What Is Art Therapy? 5 Myths Deconstructed.

Illustration of a brunette woman asking "did you know?"


As you read that title, perhaps you’re thinking something like, “Myths about art therapy?  I don’t know ANYTHING about art therapy, much less any myths about it.”  You’re not alone. . . but when you’re done with this article you’ll know the basics of what art therapy is and what it isn’t.  You may even want to try it!

Myth #1: Art therapy requires making art.

It is true that making art is usually an important part of art therapy, but making art is not all of what art therapy is or can be.  Even someone without the physical ability to make art in traditional ways —such as someone without the use of hands or sight—can engage with art.  If you are someone like this or if you’re just not interested in making art, your art therapist might show you an image or give you an artwork to touch and have a discussion with you about how it relates to your experience.  Another way to use art in art therapy is for your art therapist to create art based on a visual metaphor you have for your experience, such as “My life feels like a roller coaster,” and then you could write about it, dialogue with it, or simply talk about it. . . the possibilities are many.  The key is thinking and relating on a visual, often symbolic level.

African American Woman with notebook and camera

Art therapy is not just drawing, painting, and sculpture; making a visual product in the service of personal growth may be considered a legitimate part of the art therapy process.  For example, taking and talking about photographs, journaling, or sewing may all be included.   Like all therapeutic modalities, art therapy is intended to meet you where you are, not where the therapist would like you to be—so if you have only one kind of creative activity you like to do, (eg. photography), or you don’t want to make art every time or even most of the time, art therapy can still be for you! 

Myth #2: Art therapy is for people who are “good at art.”

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times. . . “Art?  I don’t know. . . I’m not good at art.”  “I’m not creative.”  “I haven’t done art since I was a kid.”  Misconceptions about art therapy often reflect misconceptions about art itself, which are usually narrow-minded ideas about art conveyed to us as children by adults trying to teach us fine art skills or adults who have bought the cultural notion that art must be beautiful, usually representational, and created using skills that are taught by experts and executed well by the artist.  If any of those criteria are not met the product is often rejected as either not art or bad art. 

The truth is: engagement is the key to art making in art therapy, not skill, so-called creativity, or a “good eye.”  Art making is an activity and language of self-exploration and play, and our creative explorations often reveal things about our struggles, strengths, who we are, and what we need. . . even if all we create are a few lines on a piece of paper. 

Just as the words you say in verbal psychotherapy are not meant to be poetry or eloquent speeches, the art you make in art therapy is not necessarily meant to be attractive or well-crafted.  Art therapy rests on the idea that art is not defined by its degree of beauty, (which is in the eye of the beholder anyway), or the level of skill that was used in its creation.  Art in art therapy is anything created for your therapeutic benefit, often to explore your internal life in some way.  There is no “good at;” if you’re using art materials in art therapy, you’re an artist. 

Colorful vertical oriented collage with words such as focus, art, cool and time. 


Myth #3: Making art to de-stress is art therapy. 

In recent years, coloring books containing intricate designs to color in have been marketed to adults using the label “art therapy,” and much like tongue-in-cheek terms like “shopping therapy” or “chocolate therapy,” “art therapy” sounds like it refers to simply using art to feel better, so it’s understandable that many believe art therapy means making art to cope with stress or improve your mood.  This is not to say that using art to feel better, (to regulate or boost mood), or even to distract from problems or feelings at times can never be therapeutic or would never happen in art therapy, but using art in that way is not what it means to do art therapy, nor does it represent the full potential of art therapy.

What separates art therapy from arts and crafts or personal art making for self-care, is that it is a therapeutic interaction between a client and a therapist trained in the potentials and pitfalls of making art in particular ways for particular kinds of people with particular kinds of challenges. 

Art therapy is a 70+ year old form of therapy  that typically incorporates both art-making and verbal psychotherapy.  It is used by trained art therapists and clients of all ages to address nearly any type of issue.  There are B.A. programs in art therapy, but to be credentialed (ATR or ATR-BC) by the ATCB, the credentialing body that regulates the profession in the U.S., art therapists—many of whom are also licensed counselors in their states—must earn a master’s degree and do about 2 years of supervised work in the field.

Art Therapist and Client

Myth #4: In art therapy, the client’s art is analyzed and interpreted by the art therapist like a Rorschach Test. 

The benefit of art therapy is mostly found in your engagement with art, both the creating and the meaning-making.  While discovering meaning in the art is often an important part of the process, it is your experience of finding personal meaning in your own artwork that is of chief importance, not the therapist’s interpretation of what you make. 

Watercolor of a figure with colors flowing out of head

Art therapy training does provide some guidelines for understanding client art.  Art therapists are trained to look for and evaluate evidence of developmental stage, indicators of mental and emotional state, suggestions of mental illness, signs of trauma, etc., but the main job of the art therapist is not to explain your art to you and diagnose or analyze you based on that art; it is to support you in creating your own art and making use of the process and product to learn about yourself and what you need to grow.

Myth #5: The point of art therapy is to express feelings and expressing feelings will solve my problems.

Art making is a way of dwelling in whatever is before us that needs our attention.  There is a universal tendency to turn away from difficulty.  Image making allows for staying with something while making that staying bearable through the pleasure available in the use of the materials.
-Pat B. Allen, Ph.D., ATR, Art Therapist

In the wise words of art therapist, Pat Allen, “Art making is a way of dwelling. . . .”  When we go to therapy, we make a commitment to take a pause in our day and week to dwell in “whatever is before us that needs our attention.”  No one likes the idea of wallowing in or dwelling on anything but to dwell in is an entirely different activity.  To dwell in what needs attention means using your internal spotlight, your introspective curiosity, to look closely at your life and yourself.

Art studio closeup of brushes and palette

Some do their best soul-searching in a private, internal way, yet when you keep your struggles inside, sometimes it is difficult to get perspective.  When you tap into the subconscious and externalize your inner world through art, it can be easier to achieve both the insight needed for clarity and the psychological distance needed for acceptance and change.  Even if you are a deep thinker and articulate conversationalist, verbal language may not always be the most expressive or effective way to communicate.  It can miss the nuances of feelings and experiences, and it can sometimes be too direct and frightening.  Speaking face-to-face with someone, especially about a painful or very personal topic, can make thinking and feeling deeply about what you’re saying impossible in the moment.  You may become flooded with anxiety or emotion to the point that conscious processing is too difficult.  Art, however, can provide a comfortable distance between you and the therapist and between you and the difficult subject—a safe place to dwell.