Exploring Art Therapy

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated June 21, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Art therapy is an alternative counseling approach for children and adults in individual and group spaces. Outside a professional setting, many use art as a therapeutic process to express challenging emotions that they may struggle to express with words. 

Art therapy uses various art media and creative processes to help people feel in touch with their innermost thoughts and feelings. Creative expression through art-making can serve as a cathartic outlet, and research has shown its benefits as a therapeutic tool. Learning about the effectiveness of art therapy may allow you to make a choice for the type of treatment you'd like to try.

Art therapy works when talking does not

What is art therapy?

Art therapy is the process of creating and interpreting art as a form of mental health treatment. Registered art therapists trained in this method often help people work through their emotions, symptoms, and concerns through different forms of artistic expression, such as painting, drawing, and sculpting. Other types of therapy such a music therapy are also chances to express your emotions through creativity. Art therapy work is a recognized form of therapy that requires certification and training in art and psychotherapy to become certified art therapists. They must also be licensed in their state to practice counseling.
Art therapy, such as expressive arts therapy, is a creative process that a therapist can use to guide a person toward self-discovery and understanding of their human experience. This active art-making process may help individuals gain insight into their feelings and help the provider know what areas to focus their therapy on. For example, a client might learn about relationship conflict, unwanted or unhelpful self-beliefs, or challenging life events through art. Despite being remarkably hard to understand in many ways, art can be therapeutic and calming.
If you attend art therapy, you might paint or create a scene or object you did not realize was a symbolic expression of a firm belief or inner struggle. Credentialed art therapists can help you discuss and think about what these symbols mean in understandable ways and how your emotions or experiences might appear in your artwork.  

History of creative processes as mental health solutions

Art therapy is a relatively new method of therapy that offers powerful solutions to everyday dilemmas. The roots of art therapy can be traced back to the field of art history. From the Romantic Movement to modern times, artists have used the creative process as a form of self-expression and healing. Alain de Botton's ideas in his art books have brought widespread agreement that art therapy has a latent therapeutic potential.
Today, art therapy is recognized as a legitimate therapeutic practice and can help promote healing and growth through artworks, such as those that might capture nature’s beauty and the complexity of everyday life. 

Known works from this treatment

Certified art therapists are mental health counselors, social workers, psychologists, or therapists trained in art therapy methods. Before being accepted into art therapy work, art therapists must receive a license through the Art Therapy Credentials Board, making them a constituent of the American Art Therapy Association. To become a board-certified art therapist, individuals must also have a master's degree or higher in psychology, social work, or a related field. 

When looking for art therapy services, consider someone with the right professional credentials, such as an ATCB (Art Therapy Credentials Board) license. An ATCB license shows that your therapist has gone through intensive training in the field of art therapy and are able to infuse applied psychological theory with art to identify mental health conditions, support psychological development, and build emotional resilience.

Mental health benefits of creativity

Art therapy services can benefit a diverse population of people looking for new coping skills. For example, some individuals may find it difficult to describe what they are feeling or have experienced. A therapist who knows how to use art therapy can help them create a visual representation of their emotions and experiences through art. Peer-reviewed studies have revealed that art therapy effectively addresses the following:
  • Emotional conflicts
  • Eating disorders
  • Self-esteem issues
  • General problems with mental well-being
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Self-awareness problems
  • Mental illnesses like anxiety or depression
  • Behavioral mental health concerns
  • Matters of personal insight
  • Human development processes
  • Obstacles to healing

By working through and completing the process of creating, art therapy may help build self-esteem, for example. Additionally, drawing pictures, painting, or sculpting are other forms of expression that you can use to experience emotional release and work through feelings of anxiety or depression.

Who can art therapy help?

Art therapy can be valuable for those who experience challenges in communicating feelings or social skills. Whether someone struggles due to a past adverse event, difficulty understanding themselves, a disability, or communication challenges, art therapy can offer a medium for expression. In addition, art therapy has been found effective in treating symptoms of developmental, educational, or psychological impairment. 

