Synopsis: Art, no matter which forms it is in, is practiced by numerous people all over the world, either professionally, or as a form of recreation. While art can sometimes feel like a mindless activity, it has deeper implications for the human mind. Due to its several benefits, art is also used as a form of therapy. This article explores the concept and discipline of Art Therapy. By understanding what art therapy is, how art is cathartic, and the different types of art used in this therapy, the article seeks to explain an evolving academic field. It provides the definitions, history, approaches, and benefits, and myths surrounding it.

Introduction to Art Therapy:

Art therapy is a sub-section within the larger field of psychotherapy. It is a form of intervention used in cases of mental illnesses, issues, or disorders, or any problems related to physical and mental development. In yet other cases, art therapy is used for understanding oneself. Therapy is administered by involving the use of the creative techniques of art media, both visual and otherwise, to help people better express themselves. Through the use of art-based intervention techniques, psychological or mental disorders can be addressed, and even treated. It also helps in improving and maintaining an enhanced level of mental health. It is the discipline and therapy practice that provides an intersection between the two distinct fields of art and psychology.

art therapy examples

Art therapy is a process-oriented practice, i.e., it focuses on the effects of art during the therapy and does not place value judgments on the product that comes out of the process of art-making or art-taking. It helps build insight into oneself–the development of self-awareness and self-esteem is important in art therapy. In a way, it helps people connect with themselves and their experiences, and allows for conflict-addressing.

Therapeutic Effects of Art:

Art, any form of it, has been seen time and again to be beneficial to the mental ailments of people (Malchiodi, 2012, pp. 40-51). To be sure, art has a cathartic effect on people, whether or not they are suffering from any mental health problems.

Regardless of whether a person creates art actively, or views and consumes someone else’s creations (passively), art allows for an experience. When people engage in the process of producing art, it allows them to conjure a perspective of their own. On the other hand, when people view the art which has already been created by someone else, it allows them to take in the viewpoint of another person, and even compare it to their own.

Art provides an outlet for people to express themselves (Cherry, 2021). Through art, people can indicate their inner feelings, emotions, and thoughts without needing to verbalize them. In that context, art is also an effective form of enabling communication in situations where verbal interchange and dialogue are not possible or not favorable.

By engaging in the activity of bringing together a piece of art, a person’s creativity can be instigated and developed further. It has also been seen that the act behaves as a form of release and reduction of stressful emotions, and serves as a mood-enhancer (Gharib, 2020). Engaging in an art-based activity can also enhance cognitive abilities, develop better fine motor skills, and helps develop an overall positive state of mind and body (Phillips, 2021). Art can also help a person explore who they are, and understand their behaviors, responses, actions, and emotions better.

Due to these numerous benefits of art, most of which have been proven through research findings, it is used as a method of intervention in cases of particular psychological disorders, or to promote a good state of mental health in general.

Creative Techniques Used in Art-based Therapy:

Five major modalities used under Art Therapy are:

  • Visual Arts: This consists of painting, sketching, coloring, and anything that involves either creating or observing a piece of art that makes use of a specific media (Cherry, 2021). Visual arts include fine arts (painting, drawing), photography and video (including films), crafts, sculptures, and architecture. These mediums can be divided into fluid, solid and semi-solid, and three-dimensional.

Some of the media used in visual arts are:

  • Fine arts: Watercolor, acrylic paints, oil pastels, charcoal, pencil, colored pencils, sketch pens, oil color, gouache paints, brushes, hands (finger painting), paper, glass paints, etc.
  • Crafts (including sculptures): newspaper, balloons, glue, scissors, markers, origami papers, clay, sculpting tools, geometry tools, etc.
  • Photography and film: Camera (various types such as Polaroid, DSLR, film camera, vintage camera), tripod stands, lenses, etc.
  • Movement: This modality makes use of the human body, i.e., the medium here is the body of a person (ADTA, 2020). The body is used as a tool to instigate movement of any form. It can be used in the form of percussions (using the body to move to, or create, specific beats) and metaphors (swaying like the wind, moving like a butterfly, etc.). Props or external objects can also be used to assist the body’s motion. Any professional dance form, such as hip hop, Indian classical, contemporary, etc., as well as simple physical movements which do not conform to any genre, fall under the category of movement modality.

