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Art therapy: Definition, benefits, treatment options

Reviewed by team

A woman painting ocean waves.

What Is Art Therapy?

Art therapy is a therapeutic technique that uses creativity and artistic mediums to encourage self-expression, emotional processing, and psychological healing.

All kinds of people can benefit from art therapy. You do not have to be an artist or have artistic talent. The primary goal of art therapy is not for you to learn more about art (although it is a nice side benefit). The goal is for you to learn more about yourself.

History of Art Therapy

Art has been used for self-expression throughout history. Regardless of time, place, or culture, different groups of people have discovered different artistic mediums through which to communicate their internal, emotional worlds. The history of art as therapy is as old as the history of art itself.

However, using art as a therapeutic treatment for people with mental illness began in the mid-twentieth century. The American Art Therapy Association was officially founded in 1969 and continues to promote the growth and development of art therapy today.

Benefits of Art Therapy

Thoughts, feelings, and emotions can be difficult to put into words, especially when associated with trauma or pain. But the world of art relies on symbols, images, and metaphors, not just words.

Many people find that art therapy allows them to communicate their experiences more effectively than talk therapy alone. With art therapy, you can express yourself through a physical medium and then use your art in session to reflect, process, and ultimately heal.

Art therapy is particularly useful for people who struggle to communicate verbally. It can help people with developmental disorders, speech impediments, traumatic brain injuries, or learning disabilities, as well as children whose vocabularies are limited due to their age.

What Does Art Therapy Treat? 

Art therapy can be used to treat a variety of mental health disorders and related issues, including:

Common Art Therapy Techniques

Art therapy uses common artistic forms and mediums as part of its therapeutic approach. Typical art therapy activities include:

    • Drawing, coloring, or doodling
    • Painting, including finger painting
    • Sculpting or carving
    • Making collages

What’s the Difference Between Art Therapy and Expressive Arts Therapy?

Expressive arts therapy uses multiple forms of artistic expression to promote psychological healing. Common art forms used in expressive arts therapy include dance, music, and theater, as well as the mediums used in art therapy.

The main difference between art therapy and expressive arts therapy is how many art forms are used. Art therapy tends to focus on a single art form, while expressive arts therapy uses multiple art forms.

Additionally, art therapy typically produces a physical result, such as a painting, drawing, or sculpture. The results of expressive arts therapy may be intangible or fleeting, such as a dance, song, or other performance.

Seeking Treatment Through Art Therapy

How to Choose the Right Art Therapist

If you decide to seek treatment through art therapy, it’s important to find a qualified art therapist. Anyone can create art as a form of self-expression, but that does not mean that all artistic creation is a form of art therapy. You’ll need to find an art therapist in order to gain the psychological benefits of artistic expression.

When looking for an art therapist, keep in mind the following criteria:

    • Certifications and accreditations: Art therapists must have a master’s degree in art therapy, counseling, or a related field. Additionally, most art therapists are registered, certified, or licensed by the Art Therapy Credentials Board (ATCB).
    • Additional therapies: Many therapists use art therapy alongside other forms of traditional talk therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or acceptance & commitment therapy (ACT). Check to see if your chosen therapist offers other forms of therapy in addition to art therapy.
    • Preferred experience: When choosing a therapist, your preferences matter. Find a therapist who has experience with similar patients to you or your child. For example, if your child has a learning disability, you’ll want to choose an art therapist who has experience with clients of a similar age, ability, and developmental background.

Where Can You Find an Art Therapist?

Although you can choose to seek treatment with an art therapist directly, art therapists offer their services in many settings, including:

    • Hospitals: Art therapists can help both children and adults process their hospital experience. Art therapy can be used for both patients and their families.
    • Schools: Art therapy is easily interwoven into the educational system. A child who is struggling in school may benefit from working with an art therapist on a regular basis.
    • Prisons: Art therapy can help people who are imprisoned gain clarity and insight as part of their rehabilitation. It can also help their families feel more comfortable during visits.
    • Inpatient facilities: You can find art therapists helping people in rehabilitation clinics, psychiatric institutions, senior centers, group homes, and other inpatient facilities.

See an Art Therapist Near You

Art therapy can help people express their experiences when words alone are not enough. Whether you or your child is struggling, art therapy can help. Click here to find an art therapist near you. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Why Is Art Therapeutic?

Art allows us to approach our thoughts and feelings indirectly. It requires us to be present and engages our body in a physical craft.

Art also allows us to express ourselves in ways other than language. While language can give us great insight into our psychological well-being, it has its limits. Art therapy helps bridge the gap between what we feel comfortable saying and what goes unsaid.

Are Adult Coloring Books a Form of Art Therapy?

Coloring is a great artistic activity that many people, including adults, find comforting. However, that doesn’t mean it is a form of art therapy. Art therapy requires the skills and direction of a trained art therapist.

If you enjoy adult coloring books, consider incorporating them into your self-care routine. Although they are not a form of art therapy, they may help you relax or manage your stress.

Do You Need to Be Artistically Talented to Do Art Therapy?

Your artistic talents have little to no effect on your experience with art therapy. You could be an accomplished illustrator, or you could be a child who only draws stick figures—it doesn’t matter either way. As long as you’re willing to try it, art therapy can work for you.

About the author

The editorial team at works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.