How Art Therapy Works

According to Pablo Picasso “art washes from the soul the dust of everyday life.” It seems from this that Picasso understood innately just how art therapy works.

Art therapy is a growing field. No longer confined to the stereotype of working with small children and those in need of “occupational therapy”, the popularity of using creative techniques alongside talking therapy with all age groups is expanding thanks to the many case studies and research showing the effectiveness of art and other creative therapies in treating both emotional and physical ill-health.

Art therapy works for everyone

Studies of adults using art therapy include those impacted by bereavement, dealing with addictions, reducing anxiety levels, improving recovery times and reducing hospital stays, and in pain management.

Art has an unprecedented ability to help people communicate, particularly when a client may struggle to share their issues such as in cases of trauma, or if the client finds words aren’t easily accessible.

There have been similar studies in adolescents and young children showing the benefits of using art in therapy in many areas including burn recovery, eating disorders, reading performance, grief, and sexual abuse.(1) Art therapy has been proved to successfully help to improve mood, promote relaxation, improve concentration, increase effective communication and the ability to develop closer relationships.(2)

There is no limit to the issues with which art therapy can successfully be used to explore and manage. According to the American Art Therapy Association:

“Art therapy is used with children, adolescents, adults, older adults, groups, families, veterans, and people with chronic health issues to assess and treat the following: anxiety, depression, and other mental and emotional problems; substance abuse and addictions; family and relationship issues; abuse and domestic violence; social and emotional difficulties related to disability and illness; trauma and loss; physical, cognitive, and neurological problems; and psychosocial difficulties related to medical illness.” (3)

Art therapy supports effective communication

Using art and creative techniques alongside talking therapy can be particularly helpful when working with clients for whom words are difficult or shameful or not easily accessible.

For example, clients who experience dyslexia or other learning difficulties, clients with Asperger’s or autism, patients recovering from the effects of a stroke, those with long-term health issues such as dementia, people recovering from experiences of rape, sexual assault, childhood abuse or other trauma. The creation of something ‘external’ to the body and mind can be a very simple yet powerful way to allow a survivor to piece together fragmented experiences or memories in a way that makes sense to them.

A harrowing example of this is found in a published case study from 2016 which described the treatment of man diagnosed with a recurrent depressive disorder:

The patient has been experiencing unrecognised and untreated problems of the depression spectrum since 1993, when he took part in the Yugoslav war. The main issue was the somatic symptoms (headaches, nausea etc).

Another major problem during his psychiatric treatment and an additional cause of unsatisfactory therapeutic effect was his inability to verbalise his feelings.

In the course of art therapy, when the patient was given a topic “How I see myself in five years”, he drew a man who appeared to be sleeping and explained that he could not see himself in five years’ time, since he would not be alive at the time and that he could not see a way out of the current situation.

For the first time since the start of his very prolonged treatment this man was able to start talking about his thoughts and feelings of hopelessness, sorrow, alienation and loneliness. This is an example of how art therapy cdoupled with the attention of a listening other (therapist or support group for example) can turn the non-verbal into verbal and non-communication into communication.(4)

How art therapy works

Key to the success of art therapy includes:

  • its role in helping clients gain a better level of self-perception, often through the process of being focussed in the moment on the creative task,
  • the ability of creative expression to aid personal integration, often through the process of externalisation allowing thoughts and feelings to be more readily available for exploration,
  • its role in affect regulation, where clients are able to use art as a means to experiment with feelings and responses and learn much greater self-confidence in understanding and managing their feelings.

In the UK the traditional route to becoming an art therapist has been to take a degree in art first and then train to become an art therapist. This is still the case, but there has been a movement over the past 30 years or so to encourage therapists without art training to incorporate the use of art and creative techniques in their work as part of a therapeutic tool kit to greater benefit our clients.

Art and self development

One proponent of this kind of work was Liesl Silverstone, a Czech art therapist living in Golders Green, London.

Just one of the images from the Terezin ghetto. Many more can be seen at the Jewish Museum in Prague.

She was inspired by a visit to the Jewish Museum in her home city of Prague. The museum there holds many pictures drawn by children who were captive in the Terezin Ghetto during WW2. The art teacher in the camp sought not to teach the children how to draw, but how to develop their creative, emotional and social intellect. (5)

I have visited this same museum and seen these pictures and it feels impossible to convey the strength of emotion experienced in viewing these drawings by small children expressing their feelings of being imprisoned in the Terezin camp. But out of an understanding of how this art had helped these children grew a method of using art that did not rely on being a competent artist, but on being a creatively minded and competent therapist or support worker.(6)


  1. American Cancer Society, 2012, Online
  2. “Randomised controlled trial research shows that art therapy helped improve coping strategies.” (Penny Brohn Cancer Care, 2011, Online)
  3. American Art Therapy Association, 2012, Online
  4. The importance of art therapy in the integrative treatment of recurrent depressive disorder – case study
  5. The Jewish Museum in Prague
  6. Liesl Silverstone, “Art Therapy – the Person-Centred Way”, 1993.

Get 25% off your first training course

Receive free training updates, special offers, and expert articles straight to your inbox! You'll also get a 25% discount off a full price ticket for your first online event.

Something went wrong. Please check your entries and try again.

Get 25% off your first training course

Receive free training updates, special offers, and expert articles straight to your inbox! You'll also get a 25% discount off a full price ticket for your first online event.

Something went wrong. Please check your entries and try again.

Leave a Comment

Before submitting, please take note of our community guidelines.