The purpose of this modality is to harness the connection that already exists between the body and the mind to build self-awareness (different paces of movement create a different sense of awareness), bring about relaxation, and even help in interpersonal settings. 

  • Stories: Engagement with stories, both through reading and comprehending those written by others and writing one’s own, can have several therapeutic effects on humans (Malchiodi, 2012, p. 156). This is also called ‘narrative therapy’. Stories can be of different genres, ranging across various age groups, cultures, regions, and periods in time. Genres of stories include mystery, sci-fi, fantasy, romance, thriller, moral-based, horror, mythology, etc. Stories may be for children, young adults, or adults. They may be fictional as well as non-fictional and biographical. Stories may come from all over the world, both in the form of folk tales as well as from authors belonging to particular places. 

The therapeutic effect of stories arises from their plots, characters, and backgrounds with which the readers might resonate. This can help with self-identification and realization through the symbolism and analysis of metaphors used in the stories. People might also find themselves within the characters, or discover if there are characters who they want to become like.

  • Writing: Also known as bibliotherapy, writing is another technique used under art therapy (Lindberg, 2021). This modality includes expressive writing, both prompt-based and free-flowing. Journaling, poetry-writing, story-writing, as well as mixing writing with other modalities (such as visual arts or music), all help in therapy practices.

Writing also improves fine motor skills, allows to jot down thoughts and ideas in an organized manner on something physical (i.e., paper, or screens if media used for writing is digital), and helps improve the general well-being of people.

  • Music: Therapy using music involves participating in a passive manner (through the act of listening to music) or taking action actively (by partaking in the process of music creation) (Wong, 2021). There are several genres of music: jazz, pop, R&B, country, etc., as well as music varying from one region to another. Music also depends upon the artists, events, generation, etc. 

Music helps us process the emotion we are currently feeling and validate, as well as provides us a way to pacify them. This is clear in the way we interact with music – when we feel a particular emotion, we tend to listen to or create music that helps us validate and express that emotion, and/or soothe ourselves. Through the beats, pace, tones, and rhythm, music can help people regulate their bodies and minds. 

Definitions of Art Therapy:

Although the overall meaning and significance of the process do not alter, various associations define Art Therapy in different methods.

The British Association of Art Therapists (or, BAAT) defines it as “a form of psychotherapy that uses art media as its primary mode of expression and communication. Within this context, art is not used as diagnostic tool but as a medium to address emotional issues which may be confusing and distressing” (BAAT, n.d.).

The Art Therapy Credentials Board (or, ATBC) defines Art Therapy as a process which “uses art media, the creative process, and the resulting artwork as a therapeutic and healing process” (ATBC, n.d.).

The American Art Therapy Association (or, AATA) describes it as “an integrative mental health and human services profession that enriches the lives of individuals, families, and communities through active art-making, creative process, applied psychological theory, and human experience within a psychotherapeutic relationship” (AATA, 2017).

A Brief Historical Background:

Even though it was formally instituted as a discipline sometime during the middle of the 20th century, art therapy has its roots way back in human history. Art as a practice has existed for centuries, most of all because humans and art are deeply interconnected. British artist Adrian Hill is recognized as the first person to use and coin the term ‘art therapy’ (Junge, 2015). Healing from tuberculosis, Hill used art as a form of therapy for himself. However, Sigmund Freud and Carl G. Jung are accredited with developing the initial roots of art therapy.

Following Adrian Hill, Edward Adamson’s research on psychiatric patients, and the setting up of the Withymead House by Gilbert Champernowne and Irene Champernowne proved of great significance to the development of art therapy (Junge, 2015). Margaret Naumburg, Edith Kramer and Elinor Ulman (USA), and Hanna Kwiatkowska (Poland) emerged as important classical thinkers (Vane, 2012). The establishment of the British Art Therapy Association and the American Art Therapy Association in 1964 and 1969, respectively, were crucial for the development of present-day art therapy (Junge, 2015).


