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MoonDragon's Alternative Health Information
Mind & Emotion Therapies

For "Informational Use Only".
For more detailed information, contact your health care provider
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  • Art Therapy Description
  • History
  • Key Principles
  • Interpreting Artwork In Art Therapy
  • Evidence & Research
  • Conventional Medical Opinion
  • Consulting A Practitioner
  • Self Help


    In the aftermath of World War II, creative art began to be used on both sides of the Atlantic to help those who had undergone traumatic experiences deal with them and readjust to life. Spanning both conventional and complimentary medicine, art therapy is now used by psychiatrists and psychotherapists worldwide as a technique in the diagnosis and treatment of mental and emotional disorders. It can also help people in emotional distress - for example, after a bereavement - providing therapeutic relief in expression through creative activities such as painting, drawing, and sculpting.


  • Mental & emotional disorders.
  • Learning difficulties.
  • Eating disorders.
  • Addictions.
  • Stress.
  • Bereavement.
  • Relief in Alzheimer's disease and terminal illness.
  • Personal development.

  • The Scream
    Edvard Munch's The Scream is a well-known example of the power of art to express painful emotions that sometimes cannot be put into words.


    The expression of feelings in visual form has a long history, as ancient cave-paintings attest. In the 19th century, Rudolf Steiner advocated the role of art in healing when developing anthroposophy. In the early 20th century, Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud ascribed to visual images the ability to reflect a patient's subconscious state, while other psychoanalysts, such as Anna Freud and Melanie Klein, later emphasized the value of creative art in childhood development.

    Children may find it easier to convey emotions through images.
    Children may find it easier to convey emotional states through images rather than words, and art therapy may benefit those who are emotionally disturbed or who have learning difficulties.

    After World War II, art therapy was used in the rehabilitation of war veterans. Under the guidance of art therapist Margaret Naumberg, it began to be taken seriously in the US, where psychotherapy and other techniques based on Freudian theories were already well established. It is now widely practiced in the US, both for personal development and as a form of treatment for psychiatric disorders.

    In the UK, art therapy developed in the 1940s, when artist Adrian Hill began to work informally with sanatorium patients. The British Association of Art Therapists was established in 1963, and there are now about 1,000 practitioners. A postgraduate Diploma of Art Therapy was recognized by the National Health Service in 1982, and art therapists were state-registered in 1997.

    A wide range of media is used in art therapy.
    A wide range of media will usually be offered to patients, including paints, crayons, chalk, and clay. The practitioner will encourage patients to express their feelings through their artwork.


    Patients are encouraged to express their feelings using materials such as paint, clay, crayons, and fabric, or even magazines from which they can make a collage. They are not expected to produce a "good" work of art, but simply to give two- or three-dimensional expression to threatening or confused emotions. The act of releasing such emotions in the safe confines of the practitioner's consulting room is considered healing in itself, since the patient is able to overcome fear of self-expression and gain confidence and self-esteem. Thoughts and emotions often surface visually in a work of art long before they might appear verbally in a conventional "talk" therapy, allowing issues to be addressed at a relatively early stage. Socially unacceptable emotions, such as jealousy or rage, can also be unearthed and confronted without fear of criticism.

    Many people cope with mental and emotional problems by repressing them, mistakenly believing that they are taking firm control over their lives. In the early stages of art therapy, the challenge for such patients is to relinquish control sufficiently to create a therapeutically useful image. Often, destructive impulses must be expressed before creativity and psychological insights can follow. Some patients need to make a mess, or to work carefully on an image only to destroy it, in order to achieve a breakthrough.

    A further benefit of art therapy is that the work produced may contain symbols that can be interpreted by the practitioner, such as dreams may be analyzed in psychoanalysis. Art therapy differs from psychoanalysis, however, in that it is the patient who takes the lead in interpretation, not the practitioner. Art therapists believe that the individual holds the key to the symbols he or she produces, with the practitioner playing a supporting or guiding role.


    The images and colors used in artwork may hold symbolic meanings, providing clues to the patient's emotional state. Art therapists believe that it is the patient - not the practitioner - who holds the key to the interpretation of his or her work. Uncovering the meaning of these works will not "solve" psychological problems, but can allow patients to understand, accept, and eventually move on from them.

    Interpreting artwork - art sample 1
    Border between the white and dark blue suggests a passage from dark to light.

    The large red and yellow image in the center might be a tulip in bud, or a fetus and its umbilical cord.

    The bright colors used in the large red and yellow image point to rebirth and new life.

    Interpreting artwork - art sample 2
    The distant moon shown as a white circle placed in a dark blue background expresses the patient's feelings about her mother.

    The three circles represent the patient and her siblings.

    Interpreting artwork - art sample 3
    The angry face of the cat may be the key to this picture.

    The red, black, white and yellow bands of color around the cat suggest isolation from the outside world.

    The masks, shown as various round faces in the belly of the cat, represent different roles performed by the patient.


    Extensive casework in North American, the UK and Europe since the late 1980s has demonstrated the value of art therapy for a wide range of emotional and psychological disturbances, including psychotic illnesses, severe learning difficulties, eating disorders, and alcohol and drug abuse. Areas now being explored include relief from AIDS, Alzheimer's disease, and terminal illness.


    Art therapy is extensively used in hospitals, prisons, and other institutions in the treatment of psychological disorders and addictions. Most psychiatrists and health care providers accept its role in treating learning difficulties and exploring the profound inner conflicts that arise when a life-threatening disease is diagnosed.


    Before therapy begins, the practitioner assesses your condition. Many patients, especially in the UK and Australia, may have been referred by a medical practitioner. If this is the case, the practitioner reviews any notes or background information resulting from your previous treatment. He asks about your emotional problems, your life situation, and your expectations from therapy. You in turn should take this opportunity to ask any questions you may have about the approach.

    During a session, the practitioner avoids guiding you in an intrusive manner. He may respond to what you produce with questions and comments, in order to stimulate interpretation and further development. Unexpected and disturbing images and associations may be made in the process, and the practitioner will help you explore the meanings uncovered and feelings that arise. If you are having difficulty with a particular medium, he may suggest changing to another or working with it in a different way.

    Adult therapy sessions usually take place once a week and are 60 to 90 minutes long; children's sessions may last 30 minutes. A minimum of six months' treatment is advised. Sessions may be one-to-one, or may take the form of group therapy, involving about 8 to 10 people. When working with a group, the practitioner might suggest theme-based exercises using dreams, relaxation, and visualization techniques.

    Art therapy is sometimes practiced in hospitals to supplement conventional psychotherapy. Up to three quarters of practitioners work in social services, prisons, and educational institutions. Some also work in private practice.


    Art therapy can be an ideal way to relax and allow problems to find a natural resolution. Talent or expertise is not important, the essential thing is to ignore the critical, inhibited part of yourself and let go. Choose the art media that most appeal to you. Some tips are given below.

  • Begin by loosening up and allowing your intuition and spontaneity to surface. One way is to make initial sketches or paintings with your left hand if you are right-handed (right hand if you are left-handed).

  • Work quickly, without thinking about what you are doing. Put down the first shapes, forms, and colors that come into your head.

  • If you are uncomfortable with paints or clay, make a collage with images cut from newspapers and magazines.

  • When you are finished, look carefully at your work. Do any symbols or shapes, or colors hold significance? What feelings do they elicit? The meaning may not be clear, but try exploring these images in your artwork and see if they evolve.

  • Amazon: Art Therapy Products

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