What Is Art Therapy? Getting Started

By Michael Puskar|Updated June 27, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Kelly L. Burns, MA, LPC, ATR-P

What do you know about art therapy? Have you seen art produced during a therapy session? Perhaps you or someone you love has participated in art therapy — as an art therapist, therapy aide, or client.

Interested in Learning More About Art Therapy?

You may have had no experience with art as therapy — and are curious about its approach. Even if you've participated in art therapy, the therapist may not have explained much about it to you. Whether you're a new client or considering pursuing a career as an art therapist, knowing more can empower you as you take the next steps in life.

The simplest art therapy definition is that it is an approach in which sessions use a combination of art and psychological principles to help people deal with a wide range of problems. If you've ever seen the art produced during expressive arts therapy, you might wonder about the artist's thinking. The art therapist doesn't just wonder; they pay attention to the words and gestures of the artist as they work — and afterward as they talk about what they've created. They may ask questions as well and notice symbolism from the artist. They put their training in art and psychology to work by engaging the client who is making the art to assist them in:

  • Experiencing and expressing their feelings
  • Gaining skills and confidence that goes along with them
  • Finding enjoyment despite their problems
  • Understanding their problems and themselves better
  • Learning coping skills
  • Healing wounds left by traumatic experiences
  • Dealing with daily stress

If this is your first time learning about art therapy, you are not alone. It is a method that isn't discussed as frequently as other types of treatment options, yet it can provide tremendous results. You've probably heard from people who enjoy creating art, including music, that it's a way to relieve stress and express themselves. Art therapy builds on this, creating a formal treatment for people.

What Is Art Therapy?

Art therapy can be used just like any other form of therapy to explore problems and solutions, express feelings, and learn new ways of dealing with issues. However, it is different than most types of treatment in that clients don't necessarily have to talk to express their thoughts and feelings. This is especially helpful when the client is dealing with emotions that are too intense to describe them in words. It's also beneficial for people who have difficulty expressing themselves verbally. Yet, anyone can benefit from art therapy because it helps them tap into their creativity to experience and respond to the world in new ways.

Art Therapy Statistics

The body of research on art therapy is still relatively small. Many studies have been done with only a few clients each. Yet, there is growing evidence that this approach does have distinct benefits for clients who engage in it. Some art therapy statistics from studies include:

  • A one-year study of five 10-year-olds in a school-based art therapy group. The students indicated that it helped them deal with their emotions surrounding family issues and grief.
  • A 9-month study of five adults with a personality disorder. Testing and observation revealed afterward that their symptoms had improved.
  • A one-year study of five children with attachment disorders. All students had improved and developed in positive ways after the study.
  • A study of 48 incarcerated men. After they participated in the group, they took tests that showed improved behavior and mood.

Schools Of Thought In Art Therapy

Art therapy combines many different counseling methods and techniques in an eclectic blend using art as a mode of expression, discovery, and emotional release. The two primary schools of thought are Art as Therapy and Art Psychotherapy. While these are two different approaches, they can still be used together.

Art As Therapy

In the Art as Therapy approach, the client uses the art-making experience as a means to deal with their emotions. The work itself is cathartic. It may diminish the artist's anxiety or help to lift their depression. In other words, the artistic experience itself is the therapy.

Art Psychotherapy

In art psychotherapy, the therapist notices symbolism in the art. They use art as a springboard for talking to the client about their problems. They typically use the psychotherapeutic method, but they may also use other counseling interventions as well.

Art Therapy For Stress Relief

Art can be a wonderful way to relieve stress and anxiety. Clients living in dysfunctional families or abusive situations often benefit from art therapy. Once they are able to manage their stress, they may find new ways to deal with the family situation or begin to build the strength to move on. The beauty of creating art as a way to relieve stress is that the person who is making it can lose themselves in their work. They can get beyond the words and conscious thoughts they don't know how to deal with and find the inner truth of their feelings about it.