Different theoretical approaches of psychology and counseling are used in art therapy (Malchiodi, 2012, pp. 87-198). Some of them include:

  • Psychodynamic: This approach focuses on Freud’s theory of Psychoanalysis and Jung’s theory of Analytic Psychology. This approach assumes that certain aspects of a human which remain unresolved in the unconscious, or internal conflicts that have not been resolved, can be addressed with the help of art therapy. Analyzing and understanding the meaning behind pictures created during the therapy process, how they change with alterations in situations, etc., are all methods followed in the psychodynamic approach to assess issues and suggest proper care accordingly.
  • Humanistic/Person-centered: This approach uses a more non-judgmental method to address problems during therapy. It focuses on helping people to express themselves more authentically. Individuals are considered capable of making choices that are both positive and conducive. Autonomy of preferences, beliefs, and decisions are provided unconditionally to individuals. This approach identifies the value of uniqueness in the perspective of each human and works towards its realization.
  • Developmental: This approach is used in cases of those children whose growth and development is either lower or unusually higher than the average when compared to others of the same age group. This includes both physical or bodily growth (such as height, weight, etc.) as well as cognitive development. Art is used to assessing the stage and rate of development of children, as well as target problems through art.

Other approaches include cognitive, family systems, group approaches, etc (Malchiodi, 2012, pp. 87-198). 

Benefits of Art Therapy:

Art Therapy can be used in the case of all age groups ranging from children to adults, to old age. It is also not limited to particular genders, sexes, ethnicities, or races. Due to its versatility, art therapy also finds use as a form of diagnosis and treatment across a variety of mental health problems. Psychological disorders such as anxiety, depression, PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), Eating Disorders, etc., all make use of art therapy (Cherry, 2021).

This therapypy helps reduce stress and curb related issues, understand and keep any problems that might occur in children’s behavior, and provides aid in cases of dealing with traumatic events, damage to brains, or problems with learning. By providing a source to channel their inner feelings into, as well as a distraction from their troubles, art therapy helps people suffering from physical ailments, such as cancer, during and in the healing process, as well as by decreasing anxiousness and building durability to intercept the pain with resilience (Tiret, 2017).

Children develop better, in accordance to their appropriate age groups, through art therapy, both physically (through the development of fine and gross motor skills) as well as mentally (by using art as a way of expressing themselves and what they feel) (Brown, 2012). 

Reality of Some Common Myths Related to Art Therapy:

  1. To avail of art therapy, one does not need to have prior experience with the type of art (i.e., visual art, dance, music, etc.) they choose (Cherry, 2021). Art Therapy focuses on the process and not on the end-product of engaging with art. As a result, people do not need to be familiar with or have a flair for art.
  2. It is not restricted to places (Cherry, 2021). The environment in which art therapy takes place can vary from educational institutions, to shelter camps.
  3. The therapist, or others, viewing someone’s painting or descriptions of the art of some form, cannot determine ‘who’ you are, i.e., understand the person perfectly from their art (Weaver, 2017). In usual cases, art therapy helps people come to terms with themselves. 
  4. One cannot practice Art Therapy by themselves. Using art as a therapeutic tool to de-stress or as a form of recreation does not equate to a session with a professional therapist (Weaver, 2017). Relaxation and bringing a calming effect may be one effect of art therapy, but the process involves a lot more than that.

As one of the fastest developing and growing fields, Art Therapy is of much importance. Due to its easy accessibility and the low efforts required in it, art therapy is quickly becoming a popular choice of therapy for many.


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Soumili is currently pursuing her studies in Social Sciences at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, focusing on core subjects such as Sociology, Psychology, and Economics. She possesses a deep passion for exploring various cultures, traditions, and languages, demonstrating a particular fascination with scholarship related to intersectional feminism and environmentalism, gender and sexuality, as well as clinical psychology and counseling. In addition to her academic pursuits, her interests extend to reading, fine arts, and engaging in volunteer work.