What is Art Therapy?

I’ve heard the phrase “art therapy” tossed around more than the winning egg at an egg toss, but I never really understood what it was exactly. Before I began this blog, art therapy was mainly using art to unwind while creating something beautiful for the sake of a beautiful creation in the form of a painting or a sketch. Hence why I began the title Learning to Paint for Art’s Sake. Several weeks of research and reading some other great blogs has taught me a lot about the true meaning of art therapy.

Art therapy is about more than creating an artwork. Sometimes it is nice to see something beautiful come from you, but that is not the sole purpose. There is so much more to it than I had originally considered that make it a truly complex and beneficial process.

There are heaps of definitions out there that approach art therapy from one way or another. Some definitions approach the subject as a psychotherapy, while others focus on the creative process as a healing force. Throughout my research adventures I have developed my own definition of art therapy:

“Art therapy is a therapeutic process that allows an individual to express himself or herself freely by embracing various artistic mediums such as painting, drawing, sculpting, photography, or other visual art forms. Art therapy emphasizes the use of symbolism to express emotions that may be otherwise unrecognized or indescribable. Therefore, the creative aspect of art therapy is only half of the process. Interpretation of the various symbols and metaphors that may be found in an individual’s artwork is the other half of the process. Overall, art therapy is a long-term process that increases self-awareness, self-confidence, and self-expression.”

As a person who has always kept some form of art journal or another without fully understanding the implications of what I was doing, I am a firm believer in the power of art to bring peace to any situation. In this regard, art therapy can be a fully self-guided endeavor. However, interpreting your own work can be difficult, so sometimes a professional’s help can be not only helpful, but necessary.

Professional art therapists (Registered Art Therapists or Board Certified Art Therapists) are trained to pick out symbols and other meanings that you may not be able to decipher yourself. Having an experienced guide will help you get the most out of art therapy. So if you truly feel like you want to pursue it to deal with a larger issue or something you were previously unaware of, I would highly recommend looking for some professional assistance.

Finding a certified art therapist can be particularly confusing, but the American Association of Art Therapy has created a document that lists all of the art therapists in every state in America. This document is large and may be tricky to look through, but it has some very good information!

As you begin to guide yourself through some beginner art therapy, start creating your own definition of art therapy. Build off of what you find important and what you want to gain from your experience. If you want to read more about the different ways of defining art therapy, I really enjoyed this page by the International Art Therapy Organization! It offers a great comparison of different definitions, which makes it easier to form your own working definition.


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