Types Of Art Therapy Activities

Art therapists can use nearly any kind of art in their treatment plans. These activities include:

  • Painting self-portraits
  • Painting or coloring their own family
  • Working with ceramics
  • Sewing
  • Making collages
  • Crafting gifts for loved ones
  • Coloring in an art therapy coloring book

Art Therapy Jobs

Would you like to have a job that allows you to express your creativity, pass along your knowledge about art, and help people deal with difficult problems? If so, art therapy may be the career you've been looking for. Therapists may work with people of any age. They typically work with people who have emotional or mental problems, but they may also work with people whose primary problem is physical. Where do they work? Here are a few places art therapy might take place:

  • A therapist's office
  • An inpatient mental health facility
  • A school
  • A prison
  • A workplace
  • A community center

Salary And The Working Conditions In the Art Therapy Field

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual art therapy salary was $55,900 as of May 2014. Of course, the actual salary you receive may be more or less than this. This could vary based on your location, the type of facility that employs you, your level of education, and experience. Working conditions vary as well. You may be in beautiful surroundings with all the conveniences of a luxurious resort if you're working in an upscale private mental health facility. If you work in prison, the conditions may be less pleasant. Most times, however, the conditions fall somewhere in between.

Hours are typically average compared to other professions. They not only help clients create art, but they also provide counseling, do assessments, create treatment plans, and perform clerical tasks. Sometimes, they are responsible for housekeeping tasks in the art room, but if the facility has a larger budget, an aide may take care of this. The therapist usually plans art projects and orders needed supplies. Their day may include several art therapy sessions in addition.

Developing Art Therapy Ideas

Aside from the sessions, their main job is to develop interventions that use a creative expression directly connected to the client's needs and goals for treatment. They may rely on their own imaginations as well as on a wide variety of resources such as industry magazines, colleagues, research studies, and techniques they've learned during their art education. Remember, the professional is not only an artist but also a therapist. As they work on ideas for art therapy, they also consider how they will use each art experience to help the client. They may outline a set of objectives for each session. They follow a plan to provide the client cathartic emotional release or provide a subject for a session.

The Road To Becoming An Art Therapist

Becoming an art therapist requires more than knowing how to paint a picture or listen to a friend in need. If you choose to follow this career path, you'll need art therapy training, degree, and certification. Take it one step at a time to ensure you become the art therapist you want to be.

Art Approach

Before you take any other steps, it can be helpful to explore the field to get a better idea of what it entails. Start by reading all you can, including research studies and case studies. Look at magazines or picture books of art that were created in art therapy classes. Learn more about psychology and the therapeutic process. You may also be able to get a part-time job or volunteer as a helper in an art therapy program. Once you have a feel for how art therapy works, you should also look more closely at your own personal characteristics that may make this job easier or more challenging for you than other careers. Art therapists need:

  • Creativity
  • Passion for helping people
  • Excellent listening and communication skills
  • Patience
  • Interest in human psychology and behavior

Making The Decision To Begin

Say you've learned all you can about art therapy. The next step is making the decision and a commitment to getting the education and experience you need to become an art therapist. Certainly, anything you learn about art and psychology can help you in your daily life. However, taking a casual maybe-I-will, maybe-I-won't attitude toward your career path hinders you from delving deeply into the course materials and delivering your full potential. So, before you begin, make a firm decision to follow this journey for the long haul. Leave the possibility of changing your mind for the future. For now, concentrate on art therapy.

Getting An Art Therapy Degree

You'll need to start by getting a Bachelor's Degree if you don't have one already. The best majors for obtaining this first college degree are art and psychology. The most advantageous route is to get a double major with both subjects. Next, you'll need to get an MA in art therapy. After that, you can apply to one of the available art therapy Masters programs to study this specific field in greater depth.

Choosing An Art Therapy Program

Your art therapy degree is only as good as the university where you get it. So, selecting the Art Therapy Master's Program is a crucial aspect of your training. Not all schools offer this degree, so you're limited from the outset. The first step is finding out the colleges that offer it. The American Art Association has a convenient list of schools that offer accepted programs. Again, learn all you can. Take trips to the campuses where art therapy graduate programs exist and observe what's taking place in the classes. Narrow down your list and choose the schools where you want to apply.

