The emotional release of drawing, painting, or sculpture can have healing and therapeutic effects for adults and children alike.
These calming methods of working through emotions and expressing oneself can help to understand certain things that talk therapy cannot articulate.
If you haven’t experienced this, or if you know someone that could benefit from this type of expression, then art therapy is a worthwhile resource to explore.
In this article, we’ll explore what art therapy is, how adults and children can utilize its techniques, and how to become a professional art therapist or seek the help of such a professional.
This article contains:
- What is Art Therapy? A Definition
- Fun Art Therapy Ideas and Activities for Children and Teens (+PDFs)
- 5 Art Therapy Exercises and Techniques for Adults
- Helpful Art Therapy Activities for Anxiety
- 5 of the Best Art Therapy Books
- How to Become an Art Therapist
- How to Find Art Therapists Near You
- A Take-Home Message
What is Art Therapy? A Definition
Art therapy, as defined by the American Art Therapy Association, allows for creative expression that can overcome the limitations of language. In other words, if an idea or emotion is too difficult, confusing, or painful to be said, written, or signed, then maybe drawing, painting, sculpting, coloring, sewing, collaging, and many other methods of visual art can surpass the stumbling block of language.
Its potential applications can help improve areas of deficit like:
- Cognition and sensory-motor function;
- Self-esteem and self-awareness;
- Emotional resilience;
- Social skills;
- Conflicts and distress (About Art Therapy, 2017).
However, it’s also important to define what art therapy is not. For example, art therapy provided by a trained professional isn’t the same as services provided by an untrained teacher. The term “art therapy” has been modified to suit a larger group of people, and it has evolved in this do-it-yourself culture to include products that aren’t specifically used and sanctioned by professional art therapy practitioners.
Traditionally, products like art therapy apps and adult coloring books can’t be classified as true art therapy unless they are designed by licensed professionals. Often, this lack of credentials is the norm when it comes to mass-marketed adult coloring books (About Art Therapy, 2017).
However, this doesn’t mean that coloring apps and adult coloring books (among many other resources found outside of a counselor’s office) aren’t useful for self-care. These methods are excellent for as-needed use, though it’s important to note that there are professional resources available for more targeted healing.
Fun Art Therapy Ideas and Activities for Children and Teens (+PDFs)
Art as a means for healing and communication is highly relevant for children and teens. Young children often rely on their limited language skills to express complex thoughts and emotions. That barrier can be breached with methods of expression they understand a little better, like drawing and coloring.
Teens also benefit from a pressure-free, consequence-free medium for their thoughts and feelings. Listed below are some possible art therapy activities and exercises for children of all ages.
Most people would probably agree that it’s easier to express or recognize hurts and regrets when there’s distance between yourself and the problem. This is why the postcard activity can be a good self-discovery exercise that helps answer the question, “what would I say to someone if I didn’t have to do it face-to-face?”
The instructions for the postcard activity are as follows:
- Print out the PDF and have clients write a message to someone they’re frustrated with or to someone with whom they have something to share;
- One the blank side, have the client express their feelings with art;
- Use this as a way to start a conversation about what’s being expressed with the postcard (Post Card Activity, 2017).
Click here to access the PDF.
Words to Live by Collage
Teens can be vulnerable to harsh, judgmental environments where they don’t feel they can be themselves. They may suppress their true character to avoid censure from their peers, and it’s for this reason that it’s important for teens to identify their core values and identify who they think they are—and to write those things down.
This activity allows teens to visualize their core values through collage. Here’s how to teach this activity:
- Set out magazines, newspaper, scrapbook paper, and other art materials to allow students to form into a collage;
- Ask participants what words they live by. If students don’t know, it might be helpful to have some quotes laid out already that they can use;
- Have them represent their worldviews in the collage and use their quotes in the art. The final results can be discussed in a group setting (Words to Live by Collage, n.d.).
Click here for more information about this exercise.
Humans are all tactile creatures, but children especially are touchers, explorers, and curious feelers. Utilizing touch is a way for them to learn about the world and to find comfort.
