Art Therapy

by Stephanie Arriaza,
Teresa Leibforth,
& Tim Baker.


What is Art Therapy?
"ART THERAPY IS... a woman who founded a school where the arts were central (1914) and who developed 'Dynamically Orientad Art Therapy' at a psychiatric hospital (1941). Her name: Margaret Naumburg." 

"ART THERAPY IS... a sensitive educator, who studied the nature of creative activity by teaching sculpture to blind children (1939) and helped "handicapped" youngesters through what he called 'Art Education Therapy (1957).'  His name: Victor Lowenfeld."

"ART THERAPY IS... a gifted teacher who began her work in New York City in 1920 and who discovered that art had the power to liberate not only the creativity, but also the healthy psyches of The Artist in Each of Us (1951). Her name: Florence Cane."
"ART THERAPY IS... a man who found his own painting to be so therapeutic in his recovery from tuberculosis in 1938 that he promoted 'Art Therapy' in hospitals and wrote the first British book on the subject (1945). His name: Adrian Hill."


What are we doing today?
  • Historical overview of art therapy
  • advantages and disadvantages
  • specific guidelines, tips and techniques for using art therapy in your K-12 guidance program
  • we will do an in-class structured activity!!!


  • Art Therapy has its roots in psychodynamic theory
  • Emerged as a theory in the 1930s
  • Psychiatrists explored the link between art and illness in their patients.
  • Artists and art educators were increasingly interested in how children and adults could communicate through art. 

Major contributors:

Margaret Naumburg, Edith Kramer, Elinor Ulman, and Florence Cane.


Some early contributors:


  • Proposed the art-as-therapy approach
  • More process-oriented
  • "Goals of art as therapy are to support the ego, foster the development of identity, and promote maturation."
  • Counselor functions more as a facilitator (Kahn, 1999)
  • Credited with starting the first journal in the field
  • Initiated an early training program in conjunction with friend Bernard Levy (Rubin, 1999)
  • Margaret Naumberg's older sister
  • Art educator 
  • Emphasized teaching methods to free artistic expression
  • Movement and scribbling (Rubin, 1999).


Art Therapy today
According to the American Art Therapy Association (AATA)
  • Art therapy has expanded significantly in recent years
  • Art therapists may be employed in a variety of settings including hospitals, outpatient facilities, clinics, residential treatment centers, schools, and correctional facilities. 
  • Art therapy can benefit people of all ages, races, and backgrounds with developmental, medical, educational, social, or psychological impairments.
  • Art therapists complete graduate-level studies and are registered and/or board certified through the Art Therapy Credentials Board, Inc.


Important Terms and Definitions

3-D media: Plasticine, clay, masks, junk materials. (Liebmann, 1986)

Art Therapist, Registered (ATR): An individual who has met the educational requirements to become an art therapist and who has completed 1000 hours of postgraduate supervised experience.

Art Therapist, Registered-Board Certified (ATR-BC): A Registered Art Therapist who has also successfully completed the written examination administered by the Art Therapy Credentials Board, Inc. 

Batik: An art technique sometimes used in therapy, defined as "cloth with a design made by dyeing only the parts not coated with wax" (Websters, 1989)

Collage materials: Choosing and arranging materials such as fabrics, tissue paper, natural objects, junk materials, or anything else.

Dry media: Pencils, crayons, felt-tip markers. Useful for those with handicaps that make handling fluids difficult. Also, when room has no access to water or must be kept clean. (Liebmann, 1986)

Fluid media: Paints, powders, adhesives.



Advantages of Art Therapy
  • An alternative means of  expressing thoughts, feelings, and conflicts for those who find verbal expression difficult. 
  • Bypasses defenses -- direct path to the "real issues."
  • Helpful when victims have been threatened not to talk about a traumatic incident.
  • Gives expression to people of diverse cultures who may lack English verbal ability or be unaccustomed to talking about themselves (Cochrane, 1996).
  • Accesible to people with disabilities.
  • Encourages risk-taking in a safe environment.
  • Focuses concentration on a single activity, shutting down intrusive thoughts.


Advantages (cont'd)
  • Involves the whole person.
  • Draws on visual thinking.
  • The "dark side" of the psyche more easily expressed in art.
  • "Value-free."
  • Flexible and versatile.
  • Normalizes psychotherapy. (Rubin, 1999)
  • An active therapy - clients regain sense of control over healing.
  • Allows a tangible record of treatment and the journey of therapy (A Mom's Love, 2002)
  • Non-threatening avenue of expression for adolescents who mistrust adults (Riles, 2001).
  • Can serve to express fears which children find too frightening to talk about (DeVore, 1998).


