Thursday, March 15, 2012

11 Tips for Employing Art Therapy Techniques

Would you like to employ some art therapy** techniques with some of your clients?

This third post of the art therapy series will be providing you with 11 key learnings on engaging clients with art therapy. These posts are based upon the 14 week graduate class I'm taking in art therapy.

11 Tips About Conducting Art Therapy** with Clients:
* After giving a client an art task, let the client work. Do not interrupt or ask questions. Observe the client in the process of making the art task. If client says that he/she cannot do X, encourage client to give it a try for at least another five minutes.
* Once time for project is up, start with something like: Is there anything that you'd like to share about your picture? about the process of making it, what he/she likes or dislikes or would change, etc. 
* Stay client-centered; in other words, focus on the client's associations and projections.
* Be careful with therapist associations; avoid them unless they will add value to or feed the life of the material.
* Make neutral observations about the picture as opposed to praise or criticism (for example, about the shape, size, use of space, focal point, what is in the edge, what colors are used). 
* Emphasize emotional content and process vs. a focus on how the product came out or its specific content.
* Use third person language as in "what is that person/animal/character doing?" vs. "what are you doing?"
* Identify metaphors and use them, play with them, to go deeper. 
* Ask questions about the picture to help the client tell a story about it such as: "If you were to step into this picture, where would you go? ...what would you do?" (Avoid the question "why they did X in the picture?" - clients will tend to have a hard time being able to answer. It is better to ask whether X has any meaning.)
* Discover the surprises in the image by asking the client to really look at what he/she created. Is it what he/she expected? If not, how is it different from what he/she intended to make? The meaning of these surprises may be messages from the unconscious.
* Respect your client's artwork and involve client in all decisions about what to do with his/her art. This means that if you your client wants you to save it, keep it safe and only display it with his/her permission.
To share a personal illustration of an unexpected surprise, we were given an inkblot exercise for the experiential portion of class. This entailed our being told to pick a sheet of paper in a color that speaks to us and then we were asked to pour a bit of ink out on this paper and smear it.

After we had our "inkblot," we were instructed to look at our respective inkblots and see what we see (without putting too much thought into it) and then to use any of the materials that were laid out (colored pencils, oil pastels or colored chalk) and help whatever we saw in the inkblot become further defined.

I chose a green sheet of paper and thought that I saw the face of a teddy bear through my smeared dots of ink. I then proceeded to take a brown crayon and bring out the teddy bear's features.

However, as I continued, for some reason, I was compelled to give the teddy bear "unteddy bear-like" ears and eyes. Suddenly my teddy bear had evolved into a smiling figure looking down at me... At first, I didn't recognize or realize who this person was because I didn't have a chance to finish the picture.

All I knew during class was that the teddy bear was no longer a teddy bear but someone who was smiling at me and making me feel very happy inside. It was only later that I realized that I had drawn my late beloved grandmother.

As this example demonstrates, the inkblot projective exercise can be very powerful. A person brings to the exercise the current thoughts/emotions and/or unconscious needs he or she has.

It so happened that I was about to embark on a difficult journey to someone dear to me who is battling cancer and my late grandmother's supportive "visit" from my unconscious was a most timely gift. 

What are your thoughts about art therapy? Does this field look appealing? 

To the art therapists, what questions would come to your mind had I drawn my grandmother in a session with you (to help me further tease out any important messages)?

You May Also Enjoy:
Art Therapy and Social Work
Children’s Growth Through Art
Art Therapy - The Power of Art in Healing
Social Work and Music Therapy
20 Motivational Quotes for Job Seekers

1) I am a social worker and not an art therapist. The above information is only meant to be seen as a taste of what is involved in art therapy.
2) Please do not substitute material on this site for consultation with an art therapist or mental health professional. It is not intended to serve as mental health advice, let alone assessment, diagnosis, or treatment.
3) Before practicing art therapy, one must obtain sufficient training, supervision and licensing.  So You Want to be an Art Therapist, Part Two: Art Therapy Education describes some of the different paths available to those interested in art therapy as a profession or as an additional technique for those who have a master's degree in licensed mental health professions like counseling and social work.

