Art Therapy: Healing Through Painting

Art therapy is a form of expressive therapy that improves a person’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being through the creative process of making art. By using many art materials such as paints, chalk and markers to create art, one is able to increase awareness of self and others which eventually results in healing.

Art therapists are usually tertiary trained in both art and science of psychological therapy. They learn about personality theories, human development, psychology, family systems, and art education in order to promote personal development, increase coping skills, and enhance cognitive function of the patients.

The old saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” reflects the powerful effect that the arts and creative expression have on human understanding and communication. Art therapy works to harness that power for therapeutic means.

Just as a painting or a piece of music can say something in ways that almost defy description, art therapy provides individuals facing physical, emotional, and cognitive challenges with new pathways toward understanding and self-expression.

People do not have to be artists or even “good at art” to benefit from art therapy. This form of treatment is more than an art class or just something to keep people occupied. Art therapy uses the power of the arts and different modes of communication to get people to open up and engage with their therapy in new ways, which may enhance healing of all kinds.

People who make art in any form, whether they consider themselves artists or not, are taking part in a process of self-discovery that gives them a safe space to express their feelings. Furthermore, it allows them to feel more in control over their life. This creative process is enjoyable in its own right, but this is not the only activity that goes on in an art therapy session.

In an art therapy session, an individual may do some of the following exercises:

  • painting
  • drawing
  • finger painting
  • working with clay
  • carving
  • sculpting
  • doodling and scribbling
  • making collages

Although these exercises take place under the guidance of an art therapist, what emerges should be the unfiltered responses of the individual. Understanding them can promote mental health and well-being.

To unpack this understanding, the individual and their art therapist will discuss the artwork. They will explore what objects, people, and images do and do not appear in it.

Although art has been an integral part of the human experience for thousands of years, the practice of art therapy is a relatively new development, with an artist from the United Kingdom first describing it in the 1940s.

Key thinkers came to the field from backgrounds in education, the visual arts, and psychotherapy. The “mother of art therapy,” Margaret Naumburg, became influenced by the first wave of psychoanalytic theory in the early 20th century. She believed that through the creative process, individuals brought to light unconscious thoughts and feelings that they might have repressed.

She felt that when individuals talked through this creative process with a therapist, they could come to understand what their artwork was revealing to them about themselves. This understanding would, in turn, promote psychological healing. Her writings continue to be influential in the 21st century.

Art therapy can address the needs of:

  • people who experienced trauma, such as combat or a natural disaster
  • individuals with significant health challenges, including traumatic brain injuries and cancer
  • people with certain conditions, such as depression, autism, and dementia

Art therapy can help reduce stress and anxiety for people living with pain. In addition, experts say that the practice may be useful for people living with other conditions, such as:

Practitioners say that art therapy can also help people enhance specific skills by:

  • improving their approach to conflict resolution
  • enhancing social skills
  • managing stress
  • strengthening their ability to self-regulate
  • improving their understanding of themselves

I took up art therapy eight years ago when the Art Therapist at the St John of God Burwood Clinic here in Sydney showed me how to do dot painting. It opened my eyes to a world of colour and self expression that I never thought possible. I have Dissociative Identity Disorder as well as ComplexPTSD. It has allowed me to express my interpretation of my Alters and through the dots connect them to my host. It has been very healing and when I am stressed it is my ‘go to’ management for those difficult times. You can use any type or size of canvas so the world is your oyster. She also taught me the art of quilting which I am now an avid fan of. The creation of a quilt from fabrics and designs you choose is very empowering and assembling it is a bit like putting yourself back together again. Awesome. The giving of the quilt when it is finished is the added benefit of making someone else feel happy and valued.

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2 comments

  1. Love this. I have CPTSD And had a awesome best best friend years ago with DID before they unfortunately took their life. It’s been over 16 years anf I STILL miss her/them so much.

    I like to write poetry and play with art. I’ve followed some art therapy prompts and took a couple of extracurricular courses in art therapy. I also participated in a art therapy group at a outpatient mental health clinic. Lovedddd it!!!

    I know a art therapist … well not really well But she is a art therapist. I haven’t had much opportunity to ask more questions about her work.

    I’ve ran into some virtual people with DID who have shared some amazing art and fascinating in relation to interval systems.

    I don’t have DID but my c-PTSD has a large manifestation in dissociative symptoms/experience

    I’m curious about what Dot art is!!??

    I mostly write poetry and had the privilege of having some published. I keep pushing myself to explore art and sometimes use prompts.

    I’ve done some art on inner child healing too!

    Anyways, great information and post. I saved one of the hyperlinks to read more.

  2. I was just in a mental health hospital and engaged in making several collages. A couple of the suggested themes were designed to increase self-awareness. I found out or remembered things about myself and this was very rewarding. I am continuing to make them at home.

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