Disadvantages of Art Therapy
  • Requires a minimum amount of time to achieve goals (length and number of sessions).
  • Materials cost money and must be managed.
  • Requires an appropriate setting, especially for fluid media.
  • Some populations (e.g., older adults) may not see the relevance of artwork to their problem.
  • Requires more planning to incorporate into information-giving or highly directive counseling modes.


Two Routes for Conducting Art Therapy
Non-directive: Let clients express their feelings however they wish, with a minimum of structure.
  • Time-consuming.
  • Tends to bring out detail.
  • Ideal for clients who have suffered a traumatic experience.
  • Helps convert traumatic memory into narrative memory.
Directive: Ask clients to draw something particular
  • Can often be done using stick figures or other simple forms.
  • Efficient format for assessment. (E.g., House-Tree-Person activity.)
  • Fits easily within structured framework, such as cognitive or problem-solving models.


Guidelines and Techniques in Art Therapy
Be sure to "check out" any interpretation you make.

Regarding this picture, the therapist thought the birds (flying downward) and the black building meant sadness. But the child who drew it explained the drawing was a source of comfort to her because as she drew it, she had cheered up. 

(Source for this section: Goodman & Williams, 1998)


Watch client for verbal cues that indicate anxiety -- back off when appropriate. Client may not be ready to accept your interpretation.

The doll in this picture is bound with red yarn. It was made by a child with hemophilia, who received frequent intravenous infusions (note popsickle stick on arm). But the child insisted the doll represents a farmer with an implement.


Pay attention to gaps in the picture, sudden changes in line quality, or areas that have been covered up.

This picture was drawn by a graduate student in School Counseling. Can you think of a reason why artwork by children in counseling is difficult to find on the Internet?


When applying techniques, remember:
  • Be sensitive to repeating themes.
  • Sometimes the picture means what it looks like, sometimes it means just the opposite.
  • De-emphasize artistic skill. The goal is not for children to feel frustrated that they can't draw. Select artistic media that will make the activity "foolproof" (Spitzer, 2001)
Tip: When looking for child artwork that exemplifies themes in Art Therapy, remember that actual drawings by children may be considered confidential material.


Be cautions about interpreting symbols.
  • The sun is often considered a symbol of authority. If that is true, is it because the sun... 
    • is always in the sky?
    • is always there?
    • can burn?
    • is bright?
    • or does the sun mean something else? 


    Does lack of hands, mouths, arms, feet, or eyes reflect feelings of inadequacy or powerlesness? 


    It really does take 1000 words to describe a picture!


    Directive method: Ask client to represent self with images.


    From the Inclusion of Other in Self (IOS) assessment.

    With which parent do you think the artist has more conflict?


    Ask the client to draw change.

    "Show me what happened in your family when your mom got sick."


    Nondirective use of art helps clients narrate a traumatic experience.

    The following three drawings were made by children in the Czech Republic who were displaced by flooding in 1997. One-third of their nation was underwater.




    Additional Resources:
    Activity 1: Design-a-Dad
    Activity 2: Draw Your Progress
    Activity 3: Draw Yourself as an Animal

    Ideas for more activities

    Supplemental Web Resources and Links



    American Art Therapy Association. AATA Facts: Frequently Asked Questions. Retreived October 12, 2002 from

    A Mom's Love. (2002). Pregnancy and babies. Retrieved October 12, 2002, from

    DeVore, J. (1998). Milissa Hicks -- art therapist (interview). School Arts, 97(6), 42.

    Cochrane, J. L. (1996). Using play and art therapy to help culturally diverse students overcome barriers to school success. School Counselor, 43(4), 287. 

    Goodman, R., & Williams, K. (1998). Talk, talk, talk, when do we draw? American Journal of Art Therapy, 27(2), 39.

    Emporia State University Masters of Science in Art Therapy.  (2001). What, Where, Who, Why, and How of Art Therapy. Retrieved October 12, 2002 from

    Kahn, B. B., (1999). Art therapy with adolescents: making it work for school counselors. Professional School Counseling, 2(4),  291-299.

    Sina, S. K. (1998). Design-a-dad. In Kaduson, H., & Schaefer, C., (Eds.) 101 favorite play therapy techniques.  Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson. 