D. Fagen, LCSW, LCAT, ATR-BC, Creative arts therapy in clinical social work lecture, February 27, 2012.
Rubin, J. (Ed.) (2001).  Approaches to art therapy: Theory and technique. New York: Brunner-Routledge.


  1. Are you an art therapist? Please don't refer to this as art therapy. Yes you are using art as part of your therapy but as someone else shared with me recently, this type of art therapy application is simular to an MD taking a class or two in plastic surgery and then offering plastic surgery services.
    Please share more specifically what your training and background is in art therapy. As a masters level art thersapist I find it heartbreaking to hear you present art therapy as something attainable to other therapists and social workers with a class or two without acknowledging the indepth work of authenticly trained art therapists.

  2. Hi...
    thank you for raising awareness about art therapy. Also, much of what you said is true. However, I encourage you to be aware of and also communicate the education required to be an art therapist (a master's degree in art therapy). Also, the way you talk about art therapy is from a perspective of technique instead of profession. Art Therapy is a profession even though our sister professions such as social work and counseling refer to art therapy as a technique. Please see for more specific information on education, training, and credentialing for art thearapy.
    Thank You,
    Nicole Brandstrup, MA,PC-CR, ATR-BC
    Registered Board Certified Art Therapist
    Professional Counselor - Clinical Resident

  3. As 15 book author on the subject of art therapy, I am curious-- why no references to the 1000s of articles, books and chapters on art therapy? I write for Psychology Today [The Healing Arts Blog] and bloggers do have a responsibility to reference what they write. I must have written "use third person language" a hundred times; it is a concept associated with many art therapy authors. As Nicole notes, raising awareness of art therapy is a good thing-- especially when the sources for these concepts are linked to the field that developed them.

  4. Thank you, Theresa, Nicole and Cathy for your comments.

    I do apologize. Your remarks have made me realize that I need to insert some disclaimers and as not to give the wrong impression on the training, supervision or licensing requirements for practicing art therapists, or mental health professionals who add art therapy to their tool kit (with the appropriate training, supervision etc).

    I will be amending my post accordingly.

    P.S. To the art therapist who questioned the bow-tie and bald head, one of the questions one asks of the client is: what is wrong or what would you change with the which I would respond, I would remove the bow-tie (it only belonged to the teddybear) and I would have added hair (as well as a line connecting the spectacles/eyes) had I had more time in class...making the image of my grandmother clearer.

  5. As a professional who is not a qualified art therapist I feel compelled to comment on the importance of posts such as these for broadening the thinking and practice of people who are professional experts in other areas. I am a passionate believer that workers should not narrow their focus and pigeon-hole themselves within one professional camp to the exclusion of all others. Doing so leads to stodgy unimaginative thinking and work and ultimately less good results.

    Blog posts often serve as a means of piquing an interest in a topic, and this is something that Dorlee has always done well. Her posts on art therapy could lead a professional to see the power of art therapy and refer clients on to a qualified art therapist (if funds allow, and sadly often do not) or to use some of the basic ideas in their own work. Yes, this will obviously not make us full art therapists but we are not trying to be. We are just trying to communicate with people who often find it hard to use words. In my work with teens, words so often fail, but you can often start a conversation through a practical activity such as drawing, playing a game etc. Improving how we start conversations on often very difficult topics is so vital to achieving success in our working relationships and being diverse in our approach is one key way of achieving this. The tips she lists in this post when using art as the conversation starter are very helpful.

    As a regular reader of Dorlee's posts I was fully aware from her previous posts, as she made it very clear, that she is not a qualified art therapist and these were her reflections on a course she was on. I and others hugely value Dorlee's cross-field explorations in her posts and if people delve deeper into her other posts they will easily see this underlying ethos.

    Supporting one another in our practice, whatever our specialist practice area might be, through exploring ideas and techniques carefully and with an understanding of our limitations can only improve the outcomes for our clients. It takes a commitment of time and effort and I strongly believe that it is those that care most that make this commitment because they know the difference that it makes.

    1. Thanks so much, Sam, for your kind and supportive response.

      You conveyed so beautifully what it is that I hope to achieve through my posts - "piquing an interest in a topic" and "supporting one another in our practice."

