Art therapy is a form of therapy that uses art as a ‘tool’ for the therapist and as an outlet for the individual. This is a way for the therapist to gain insight into the individual through looking at their work, and it is a way for the individual to both communicate their feelings and as a form of catharsis. Here we will look in more detail at what art therapy is and where it comes from.

History of Art Therapy

Art therapy in a way has existed as long as art itself and it is possible to view all at as a form of expression or therapy. In particular some artists are notable for using art as a way to either describe or express their inner thoughts and feelings such as Frida Kahlo or Edvard Munch.

Freud later would apply his psychoanalysis to paintings and images by such artists seeing their art as an expression of their unconscious desires and fantasies. In one essay he attempted to ‘deconstruct’ the psychology of Leonardo da Vinci from his paintings and made bold claims as to his sexuality, his temperament and his feelings towards his parents.

However as a therapeutic discipline, art therapy is comparatively young and began around the mid 20th century mostly in English speaking areas of Europe and then in the US. It was the UK artist Adrian Hill who is widely acknowledged as being the first to use the term ‘art therapy’. Hill discovered the therapeutic benefits of painting and drawing while he recovered from tuberculosis. To him the benefit was in the ‘complete engrossment of the mind’ and the ‘release of creative energy’ that was otherwise inhibited. He believed that patients could use art therapy as a tool to use against their own misfortunes.

This term was then adopted by a psychologist in the US called Margaret Naumburg began to use art therapy to describe her own form of therapy. This was intended to ‘release the unconscious’ through ‘spontaneous’ artistic creations – much as Freud saw dreams as the ‘royal road to the unconscious’ and automatic writing, so could spontaneous drawing express these things, and Margaret acknowledged the similarity to psychoanalysis. It was also known as ‘psychodynamic art therapy’ setting it apart from Hill’s work.

Benefits and Weaknesses of Art Therapy

Art therapy has some definite strong points, but it is not necessarily suited to all situations. First of all, it is highly beneficial for situations where the patient can benefit from a different form of communication and where they are maybe struggling to communicate normally through speech. For instance then this can be highly useful for children who are having developmental problems and children in general who enjoy art and who may not be able to articulate their feelings well. Likewise it can be highly useful where the person doesn’t feel quite able or ready to talk about their experiences and therefore use the art therapy as an alternative way to communicate feelings. It may even be useful as a way of uncovering things that the person did not want to disclose, or even in some cases that they weren’t aware of.

Another benefit of art therapy is that, as discovered by Hill, it is a highly useful coping tool that is expressive and distracting as well as somewhat meditative. This gives it use for cognitive behavioral therapists who teach their clients and patients coping strategies that they can use to address negative feelings. Art therapy has also been used in psychological testing and diagnosis and has been successful in addressing the IQ of children to the presence of severe personality or developmental disorders.

However there are also downsides to art therapy. For instance many forms of art therapy rely heavily on psychotherapy – the school of psychology that uses Freud’s theories. This is a problem for some as many modern psychologists disagree with several points of psychotherapy and it proves less effective than more ‘hands on’ methods of treating conditions like depression or anxiety disorders such as cognitive behavioral therapy. In such cases a more scientific approach is preferred by many.

Meanwhile another issue with art therapy is that it can vary quite a lot in approach from therapist to therapist. Unlike a cognitive behavioral therapist who will use a very predefined approach that is the same across the board, an art therapist might be successful or not depending on the individual that you encounter.

Some Example Assessments

As mentioned, the kind of things an art therapist gets you to do and the ways they interpret them will vary greatly from case to case. However while much of art therapy will involve simply painting as a form of expression there are also some set assessments that therapists can use in order to learn more about patients. Here are two examples:

HTP: HTP stands for ‘House Person Tree’ and in this assessment the patient is asked to draw each of those three objects with little to no instruction. After they have done this the therapist will then ask some questions about those images to ascertain more details. For instance they might ask ‘How old is the person in that drawing?’, ‘What is the weather like in that picture?’, ‘What is that house made out of?’, ‘How many bedrooms is that house?’, ‘How is that person feeling?’. Because psychodynamic theory describes us as using ‘projection’ to cast our own feelings and thoughts onto people or objects, this then means that this can be insightful as to how that person is feeling, or how they view themselves.

Road Drawing: Here a person is asked to draw a road. Again this is a projection task and it is believed that in drawing the road you might draw something approximating the ‘road of life’ that tells the journey of your life. For instance a speed bump or sudden turn, or a pothole, any of which could represent trauma at that point in your life. The therapist may then use this drawing in order to talk about the patient’s life, either by asking what happened at those points, or by explaining how a life, like a road needs constant repairs and servicing.

How Is Art Therapy Used

Art therapy is used sometimes as a tool by other therapists and can supplement psychoanalysis or cognitive behavioral therapy and in this way it can make a more full form of therapy for more serious conditions and more cognitive problems such as anxiety disorders or personality disorders.

However if you are having difficulties overcoming particular feelings such as depression, or if you are looking for new ways to express yourself and explore your feelings; then art therapy can be used as a form of therapy in itself and can be very effective and helpful in some cases. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words…

Note: Note that in order to benefit from art therapy you do not need any particular art skills. It is about what you draw and how you express yourself and communicate through pictures – not about how well you draw or what techniques you use.

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