    Liebmann, M. (1986). Art therapy for groups. Cambridge, MA: Brookline. 

    Neufeldt, V. (Ed.). (1989). Websters new world compact school and office dictionary. New York: Prentice Hall.

    Ontario Art Therapy Association (OATA). (2001). About art therapy - what you need to know. Retrieved October 12, 2002, from

    Riles, S. (2001). Art therapy with adolescents. The Western Journal of Medicine, 175(1), 54. 

    Rubin, J. A., (1999). Art therapy: An introduction. Lillington, NC: Edwards Brothers.

    Spitzer, J. E. (2001). Emotion cube (project for high-school art therapy programme). School Arts, (100)8, 50. 



    Activity 1:  DESIGN - A - DAD


    • To allow the client to explore and make recollections about his/her father. 
    • To provide a bridge between therapist and client by allowing a projection of the child?s concept and image of his/her father
    • To provide a framework in which the child can discharge emotions and thoughts in a safe environment


    • Poster board to cut out the father figure
    • Several colored pieces of felt to cut out pieces of clothing to dress the father figure
    • Accessories to complete the figure like wool for the hair, buttons for the eyes, additional felt to cut out the mouth or other parts.  Provide different options like colors, shapes and textures to be culturally sensitive.
    • Foam rubber of different colors to cut out different shapes associated with feelings
    • Scissors
    • Glue
    • Markers

    Note:  These materials may be purchased in most arts and crafts stores. 


    To start this activity there are two possible options:

    • Have all the materials ready in advance: father's body, the clothing, the accessories and feeling shapes.  This will save time; nevertheless, it requires additional work on the therapist?s part.  When doing this, remember to be culturally sensitive (colors and shapes of selected materials). 
    • Alternately, provide the materials so that the child can make the shapes they want.  This can be done as part of rapport building or for therapeutic purposes.  This can be decided depending on time issues, age of the client or additional considerations pertinent to each individual case.

    If we have the shapes ready, we start the activity by telling the child that we would like to know more about his father.  Provide the materials and ask him/her to build or ?Design a Dad?.  The client then has the chance to choose body shapes and accessories to form the face and clothes to dress the body.  During this process the therapist facilitates the discussion of important issues.

    After the figure is ready, the most important aspect of the activity starts.  The counselor provides different shapes for feeling words.  For example, a happy face for feeling happy, an exclamation mark for feeling excited, a question mark for feeling worried or confused, a frowning shape for feeling sad, and other also additional material for the child to make the shape he desires for the relevant feelings.  The counselor asks the child to choose the shapes of how the father feels (if we want to focus on the father) or of how the child feels about his/her father (if we want to focus on the child).  Then ask him/her to place the shapes anywhere he wants.  Some options are to be more directive and ask to place them either outside or inside the body or to place them where the feelings come from, like the chest or the belly, for example. 

    At this moment, we can facilitate the discussion of each feeling as he is placing it, or we can wait and discuss them afterwards.  As the feelings are being discussed, they can be moved from the inside to the outside of the body. Focusing on the here-and-now would allow the child to explore how expressing his feelings make him feel.

    An alternative is to ask the child to change the figure?s clothes and to place feelings related to each.  For example, how he feels about his father when he is in a working suit, in sporty clothes, etc. 

    Processing Questions:

     The focus of the discussion can be on the father or on the child.

    • How is your father feeling?
    • How do you feel about your father?
    • When your father comes back from work, how is he feeling?  How do you feel?
    • It seems like there are many feelings in your father?s chest.  Let?s discuss each one.  How do you feel now that these feelings are outside the body?
    • If you could, which feelings would you put in your father?s chest? 
    • What happens when your father is angry?
    • What would you like to do when your father is angry?
    • What would you like to do when your father is happy?


     This activity can be used with children who are having problems communicating about their relationship with the father figure.  Some children have this difficulty for diverse reasons, so we can direct the process to explore them.  For example, if the child does not have a father, we can direct the process to explore how he would like his father to be or what he misses about his father. 

     According to Stazan K. Sina, author of this technique, it can be used with any age child and for almost all diagnoses except cases of psychosis and victims of sexual abuse, since the activity deals with dressing and undressing. 



    Activity 2: Draw your progress

    Objective: To help participants conceptualize and discuss their academic progress of study in an academic institution.

    Materials: A variety of pens and paper.

