Home » Blog » Art Therapy: A Crash Course

Art Therapy: A Crash Course

Many adults shy away from artistic activities because they believe themselves to be lacking in this skillset. While you may not be able to duplicate The Starry Night, I believe Van Gogh himself would agree that anyone could benefit from artistic expression and exploration. 

Art Therapy is widely used as a tool for expression and also exploration in therapeutic environments. It has the ability to provide opportunity for reflection that can be very revealing or make way for conversations that are very difficult. Individuals can attempt art activities with a therapeutic intent, keeping these basic things in mind:

Concrete Materials

You cannot create anything without materials with which to do so. Choosing the material you’re interested in working with is half the fun.

Maybe you are more of a three dimensional thinker and you want to try sculpting with clay. You can do this with just your hands or experiment with various types of tools. Tools can include anything from specifically designed rollers and scrapers to items you have laying around the house like a pencil or paperclip. Or maybe you are more inclined to work with paint and canvas. The different combinations of this media are limitless. You can work with watercolor, oil paints, or acrylic. Or try your hand at pencil, chalk, or pastel drawing. Give yourself some time to explore different types of materials and decide what works best for you.

Let Go of Preconceived Ideas

Here’s a great way to consider expectations versus reality. If your only definition of artistic success looks like the Mona Lisa, then you may find yourself consistently disappointed. No matter the materials you decide to work with, the next most important step is to let go of preconceived notions of what you are going to create. You can give yourself a topic to explore or an end goal to visualize, but you must free yourself from the constraints of realistic depiction, if you are truly interested in exploring what this process has to offer. Remind yourself the value is in just that — the process rather than the product. 

Creation and Destruction

One interesting thing that is simply inherent about art is that in order to create, you must destroy and vice versa. It is a beautiful dichotomy of these opposing concepts working together. To paint an image, the pastels must be spread out of their container, marring the crisp, white paper. To build a statue, the clay must be molded and chipped away into fresh form. Accompanying your creation will always be a wake of destruction in the materials you used and the pieces you discarded. This is a great illustration of the transformative experiences we all go through in our growth and development. Once again, it is all a part of the process. 


Maybe more valuable the art you create is your own interpretation of it. This involves reflective questioning through every part of the process. Some examples to consider:

  • Why did you choose the materials you chose? What did you like or not like about them? Was the decision based on physical sensory or prior experience?
  • Is there a pattern in the colors you chose? Are they warm? Cool? Are your lines sharp and jagged or smooth and flowing? Did you depict people, animals, or is your image abstract?
  • How did it feel to create this piece? How did it feel when it was finished? How did you know it was finished?
  • Did this project take multiple attempts? What did you change about each attempt? 
  • What does this project mean to you? What experiences is it related to? How does it fit into your understanding of yourself or your circumstances? 

There are many therapeutic themes and activities that can be explored artistically including self-perception, identity, conflict, loss, emotions, fears, family dynamics, and personal progression. The topics and concepts you may choose from to explore are limitless. The important thing to remember is to keep an open mind about your experience and seek professional help if you find yourself really struggling with something your exploration has brought up or revealed. 

Remember, art is not just for children and professional artists. It can be a great avenue for self-expression or to relieve stress. And who knows? Maybe allowing yourself some exploration of this outlet may even turn into a fulfilling hobby that you practice regularly.

Art Therapy: A Crash Course

Bonnie McClure

Bonnie McClure is a freelance writer based in rural, northwest Georgia. She lives here with her husband, two young sons, and cattle dog, Kudzu. An avid runner and yogi, she is devoted to improvement across all dimensions of wellness. With a background in psychology and small business management, she believes everyone is capable of life-changing growth and aspires to help others achieve their personal and professional goals. She is a member of the Georgia Writer’s Association and writes motivational posts and provides free, small business resources on her blog for her freelance writing business, WriterType.

No comments yet... View Comments / Leave a Comment
APA Reference
McClure, B. (2019). Art Therapy: A Crash Course. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 24, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 21 Nov 2019 (Originally: 22 Nov 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 21 Nov 2019
Published on Psych All rights reserved.