Art therapy is practiced in many different settings, including rehabilitation, mental health, education, and medical environments. While you may practice individually with your therapist as an in-person practice, you can also practice art therapy in workshops and small groups. Small groups or workshops offer a place to express yourself quietly and peacefully while others work on their art near you. Practicing with others in a warm and expressive atmosphere may allow you to explore both art and connection with others, as well as developing your artistic talent.

In John Armstrong and Alain de Botton's book, Art as Therapy, the authors propose that art therapy can be a valuable tool for resolving various issues in life. The book involves reframing therapy and the idea that it must be done in a certain way to work for people. The authors' contention with regular therapy offers a fresh perspective on what it means to heal.

What to expect during art therapy

If you have lived through an adverse experience, art may help you sort through the memories and feelings associated with that event. There may be no limit to what can be used for art therapy. You can explore different mediums, such as a pencil and paper, paints, markers, fabric, glitter, clay, crayons, or a combination of supplies.

An art therapist licensed with the art therapy credentials board may have experience in various topics and how they might connect with art. Talking about memories can bring up powerful emotions that may be challenging to manage. However, many people may find that completing art with their therapist feels less overwhelming than talking about their concerns. This psychotherapeutic relationship can be especially beneficial for your mental well-being.

You can work with a mental health professional during an art therapy session to create art, discuss your concerns, and develop a treatment plan. Although creating art can be fun, it might also bring out distressing emotions. When your art therapy session is completed, you may feel tired. Consider setting a time after your sessions for recuperation and relaxation. Consider how making the art made you feel and what you might bring up in your subsequent sessions. 

Deciphering the meaning

In normal historical settings, museums have used captions to guide the audience's attention to specific details in artwork. In art therapy, a therapist is focused on guiding the creative process to help a person explore their emotions and experiences. Through this process, a person can gain insight into ordinary dilemmas and develop a better understanding of their individual life experiences. Art therapy can also help people overcome squeamish beliefs or fears by providing a safe and supportive environment. 

Art therapy can offer powerful solutions for support and healing, and clients often provide helpful reports about the positive impact of art therapy in their lives. Your therapist is not generally worried about the stylistic concerns of your art. Instead, they may ask questions to prompt you to consider the deeper meaning of your work. 

An art therapist may understand how to direct your thoughts to help you process your emotions based on what you have created during a session. However, therapists may be unable to offer direct answers. They can provide guidance and help you come to your own conclusions. 


How do art therapy sessions work?

Art therapy sessions may be from 30 to 60 minutes in length. You can attend as many sessions as you need. However, you might start with six to 12 sessions to see how it impacts you. You and your therapist can further discuss your treatment plans in your first few sessions. 

American Art Counseling Association 

To find art therapy, search for an art therapy provider who has passed board exams for art therapists online. You can find experienced therapists with a degree in art therapy through the American Art Therapy Association or the British Association of Artists. Remember to consider their credentials and experience in the form of treatment and note that creating art, in general, can be different from art therapy as a practice. Art therapy is a structured form of treatment with goals and research-based methods. Some art therapists work in wellness centers or in independent practices, and many offer group therapy options in addition to individual art therapy. 

In addition, while art therapy can be a beneficial alternative to psychotherapy, it’s best to choose the method that works for you. Before meeting with a provider, ask them about their approach to therapy, their methods, and the session cost. If you face barriers to treatment, such as financial burden, distance, or lack of availability in your area, you can also consider online art therapy or counseling. 

An online approach allows you to meet with a therapist without having to leave the comfort of your own house. Additionally, online art therapy with a licensed therapist has been shown to be effective and more available than in-person options. 

iStock/Elena Perova
Art therapy works when talking does not


Art therapy has the potential to reach the widest possible audience and promote healing and growth on a global scale. By using the arts, such as paintings, people all over the world may have a solution to find healing and hope.

For some, finding words to express emotions and experiences can be challenging. The process of art therapy can allow people to express these concerns through creativity. If you're interested in trying an online form of art therapy or counseling in general, consider reaching out to a therapist through a platform like BetterHelp for further guidance and resources on this unique form of therapy. 
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