How to Teach About Art Therapy

Posted November 11, 2020

By Rebecca Wilkinson


Most psychology majors offer courses in mental illnesses and their treatments. However, as common as these courses are, they rarely incorporate the expressive therapies such as psychodrama, art, music, and dance therapies. Although these treatments have been around for years and show evidenced-based efficacy, they are often considered experimental, ineffective, or niche. Another reason they are so rarely found in courses on psychopathology is that many instructors do not understand these treatments well. This post introduces art therapy as a common and effective practice that may interest your students. Here, I provide you with the basic instructional points and activities to help you teach about this exciting topic.

Part One: Key Concepts in Teaching Art Therapy

What Is Art Therapy?

Art therapy has become more common, and earned a better reputation, because of its role in helping veterans cope with PTSD over the last two decades. Still, even though it has been an established field since the 1950’s, many people are surprised that it even exists. It often elicits a mix of responses from curiosity (“What is art therapy?”) to confusion (“So, you are doing therapy with artists?”) and even, sometimes, alarm (“I can’t even draw a straight line!”). Sometimes, the very mention of art therapy evokes what we call art trauma—childhood memories of being chastised for coloring outside of the lines or ridiculed for trying to draw something realistically. You might consider opening a lesson on art therapy by having students discuss or write about their experiences with art and how these have affected their own attitudes toward self-expression.

An image of a person's two hands which are holding a piece of paper and a pencil and coloring in a mandala design
Coloring Mandala Designs. [Image used with the permission of the author].

Who Is Art Therapy For?

Because making art is often associated with childhood memories it is commonly assumed that art therapy is for children. Indeed, it is. It is also for teens, adults, seniors, couples, families, people coping with addiction, trauma, stress, depression, anxiety, developmental delays, chronic physical conditions, or even people who are well but want to be even better. In essence, art therapy is really for anyone who wants to be happier and improve the quality of their lives.

Why Art Therapy?

The rationale behind art therapy is two-fold. First, making art is, in and of itself, an experience. Whereas talk therapies use discussion to talk about life experiences art therapy uses art to create an experience in the moment. That, in and of itself, is healing. In addition, making art often induces a flow state, a sense of relaxation, shifts in attention, catharsis, and a sense of self-efficacy. This is true even for people who are not artists or do not think of themselves as creative.

Second, art communicates. We are all familiar with the old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Indeed, making art activates parts of the brain that are not used at other times. Artwork, no matter how rudimentary it might be, provides a visible glimpse into the maker’s internal world.

Art is also metaphorical, and one of the benefits of working with metaphor in a clinical setting is that these abstractions provide emotional distance from problems. They also provide an entry point for conversation between the client and the therapist. For example, instead of directly discussing abuse or feelings of depression, therapists can explore metaphors that emerge in the artwork of clients who are struggling with these issues, such as “being attacked by a bear” or “dark clouds”.

Healing or Insight?

These two distinct aspects of art—its experiential nature and its communicative nature—give rise to an interesting choice for art therapists. On the one hand, they can employ art as a mechanism for healing. For example, when working with patients who suffer chronic pain, the therapist might introduce art as an attentional distraction. The therapist might do the same with children with ADHD; using the art process to channel energy, enhance focus, and encourage a sense of mastery. When working with someone with anxiety, we might use coloring or the pottery wheel to induce flow and increase relaxation. The evocative colors and fluid nature of paints can help people express and release strong feelings.

On the other hand, there are times when they want to help their clients learn something new and different about themselves and the situations they face. In this instance, art can be used to promote personal insight. For example, if a therapist is working with a client who is struggling with frustration and anger, she might have the client explore and articulate her feelings through color, line, shape, and symbol (see Image 2 for an example). Using the artwork as the source for a therapeutic discussion, this approach can uniquely reveal the internal workings of a psychological experience.

An image depicting what appears to be a whirlwind with many arrows coming out of it and pointing outward
Anger and frustration. [Image used with the permission of the author].

There are also formal assessments that art therapists can use to promote client insight. For example, if a client complains of feeling stuck in her life, the therapist can use the Bridge Drawing assessment (Hayes & Lyon, 1981). In this exercise, clients are asked to draw a bridge and place themselves somewhere in the picture. This offers a glimpse into their self-perception and their interpretation of their challenges and resources. It can also provide a foundation for a discussion about managing these challenges.

You can see an example of the bridge activity in Image 3 in which a client in substance abuse treatment drew himself smiling under a shining sun. You can use this image to ask your students what types of questions they might ask such a client. Possibilities include the lack of foundation on the sunny side of the picture, curiosity about the placement of the person in the picture, the figure’s relationship to the bridge, and/or the direction and quality of the marks in the different sections of the picture.