      Thanks again!

  6. Part 1 of 2 Comments (Blogger evidently limits the size of comments...and I have a lot to say)

    It's, in fact, very common for psychotherapists to use a range of techniques from specialized therapeutic modalities. For example, many therapists have used the two-chaired gestalt technique, cognitive-behavioral thought logs & responses, action techniques (from psychodrama), sand play techniques, and integrating art into psychotherapy without having the specialized certification/in-depth training of a specialist. Similarly, some therapists use hypnosis without being a certified hypnotherapist, or EMDR without being a certified EMDR therapist, Sensorimotor Body techniques without being certified as a Sensorimotor Body therapist, etc., etc., etc. You get the idea.

    The key is to:
    1) Do it responsibly--have enough background in it to provide a good overview (like the course you're taking Dorlee), understand the risks and have the skills to handle the risks. For example, creative therapies can bring up feelings for clients--people employing these techniques needs to make sure they have the skills to help a client contain affect. We have an ethical responsibility to make sure we have adequate training to do the work that we're doing.

    2) Make sure we represent our expertise accurately to clients. For example, I am a licensed clinical social worker, a credentialed alcoholism and substance abuse counselor, a certified EMDR therapist (professor and dean of social work, etc.) who employs techniques from psychodrama, art therapy, sensorimotor body therapy and yoga --however I will never call myself an art therapist, yoga teacher, certified psychodramatist, etc., nor will I say that I do hypnotherapy, art therapy, and psychodrama. We need to be clear about what we specialize in and what we don't. I don't think we do a good job of teaching people how to talk about what we each do.

    I agree that there's a difference between techniques and an entire therapeutic approach and/or a profession. Dr. Francine Shapiro, the developer of EMDR (and a colleague and friend) gets very upset at people who call EMDR a technique as opposed to the comprehensive therapeutic approach that it is. The comments here from art therapy colleagues remind me of the conversations that I've had with her I've had about this. However, the reality is that EMDR can be used either way, as a technique or a method. That's true also of many therapeutic techniques. My own personal theory is that people get more strident about such things in direct relationship to the degree to which they've been misunderstood, trivialized, or (as in the case of EMDR) ridiculed.



    I, like, Sam Ross, also appreciate this post for the paths that it makes evident to readers, which of course is one of the main focuses of Dorlee's blog. I can certainly understand the need that art therapy colleagues have to clarify what it takes to be an art therapist and I do understand what it's like to have professional training that people trivialize. At the same time I am saddened by the tone of some of these comments and by what wasn't said. Dorlee has offered you a wonderful opportunity to not only clarify your professional boundaries, but also to educate people more on what art therapists actually do and the remarkable ways that they can work with clients to make a difference in their lives. She actually invited comments from art therapists, and all she received were comments that figuratively slapped her hand about using the phrase "art therapy" vs. "art therapy techniques," not having citations, etc. I have to wonder what a random reader (of which Dorlee has many) will make of the art therapy profession based on these comments.

    There are many ways to educate people about professions, but the most effective ones I know of (from my 20 years as a social work educator and 25+ years as a clinical social worker) involve giving people a "taste" of what you do. I wish that one of you had also taken the time to respond to her invited comments to your profession, or, instead, to offer other details about how you work and what it really means to be an art therapist. Unfortunately, because no art therapist has chosen to do so (yet...maybe one will), I could easily see a reader having the mistaken impression that art therapists are concerned more about professional turf--being part of an exclusive group--than encouraging others to seek out your profession. Sure, they could go pursue the blogs/associations you've referenced...but that requires a desire to do so. While I can't speak for those "random readers" I can say that the comments here would leave me less than impressed with art therapy as a profession if I were judging it based on what's transpired here. Fortunately, I know several wonderful art therapists who would respond differently if I could get them to spend some time online, so I know that these comments are not indicative of the profession (and probably not even indicative of the people who made the comments--my guess is that the post just "pushed a button" for professionals who are tired of being misunderstood). So "random reader" out there, please don't judge the profession of art therapy based on the comments here--check out the blogs, books and the professional association.

