The Healing Power of Art Therapy

Art  therapy  is a form of psychotherapy where the individual engages in creative self-expression to decrease pain, gain insight, and tap into one’s thoughts, feelings and emotions–it is not concerned with how artistic or how well a person can draw or paint or work with clay. It is about the process of self-expression and not the product. It is about getting feelings out in a creative manner without the filter of words. When working with imagery, the client is accessing the right brain, the part of the brain where emotions reside–not the analytical left brain. Though clients can talk about the meaning the art has for them and any reactions they experience, as an art therapist, I do not assume to know what a client’s art means nor do I interpret their work. I do maintain a sense of curiosity about their art and might ask a question such as, “Tell me about this drawing?”, or “What might this image be feeling?” I leave interpretation up to the client.

Art  therapy  is used in hospitals, clinics, rehab facilitites, schools, private practice and in senior centers. It is used with children, teens and adults, older adults and with families and couples. It is used to promote and enhance physical, emotional and mental health by using creative expression. Taking part in artmaking helps decrease anxiety, stress, depression and increase self-awareness, self-esteem, relationship difficulties and behavior and developmental delays while providing insight into one’s life. I explain that art  therapy  is not an art class though the process might inspire a person to pick up pastels and draw on their own. Children gravitate towards the use of art and approach creativity with imagination and freedom and play without judgment or self-criticism. They enjoy experimenting with new art materials and soon discover creative tools to handle difficult emotions such as anger. Art  therapy  is beneficial in helping children diagnosed with ADHD, autism, learning disabilities, fear, and the challenges of living with a chronic illness. As we age, we begin to seek perfection in ourselves and, through creative expression, clients can learn to silence the voice of the internal critic and become more self-aware of their negative thoughts and irrational beliefs. I invite clients to let the page hold the feeling(s) where we can explore them together. I suggest to clients that, instead of letting the feeling fester inside of them, why not allow the art to be the container.

If a client has a reaction to an art piece, I provide a safe place to explore the feelings that surface. Many adults are surprised how art can facilitate the expression of feelings and emotions easier and quicker than traditional talk  therapy . I explain that when we look at an image of a loved one or a visual image of a place that we have strong feelings for, we many times experience a physical response. It is the same when we create expressive art and images. In the last few years, scientific research has discovered how fear-based emotions, negative thoughts and suppressed feelings can trigger physiological stress on the body in turn directly affecting the immune system. As we begin to heal emotional wounds, the body begins to heal also. One of the goals I have when working with a client is for them to find balance between the right and the left brain. This way, not residing completely in the emotional brain or living stictly in the analytical brain. Through the creative process, I assist baby-boomers better move through life transitions and discover acceptance and peace with the aging process.

Art  therapy  is a master’s level profession with training in psychology and visual arts. When seeking an art therapist, it is important to work with someone who is trained in the field of art  therapy  or expressive arts. Many therapists claim to use art, though they are not trained specifically in art  therapy . When asked how I work, I explain that I invite clients to take part in an art directive. For instance, I might ask, “What might that anger look like if you put it down on paper?” “What color, shape, or size might it be?” I might suggest that they use their nondominant hand to draw or that they create an image out of clay that represents how they feel that day. Even the simple act of doodling can provide a relaxing and contemplative experience. For people that suffer from anxiety, I many times recommend keeping a doodle journal with them. This way, when they begin to experience worry or anxiousness, they can doodle. If a client feels uncomfortable drawing, I offer alternative art forms, such as collage using magazine cutouts.

During the artmaking process, I recommend to the client that they work without talking in this way the nonverbal right brain is dominant allowing easier access to emotions. I leave time to discuss the artmaking and time for any other reflection the client might have. I keep the art in a safe place or, if the client wishes, they can bring their art home with them. I provide all of the art materials including pastels, markers, crayons, colored pencils, paint, collage materials, clay and paper. Where the imagination is concerned, the items we can work with appears endless. Children love working with pipe cleaners popsicle sticks and “Model Magic” as these objects provide a tactile experience for them. For young and old, the practice of art  therapy  is a safe place where feelings and imagination meet for both young and old.

If you have questions about the practice of art  therapy  or are interested in scheduling an appointment, please feel free to contact me at 310-922-3957. More information about art  therapy  can also be found on the website of the American Associations of Art  Therapy  (

By, Victoria Van Zandt, MA