This activity is a form of art therapy that focuses on comforting textures, allowing for a manageable exploration of uncomfortable emotions. Here are the instructions:
- On a blank, stiff piece of paper, have the participant create a mural out of soft materials. Perhaps in an older group, using handmade knitting or crocheting blocks would be a great way to add some time, pride, and relaxation into the project;
- Glue the material to the page, taking the time to really dwell on the textures, to feel, and to arrange in a way that feels right;
- This activity could easily be transformed into a guided group activity by adding prompts. For example, you could tell the participants to use the materials to depict an event that is painful for them, depict a person with whom they have painful conflict, or depict a part of themselves they’re unhappy with. With this project, participants are literally softened by the act of collage, rendering painful things into pleasant things (100 Excellent Art Therapy Exercises for Your Mind, Body, and Soul, 2011).
In a group with young children, we recommend using materials like glue sticks as opposed to glue bottles and having pre-cut pieces of material ready.
For more information click here.
Safe Place Activity
Building a safe place is an activity that’s adaptable for all age groups, but maybe a sensitive project for kids and young adults who often have little control of their environments and who might struggle to ever feel safe. This project may help a child or teen reflect on ways to find a safe space, or may simply help them feel like they have some control over their environment.
- Using materials like cardboard boxes, popsicle sticks, or folded poster board could be more fun for an older age group, but for young children, using materials on a two-dimensional surface would be easier;
- Arrange the materials to create or depict a place that feels safe. Participants may not have a real place where they feel safe, and if so, should be encouraged to imagine it in whatever way they’d like;
- Talking about what went into the space, whether real or imagined, and whether it’s feasible to create can help clients actualize their safe spaces in real life (10 Art Therapy Activities You Can Try at Home, n.d.).
For more information about this exercise click here.
What’s in Your Heart?
This set of three worksheets includes exercises for children to express their emotions, or to define the things they care about.
The worksheets include an empty outline of a heart. Here’s how to use it:
- Print and distribute the worksheets. Allow the children to interpret how to fill their hearts, or specifically instruct them to represent their emotions in the heart;
- Discuss with the children how they’ve represented their emotions/values in the heart and why they chose the mediums they did (Color Your Feelings, n.d.).
You can find the worksheets here.
Relevant Reading: 17 Best Drama Therapy Techniques, Activities & Exercises
5 Art Therapy Exercises & Techniques for Adults
Just because adults have more experience with language than children doesn’t necessarily mean they are any better at understanding their own emotions and telling others what they’re experiencing. Often, in dealing with adult problems, it’s even harder to articulate what hurts and why.
Distress from pent-up emotions and complex experiences that need articulation is an especially common experience for people in caring professions.
For example, art therapy has been shown to a be a promising therapy for end-of-life caretakers, helping them feel competent, develop emotionally-focused coping skills, and increase emotional awareness, an essential skill to prevent burnout (Potash, J.S., Chan, F., Ho, A.H.Y., Wang, X.L., Cheng, C., 2015).
Caring professionals especially need the defense against burnout that art therapy can provide, but any adult is susceptible to burnout and could use the coping skills taught through art therapy.
Below are some activities for adults who need an activity to better understand themselves. While these exercises might not be facilitated by a professional art therapist, many of them were developed and used by art therapists and can still make a difference for the individual seeking release.
This activity was created for people who suffer from eating disorders or who have body image problems. People who suffer from these afflictions often create masks to hide behind that can operate as distractions from other problems, keep others from seeing their suffering, or keep them from seeing their own dysfunction.
This activity involves creating literal masks that help explore the participants’ symbolic masks. Creating the masks can be done individually or in a group setting. The activity can help participants discover suppressed parts of themselves that they hide behind their masks, find coping strategies for life difficulties that aren’t food or body preoccupation related, and confront a fear of what would happen if the body- and food-focused mask was removed (Art Therapy Blog, 2017).
Here’s how to do the activity:
- Cut plaster tape into varying lengths and keep dry;
- Apply vaseline lightly to the area of the face that the mask will cover and keep hair free of the area;
- Dip plaster strips in water and apply them to the face, making sure the parts of the strips with the extra plaster are facing out;
- Create another coat of plaster strips, making sure to put extra tape around the bridge of the nose. Let dry for fifteen minutes;
- Remove mask and let dry for 24 hours;
- On a separate piece of paper, plan what will go on the mask that will answer or represent the objectives of the exercise;
- When masks are complete, they may be used in roleplay to further explore the issues represented on the mask.
