Art Therapy

courtesy of Psychology Magazine

Art Therapy: How Art Can Increase Happiness

Therapy is one of the most valuable forms of self-care you can do for yourself. It is a time for reflection and healing. Traditionally, treatment involves the client and licensed therapist discussing emotions in the context of present and past life events. Now, therapy has evolved and taken a new creative route.

What Is Art Therapy?

Art therapy is based on the original client-therapist dynamic, but the therapist introduces art as an inanimate element to assist the patient with managing and expressing their emotions. Exploring this creative outlet can be incredibly beneficial for mental health. Art therapy evokes expressive emotions that would otherwise be difficult to verbalize. Therapists use specialized strategies to facilitate a safe and comfortable conversation regarding the client’s mental health. Drawing and painting are the most common methods used in therapy sessions. The therapist may ask the client to paint a picture of a scenario or the first image that comes to mind when a word is said. Depending on the outcome, the therapist determines what route they should take regarding further treatment.

Art therapy drawing example

Art Therapy Techniques

Art is more than a painting (see: What Is Considered Art?)—it is the totality of film, dance, architecture, pottery, sculpture, and more. Correspondingly, art therapy encapsulates all forms of art. Clients who attend art therapy may not find drawing, painting, and sketching productive and helpful. Art therapy is multifaceted and expansive. Some patients prefer other art therapy techniques, such as dance, photography, and sculpture.


While verbalizing emotions can be difficult regardless of age, children are more likely to engage in art therapy sessions. Being exposed to trauma at a young age can alter brain development. It may be difficult for children to digest their emotions, for they have only experienced a fraction of their lives. Art therapy is crucial in coping with complex feelings in this scenario. However, patients of any age can benefit from art therapy. It is a standard and clinically proven treatment to help those struggling with mental illness.

Famous Artists and Art Therapy

Art therapy is universal and an excellent form of self-expression regardless of talent, age, gender, or location. No matter where you are in the world or how many years ago you were born, this treatment can make a positive impact. Nonetheless, there are examples of famous artists who held immense talent and partook in some forms of art therapy.

Vincent van Gogh is known for one of the most famous paintings in the world, “The Starry Night.” But what some may not know is that he created this masterpiece during his stay at a mental institution. Van Gogh struggled with manic depression, eventually taking his life in 1890. The evolution of his self-portraits also highlights his declining mental state. His perception of himself slowly deteriorated because of his depression. Though van Gogh did not technically participate in art therapy with a traditional therapist (at least, no one has confirmed this information), we can still presume he used art as a medium to cope with his battling thoughts.

Starry night
Van Gogh's Starry Night, courtesy of Wikimedia

Pablo Picasso, another world-famous artist, also struggled with mental illness. He is thought to have dealt with bipolar disorder and dysmorphia. Viewers can quickly identify how intense his conditions were by looking at the evolution of his art. Picasso’s first self-portrait, created when he was 15, accurately depicts his features; 75 years later, he finished his last self-portrait right before he died, illustrating himself as some form of Cubism human-like figure. His perception of self changed and was clearly portrayed in his art.

Picasso self portrait
Picasso's first self portrait
Picasso's last self portrait

Frida Kahlo also famously struggled with mental illnesses and used art to express her emotions. It is unlikely Kahlo attended art therapy, considering it wasn’t established until after she died in 1954. Yet, like Picasso and van Gogh, Kahlo used art to cope with several mental illnesses. Her self-portrait, once again, like Picasso, titled “Self Portrait with Cropped Hair,” 1940, illustrated how she perceives herself. Chopping her hair wearing a suit and appearing uncharacteristically androgynous t, she highlights her pain and dysmorphic self-perception in this piece.

Frida Kahlo
Frida Kahlo's Self Portrait with Cropper Hair

When a client battles with a mental disorder, the art they create often depicts their mental state better than their words could muster. Evidently, people with major depression disorder (MDD) tend to be more creative than those with mild depression. During manic episodes, one frequently relies on art to express extreme emotions. This behavior can also trigger a state of flow, a wildly creative and highly focused state of mind. Once again, one need not be an artist to reap the benefits of art therapy. It is a universal tool and is highly beneficial when done professionally.

Common Misconceptions

Destigmatizing the conversation around therapy is crucial. However, it is just as important to understand what art therapy is and is not. People often confuse relaxing art activities with art therapy because the result of both techniques can provide some psychological relief. Adult coloring books are a healthy way to reduce phone time—an activity that can contribute to poor mental health. Yet adult coloring books are not based on any technique used by licensed therapists but are the result of a marketing tactic companies use to cater to their target audience.

Additionally, art therapy is often associated with children since they struggle to verbalize difficult emotions more than most adults. This is a fair assumption, considering that many art therapy patients are young. However, over 50% of those who attend art therapy are over 40.

You don’t need to be a talented, Picasso-level expert artist to partake in art therapy. Anyone can benefit from this form of treatment! One of the best parts of creative expression is that it knows no bounds. 

Art therapy is an integrative mental health service that improves cognitive and sensory functions. Simply put, art therapy involves activities such as drawing, dancing, photographing, sculpting, and more, positively impacting the patient’s mental health and encouraging healthy coping mechanisms.

Where to Go from Here:

If you or someone you know could benefit from this type of care, talking with a professional about choosing this route is essential. Therapy is universally beneficial and helps millions of people. Art therapy is a unique intervention that allows patients to express their emotions and evoke a healthy, open conversation. To learn more, visit the websites listed below to find art therapists near you and more information on specific services these professionals offer.

About Art Therapy

Art Therapy Locator

Find a Therapist

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