Art Therapy

Art therapy isn't just about the process - the product matters.

I define art therapy as the use of art materials to externalize one’s inner world for the purpose self-inquiry, transformation, and integration. These days we hear a lot of "it's not about the product; it's all about the process." Sure, I love the process arts, and the process of creating art is deeply significant; AND that's just half of the journey that takes place within an art therapy session. After the art is created, a third entity enters the therapy room, joining the therapist and client, and that entity is the art product, and it also matters - deeply.

Process: Creating art

The creative process begins with the nebulous ingredients of emotions, thoughts, ideas, and unconscious urges. Through the application of art materials, these unseen entities solidify and manifest as concrete shape and form. Art therapists are trained in when to offer which types of materials, which art prompts to give, and how to support the creative process as it is unfolding. Perhaps most importantly, we bear witness and hold space for our clients to create.

Product: Making meaning

Art therapy does not end with the experience of the art product being created; rather, the art therapist works with the client in a second direct experience of the image – deciphering meaning from the art produced. The product matters not in the level of artistic skill displayed or the "beauty" of the image. All of the art world or art industry rules are thrown out the window in art therapy. This is a whole different ball of wax. All marks made are art.

By directing the client’s attention upon the art object, it begins to mean something to the client. Making meaning of objects first occurs early in life as an infant interacts with the world, and organizes objects in its visual field so that they begin to carry importance or meaning. In a similar way, when a client discovers a line or a color in their art, they can begin to make meaning of it and see previously unrealized perspectives.

In this process of unfolding meaning, the role of the art therapist is a facilitator and one who journeys with the client. This includes the art therapist knowing how to suggest inferences based on the graphic evidence and encourage the client to speak about the image. The concept of isomorphism in art therapy is often used to describe how the art product is an external representation of the internal state of the client, or as art therapist Janie Rhyne says, the art's form leads to content or meaning. For this reason, as an art therapist, I aim to stay image-centered, elicit a phenomenological description of the image, and keep in mind all facets of the client, their environment, and their culture.

When looking at art a client has created, I exercise my training in mindfulness to suspend my own projections and impulses to interpret, thus allowing the client’s image to arrive with freshness into my awareness. Unfolding meaning from the image is a collaborative process between the client and the art therapist, held in the safe container of the therapeutic relationship. It works beautifully when I can witness my client creating art in session, followed by hearing the descriptions and stories about the image being told by its creator.

Full Circle

An art therapy experience is a round trip journey: It manifests content from one's unconscious mind out  into the art materials. Then from the new creation, meaning is made and newfound discoveries are integrated back into one's psyche. This journey may occur within a session or over a span of several sessions, and however long the path, an art therapist is uniquely and specifically trained to walk alongside you all the way there and all the way back.

Empathy art

As an art therapist, I make a habit of engaging in a practice called empathy art or response art. Empathy, of course, is the idea of sharing the feeling of another -- to feel with, or to feel alongside someone else. Empathy art (which can be called "response art" interchangeably) is defined by art therapist Joanne Kielo as "post-session artwork created by the art therapist to develop empathic capacity with a client, responding silently by rendering feelings into form." This sort of practice is not only useful for therapist-client relationships, but it can also be very helpful with any sort of caregiving relationship, such as parents and children.

When an art therapist shares their response art with a client, it can deepen the relationship in that the client can "feel seen" and witnessed in a concrete way. Many times, response art can be made in the "handwriting" of the client, so to speak. Meaning, it is often done in the style and/or with the symbols the client has brought into their own art process in therapy.

Empathy art sample, October 2004
Empathy art sample, October 2004

The practice of creating empathy art can also be healing for the art therapist, and regarded as a form of self-care. Art therapist Bruce Moon supports the idea that empathy art helps the therapist to clarify feelings, release affect, and allows a therapist to metaphorically exhale images s/he may have "inhaled" in during a therapy session.

Another function of empathy art is that it can be gifted to a client when it is time to end the therapeutic relationship. In this way, the art serves as a beautiful transitional object and a container for the symbol of the therapist's presence and support.

Empathy art sample nest, April 2005
Empathy art sample nest, April 2005

If you are a care provider, you may choose to make art about your relationship to a patient or client of yours. If you are a parent, perhaps you can make empathy art about or for your child/ren. The idea of self-care for moms is one of great interest to me as both a therapist and as a mom. I see firsthand how sharing visual responses with a client or a child can deepen connection in profound and transformative ways. How can you bring the practice of empathy art into your life?

Interview: Art as therapy and as ritual

I recently was interviewed by Open Path Psychotherapy Collective, and had the opportunity to talk about what happens in an art therapy session, who benefits from art therapy, and how art can be healing when used to mark transitions and sacred times. I have reprinted the interview below for your convenience, or you can access it here on Open Path.