Becoming Certified

Interested in Learning More About Art Therapy?

You'll need to take a test and possibly present a portfolio, case studies, and grades from your art therapy school to qualify for your art therapy certification. First, you can get one of the four national certifications. These include:

  • Provisional Registered Art Therapist
  • Board Certification
  • Registered Art Therapist
  • Art Therapy Certified Supervisor

In some states, you'll also need a license to practice art therapy. The following states require a license:

  • Delaware
  • Kentucky
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • Kentucky
  • Mississippi
  • Maryland
  • Oregon

Other states award licenses for art therapy as a specialty of counseling or therapy. These are:

  • Texas
  • New York
  • Pennsylvania
  • Wisconsin
  • Utah

Benefits Of Joining An Association

When you become an art therapist, you'll likely join an art therapy association. Even if you're just beginning your  education, it can be an excellent idea to join now. This can be the American Art Therapy Association or an association in your state. Although there is usually a fee involved for joining, the benefits far outweigh the cost. They include:

  • Information on art therapy programs and scholarships to attend them
  • Information and links for becoming certified and/or licensed
  • Many opportunities for networking with others in your field
  • Information on current trends in art therapy
  • Access to the latest research and chances to participate in research projects
  • Career and job resources
  • Annual conferences
  • Being included in a list of art therapists
  • The respectability of being involved with a professional organization
  • Information on current continuing education opportunities
  • The possibility of earning awards given by the association

There's certainly a lot that goes into becoming an art therapist and practicing art therapy. However, if you are motivated to follow this path, it can be one of the most rewarding experiences in your life.

Improve Your Mental Health First

Before you decide to jump into your art therapy education, consider talking to a counselor about your interest in the field. As you discuss your thoughts and feelings, a counselor can help you clarify your goals. You may instead come to realize that art therapy isn't for you. If so, you might save yourself the cost and heartache of getting a degree you don't want to use. If you want to pursue it, you might find that the time spent in therapy, before you began, helped increase your motivation. In the long run, this can help you to succeed and deal with any mental health issues that may have prevented you from becoming the skillful, knowledgeable, compassionate art therapist you want to be.

If you're curious about art therapy as a treatment plan (and not a career), BetterHelp's network of licensed counselors includes certified art therapists. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing art therapy as a treatment.

BetterHelp Reviews

"Amy is wonderful. She is responsive, understanding, and supportive. Our conversations have been very helpful, very quickly. As an artist, I love the art therapy that she uses and have found it to be particularly useful for reflecting and articulating things I've been dealing with. I would highly recommend Amy!"

"Jenni is a great counselor. She has really helped me change my life. Discussing my worries with my loved ones can be a challenge for me, but talking with Jenni feels like talking with my own conscience. She never tells you what's "right" or "wrong," rather, she helps you look inside yourself to figure out what you need. She has helped me using art projects and metaphorical discussion that really relates to me and helps me open up. I would recommend her to anyone who wants to find the courage to overcome their struggles."


Art therapy can be the perfect answer to helping you cope with life's challenges and can help you become a stronger person overall. If you've never tried art before, but you've been curious about it, it's never too late to start. Additionally, by becoming an art therapist, you will be introducing new people to something that can change their lives forever. By allowing art into your own or someone else's life, you can enrich it, and it can offer a person a long-term way to deal with personal issues by giving you a new skill and hobby that can last a lifetime. Take the first step today.

Below are some commonly asked questions on this topic:

What is art therapy and how it works?
What is considered art therapy?
What is the purpose of art therapy?
What are 3 uses of art therapy?
How do you do art therapy?
Does art therapy actually work?
What are the 4 types of art therapy?
Can art therapists diagnose?
What are the different types of art therapy?
What are the cons of art therapy?

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