    1. Thanks so much, Nancy, for your thoughtful and informative response,

      You expressed so eloquently the distinction between the art therapy profession per se and employing art therapy techniques, as well as provided the confirmation that psychotherapists may, indeed, employ art therapy techniques with their clients, assuming they have received adequate training and do not call themselves art therapists.

      I am ever so grateful for your support,

  8. Kudos to Sam and Nancy for so eloquently stating what I was struggling to put into words.

    I have never met Dorlee, but from following her posts and her tweets on Twitter, it is apparent that she believes in sharing; of her time, of her interests and also her learnings. Her open-hearted and generous spirit serves to promote, to stimulate and to engage.

    She is stepping out on a limb to share her very personal art-work and the feelings that were generated as she finds strength to deal with the illness of someone who is very near and dear to her. I think encouragement and compassion are needed, don't you?

    1. Thanks so much, Marianna, for your thoughtful and compassionate comment.

      I am most appreciative of the support that you, Sam and Nancy have demonstrated with your passionate and articulate rebuttals.

      The comments made by the art therapists had hurt... my intention has only been to share some of the things that I am learning so as to be of help to other mental health professionals.

      While I may have made some newbie mistakes, I never presented myself as an art therapist. In fact, I had indicated from my first post in my art therapy series that I would be sharing learnings based upon an art therapy graduate class geared for clinical social work.

      Furthermore, I would never make the assumption (nor would I think that other psychotherapists assume) that information shared on my blog (or any other blog) about one technique or modality would be "enough."

      Instead, I would anticipate visitors to obtain a taste of and/or an introduction to a specific topic and depending upon whether their interest was piqued or not, they would decide to pursue this further or not.

      Thanks again!

  9. Dorlee,

    As usual, I found this post to be engaging and informative. Although I have a background in psychology and counseling from many, many years ago, I am not a practicing therapist and long ago decided to take my career in a very different direction.

    So I visit your blog as a learner and seeker.

    I am still interested, however, in developments and practices in the field, and I find your posts really very interesting and 'tuned-in' on so many levels. Your style of sharing various models and tools is down-to-earth and written in a way that even someone like me can understand, which makes reading them fun and a great resource of new ideas. I often use ideas from your blog to begin further research.

    The sensitivity with which you always address the human condition is a reminder that we are all on this journey together, and that it is through compassion and open-heartedness that we help each other along the road. We would all be well served to use your writing as a model of sensitivity in our own conversations and processing.

    I always admire your willingness to share personal experiences to illustrate some of your points. It is a courageous thing to do. And I believe this is one of the reasons why your blog is popular. I was very touched by your drawing and the message of love from your grandmother. Having recently experienced a great loss of my own, I could relate to its incredible importance on a deep emotional level.

    I agree with Marianna that your open-hearted and generous spirit always serves to promote, to stimulate and to engage.

    Thank you

    1. Terry,

      Thank you so much for your heartfelt words of support and appreciation.

      I am very touched by all that you written and said. Your interest, enthusiasm and loyalty mean so much to me... you've been there almost since the beginning of my blog.

      Thank you also for sharing your reactions to the drawing of my beloved late grandmother. (I thought that you may appreciate the significance of what had transpired for me in light of your recent loss...because what happened to me felt like being visited by my grandmother whom I loved and missed so much.)

      While it's such a rough/simple drawing, what it represents means a lot to me. She symbolizes someone who gave me unconditional love and support - the perfect antidote for when one needs extra strength before embarking on a difficult trip.

      With much gratitude,

  10. As a Clinical Social Worker, I definitely can see the value in using ART as a very client-centered approach with clients who may have difficulty approaching certain feelings or narratives, or who may simply find drawing, doodling, painting, etc. to be a calming aid during a session. During my final MSW internship, I spent a lot of time with Art Therapists and attended a workshop for Clinical Social Workers who use art in their practices, and I definitely plan to use art with my clients in the future. While it will not be used in the deep way that a fully-trained Registered Art Therapist may use them, I will use it simply as another tool to facilitate the client's thoughts, feelings, story, etc.

  11. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and feedback on the idea of using art with your clients as a way to engage your clients and help them express their emotions.