What is Art Therapy

Can art therapy connect me to my child?

Mum says “he used to be so gentle and well behaved. Now he is caught up with the wrong crowd. The boys in his Grade 5 year are violent. They lie, misbehave and bully each other in the playground. I am not used to him distancing himself and I just can’t seem to connect to him. He won’t open up to me.”

What happened in the art therapy sessions?

During the art therapy sessions that followed, the Grade 5 boy built weapons out of cardboard; slingshots, bows and arrows, guns and knives. He built “safe” spaces: cages, elevator shafts, protected rooms, guarded homes and towers. He needed to create a world separate to home where he was feeling consistently under threat from his brother who had a developmental disability. His brother was prone to violent outbursts and without wanting to bring negative attention to his already challenged sibling, he kept his fears to himself. He didn’t want to burden his parents. Eventually his behaviour was too violent and harmful to ignore. 

Success that followed the art therapy

Fast forward a few months after art therapy, the Grade 5 student became calmer, more affectionate, and opened up to his family once again. He was able to verbalise his worries and learn strategies to feel safer. School noticed. Six months later he was elected Primary School Captain!

So, what is art therapy?

I still can get a blank face when I say art therapy. And it’s not surprising. Even the art therapists and psychologists can’t agree on what it’s all about. Yet it is important to understand what it involves, as it really is a beautiful process of healing and discovery. 

You can all create, and creating is very healing. In fact, creating can really be transformative. You grow as people when you become more aware, understand yourselves better and become more insightful. And to achieve these states you need to dig a little deep, often into your emotional states such as pain, anger, fear and joy. It is through this creative process that you can transform your emotions.  Your feelings and emotions are an energy source. Whether it is movement, art, or music, your imagery and metaphors lead you into the subconscious, and shines a light on your blind spots. By enlightening the once dark parts of yourselves you learn new information and awareness that can inform your future behaviour. As you create, you affect how you feel and relate to the outer world. You learn to relate to other people and your surroundings, and become more integrated with the world around you. 

During art therapy you engage psychodynamic theory. Most importantly it takes place in a safe and supportive space with therapists who are empathic and warm. They can help you integrate the intellectual and emotional aspects by taking time to reflect and evaluate these creative experiences. 


Often you have a lot to integrate yet you don’t have the language to express how you feel. As your visual art is changed by our movement and body rhythm, you can often express more emotion in one painting, after a movement exercise, than a two hour conversation trying to articulate what you are actually experiencing. 

Who is art therapy for?

Art therapy is not just for people who are mentally ill, but rather for children, adolescents and adults who are struggling with personal issues or just in search of personal growth. 


There are two basic ways in which an art therapist can approach the idea of art therapy:

Art Based Art Therapy

The first is art-based art therapy. In this approach the art therapist uses art as a means to relax you and in that calm space you may discover something about yourself. Art is used as a tool, an emotional journey to which discovery and healing are the end results. The art itself is healing and mirrors the emotional state you are in. It is a calming exercise and a therapeutic activity.

Therapy Based Art Therapy

The second approach focuses on the thought processes that that you go through whilst making the art. What are you consciously or unconsciously expressing through your art? The art therapist uses art as a window into the subconscious, and from there can attempt to figure out the underlying challenges you may be facing. It is a very beneficial mode of expression. 

What happens in an art therapy session?


During the first session the art therapist will find out what you’re going through, and gain any other background information you want to share. You and the art therapist will discuss some really specific aspects of your life that you want to change, and make a difference in. By measuring against your goals, you’ll know if you are heading in the right direction over the next few weeks.


The very first thing that needs to happen during the first session of treatment is for the therapist to establish a good rapport with the client. This rapport between the client and therapist is an important one because it allows for the development of trust in the relationship. 

Whilst you and your art therapist are establishing a rapport you’ll gently be introduced to processes and art materials that can be used in the creative process. There are so many different options based on the needs at the time in conjunction with what art materials you may wish to try at the time. 

A lot of people often pick up their first pastel or paint brush and say “oh my goodness, I haven’t done this since primary school!” And then those memories come flooding back. The art teacher may have judged the art work. The students may have commented negatively. And so the self-critic is born. Your art therapist will create a gentle space that encourages an exploration of that old self-critic. The art work becomes a partner in the art therapy process and you begin to create art for the therapy as opposed to aiming to complete an artistic masterpiece. You don’t need to worry about artistic accomplishment, but rather self-expression. An important aspect of this first artistic work is the reaction of the therapist to it. Encouragement, non-judgement and gentle acceptance is key.


As the art therapy sessions progress, there is a tangible level of trust that has been established between you and the art therapist, and so the time is more directed toward achieving the goals that you may have set out initially. During this time, your art therapist reinstates direction and boundaries, both personally and professionally. Lastly, the mid phase of the treatment generally is when significant issues are treated.

Once again, there are many different techniques that are used in art therapy and knowing which one to use at what time is one of the skill of an art therapist. Each narrative is unique and each client is different, and so the art therapist will customise the art therapy for each individual person. 


As you come towards the close of your sessions, you and the art therapist will begin re-looking at the art that you have created throughout the sessions and talk about the progress that you have made. A beneficial technique is to continue adding to your visual diary, and create art around the feelings of ending the art therapy sessions. 

Research in the field of art therapy

Research into art therapy is gaining ground in Australia, as it catches up with the international world. The University of South Australia is currently exploring the benefits of art therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder. In hospitals around the world, stroke patients, palliative patients and chronically ill are all showing improved signs of well-being after sessions of art therapy. According to the American Art Therapy Association, the definition of art therapy, is that it is a human service profession that utilizes art media, images, the creative art process and patient/client responses to the created products as reflections of an individual’s development, abilities, personality, interests, concerns and conflicts. Wordy and in–depth. Defining art therapy can be a daunting task because it is an evolving science, and one which Melbourne just recently started using.

However, the rest of the world has been using this quantum leap in art therapy for decades. It is gently powerful and must become mainstream. Although the idea of self-discovery through art is an old one, the concept of art therapy is relatively new here in Australia. For years, artists of all kinds have been growing, learning and expressing themselves through their respective art mediums, but only until the last few years, have therapists turned to the arts as a potential tool for healing. 

Outcomes of art therapy

If it wasn’t for the art therapy, our primary school captain might still be hanging out with the wrong crowd, roughing his way around the playground. Perhaps now he has painted himself a whole new pathway for life.