As a trained art therapist, I am a firm believer in the healing properties and potential artmaking can foster. Including artmaking in the therapeutic space can help all parties involved exceed the limits of traditional talk therapy by incorporating elements of visual and sensory information processing. Some of the ways we might see art being made in the mental health space include proper art therapy, led by an art therapist formally trained in combining creativity with psychotherapy; counselling therapists adopting art therapy techniques in sessions for clients particularly drawn to art making; “therapeutic art” or “art as therapy” opportunities that focus on the positive elements art can have on wellbeing, regardless of the setting. A clue to figuring out which setting may be most beneficial for you may be found by considering how big of a role you would like artmaking to play in your journey – a desire for more art should equal more training in art therapy.
While this combination can make for an especially enriching experience, it is also important to consider the best practices for doing to minimize the risk of causing unintentional harm. So, without further ado, here are some general guidelines for what we should see when bringing art into the counselling space:
Process over Product.
A common phrase among art therapists, this means that we focus more on and care more about the creative experience and insights developed through artmaking than what the final product looks like. While some individuals are drawn to art therapy due to an existing interest in art, I cannot emphasize enough that you do not have to consider yourself an artist to have a meaningful experience.
Therapists should avoid commenting on the aesthetic properties of art made in sessions.
While counsellors generally want to encourage their clients, we want to avoid commenting on artistic skill levels as much as possible when using art in therapy. We do this to avoid creating conditions of worth in the client (e.g., feeling like our art is only valuable if it looks nice). Writer Kurt Vonnegut said, “[The arts] are a very human way to make life more bearable. Practicing art, no matter how well or badly is a way to make your soul grow.”
Interpretations should be used sparingly, at best.
While we recognize that associations exist between symbols, colours, and subject matter it is important to remember that art is subjective, and associations vary significantly across identities and cultures. As such, even trained art therapists are very careful in making interpretations and often focus more on helping clients come to their own conclusions about their work.
Finally, it should be implied that any artwork made in the clinical setting be held with the same confidentiality and security as case notes and other important documentation.
If you are a mental health practitioner interested in incorporating more artmaking into your practice, I hope these points help get the wheels turning regarding best practices for doing so. Like any other therapeutic model, if you are interested in offering arts-based interventions to clients it is always a good idea to seek out continuing education experiences on the subject. Remember that counsellors in Canada and the United States must have a master’s degree or master’s level diploma in art therapy before identifying themselves as an art therapist. If you are interested in becoming an art therapist, consider checking out the Canadian Art Therapy Association’s website for more info on recognized programs:
If you are an existing or future client interested in exploring artmaking in the therapeutic space, I hope these points helped to foster an some understanding of how this should feel. Creative work is a great opportunity to get out of your comfort zone, experiment with new concepts, and create a meaningful experience. Remember that the therapeutic relationship is a collaborative one. If you have questions about your therapist’s practices, training, or credentials, discussing these concepts with your therapist is okay!