A person who is depicted standing in the middle of a bridge while crossing it. The person is moving from one half of the drawing that depicts a dark sky into another part that depicts the sun and blue sky.
Bridge Drawing. [Image used with the permission of the author].

What Is the Difference Between Using Art In Therapy and Art Therapy?

Many mental health professionals—social workers, psychologists, and counselors—

use art in their work. What differentiates art therapy from these practices is subtle but significant. Art therapists are trained to combine psychological principles with in-depth understanding of the creative process and art media and use that knowledge as the primary instrument for change.

Usually, art therapists train within a particular theoretical orientation, such as Adlerian or cognitive-behavioral, and then focus their work on how the creative process interfaces with that specific approach. In other words, art therapists are trained like many mental health professionals: their theoretical orientation governs how they conceptualize the cause and experience of mental illness, and how they approach its treatment.

Part Two: How to Teach Your Students About Art Therapy

To understand how art affects psychological states, students need to do art themselves! Begin by announcing to your class that they are going to draw. They may experience some distress if they do not identify as artistic or even if they do. This parallels what usually occurs with our clients—non-artists are worried they’ll make something childish and artists believe they have to make something beautiful. You can use these initial responses as an opportunity for small group discussion such as prompting students to discuss A) how facing the discomfort of making art in the therapy room might be helpful for someone facing challenges in life?, or B) If you were an art therapist working with a client who was nervous about getting the art “right” what might you say to him or her? After the discussion, introduce the drawing activity.

Exercise: Scribble Drawings

The Scribble Drawing exercise (Cane, 1951), encourages students to find an image in a random design. With eyes open or closed, they draw scribbles marks (you can also make a template such as Image 7 and copy it). After looking at their scribble from different angles, they find and develop an image. This serves to stimulate creativity and to awaken different parts of the mind.

A drawing of scribbles in circular motion on a piece of paper.
Scribble Template. [Image used with the permission of the author].
A scribble template filled in with different colors to make an image of what appears to be a fish-like creature with big eyes and eyelashes
An example of a response to the scribble template. [Image used with the permission of the author].
The scribble template filled in to look like what appears to be a figure with one leg crossed over the other holding a kitten.
Another example of a scribble response. [Image used with the permission of the author].

Once your students have completed their scribble responses, you can have them form small groups and share their responses to the exercise. When working with your students and—by extension—with clients, discourage them from evaluating their own or their fellow classmates’ artwork (“Mine is so childish!” or “Yours is so beautiful!”) and from jumping into analyzing its meaning. Your students, again just like clients, will have a natural tendency to prize scribble responses that seem clever, more realistic, or are visually striking. Instead, encourage the small groups to focus on the process (what was it like for you to find an image in the scribble?) and what meaning they, themselves, derive from their image.

The Art Therapy Term Paper

Finally, if you are an instructor of a course that deals with mental illness or its treatment, consider offering art therapy as a potential topic for a term paper. This will give students interested in expressive therapies permission and opportunity to follow their curiosity. They (and you!) can learn more about art therapy using the resources below:

  • American Art Therapy Association,
  • Art Therapy Credentialing Board,
  • Brandoff, R. & Thompson, A. (2019). Quick and Creative Art Projects for Creative Therapists with (Very) Limited Budgets. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
  • Cane, F. (1951). The Artist in Each of Us. Craftsbury Common, VT: Art Therapy.
  • Darewych, O. (2020, in press). Positive Psychology Art Activities. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
  • American Art Therapy Association. (2017). Ethical considerations regarding the therapeutic use of art by disciplines outside the field of art therapy.
  • Hays, R. & Lyon, S. (1981). “The bridge drawing: A projective technique for assessment in art therapy.” The Arts in Psychotherapy, 8(4), 207–217.
  • Wilkinson, R.A., & Chilton, C. (2018). Positive Art Therapy Theory and Practice: Integrating Positive Psychology and Art Therapy. London: Routledge.


Rebecca Wilkinson, MA, ATR-BC, LCPAT is Licensed, Registered, and Board Certified art therapist. She is co-founder of Creative Wellbeing Workshops, LLC which provides individuals and organizations with training and resources for managing stress, preventing burnout and increasing wellbeing. She is co-author with Gioia Chilton, PhD, ATR-BC, LCPAT of Positive art therapy theory and practice: Integrating positive psychology to art therapy and teaches on the topic at the George Washington University’s Graduate Art Therapy Program. She is a visiting Wellness Counselor/Art Therapy Specialist at Miraval Resorts in Arizona and author/illustrator of The Miraval Mandalas Coloring Book. She can be reached at [email protected].