Art Therapy Techniques

art therapy techniques

Art therapy combines psychotherapy or “talk” therapy with the interpretation of visual images to delve into an individual’s subconscious, employing techniques to uncover thoughts and feelings that an individual can’t immediately verbalize, aesthetic techniques that take over and succeed where other interventions fail.

Art therapists are trained in recognizing the most appropriate tools – art materials and media – and techniques for each client. Techniques vary depending on age, physical or mental disability, and the reasons for seeking help. Knowing the right tools and techniques is part science, part art.

Selecting the Right Tools

Art therapists know that certain situations and personalities will require certain media – such as oil pastels. For example, it takes a longer period of time to cover a large surface with oil pastels – longer than paint. This is important as time allows some clients to discuss their feelings as they create.

Oil pastels also provide a sensory experience, the fingers, for example, directly on the oil pastel stick that marks the paper, rather than holding a brush that holds the paint – that marks the surface. More intense sensory experiences, such as using soft or oil pastels or clay, provide a way to calm and settle agitated patients.

However clients who are not agitated but like mixing colors and creating textures might prefer paints, or mixed media techniques. Others prefer simply drawing with charcoal or graphite, perhaps those who have had some drawing experience in the past, or don’t want to think about making color choices. Still others, especially autistic children, may prefer drawing on a computer.

Paints, oil and soft pastels, markers or other drawing tools, and clay give art therapists a solid toolbox for various therapeutic interventions, but there are many other tools that therapists use, such as tissue art, fiber arts, beadwork, and mask making.

Here are a few examples of some common tools, techniques, and interventions used by art therapists:


For some, art is a scary, inhibiting process. Whether stemming from negative feedback as children, or anxiety over creating something polished and presentable, some individuals will not commit themselves to making marks on paper. Yet traditional “talk” therapy is hard for them as well as they can’t find the words to describe complex emotions and thoughts.

For these individuals, art therapists use a number of “collage” techniques. Using magazine photos, digital images, or other materials gathered from books, pamphlets, junk mail, etc., the art therapist guides these clients to cut and paste together images.

The collages that patients create are prompts for narratives, or stories that therapists ask their clients to tell. Ryan Howes, PhD, and a contributor to Art Therapist Cathy Malchiodi’s blog on Psychology Today, calls this technique one of “The ten coolest art therapy interventions“.

He says it either involves asking clients to collect, arrange, and glue images that catch their attention, or to create an image collage around a particular theme, such as “what would your life look like if you were in recovery.”


“Visual footprints” of a person’s life, is how Judy Weiser describes years worth of snapshots. Weiser, a pioneer in the use of photography in psychotherapy – called phototherapy – states that this technique requires additional training for those therapists who want to apply this intervention.

On her website, Weiser explains how this technique works, as art therapists and clients explore personal photographs, albums and scrapbooks, thereby piecing together the client’s inner life.

These photographs and stories “can serve as natural bridges for accessing, exploring, and communicating about feelings and memories – including deeply buried or long forgotten ones – along with psychotherapeutic issues these bring to light,” Weiser’s website states.

A “meaning” in the photograph is not found in the visual facts but in the emotions and feelings the photos evoke in the client.

Family Sculpture

Clay or other types of sculpting materials traditionally have been used by art therapists, but family sculpture is a relatively new intervention. It involves having the client sculpt each family member, or a representation of each member. The figures don’t even have to look like people, only represent the family members.

These representations reflect personalities, such as a large figure symbolizing an overbearing mother or father. The client also places the figures in relation to each other, showing the therapist, symbolically, the relationships and patterns of interactions of the family without other members being present.

This gives both the client and the therapist a better understanding of how the family’s structure and patterns have affected the client, and perhaps contributed to a client’s current issues and problems.

Digital art

The techniques used by therapists concerning digital art and media are the newest, most current, most hotly debated, and yet to be studied empirically for therapeutic effectiveness.

Nonetheless, the cultural changes these new media forms have instituted demands that therapists keep digital options available – especially when working with generations raised during the digital age.

Photo imaging software. Instead of cutting and pasting magazine and book images and pasting them into a paper collage, digital arts programs allow users to do the same electronically. There are literally millions of images available online for these projects.

Drawing software. Some therapists argue that the sensory benefits of creating are excluded using computers, yet others cite cases of younger generations preferring to draw digitally and more intuitively than with pencils or paintbrushes.

On her blog, Art Therapist Cathy Malchiodi cites the software program Project Sketch-Up/Project Spectrum.

According to Malchiodi, this program has been researched outside of the art therapy field and shown to be effective in working with autistic children. Many children report drawing with a pencil “painful” but enjoyed drawing with the Sketch-Up program. In studying children with autism and their preference for this program, researchers showed the link to autism and a preference for visual and spatial learning.

If you are interested in becoming an art therapist, and learning the tools and techniques that guide these professionals to help individuals become mentally healthy and self-fulfilled, request information from schools offering art therapy degree programs. Most positions require a master’s degree, and some states also require certification.

An effective technique for trauma:

A 24-year-old student arrived at a medical clinic after colliding with a massive object on a bike path, as reported in the journal “Arts in Psychotherapy.” She had a broken shin bone, causing her leg to be in a cast, and walked with crutches. She was experiencing intense anger at herself – and at the object – and was repeatedly blaming herself for the accident.

Writers and researchers Orly Sarid and Ephrat Huss, both Ph.D faculty members at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Beer-Sheva, Israel, described this patient as being in an acute stage of trauma – or the period of two to four weeks after a trauma occurs.

During sessions of art therapy, the young woman chose a large sheet of paper and a black oil pastel to draw a large rectangle in the middle of a road, adding a black colored figure next to the rectangle. As she drew, she called herself stupid for not seeing the object.

At one point in the therapy, the art therapist suggested that she add colors to the black figure to represent different characteristics of her personality.

By adding the colors and naming each of them as one of her characteristics, the client noticed that even with the “black” of her figure, her overall image was colorful and bright, and that her anger was only a small part of herself – not her entire person.

Sarid and Huss described how the art process calmed her physical agitation, and secondly how she was able to reframe her anger – giving her the ability to control her emotions. Effective art therapy led to healing this woman’s trauma, preventing more severe, long-term problems.

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