Rebecca Wilkinson, MA, ATR-BC, LCPAT


Although many people have heard about art therapy, often they are under the impression that it is mostly for children. Indeed, it is helpful with kids; it is also useful with teens, adults, couples and families, people who are medically ill or have mental illness, as well as those who are trying to overcome substance abuse and dependence, trauma, grief, and loss. In effect, art therapists work with anyone who is struggling and in pain, who wants to be happier, and who is trying to improve the quality of his/her life.

What Makes Art Therapy Helpful?
Doing art certainly makes sense if we’re working with children—art can be playful, expressive, and naturally lends itself to earlier stages of psychological and physical development. For those very reasons, doing art may seem regressive to adults. Most “grown-ups” have not made art since they were young and doing art may seem inappropriately childish in the face of whatever serious matters initiated their need for therapy.

Nevertheless, the playful nature of art may be one of its most useful qualities. It engages us in ways that verbal therapy does not. It accesses and reveals parts of our experience—feelings, memory, perception—that words alone cannot. Art’s effects on the brain and on the body as a whole are what make it uniquely useful to the therapy process.

What Does Making Artwork Do?

• Reduces anxiety, negative emotions, and depression
• Increases focus and energy
• Provides a healthy distraction from distress
• Increases positive emotions and counters the impact of negative emotions
• Improves mood and sense of well-being
• Reduces physical pain
• Improves health and immune functioning
• Promotes divergent thinking
• Shifts perceptions
• Induces flow–a sense of being absorbed and fully engaged
• Promotes sense of connection and identification with others
• Provides opportunities for self-efficacy, mastery, accomplishment and pride

What Happens in Art Therapy?
Art therapy can look very different depending upon who we are working with. Sometimes, because doing art is so therapeutic, the therapy will revolve around the art process; other times it might focus on exploring the imagery that was made, and sometimes it might include both.

For example, for cancer patients, making art provides them with a soothing distraction that helps alleviate physical pain. The manual engagement not only absorbs their attention, but it induces the relaxation response and improves mood. Using imagery to express the complexity of their feelings about their illness helps make the latter more concrete and manageable. The art process also gives them opportunities to get in touch with and see parts of themselves that remain intact despite their illness.

For people who are struggling with addiction, with self-destructive behaviors, and/or with overwhelming affect, doing artwork provides a way to channel and contain destructive urges, compulsions, or overpowering emotions. It allows access to and expression of feelings, followed by opportunities to develop more distance and equanimity towards those feelings.

For example, Grace (a pseudonym), who was devastated by the end of her marriage, drew a spontaneous representation of her emptiness and loneliness (Figure 1). Although initially she trivialized her artwork as trite and childish, she noticed that the image was really quite dynamic. She recognized that it represented more anger than sadness, and also power. She thought that it looked like a gown, something that was serving to protect her from others who had hurt her.

In a similar way, for people who have experienced a loss—whether it was someone they loved, a capacity they had that was taken away, or the surrender of a destructive addiction that nevertheless helped them cope— the art making process can provide a reprieve from their grief. When people make artwork about that which was dear to them, it gives them a reassuring connection to those things and helps ameliorate the pain of their loss. It reveals that the void that they were experiencing at those losses is not as hollow and empty as it seemed.

The Meaning of Artwork
There are times when it can be helpful for clients to explore the meaning behind their imagery. Even the simplest drawing offer insights into the artists’ unique personality, e.g. through the type of materials chosen, the colors and mark-making used, the way the figures/objects interact with each other, etc. Art therapists do not have simple formulas for interpreting visual imagery; rather, they explore meaning based upon the interplay between the clients’ process in creating the work, their thoughts about the imagery, and the visual elements in the actual artwork.

In other words, because art and the art-making process provide a bridge between a client’s inner experience and the outer world, it serves as a message from the self to the self and a message from the self to others. If the therapist and others share their impressions of the imagery with the client, it also becomes as a message from others back to the self, often resulting in a shift in perspective and insight for everyone involved.

Art Therapy from a Positive Psychology Perspective
As mentioned earlier, art therapists work with any number of different clients. They also operate from a broad range of orientations—psychodynamic, Jungian, Humanists, Solution-focused, etc. Rebecca, the author, and her colleague art therapist Gioia Chilton, practice Positive Art Therapy, art therapy from a positive psychology perspective. Positive psychology attempts to shift the focus from “fixing what’s wrong” to “building what’s strong.” Positive psychology attempts to challenges the negativity bias, the natural propensity to devote our attention and resources to solving problems, and instead mobilizes efforts toward observing and building upon what is functional and working in our lives.

The focus of positive art therapy is on helping people experience the best version of themselves given whatever challenges they are either born with or facing in their lives. It begins with the inherently healing nature of doing artwork and its capacity to produce positive emotions, to promote engagement and focus, and to induce the relaxation response. It also capitalizes on art’s capacity to contain and transform negative emotions.

As an example, in our work with Laura (also a pseudonym), a young woman who struggled with depression and hopelessness, drew a picture of herself encapsulated by a shell of pain and darkness that kept any “good” from getting in (Figure 2). Even in its simplicity, this image gave her some relief from the oppressive isolation she was experiencing. We wondered if she could imagine what it would look like “if the good got in.” In response, although Laura still included the red and black marks that represented her pain, the yellow marks of good could “flow through” (Figure 3). In addition, it wasn’t just that the image changed, her whole demeanor improved. She became more animated and others around her observed that she looked much brighter.

Perhaps, most importantly, Laura felt more hopeful. Art helped her access the strength and willingness to keep going. This illuminates another important endeavor in positive art therapy, helping clients tap into their strengths and their capacity to cope and persevere. This includes, as in the case of Grace mentioned above, utilizing art’s ability to access and express parts of the self and then, in exploring that imagery, shifting negative beliefs and allowing for more positive and empowering perceptions.

How to Access Art Therapy
For clients and/or clinicians who would like to learn more about art therapy or access an art therapist, they can go to the American Art Therapy Association’s website (https://arttherapy.org/) for an overview of the profession and a database of art therapists.

Rebecca Wilkinson is a licensed, registered, and board certified art therapist. She is co-founder of Creative Wellbeing Workshops (www.CreativeWellbeingWorkshops.com) which helps individuals and organizations manage stress, reduce burnout, and increase wellbeing. She is co-author with Gioia Chilton of Positive art therapy theory and practice: Integrating positive psychology with art therapy and teaches on the topic at George Washington University. She is also an Art therapy specialist and wellness counselor at Miraval Resorts in Tucson, Arizona.