Art therapy is a rather newly developed psychotherapy discipline, aimed at helping people understand and overcome their psychological and psychiatric problems using visual art as medium of expression (painting, drawing, sculpting and photography). Although it has a recent history as a self standing discipline, art as a method of overcoming personal problems has a history as old as that of humanity itself.
According to Rubin (1998), even the drawings on cave walls or on ancient scrolls stand as proof of the fact that human beings have always felt the need to express their emotions in a whole different manner than through words. Later on, many more admitted to finding in art their source of motivation and the power to keep going (e.g., Frida Kahlo, Goya). However, the first time when the term art has been directly linked to the term therapy was at the beginning of the 20th century. Margaret Naumburg, who Rubin (1998) calls “the primary mother of art therapy” (p 3), opened a school centered on the arts in 1914 and later on she developed her own method of working with art to heal people diagnosed with psychiatric problems. This method was called Dynamically oriented art therapy.
Other pioneers of art therapy were: Adrian Hill, Florence Cane, Victor Lowenfeld. Today, art therapy is becoming increasingly popular and has extended as a therapeutic method from the more developed countries of Western Europe and America across the whole globe. Art therapy is used both in clinical environments (hospitals), as well as in non-clinical settings (psychological counseling, personal development workshops, creativity development workshops, art studios etc.)
Art therapy Addresses Everybody
It is very important to understand that in order to begin art therapy artistic qualities or traits are not a prerequisite. The art therapist is not a mentor in refining the plastic abilities of the individual, nor is he/she in any position to critique on the work of art that the client makes in his/her counseling or psychotherapy practice. What matters first and foremost is that the client/patient gets the chance to experiment during his/her artistic session what sort of emotions he/she lives when he/she chooses to paint something, what sort of thought run through him/her and what his/her motivations are in the choices made (colors, forms, textures, supports, subjects). The therapist is there to help the client/patient get a better understanding of him/herself through examining their own artistic outlook. The artistic product speaks about the individual and the message that the work of art delivers is what will be deciphered together with the therapist. Thus, art therapy is a therapeutic approach in which anyone can feel comfortable, regardless of their own artistic qualities. Only the availability to experiment with colors, images and yourself is needed.
Art therapy has proven its efficiency with patients suffering from speech deficiencies, sight problems, with children and adolescents following post-traumatic events that they avoid speaking about and with patients suffering from other various health issues – terminal illnesses, Alzheimer’s disease, brain injury, chronic stress (Hanes, 2000).
In the case of a person suffering from depression, anxiety, problems related to dietary habits, addictions and even dissociative identity disorder, art therapy has proven to be an effective tool for managing the situation and in coping with it for a better mental and emotional state (Bar-Sela, Atid, Danos, Gabay & Epelbaum, 2007).
Rubin (1998) says that therapy is useful in non-clinical settings as well, such as in situations where a creative and spiritual block comes up, couple and family problems or in social/economical crisis contexts (war, natural disasters, economically disadvantaged persons). Engaging, natural and non-intrusive, art therapy can be the answer to many of life’s difficult situations.
Why is Art Psychotherapy so useful?
Rubin (1998) says art therapy has a lot of advantages when compared to other therapies and she mentions:
Art involves the whole person, both conscious and unconscious dimensions of the human being; humans learn to use images before words, so it is a natural way of expressing ourselves (sometimes, a picture says more than a thousand words); art helps in expressing our dark side (the Shadow, the part in us that we do not accept or sometimes are not even aware of); art offers unique possibilities for expressing ourselves, not only words and gestures; the artistic product is a helpful presence, something we can physically see as a result of the therapeutic labor process; art normalizes psychotherapy (making it less formal); the creative process is a learning process (using memory, imagination, creativity, cognition etc).
Before making your choice
When deciding for art psychotherapy sessions, it is important to keep in mind that art therapy is a form of professional services that one employs. It is important therefore to find an accredited art psychotherapist. This way, one can be sure he/she finds in the therapeutical cabinet not only a wide array of colors and utensils for drawing, but the necessary emotional support for overcoming life problems, total discretion and confidentiality as well. Because before being a dimension of visual arts, art therapy is psychotherapy.
Bar-Sela, G., Atid, L., Danos, S., Gabay, N., & Epelbaum, R. (2007). Art therapy improved depression and influenced fatigue levels in cancer patients on chemotherapy. Journal of Psycho-Oncology, 16, pp. 980-984
Hanes, M. J. (2000). Catharsis in art therapy: A case study of sexually abused adolescent. American Journal of Art Therapy, 38(3), pp. 70-74
Rubin, J. A. (1998). Art Therapy: An introduction. Routledge, London