Open Path: I would wager that many “classically trained” therapists have a murky understanding at best of what an art therapist does with their clients. I'm curious if you can describe some of the portals you use for integrating art into the therapeutic relationship, and how this work typically moves forward in your work with a client.

Jen: I am so grateful to have an opportunity to answer this question, as there does seem to be some degree of mystery around the practice of art psychotherapy.

When I tell people I'm an art therapist, most assume I either work solely with children or with artists. While many art therapists do work with children, and some of us have clients who are trained artists, art therapy is valuable for any age and for all artistic skill-levels. In my current practice, I work with adult clients, the majority of whom have hardly picked up an art material since grade school.

Although some clients specifically seek out an art therapist to support their process, many adults come to my office initially for talk therapy, while expressing an apprehensive attraction to engaging in art. A simple invitation to make a mark on a page is often enough to open the door to the part of a client that has been thirsting to create, as creation is our innate birthright as human beings. Many times, I've witnessed intensely therapeutic processes unfold by my merely making enticing art materials available and giving permission to play. In other cases, clients prefer a more directive approach, so we work together on integrating applicable art activities into a treatment plan.

In practicing art therapy, there are various approaches and materials to apply depending on the client’s background, presenting issues, and stage of therapy. This is where an art therapist's unique and specialized training becomes necessary to determine which art materials and interventions are indicated, and when they are appropriate.

Open Path: I'm curious if you can tell us how you define art therapy, and maybe clear up some other misconceptions that might exist about the way it is practiced?

Jen: In 1951, Florence Cane, an art therapy pioneer, put forth the idea that art makes the unconscious conscious. I define art therapy as the use of art materials to externalize one's inner world for the purpose self-inquiry, transformation, and integration. One has the opportunity to reauthor past experiences, make meaning of the present, or envision the future when using art materials to bring concrete structure and form to what were previously nebulous feelings and emotions.

Another common misconception about art therapists usually comes by way of a suspicious sideways glance and this question: "So, if I draw something for you, you can interpret it and diagnose me?" When looking at art a client has created, I exercise my training in mindfulness to suspend my own projections and impulses to interpret, thus allowing the client's image to arrive with freshness into my awareness. Unfolding meaning from the image is a collaborative process between the client and the art therapist, held in the safe container of the therapeutic relationship. It works beautifully when I can witness my client creating art in session, followed by hearing the descriptions and stories about the image being told by its creator.

Open Path: It must be such a relief for clients when they realize their work is not going to be judged or interpreted. Judging and interpreting so often bring us away from our deeper self, or unconscious mind.

Jen: The adult intellect can be adept at keeping habits or homeostases intact (even ones that keep us stuck) when communicating verbally in therapy. Art offers a way to safely deepen into the unconscious behind a safe veil of metaphor, all while relating to the image. I view the art a client creates in session as being similar to a dream a client might bring into therapy. Just as dream "decoder" books are not universally applicable, there is no one interpretive guide for art images. As an art therapist, I cannot presume to know more than the client does about his or her art; however, I am trained to help midwife meaning and insights through the art, and aid my clients in understanding what the image has come to reveal and teach. It directly accesses and honors a client's inner wisdom. In an art therapy session, we stay within the metaphor of the art—witnessing, describing, or dialoging with the image. Art bypasses the verbal defenses, allowing the ah-ha moments to come sooner and in a way that feels safe. I feel so blessed and humbled to explore these images alongside each client, only shifting out of the metaphor when the client is ready to make the leap, and integrate the new discoveries into his or her life.

Open Path: When you talk about helping to “midwife meaning,” it leads me straight to one of the functions ritual plays in providing a context and language for accessing certain depths of our experience—in other words, how we, as a species, are capable of making the profane sacred. I'm curious about the role ritual plays either in art therapy or other areas of your practice?

Jen: Practicing art as ritual is a cornerstone of my work. Ellen Dissanyake describes art as making the ordinary special or holy, pointing out that this need to “make special” is inherent in our species. In my human and artist bones, I know this to be true, and I joyfully practice from this place of knowing.

Our modern American culture doesn’t necessarily encourage pausing to reflect, connect, commemorate, and create. Often when people come to therapy, many describe feeling lost and seeking to find direction and meaning. When feeling disenchanted and dulled in the day-to-day, we need a way to reawaken and remember the sacred in the ordinary. Bringing mindfulness to everyday moments, noticing details, and recognizing their innate sacredness is a gift of art therapy. Rhythmically bracketing a therapy session with a simple lighting and snuffing of a candle, to honor the inner work being done, is an example of a seemingly small gesture that makes a big impact. In a session when we make art—whether it’s a drawing, a clay bowl, a beaded necklace, a painted stick—there is a ritual transference onto the art object, where it can become empowered as a talisman, carrying previously unseen emotions. Relating to this self-created talisman can be profoundly healing.

