What is Art Therapy?

Art therapy is the merging of psychology and creativity in a counselling context.

Imagine a patient sitting across from her psychologist or counsellor. Let’s say, in this session, they’re attempting to go deeper into the root cause of an issue faced in childhood. But the trauma that was faced experienced in childhood for this client is hard to explain, it’s as if the memory has been stored in somewhere in her body and she can’t find the words to get it out. It’s literally become unspeakable, locked inside.

This can be a frustrating and difficult experience for anyone who is desperately trying to move forward from this experience. As a way to alleviate the pressure off speaking, art provides another channel of communication. It’s a less invasive form of communication, and one that each one of us inherently have. Most people claim that they are not “good at art” and therefore can’t do art therapy. But this is therapy, not art class.

I realise this might be a bit daunting for some. A fresh white piece of paper can be an anxiety provoking experience. Especially because we are conditioned to only do things if we are good at them. But in art therapy, your artwork is not meant to be a masterpiece. It’s just another way to communicate the way we see the world. It can be expressed in any way shape or form. That could be symbols, different tones of colour, repetitive patterns, even stick figures. After the artwork is complete, we will discuss it together. We’ll talk about what it felt like to draw and what the associations are to the images. Sometimes you might draw a ‘random’ symbol, but is it really random? Upon further discussion, we begin to peel back layers and realise that every element of your drawing can be a gateway into your subconscious.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

What is Art Therapy | Kimberly Hetherington | Art Therapy with Kimberly

If this still sounds a bit ‘too out there’ let me ask: do you ever get those dreams that are so vivid and intense but when you go to explain them, words fall short? It’s almost like the dream saturated your brain and bypassed the language part of your brain.

Even Sigmund Freud had this frustration with words, “We experienced a dream predominantly in visual images…part of the difficulty of giving an account of dreams is due to our having to translate these images into words. ‘I could draw it,’ a dreamer often says to us, ‘but I don’t know how to say it.'”

Sometimes an image, or a piece, can convey more meaning than our words ever could.

History of Art Therapy

Did you know that the oldest known cave painting was found in Spain 64,000 years ago and was created by a Neanderthal?

Art is a part of being human. We have always used art as a medium to communicate stories, ideas and significant events throughout our existence. It comes before language, and it is a language of its own.

The term “Art Therapy” was believed to be coined by a British artist named Adrian Hill in 1942. At the time, he was suffering from tuberculosis in a hospital. He began doing art to pass the time and suggested doing art projects with his fellow patients. Through these projects, he noted the boost in morale it had on the hospital and ended up writing a book ‘Art Versus Illness’. His work was expanded upon by the artist Edward Adamson who worked with Hill to introduce this new form of therapy to patients in mental hospitals across Britain.

By the middle of the 20th century, many hospitals and mental health facilities began including art therapy programs after observing how it promoted emotional, developmental, and cognitive growth in children. The discipline continued to grow, soon becoming an important tool for the treatment of children and adults alike. Since then, art has become stable in the therapeutic field.

How is Art Therapy different from Art Class?

“But I’m not good at art.”

This is what 99% of people says whenever you talk about art therapy. As I mentioned earlier, you don’t need to be a skilled artist to engage in art therapy. You just need to have an open mind and a willingness to try different things.

Put simply: an art class is focused on teaching a technique, whereas art therapy is about focusing on your inner experience to gain self awareness and insight. This is a really helpful image that lays them out quite well:

How is Art Therapy different from Art Class? | Kimberly Hetherington | Art Therapy with Kimberly

What Can I Expect in an Art Therapy session?

As with any form of therapy, the first session involves filling in an intake form and discussing the presenting issues that brought you to therapy. It’s important to note that I will not be diagnosing or “fixing” you. I am simply there to help facilitate the process of your own growing self-awareness and healing. I’ll be your co-pilot, so to speak, but ultimately, you are the guide.

As much as society may tell us otherwise, we are powerful beings and we know what’s best for us. Sometimes, our inner compass gets clouded or lost along the way. I’m here to help you find that again. It’s can be a very empowering process that will tap you into your inner strength and resilience.

Usually, before we get into an art process, we begin with a meditation to clear away the busyness of the mind. Following meditation, we can use whatever art supplies we have to see what has transpired at that particular moment, expressing and exploring ourselves through the shapes and colours that flow forth from crayons or pencils.

I will give you a few minutes in silence, or with music, to draw quietly. Once you’re done, we will discuss the process art-making and the artwork together.

“Often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain.”
– Carl Jung