As an art therapist, I have encountered many opinions and assumptions about art therapy and have been asked countless times what exactly art therapy is. Below, I will offer a formal definition of art therapy upon which I will briefly elaborate based on my own experiences as an art therapist. I will also discuss what art therapy is not and hopefully dispel some common, and often exaggerated or untrue, assumptions.
Art Therapy: What It Is
The definition of art therapy, according to the American Art Therapy Association (2017), is as follows:
Art Therapy is an integrative mental health and human services profession that enriches the lives of individuals, families, and communities through active art-making, creative process, applied psychological theory, and human experience within a psychotherapeutic relationship.
Art Therapy, facilitated by a professional art therapist, effectively supports personal and relational treatment goals as well as community concerns. Art Therapy is used to improve cognitive and sensory-motor functions, foster self-esteem and self-awareness, cultivate emotional resilience, promote insight, enhance social skills, reduce and resolve conflicts and distress, and advance societal and ecological change.
In my work with clients, I have had the privilege and honor to experience firsthand just how much the addition of the creative process can enhance the therapeutic process as a whole. For some clients, especially those suffering from trauma or those who are very young, art serves as an alternative form of communication when they have no words to describe their internal psychological processes. For others, art can facilitate and deepen verbal communication by unblocking pathways to the unconscious mind. Additionally, art—both creative process and end product—can engage clients in learning new skills and learning about themselves, stimulating personal growth and healing through heightened self-awareness. It goes without saying that the experiences and opinions from one art therapist to the next, or one art therapy client to the next, are never the same. Each individual may have a different idea about what art therapy looks like and can offer. And the spectrum of what art therapy looks like and can offer is a vast one.
Art Therapy: What It Is No
As important as it may be to describe what art therapy is, I find that it is equally important to discuss what art therapy is not. Following are some of the misconceptions about art therapy that I have encountered as an art therapist.
Judgment or Diagnosis via Drawing
Art therapists do not diagnose clients based solely on a drawing or series of drawings. Certainly, a client’s drawings may offer clues about the client’s cognitive functioning, emotional state, developmental stage, and/or hobbies and interests. However, it is less-than-ethical for an art therapist to rely mostly on personal assumptions about clients’ art to pass judgment. In fact, clients’ description of their art is much more important and often given more credence during sessions than the art therapist’s assumptions. I should also mention that art therapy can include a great variety of creative processes, not only drawing.
Arts and Crafts Time
Arts and crafts time at home and at school is a wonderful and important addition to a well-rounded life experience, but it is not art therapy! Art therapy happens during a therapy session under the guidance of a trained professional art therapist. Some art therapy interventions and processes may look and feel similar to a basic “Arts and Crafts” class, but art therapy interventions are intentional and specific to clients’ needs. Moreover, the psychological processing that occurs in the presence of an art therapist after a client has engaged in art making is significant and further distinguishes art therapy from arts and crafts. Any form of creative process (including the use of adult coloring books!) can feel therapeutic and beneficial, but it is not therapy if a therapist is not present.
A Passing Fad
Art therapy is not a new idea. Long have artists known of the therapeutic benefits resulting from engagement in creative processes—Vincent Van Gogh is a particularly poignant example. Carl Jung, an analytical psychologist and contemporary of Sigmund Freud, also experienced and touted the healing power of art making. Others who worked in the field of mental health took notice of the transformative effects of art making among those who were suffering, and art therapy was finally recognized as a formal profession in the 1940s. Since that time, the profession has grown and evolved to embrace changes in mental health care, to research the efficacy of art therapy among various populations, and to help ever more people find healing and growth.
Ashley Sweigart, MS
Art Therapist and Mental Health Counselor
For more information about art therapy, please visit the American Art Therapy Association website: