What is an Art Therapy Session Like?

 What is an art therapy session like 2

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.

IMG_7833

 

One Art Therapist’s Approach

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.

 

Permission

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.

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Getting Started

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.

 

The Process of Art Therapy Is Just as Important as the Product

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.

 

Getting Distance and Perspective on Your Problem

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.

 

Finding New Meaning in Art

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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.

 

Changing the Conversation

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.

 

Altering Your Reality

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

Looking for an Art Therapist?

We work all over the United States and around the world!

Check out the American Art Therapy Association’s Art Therapist Locator for a listing of art therapists in the United States.

 

Work with Amy:

Curious about how art therapy might work for you? We can do a free phone consultation to figure out how I can help. To learn more, go to my therapy page, call: 508-964-2029, or email: amymaricle@gmail.com.

 

Comments

How do you use art therapy? How would you explain what it’s like? If you are an art therapist, what sorts of techniques or approaches do you use that are different from the ones I mentioned?

 

DISCLAIMER: This information is not a substitute for professional psychological advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

 

Title Image Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_ginosphotos’>ginosphotos / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

13 Comments

  1. Tamara G. Suttle, M.Ed., LPC

    Amy, this sounds like so much fun! Do you ever have potential clients call just for “personal growth” and not really have any identified problems?

    I’m loving the images on your blog, by the way. Such beautiful, vibrant colors!

    Reply
    • Amy Johnson Maricle

      Hi Tamara:

      Art therapy is so much fun! Honestly, I have a great job. Some people seek me out because of my expertise with self-esteem, dealing better with anxiety, and empowerment, and others are curious about how art therapy could help them explore themselves or grow spiritually. This is powerful work because we get to explore the power of art more fully. When you sit back and let the art come THROUGH you instead of TRYING so hard, the art changes. It’s a little hard to explain, but when you stop thinking about things so much and, for example, pick up the chalk color that grabs your attention, even if you don’t like it, your art gets much deeper, and so does the meaning.

      I’m not surprised that the vibrant colors of the art catch your attention, Tamara. You are such a vibrant person! The message I get from your work is that, with the proper tools and information, therapists in private practice can build a practice that is true to each individual’s “colors -” their vibrant interests and passions. By pushing past fear of failure, and being true to who we really are, we can build a practice that is energizing and empowering to our clients, and that is a joy to us.
      Thanks for your good work, and your comment!
      Amy

      Reply
  2. Mary

    Hi Amy. My daughter, who is 24, is very interested in becoming an art therapist, but cannot find anywhere is South Africa to study for this. Do you perhaps know of an online study course that would equip her with a certification to pursue this as a career? Thank you.

    Reply
    • Amy Johnson Maricle

      Hi Mary:

      Welcome to Maricle Counseling’s blog! We are excited to have your voice here, and I am thrilled to hear about folks in South Africa wanting to do art therapy. I did some research this morning, and I’m sorry to say that thus far I have not turned up anything. I put out a few feelers with colleagues so if anything else turns up, I will comment about it here. In the mean time, here’s some resources that I can offer:

      Global Art Therapy Training Programs and Resources

      Information on becoming an expressive arts therapist
      The American Art Therapy Association’s listing of approved programs

      Mary, does that help at all? Best of luck to you and your daughter, and we hope to see you again here!
      Best,

      Amy

      Reply
    • Amy Johnson Maricle

      Hi Mary:

      I connected with a colleague from South Africa who told me that she is not aware of art therapy resources in South Africa, but there are two programs in the expressive therapy field generally: an MA program in Music Therapy at the University of Pretoria and an MA in drama therapy in the DFL (Drama for Life ) program at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. If she contacted these two institutions she might get some leads, perhaps?

      Best,

      Amy

      Reply
      • Amy Johnson Maricle

        Hi Mary and others;

        I wanted to also post another helpful bit of information I learned, which is that Lesley University, in Cambridge, MA (my alma matter) has a “low-residency” program where you can come to campus just 1 or 2 weeks per year. This is a very worthwhile option to explore.

        Lesley University Low-Residency Program

        All the best of luck to you and your daughter, and we hope to have your voice back here soon!

        Amy

        Reply
  3. Courtney

    Hi Ms. Amy,
    I am a senior at Lugoff-Elgin in SC. I’ve known for a while that I want to pursue a career in art, but I never knew which direction I wanted to go. Then I came across Art therapy. I have done a bit of research and have fallen in love with it. I would like to talk to you about your career. What it takes and what the job outlook is.

    Reply
    • Amy Johnson Maricle

      Hi Courtney:

      It’s great to “meet” you here on the Maricle Counseling blog. This is a great set of questions. And of course, I am psyched that you are interested in art therapy. As you likely have learned in your research, art therapists have a background both in art and psychology before getting a master’s degree in Art Therapy. Some programs also prepare you for licensure as a mental health counselor. The program that I attended at Lesley University did this, and it was one of the main reasons I chose the program. Because right now art therapists cannot bill insurance for their services, it can be limiting in the job market if you don’t also hold a mental health counseling license. My advice would be to choose a program that prepares you for becoming an art therapist/expressive therapist, as well as a mental health counselor.

      Additionally, I always talk with my supervisees about marketing themselves this way when they go on job interviews. I have rarely ever, if ever, applied for a job entitled “Art therapist,” or “Expressive therapist,” but rather have looked for environments that were open and welcoming to the use of the arts and approaches besides just talking. This approach served me extremely well in home based, residential, and now as a private practice clinician. As an LMHC, ATR-BC, I am trained as a general “talk therapist” and can help people with problem solving, social skills, mindfulness, etc., but I also have a huge set of non-verbal processing tools that is helpful with kids and teens, populations with cognitive limitations, and anyone who is willing to tap into the imagination as a new way of solving problems.

      So to answer your question about job prospects, I think if you were to do a job search just on “art therapist,” you would come up with pretty limited results, but if you could peer into the countless mental health agencies, hospitals, residential treatment centers, outpatient clinics, etc. you would see countless expressive and art therapists working with the gamut of populations.

      I am also happy to talk with you more if you want to reach out via email: amymaricle@gmail.com.

      Does all that make sense?

      All the Best to You!
      Amy

      Reply
  4. Lauren Rubenstein

    Thanks for the glimpse into your work.
    Would you give a teen the same undivided attention, or might you work alongside a teen? In my experience they can feel too self-conscious to be watched.

    Reply
    • Amy Johnson Maricle

      HI Lauren: Thanks so much of your thoughtful comment. This is a great question! From what I can tell, you are doing some wonderful yoga therapy work and helping clients work in a body-based approach. I noticed too that you’ve done training with Dave Emerson at the Trauma Center – he’s so great, isn’t he? Even though I am not a yoga therapist, I LOVE his language about an “invitation” from trauma informed yoga. I feel so much better inviting my clients to do something because it gives them space to say no!

      I wonder where the intersections are between yoga therapy and art therapy? I’m not sure of your expertise or exposure to expressive therapy, but as you may know, being a “witness” is an important part of the process. It creates a holding and honoring space for the client’s experience.

      It’s always been surprising to me how few people, teens included, seem to feel uncomfortable with being witnessed. Of course I have had a few clients who want me to make art alongside them, but often, even when I check, people are surprisingly happy to be witnessed. So with teens my default is the same as with adults, I tend to start by witnessing, and if they ask me to do art alongside them, I will. Or, if I am picking up intense discomfort, I will ask if they want me to. Usually though, I think part of what’s hard is getting over our own discomfort with witnessing someone.

      I’m sure that there are variations depending on the particular therapists’ style and the populations issue,culture, etc. I am speaking to the clients with whom I have and do work.

      Thanks again for your powerful question, and I welcome your insights about yoga and therapy here!

      Cheers,

      Amy

      Reply
  5. Kathleen Bragas

    Hey i was wondering if you could help me out! Im presenting on Art Therapy in my counseling class and im really confused and could use some guidance..

    My professor is looking for specific model when describing what art therapy is and the techniques used in that model. i can’t seem to find one universal model that all art therapists use. What im reading from your entry is that the specific approach would be the model in therapy. Could you tell me what might be the best model or approach to use and the techniques that come with it. Ive been driving myself crazy because i can’t seem to find direction.

    Kathleen

    Reply
    • Amy Johnson Maricle

      HI Kathleen:

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting! This is a great project. The beauty of art therapy is its flexibility. A lot of art therapists, like a lot of talk therapists, work from an eclectic approach. There are art therapists who work from a psychoanalytic model, humanistic, feminist, Gesalt, etc. Related to that is whether people approach the art work in a way that is focused on the product, the process of the art making, or both.

      If I were you, I would check out this book by Judith Rubin, one of the grandmothers in our field. It outlines a number of approaches:

      http://www.amazon.com/Approaches-Art-Therapy-Theory-Technique/dp/1583910700

      Good luck!

      Amy

      Reply
  6. Marnoma

    I benefited greatly by reading the article and would like to learn a lot about art sessions, especially on the one hand, psychological discharge and I would like to integrate education with art. What do you recommend?

    Reply

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