Start Your Art Therapy Career

What is Art Therapy?

Art is one of the oldest forms of communication and self-expression. Even in the earliest days of our world, humans created works of art, first in the form of cave paintings and later in less “primitive” manners.

Today, many mental health professionals now believe that creative expressions such as art are often linked to our subconscious minds. For example, even if we aren’t consciously aware of certain feelings and emotions, they will often show themselves in our artistic creations. Examples of this can include the tortured writer writing macabre poetry or the abused child creating dark and unhappy looking pictures. The reasoning behind this is that many people often find it easier to express themselves through more artistic means rather than through verbal communication.

Art therapy is a form of therapy that uses art as the primary form of therapeutic expression. Therapists in this field can help their clients interpret and understand their feelings and emotions through the art that they create. Oftentimes, the actual process of creating art is therapeutic in and of itself.

This form of therapy has a number of different positive effects on most people. Art therapy, for instance, can help people feel more in control of their lives. it can also raise self-esteem, help them express themselves better, help them communicate more effectively, and gain a better insight on their lives.

Improving a person’s well being is typically the primary goal of art therapy. Clients who seek art therapy might suffer from a wide range of mental or emotional problems. This form of therapy can be used to help clients cope with every day stress, chronic pain, terminal illnesses, eating disorders, low self-esteem, and abuse. Individuals suffering from mental disorders, such as depression and post-traumatic stress syndrome, might also benefit from art therapy.

As with most other mental health careers, an art therapy career generally requires certain characteristics and traits. Professionals in this field should be excellent communicators and great listeners, in addition to being compassionate and non-judgmental. However, as one would expect, an art therapy career also usually requires a certain degree of artistic talent as well. For example, art therapists should be good at painting, drawing, sculpting, or some other form of art. They should also be open to different forms and styles of artwork as well.

Who Can Benefit From Art Therapy?

The short answer to this question is everyone can benefit from art therapy. Professionals in this field often treat all different types of people, from lonely older adults to powerful executives to poverty stricken children. The long answer to this question, however, is a little more complex.

Although everyone can benefit from art therapy, there are certain types of people that may respond better than others to this type of therapy.For instance, individuals that may find it difficult to express their feelings or communicate verbally may find that they will have more success with art therapy than traditional talk therapy. Also, while artistic talent is not usually necessary, creative individuals will often find that they are more comfortable with art therapy than non-creative individuals. Art therapy clients should also be comfortable not only with creating works of art, but also with sharing them with their therapist.

Also, while art therapists cater to people of all ages, children generally seem to respond to this type of therapy the best. There may be a couple reasons for this. First of all, children - particularly young children - often find it difficult to express their feelings and emotions verbally; talking to a traditional therapist may even intimidate them. Art therapy, however, enables them to simply create a picture, which is usually fun and much less threatening than just talking to a therapist.

Children are also usually much less inhibited when it comes to creating art. Crayons, markers, and other art supplies are often a staple in most children’s toy boxes, and creating art is often associated with play, which children obviously perceive as fun. Many of them don’t give a thought to whether or not their art is considered “good”. They simply create, losing themselves in their masterpieces.

What Does an Art Therapist Do?

An art therapist will usually work closely with his clients as well as other health professionals. He may consult with his clients’ medical doctors, nurses, caregivers, or mental health professionals. Some art therapists might specialize in treating specific types of clients also, such as children or elderly adults, while others might specialize in treating patients suffering from specific problems, such as grief or chronic pain.

Before an art therapist starts working with a client, he will usually assess the client first. This usually involves determining whether art therapy is right for the client, and whether the client will respond well to this type of therapy. Of course, determining whether art therapy is right for a particular client isn’t an exact client, and as mentioned above, some clients may respond better than others.

Choosing a form of art is usually the next step in the art therapy process. Usually, an art therapist will allow his clients to choose which type of art they would like to create, but he will also offer guidance and advice during this process. The form of art that a client chooses should be something that the client is comfortable creating and has easy access to. Popular forms of art may include painting, drawing, and sculpting with such mediums as paints, pencils, pastels, chalks, clay, and found items. The supplies needed to create pieces of art work are often supplied by the therapist.

Once a client chooses a type of art to pursue, an art therapist will then simply encourage him to start creating. In general, an art therapy client is usually given artistic freedom, but in certain situations, an art therapist might provide ideas and guidance.

After creating the art, the client will often share the art work with his therapist. An art therapist can usually help the artist interpret his pieces, which can help him gain valuable insight on certain aspects or issues in his life.

An art therapist’s job is not to teach art or critique a client’s work, however. Instead of teaching or criticizing a client or his work, an art therapist will typically just keep encouraging him to create as much art as he feels comfortable with during the course of his therapy. The goal of art therapy is not to create “good” art - at least in the traditional sense. The goal of this therapy is to help clients express themselves. In fact, many clients will often find that the process of creating the art is therapeutic in and of itself.

Where Do Art Therapists Work?

Art therapists might work in very similar settings as more traditional therapists. This might include health facilities such as general hospitals, psychiatric hospitals, nursing homes, and mental health centers. Art therapists might also be able to find employment in detention centers, children’s homes, and schools.

The majority of art therapists, however, typically work independently, and eventually open their own private practices. They may work from art studios or offices, depending on their preferences. Those that work from studios often find that this type of setting helps their clients be more creative and artistic. On the other hand, some art therapists may find that office settings help their clients focus more on the therapy aspect.

What Education is Required to Become an Art Therapist?

Individuals pursuing art therapy careers should be trained in both mental health and art. At the very least, they should have a mental health education with a strong passion for, talent for, or background in art.

Most individuals start their art therapy careers with bachelor’s degrees in areas like psychology or counseling. During their schooling, students should also take several courses in their preferred form of art.

Master’s degrees in art therapy are also usually required to take the licensing examination offered by the Art Therapy Credentials Board. Students looking to be accepted to art therapy master’s degree programs must usually submit portfolios in addition to completing an approved undergraduate study program.

Once they have completed an art therapy master's degree program, graduates must then complete 1,000 hours of supervised fieldwork working directly with clients. After completing these hours, they can then apply for art therapy certification.

What is the Median Salary of an Art Therapist?

Art therapists often have wide salary ranges. As an art therapist, your salary may be influenced by such things as your your education, experience, talent, and location. If you choose to open a private art therapy practice, your income will also be influenced by your ability to attract new clients.

The field of art therapy fits into the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ category of recreational therapy.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, recreational therapists earned a median salary of $39,410 in 2010, and a median salary of $41,440 during that same year.

Additional Resources and Further Reading