    Procedure: Assemble a small group of students (age-appropriate; middle school through college). Ask each to draw, on a piece of paper, their progress through the academic institution. Abstract rather than realistic images should be recommended. 

    Successive approximation can be achieved by warming up students with abstract symbol-drawing activities. 

    • "Draw a symbol that represents a time you were very happy." 
    • "Okay," (go-around) "tell us a bit about that symbol."
    • "Now draw a symbol that represents something you really believe in which means a lot to you." (Discuss.) 
    • "Now I want you to draw a page which represents your academic progress here at (name of institution). Use as many symbols as you want. You have 10 minutes, then we'll discuss briefly."

    Processing quesions: Review the overall shape and structure of the drawing. Ask about the meaning and interrelationship of the symbols on the page. 

    • "Can you tell us what that means?" 
    • "What was that like for you?" 
    • "What will you add next?"

    Recommendations: This activity is most appropriate for a diverse group of individuals, or when each is responsible for structuring their academic experience (e.g., high school, where students select their own courses. 



    Activity 3: Draw Yourself as an Animal

    A. The objectives for this activity include rapport building, group building, and self-perception.

    B. Materials needed include construction paper, yarn in a variety of colors, scissors, glue, and markers or crayons. 

    C. Steps and Procedures:

    • Ask the students to think of an animal that they see themselves as most similar to. 
    • Have the students "draw" or make an outline of the animal using the yarn and glue on construction paper.
    • Ask the students to share their animals and the reason they chose them, perhaps in a "go-around" style.

    To facilitate discussion, the counselor may ask questions  such as:

    • What did you experience as you participated in this activity?
    • What are some ways that you are unlike the animal you chose?
    • Are there other animals that describe other parts of your personality?

    The counselor may also link  students together by their animals or their responses.  This may be especially helpful if the group is just getting started and the members do not know each other very well.

    D.  After asking students how they would describe a lion (i.e. big, brave, tough, king, etc.), a mouse (quiet, small, shy, etc.), or another animal,  the counselor could ask the children to think of a time when they felt the same as that animal. 

    Depending on the situation, the counselor could make a LEAP into practical application.  For the mouse example, the counselor might say, "Is this what a person might be experiencing when they start a new school?" or "when they are teased by others."

    E. Reference:

    This activity has been adapted from the art therapy website:


    Ideas for more activities

    Art Activities in Pairs:

    1. Dialogue:  Paint something to express a current feeling or concern.  Discuss what you draw.  Then the partner paints something in response.  Reverse roles and repeat.  It allows clients to be aware of how they are feeling and of how to respond to someone elses feelings.  Increases communication and empathy.

    2. Masks:  Make a mask or use a prepared blank mask.  Paint on it an impression of your partner.  This allows the client to be aware of how others perceive him/her.  After they finish painting, give time for discussion.   Possible process questions:  How do you feel about how your partner portrayed you?  Is it pleasant or unpleasant feeling?  In which situations does your partner see you in this way?  What can you do to change?  (If unpleasant feelings arise).

    Art Activities in Groups:

    3. Shared feelings:  Choose a topic or concern to the group members (for example a shared situation) and ask them to draw the good and bad aspects of that situation.  Each student uses a small piece of paper and then they come together as a group and make a collage.  Discuss the images and how they feel. 

    4. Visual Whispers:  First person makes a drawing and shows it to the person next to him/her.  Then this person makes a sketch of it from memory.  Second person then shows it to the person next to him/her, who sketches it from memory.  Keep going until all members participate.  Discuss the distortions that have been made and how they feel.  Make a leap to how this happens when there are rumors spreading out about someone, and how the story gets distorted each time. 

    Art Activities for Self-Portrait:

    5. Draw images of:  Your nickname when a child, your proper name, a fantasy name.  This increases self-awareness. 

    6. Advertisement:  Draw/paint and advertisement for yourself.  This can include different roles, for example, advertise yourself as a friend, as a student, as a worker, as a daughter or son, etc.  A variation of this activity is to do it in a group and present our advertisement with others.  The other members can add aspects left out.

    Family Relations:

    7. Family mobile:  With a coat-hanger, cardboard and string make a mobile of their family.  Represent members and how they relate to each other.

    8. Inheritance:  Fold paper in four and draw in each section:  what you have inherited; what you would have liked to inherit; what you most disliked inheriting; what you would like your children to inherit. 

    Source: Liebmann (1986)


    Additional Web Resources and Links