In addition to my private practice, I officiate blessing ceremonies for moms-to-be  where the woman crossing the threshold into motherhood (via any path -- pregnancy, surrogacy, adoption) is surrounded by her community of loved ones to participate in art rituals that help to celebrate and integrate this transition in a supported way. Together her tribe may offer a natural object to a birth altar, contribute a bead to a birthing necklace, string flowers into a crown, or write a blessing on a belly cast, all while sharing food, stories, fears, and wishes.

In both the therapy room and at a mother's blessing ceremony, I witness the light coming on when people remember the magic in the mundane by way of creating art (creating the Self!) and discover deep meaning through that process. Really, what else are we here for?

Let's talk about art: Working with the finished product

Many of us parents spend messy mornings making art with our children at home. We delight in watching them swirl finger paint across a page or squish dough in their tiny hands. However, making art is only the first step in the creative process. Art includes many subtle stages: contemplation of what to make, preparing materials, creating, cleaning up. Yet there is another important step in the creative process we often miss: unfolding meaning from the image.

The images any artist (aka: your child) makes contain the stories, emotions, intellect, and worldview of the artist. Don’t miss the opportunity to engage in uncovering the gems embedded in the lines, shapes, and colors that come from your child’s imagination. Not only will you learn something about your child, but this step often helps your child’s idea come full-circle and be integrated into his or her everyday life.

Here are some respectful approaches to talking with your child about art:

Active Observation

While your child is making art, support the process by reflecting back only what you see happening on the page.For example, reflect verbally by saying something like, “I see yellow lines across the top of your page.”  If making art alongside your child, try to mirror the same types of marks s/he is making to to communicate the idea: “I see you. I am paying attention.”

Decoding Symbols

It’s never safe to assume you know more than the artist about what it is or what it means.For one kid, a pig might represent the scary boar he saw at a state fair. For another kid, a pig could mean the sweet, soft, cuddly stuffed animal friend he hugs when he goes to sleep at night. So try to hold back from interpreting a child’s images until you hear their story.

Describe What You See

To keep an objective attitude about your child’s art, one easy way to begin is simply to ask your child: “What do you see?” Trust the artist’s words about their own art. Your conversation may lead into a story from the child about who is in the picture and what is happening on the page. Allow meaning to arise organically. You don’t need to translate art into what it must mean in the life of the child, at least not out loud. If you have a younger child who may not yet have the ability to describe the art, you can plainly tell about what you see. Be careful not to interpret what the image “must be” or what it means. Merely describe the lines, shapes and colors that you see. Try “I see a yellow circle up there” instead of “I see the sun.”

Dialog with Art

Another fun approach is to talk with the art itself. Kids are great at using their imagination to pretend in this way, so suspend any adult self-consciousness and disbelief and go for it with them. For instance, one way to begin might be to say, “If the duck you drew could talk, what would he say to us?” (Only after the child has identified that her picture is, in fact, a duck.) Then you, your kid, and the duck can engage in a conversation. Stay within the metaphor, behind the safe veil of play.

Sublimation through Art

Try to curb your own inclinations to change, brighten, or smooth over content that may seem angry or violent or negative — art is a safe playground. Art provides an opportunity for working with of the darker side of being human. If your child seems to be looking for a way to ameliorate a dark situation in the art, you might follow his/her lead and provide assistance in moving the story along. Allow space for the child to exercise internal resources to arrive at his or her own unique solution and make choices. Curbing your parental instinct to “save” the situation here fosters confidence and autonomy in your child.

Withholding Opinions

When looking at someone else’s art, always check in with your own biases and opinions. If you were a child-centered art therapist or a play therapist, the convention would be not to criticize and not to (get ready for it) praise the art. Though as a mom, it’s understandably difficult not to say, “That’s a beautiful flower you drew, sweetie!” While it is most important to be your authentic parent-self,keep in mind that as nurturing as approval can be, compliments alone do not provide the solid type of positive reinforcement the examples above can give to your child.

Being witnessed and feeling “seen” are huge confidence-builders for any human being, especially our little friends who are forming their sense of self in relationship to the world. Reflecting upon the art process allows parents a concrete way to give children the affirmation they need.

Also published as a guest post on Kiwi Crate and on Sofia University's Community Center for Health and Wellness Blog.