What Is An Art Therapy Session Like?

By: Amy Maricle

Have you ever wondered what an art therapy session might be like? A lot of people hear the term “art therapy,” and think it’s therapy for kids or artists. While it’s true that artists and kids might use art therapy, so can anyone! In our culture, we tend to believe that unless we have “talent,” we should stop singing, dancing, drawing, or doing any other creative endeavor in which we do not possess particular “skill.”  We start to think of ourselves as “not creative,” and focus more on words and logic. Part of my mission as an art therapist is to help people discover that they don’t need special skill or talent in order to enjoy and benefit from the arts. One of the best moments in my job is when a client produces something amazing and realizes that her creative side is functioning just fine after all. Adults can use art therapy to meet any therapeutic goal – expressing and dealing with difficult emotions, gaining coping skills, processing trauma, and more.



Just like any other therapist, every art therapist has a unique approach. Likewise, the approach I might use with a client who is looking for a spiritually based art therapy is very different from the approach I might use with a teen who is struggling with anxiety and self-esteem.  I want to give you a peek into what an art therapy session might look like with a new adult client who has been out of touch with her creativity for some time.


First I want you to know that there is no right or wrong way to make art in art therapy. You have permission to “screw it up.” You don’t need to make your art pretty, precise, or even understand what appears before you. In fact, more interesting things sometimes arise from the strangest or ugliest pieces! The goal of using the arts and visual materials in therapy is not necessarily to create something you would display, (although you might.) The purpose of art therapy is to tap into different parts of the brain using the imagination, metaphor, and images to gain new perspectives and solve problems in new ways. We can certainly also create something beautiful as part of art therapy, but it’s not the only way to work. You don’t need to think of yourself as a “creative” person in order to benefit from art therapy.


Our goals and your comfort level with art will influence where and how we get started. For people who are open to the idea of trying art therapy, but aren’t yet comfortable with art, I frequently start with a magazine photo collage. Choosing precut images and words feels less threatening than being asked to draw something. The images are already there, all you need to do is pick the ones that help describe your situation. If for example your goals are to decide whether or not to stay with your partner, and set better boundaries in relationships, I might ask you to take a few minutes to choose images that remind you of your relationship with your partner.


While you are choosing images and words and arranging them on the page, I am “witnessing.” Witnessing has three purposes: to note the process of art making, to assist if needed, and to give the gift of my full attention and observation.  I notice if it takes you a long time to get started, or if you quickly dive in. I notice when you bite your lip, how you sit back and contemplate a particular image, and when you exhale and smile after gluing down the picture of the sunset. There are very few moments in life where someone offers you their complete presence, powers of observation, and attention when you are not performing for them. The art therapist’s job in witnessing is not to act, inject, think of what to say, or judge, but to be very present and attuned to you, your process, and your product. When everyone is at their best, this creates a sacred space that can empower you to be courageous in your art and exploration. When we discuss the image, I note my observations and help you ponder whether they have any bearing on the issues that brought you to therapy.


When you feel your image is complete, we will sit together at a distance from your piece and look at it. The way art looks sitting on the table in front of you, and the way it looks from 2 feet can be quite different. This is another way that art therapy offers you a chance to look at your issues from a new perspective. I will ask you what the process of art making was like, what stood out to you, and what was surprising, pleasant, or difficult. I will also ask if you can explain the image’s meaning and the feelings you have as you view it. We can discuss my observations on the process as well. Below is an example of how our conversation about the image might evolve.


Perhaps as you look at the collage, you don’t at first know why, but you find yourself talking about a concert you attended 7 years ago. You tell me how you met a guy there who was so charming, you were immediately smitten.  But then, at the end of the evening, as you walked hand in hand, he said you’d look better if you didn’t wear a belly shirt. You immediately walked away, disappointed that he was such a jerk. As we discuss it more, you point out that, most of the time, John is sweet and loving, but frequently is critical of you, especially of your body. You might ask yourself why you so easily walked away from the guy at the concert, but not from John.

Seeking insight in the image and your process, I note how you frowned and furrowed your brow as you glued down the images of the couples. You say that the women in the pictures look happy, but are pulling away, much like you.  Looking at the red sky and the lion, you are aware of a familiar, ominous feeling.  It’s the same way you feel when you think about making a commitment to John. As we talk, you realize that you would like to leave John, but haven’t because you’re afraid of hurting John’s feelings. You have been putting John’s needs and feelings before your own.  Looking at the drawing, you notice that you feel sad; there’s a part of you that wonders if any really “good guy” would want you.


Now we are having a very different conversation. Instead of venting about John and your ambivalence about the relationship, the art therapy process has brought our focus to the core issue:  your self-esteem and how that influences your choices in relationships. Now we can look at whether your values about relationships match the one you are in. We can examine the needs that John is fulfilling and those he is not. And finally, we can ponder whether you are sacrificing, hiding, or denying parts of yourself in order to be with John, and whether that’s what you really want.


After talking through the drawing, its meaning to you, and your insights,  I might ask if you would change anything about the picture if you could. Then I would invite you to make that change.

By changing the visual representation of your reality, you can map out a path to change.

fish painting with hand

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