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What is Art Therapy and What Happens in a Session?

A pallet of paint with an assortment of colours. This is a palette that would be used in an art therapy session.

Art therapy has become an increasingly discussed topic within Ontario and across the globe, as people of all ages are commenting on the healing properties of creative art-making. Many who’ve tried art therapy before have shared that they were interested in using art-based approaches in therapy because it felt less-threatening, more personable, and more accessible to a larger number of people. As interests across our community continue to grow, a common question that has been asked more recently is, “How does art therapy work and what happens in an art therapy session?”.

"It’s not about what you made or how well you made it, but more so the meaning it holds to you."

What is art therapy?

Art therapy is a form of expressive therapy that integrates art and the creative process as a way to support mental, emotional, and physical well-being for individuals, families, or communities. It may sometimes be perceived from the outside as just an art class. However, creative therapies have been demonstrated to support individuals when faced with a variety of different life challenges or experiences.

The National Institutes of Health research findings on the effectiveness of art therapy stated that “art therapy is used to improve cognitive and sensorimotor functions, foster self-esteem and self-awareness, cultivate emotional resilience, promote insight, enhance social skills, reduce and resolve conflicts and distress, and advance societal and ecological change”.

It may also be important to note that art therapy doesn’t require previous artistic experience nor is it a test of creativity. Rather, art therapist Judith Aaron Rubin said it's a space held to embrace the enjoyable experience of making art while also honouring how art can help to communicate, contain, or explore different thoughts or emotions.

Why make art in therapy?

Art has been used throughout history and across the world as a way of visually expressing our truths. It’s a part of human culture and a universal form of communication. The creative process offers the artist a place of containment that’s outside of the mind or body, in which they can more safely process heavier thoughts or emotions. The artwork also carries forward this reflective experience into your everyday life in a tangible way.

The individual has the power to choose what subjects or themes they would like to focus on, while still having the ability to hold space for thoughts or feelings they don’t wish to explore at this time. At any time, these uncomfortable subjects can be held within the limits of the page and the individual can physically come back to the page or put it aside again at any time.

"Regardless of previous artistic experience, art-making is a powerful tool for individuals to share, honour, and embrace a meaningful experience when investing in their well-being and health. "

This is why art therapy can be an important tool for processing life experiences and empowering the innate strength individuals have to overcome obstacles. It’s not about what you made or how well you made it, but more so the meaning it holds to you. Ultimately, the creative process is used in therapy because it allows the individual to safely explore deeper reflections on their life experiences and feel empowered by the therapy process.

A series of palms with red paint on them all coming together to make a heart for art therapy.

What happens in an art therapy session?

Since art therapy is intended to be more sensory-based and flexible to the individual’s needs, what happens during a session looks different for everyone. Art therapy works as a process and involves using different artistic materials to express thoughts or feelings both verbally and visually.

Here's what a typical art therapy session looks like:

  1. The art therapy session usually begins with the individual and the art therapist discussing what is coming up in the client’s present life, or what therapy goals or support would be helpful to the client today.

  2. Through this conversation, the art therapist collaborates with the individual in deciding on the focus for today’s session or what kind of artwork they’d be interested in making today. The individual can choose what material to use, what they want to share in the art, and when they feel they have finished their creative process.

  3. When the client is finished creating, the art therapist may ask them about what they have made, how they felt during the art-making process, and how the art piece may connect to their sense of self or other areas in their life.

The creative or expressive activity can be made using any kind of craft, art, or recycled materials. Some themes that may be explored are:

  • Self-identity or self-expression

  • Life goals or passions

  • Mental health concerns

  • Reducing stress or pain management

  • Relationship issues

  • Increasing overall feelings of wellness

What happens in art therapy is up to you, but supported in collaboration with the art, the therapist, and the therapeutic space. Sometimes we paint, sometimes we talk. At times we play around or learn a new skill. Other times we get messy or make incomplete art.

Find an Art Therapist Near You

Regardless of previous artistic experience, art-making is a powerful tool for individuals to share, honour, and embrace a meaningful experience when investing in their well-being and health.

To find out more about art therapy, or begin to explore these ideas in a more formalized setting, our care partnerships programs can bring art therapy into your long-term care home, school, and more. If you’re looking for 1-on-1 options, our creative psychotherapy offering at connects art therapy with psychotherapy to provide you with a unique pathway to self-discovery and self-expression.

Written by Mollia May

References for further reading:

Dupuis, K. & Bender, E., (2022). Arts Participation in Canadian Older Adults During COVID-19. Arts Participation in Canadian Older Adults. 2.

Hoffmann, B., Kalcheva, A., Lekova-Dimitrova, B., Tilov, B., Tornyova, B., Ivanova, M., & Angelova, J. (2016). The role of expressive therapies in therapeutic interactions; art therapy-explanation of the concept. Trakia Journal of Science, 14(3), 197-202.

Malchiodi, C. A. (Ed.). (2013). Expressive therapies. Guilford Publications.

Regev, D., & Cohen-Yatziv, L. (2018). Effectiveness of art therapy with adult clients in 2018—what progress has been made?. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 1531.

Rubin, J. A. (2016). Introduction. In Approaches to art therapy: Cognitive and neuroscience approaches, (p. 1- 13). Routledge.

Zubala, A., & Hackett, S. (2020). Online art therapy practice and client safety: a UK-wide survey in times of COVID-19. International Journal of Art Therapy, 25(4), 161-171.


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