If these materials are hard to come by, or this is being done in a group as a one-session activity, you can pre-purchase masks and the materials. Or, if neither of these feels right, you can ask the group (or, if doing the activity alone, decide for yourself) to incorporate whatever materials they’d like into making the mask, taking whatever time is necessary (Schwartz, D., 2017).
You can read more about this exercise here.
Activities like this one would be good for children and adults, but an older group or individual might better appreciate the depth and symbolism of the project. For those who feel lost, overwhelmed, or isolated, expressing those feelings and visualizing hope can be a therapeutic and beautiful way to identify needs, feel hope for the future, and realize where they are on a specific journey.
The activity involves imagining being lost at sea and visualizing the ideal lighthouse that would provide the right kind of guidance. Here are the instructions:
- Visualize being lost at sea on a stormy night and seeing a glimmer of light leading to land. If you row hard, you know you can make it. Warm food, dry clothes, and rest will be waiting at the shore;
- Draw, color, or paint a lighthouse as a source of guidance. Depict yourself in relation to the lighthouse somewhere in the image. Add words to represent sources of guidance in your life (Lighthouse, n.d.).
You can read more about this exercise here.
3. Self-Care Box
Affirmation and inspiration are the keys to the self-care box. It can be comforting to have something small, tangible, and beautiful in times of trouble. The box can be used as a resource and its ongoing creation can be therapeutic for the participant.
Here’s how to make a self-care box:
- Using a cardboard box and other art materials, decorate the box while keeping in mind that this will be the home for trinkets and small items of importance;
- Decorate or line the box with positive affirmations. These can be self-generated, generated by group members, or found online. These can also be simply folded and put into the box to be read when needed;
- Use the box for items that provide comfort, like worry stones, pictures of friends or family, clips of quotes or poetry, pressed flowers, or treasured jewelry or mementos. You might even leave some movie vouchers or massage gift cards in the box that can be used when you feel drained and in need of self-care (Self Care Box, 2011).
You can read more about this exercise here.
4. Poem Collage
Self-criticism can make the act of creation difficult, and often that difficulty in finding the words to express your feelings is because you’re self-conscious of how inadequate the expressions can feel. By creating a poem from a pool of words collected from sources like magazines, newspapers, and old books, you can create an un-self-conscious poem that molds pre-existing words to your own feelings.
Here’s how you can make your own poem collage:
- Collect materials like magazines, newspapers, old books, and scrap paper;
- Cut out words that stand out to you or inspire you;
- Collage the materials you found just as you would with a visual collage;
- You can begin the project with a story or theme in mind, or you can allow the word choices to decide the end result;
- If a project like this is used in a group or therapy setting, practitioners could ask the participants about their word choices, chosen themes, or interpretations of the poems (Frank, P., 2014).
You can read more about this technique here.
5. Family Sculpture
The Family Sculpture exercise is a popular art therapy exercise that exists in many other therapy types, though in a modified form. It is enlightening for clients to mold their family in a way that represents the members and the dynamics, and it helps them identify problems in relationships that otherwise might have been ignored.
Below are instructions for building a family sculpture:
- Using simple modeling clay or Plasticine, mold family members to be abstract representations of their personalities;
- Position the members in a way that represents the dynamics of the family;
- Conduct a role play with the figures, or discuss the reason for the sculpting choices (Malchiodi, C., 2010).
You can read more about this exercise here.
Helpful Art Therapy Activities for Anxiety
Anxiety can be crippling. It can wreak havoc on your most treasured relationships, make it difficult to leave the house or go to work, and make day-to-day life feel hazardous and lonely. More than 18% of adults in the U.S. are affected by anxiety disorders each year— that’s 4o million people (Facts & Statistics, 2017).
Unfortunately, anxiety goes untreated a much of the time, which means that millions of afflicted adults either have no means of coping with their anxiety or are coping in the ways available to them, which may be doing more harm than good.
One of the most enlightening parts of art therapy is the process of creation, which is just as revealing as the final product. For people with anxiety, there may be an intense need to finish the project, to clearly delineate the details, and to create subject matter that is universally appealing.
This was the situation in a case study conducted by Cherubina Albertini, whose client suffered from agoraphobia with anxiety and panic disorder. While the client benefited from the creation of the art, the therapist was able to discover some of the origins of her client’s anxiety by discussing her work and watching her process (Contribution of Art Therapy in the Treatment of Agoraphobia With Panic Disorder, 2001).
