esteem or body image issues, it’s common to present a ‘mask’ of sorts to the world — a false persona that hides their insecurities and emotional problems from those around them, or even from themselves. This exercise involves creating a physical representation of this mask to examine the personality it conveys and the emotions it hides.
Begin by explaining this concept of masking to participants, then ask them to think about what masks they might present to those around them. Specifically, ask them to picture the ideal self that they would portray to the world through these masks, and what this mask might look like in real life.
Next, get them to create this mask. They could create it from scratch using plaster or could decorate and personalize ready-made masks instead by painting or sticking objects to them. Once completed, lead a discussion around what these masks represent, and what ideas they seek to convey to the world.
This can lead naturally into a discussion around what these masks seek to hide about their owner. Some of these examples include:
- Perceived flaws.
- Confidence issues.
6. Word collage and poem collage
One of the difficulties of creating art is that internalized self-criticism can make it hard to express thoughts and feelings confidently or accurately. Similarly, self-consciousness can make it hard to put these feelings into words. One way to tackle this is by instead using the words of others in order to create poems and collages that represent these thoughts and feelings.
To do this, provide participants with old magazines, newspapers, or books that they can cut out words, phrases, and images from to make a collage. These collages could be used to explore a variety of themes depending on the needs of the participants in question.
One option is to ask participants to think about the way they talk to themselves, and how this self-talk can impact their self-image, moods, and emotions. Encourage a discussion of how and when they may be self-critical, and whether the things they tell themselves are true?
Following this, ask participants to create a poem collage using cuttings from the newspapers and magazines you have provided, exploring the way they think about themselves and the way that others may think of them.
Alternatively, get them to create a collage of words and phrases that provide affirmation, positivity, or encouragement. They can then take these collages home and display them somewhere to provide visual reminders to avoid negative self-talk.
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