Art as Therapy

By Tobi Zausner, PhD, LMSW


Art as therapy and art therapy are two aspects of the profound healing potential of the creative process involving visual art. Art as therapy appears to be as old and continuous as human culture with decorated artifacts existing from prehistoric civilizations to the current time. Art as therapy manifests in active form through the artist’s opportunity for self-expression and in receptive form through the response of the viewing audience. The artist’s experience of creating a meaningful work of art and the audience’s capacity for recognizing its meaning can lead to a multitude of healing responses including increased positive affect, relaxation, catharsis, social cohesion, and strengthened spirituality. The creative process can also act as an analgesic for artists who experience a lessening of physical pain while making art. In addition, developing creative works may also be a focal point in artists’ lives that provides strength to assist them in the recuperation from illness. The Canadian artist Maud Lewis experienced a profound lessening of discomfort from her rheumatoid arthritis when she painted, and the French artist Henri Matisse not only experienced benefits while creating art but so strongly believed that viewing art was also healing that he hung his works of art around the bedsides of friends who were sick.

Art therapy is a clinical discipline that entails both the healing modalities of creating art and also the assessment of works of art by skilled professionals versed in psychological analysis. Creating art is a largely unconscious process that provides a window into the mind of the creator. Through an analysis of visual elements such as the placement of an image on the page, the colors chosen, the type of lines created, the use of space, the number and integration of drawn items, and the apparent movement of the image, a psychologist, art therapist, or other trained professional can assess the emotional state of a person, provide counseling, and monitor the progress of the person through analyses of subsequent works produced. The person receiving art therapy may create art of their own choosing or they may be given projective tests with instructions to draw specific items, such as the House–Tree–Person (HTP) test that assesses personality or the Road Drawing test, which reveals a person’s concept of their road of life. Art therapy, which can be used as a way to express and interpret the response to trauma, is also effective with young children and other individuals, who may be unable to adequately express themselves verbally.