For anxiety sufferers, self-discovery and healthy coping mechanisms are essential, and art therapy techniques are among the healthiest ways to deal with the complications that come with anxiety.
People with panic disorder can spiral into panic just thinking about the possibility of having a panic attack. Panic can come on without warning in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people.
Having a Panic Book full of images that help you feel calm can be a way to keep yourself comforted in times of stress. Here’s how to make one:
- Get a sketchbook, notebook, or even an old paperback book that you don’t want to read anymore. Collect materials like magazines, paint, markers, color pencils, stamps, and more, being sure to build a reserve of materials that will go into making something you feel satisfied with;
- As a theme for each page, create a collage or drawing of things that you love and that make you feel calm (e.g. the beach, the library, a poem, the face of a loved one);
- Carry this book with you, add to it, and use it when you feel anxious or on the verge of a panic attack. Use it as a source of guided meditation to bring you back to a safe place (Art Therapy, n.d.).
You can read more about Panic Books here.
What Anxiety Looks Like
Understanding and visualizing anxiety can be a pivotal first step in controlling and treating it. Representing anxiety as an abstract concept, a human, or even a monster could help the artist develop strategies to recognize it when they feel it coming on and to deal with it appropriately.
Here’s how to do the activity:
- Draw, paint, or create a collage considering these suggestions as a template: If anxiety had a body (and personality) what would it look like? How would it talk? What does it care about? What does your body look like with anxiety? What would it look like if anxiety was no longer present?;
- Discuss the appearance and personality of the anxiety, or journal about what you’ve discovered (Tartakovsky, M., 2015).
You can read more about this here.
Art therapy for treating anxiety can be counterproductive in clients who are anxious about creating art. The Visual Starter exercise is a way around this, helping the artist get started without being self-conscious. The starters can be adapted to specific prompts or used solely for healthy stress-relieving creation.
Here’s how to use Visual Starters for art therapy:
- Using the PDF of “starters,” draw what one of the shapes inspires;
- If applicable, talk about what the final result represents. It’s possible that the artist simply drew to experience the relief of focused creation that erases present-moment anxiety (10 Art Therapy Exercises for Anxiety, n.d.).
You can find the PDF here.
Similar to a worry stone or fidget cube, mindfulness beads can be a simple, cheap coping mechanism that’s fun to create and easy to carry around. Here’s how to make and use mindfulness beads of your own:
- Go to a bead store and pick out beads that stand out to you;
- Create a string for a keychain or a bracelet, placing the beads in an order that appeals to you;
- When using the beads, you can simply reflect on the appearance, texture, noises of the beads, or you can touch and focus on one bead at a time, assigning meaning and using each bead as a prompt for meditation (Shultis, J., n.d.).
You can read more about this activity here.
Drawing patterns that allow your brain to enter a peaceful flow state reduces anxiety and helps promote a feeling of peace, slowing downtime and allowing you to focus on the present moment.
Zentangle was created with the promise that anyone can do it, even if they didn’t think they could draw well enough to create something beautiful. Drawing Zentangles creates a feeling of accomplishment and helps to pass time in a thoughtful, healing way.
Here’s how you can draw Zentangles:
- Before drawing, take a moment to feel gratitude and express appreciation for the materials and the opportunity to create something beautiful;
- Draw four dots, one in each corner, so the page is no longer blank and intimidating;
- On a square piece of paper, lightly draw a border in pencil;
- Draw a “string” or multiple “strings” in pencil to divide the page and create an outline;
- Using a pen, draw confident strokes in defined shapes, not worrying about what it is or what it looks like, usually keeping inside the borders and within the string outline. There is no up and down, so rotate as needed without regard to “proper” orientation;
- Shade with a graphite pencil. Traditionally, Zentangles are done in black and white, but some unofficial sites condone the use of color in Zentangles;
- Initial and sign your creation, stamping it with pride that you just made something unique and appealing;
- Admire your work (Get Started, n.d.).
You can read more about Zentangle here.
5 of the Best Art Therapy Books
Whether you’re looking for additional education on Art Therapy, or you’re wanting books with exercises and coloring patterns, here are resources to explore as a professional or as an individual who wants to personally educate themselves on the ideas behind art therapy.
