I’ve always loved art. Looking at interesting, unique, beautiful-in-their-own-way images and objects always has made me feel alive and happy. As a child and teen, I also loved drawing, painting and creating everything from collages to greeting cards. And I loved losing myself in the work.

So I was excited to learn more about art therapy, where clients create their own art to help them express emotions, better understand themselves and grow in general.

In her book, The Art Therapy Sourcebook, art therapist Cathy A. Malchiodi describes various exercises that readers can try at home. Below are three that I found especially helpful.

By the way, remember that this has little to do with artistic ability or the final product. Instead, Malchiodi suggests focusing on the process, your intuition and play. She writes:

Art making is an intuitive process; that is, it does not depend on logical or rational thought, and it has no rules. When you use your intuition, you simply feel that you know what is right in a given situation…

Art making involves a sense of play. Jung noted that, without play, “no creative work has ever yet come to birth.”

Play is important to adults, too. It is behavior that enables us to feel free to explore and express without self-judgment or inhibition, to participate for the sheer joy of the experience and to think creatively, flexibly and innovatively.

Without further ado, the activities…

Scribbling with Your Eyes Closed

According to Malchiodi, because everyone started scribbling as kids, this is a natural place to start with art therapy. Before you begin, she suggests relaxing for a few minutes, listening to soothing music or meditating. For this activity, you’ll need an 18 by 24 inch paper and chalk pastels (though if you ask me, whatever you have will work).

Tape your sheet of paper to the table (or wherever you’re working) so it won’t budge. Pick a chalk color that you can see. Place your chalk in the middle of the paper, close your eyes and start scribbling.

Scribble for about 30 seconds, and open your eyes. Take a close look at your picture, and find an image (“a particular shape, figure, object and so on”). Be sure to examine your picture from all sides. You can even hang it on the wall, and step back to get the whole perspective. After you find your image, color it in and add details to bring “that image into clearer focus.” Hang up your drawing, and think of a title.

Spontaneous Images Journal

“Making images on a regular basis opens up many possibilities for understanding and expressing oneself,” Malchiodi writes. In your spontaneous images journal, you not only paste or create images, but you also write down a title and a few phrases or sentences about your work. (And date each one.) You can do this daily or several times a week.

The more you do this, the more you’ll “begin to see similarities in a theme, colors or shape” and develop “your own unique way of working with materials and your own images and symbols.”

Self-Soothing Image Book

You can use images to “self-soothe and create positive sensations,” Malchiodi says in her book. For this exercise, you’ll need 10 or more sheets of 8 ½ x 11-inch paper, magazines, colored paper, collage materials, scissors and glue.

Start by thinking about pleasant sensory experiences, such as landscapes, sounds, scents, tastes, textures and anything else that makes you feel tranquil or happy; and write them down. Cut out images that match those experiences out of your magazines and other collage materials.

Then paste those images onto the paper. You can organize the images by composition or textures, the environment and other categories. Pull together all your papers, create a cover and figure out how you’d like to bind your book. (For instance, you can punch holes in the papers and put them in a binder.)

Afterward, write down your general thoughts and feelings. And specifically, think about how you felt while choosing the images. Ask yourself “Which sensory images did I favor over others? Why?” Continue adding to your book whenever you like.

More Self-Exploration

To dig even deeper with these activities, Malchiodi suggests asking yourself questions about your work and art.

  • Instead of thinking about what an image means, think about the feeling it communicates. She writes: “What are your initial impressions? Is the image happy, angry, sad, anxious and so on? Or does it have many different feelings expressed through color, line and form? How do you use color, line and form to express emotion?”
  • “If the image could talk to you, what would it say?” Look at your picture, and give each part its own voice. Malchiodi suggests speaking in first person. So if you have a tree in your collage, you’d say, “I am a tree and I feel …”
  • Pick a part of your image that’s interesting to you or that you don’t like. “Try making another drawing or painting of that section only, enlarging it and adding new details or images that come to mind.”
  • “Explore images with images.” Create another image that responds to your original. Interestingly, Malchiodi says that your images will have different meanings depending on the day. She suggests keeping an open mind and continuing to explore.

Do art activities help you express yourself and process your emotions? If you’re an art therapist, what are your favorite activities or ones that you’d like to recommend?