1. Art Therapy Sourcebook by Cathy Maldiochi
Maldiochi’s book is like a textbook for art therapy self-education. She defines ways to perform art therapy yourself and how to interpret the results. Maldiochi also has a growing legacy of art therapy publications that would benefit the casual learner and professional alike.
2. Art as Therapy: Collected Papers by Edith Kramer
Edith Kramer is known as a pioneer in the field of art therapy. This collection of papers touches on many topics relating to therapy, art, society, and clinical practice. This book would be a good resource for those considering entering the field of art therapy as a profession.
3. Art Therapy Techniques and Applications by Susan Buchalter and Tracylynn Navarro
4. The Book of Zentangle by Rick Roberts and Maria Thomas
This book is a beginning educational source on the development of the Zentangle (described above) that includes completed Zentangles for inspiration. They describe it as a left brain/right brain resource for conjoining pictures and words.
5. 100 Magnificent Mandalas: Adult Coloring Book Vol. 1 by Jade Summer
In a study by Nancy Curry and Tim Kasser, participants were found to have reduced anxiety after coloring plaid and mandala patterns that put them into a meditative state (Can Coloring Mandalas Reduce Anxiety?, 2005). A coloring book full of meditative mandala patterns would be a worthy investment for reducing anxiety and practicing art therapy self-care.
You can find a list with the 16 best therapy books here.
How to Become an Art Therapist
Art therapy is a newer therapy compared to the giants of cognitive-behavioral therapy and other talk therapies. When combined with other therapies, art therapy has had great success in treating disorders, garnering it a great deal of respect and making it a growing field.
If you’re interested in becoming a licensed art therapist, do some research about what regions would recognize your licensure once it’s obtained. Most importantly, research art therapy fully and find out what art therapists from around the world love about the job as well as the challenges that come with it.
If you think art therapy is the right career choice for you, then here are some steps you can take toward becoming an art therapist:
- If not already educated on the college level, go into the behavioral or social sciences and obtain a degree that will prepare you for work on the master’s level;
- Enroll in a master’s degree program at an accredited school that offers art therapy licensure.
- Become familiar and comfortable with art and its many expressions, alongside your required learning for becoming a counselor;
- Reach out to local hospitals, assisted living centers, psychiatric hospitals, detention centers, or schools to find out about needs in these communities for licensed counselors with your skills. Look into working with other therapists in the area, or open a private practice (Start Your Art Therapy Career, n.d.).
How to Find Art Therapists Near You
The internet has opened up many useful avenues for finding professionals that specialize in helping with your specific needs. Thankfully, there are many directories of art therapists that can be searched by postal code. Some directories that can be searched by location and that include art therapists are:
- Psychology Today;
- Art Therapy Credentials Board;
- Find a Therapist;
- British Association of Art Therapists;
- It’s Good to Talk, United Kingdom.
If your state currently recognizes art therapy as a viable counseling option, then your state likely has a local art therapy association with a directory of licensed professionals in your state.
Finally, it’s common to wonder whether your insurance will even cover treatment by an art therapist. Generally, the best way to find out is to call your insurance provider. It might be able to refer you to an art therapist in your area that’s covered by your insurance.
A Take-Home Message
Art therapy by a licensed counselor may not be as easy to come by as an adult coloring book, but the good news is that there are endless self-care activities to utilize while the world catches up and gives licensed art therapy the recognition it deserves.
When you feel overwhelmed, tied down, or incapable of expressing your emotions, resort to the act of creation and find confidence and peace in your ability to create. Much of art therapy requires time and concentration, so the first step in allowing these techniques to work their magic is to allow yourself some time. Let the speechless communication of art say what you can’t.
Have you tried any art therapy techniques? What do you think of its potential for healing? Let us know in the comments section below!
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- Albertini, Cherubina. CONTRIBUTION OF ART THERAPY IN THE TREATMENT OF AGORAPHOBIA WITH PANIC DISORDER. (2001). American Journal of Art Therapy, 40(2), 137.
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- 100 Art Therapy Exercises for Your Mind, Body, and Soul. (2011). Nursing Schools. Retrieved from http://www.nursingschools.net/blog/2011/01/100-excellent-art-therapy-exercises-for-your-mind-body-and-soul/