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What Is Art Therapy?Paint Book

Art therapy is a form of expressive therapy, in which clients, facilitated by an art therapist, use the creative process of making art to explore their feelings. Art therapists use the process of self-expression, and the resulting artwork to help clients understand their emotional conflicts, develop social skills, improve self-esteem, manage addictions, reduce anxiety, and restore normal function to their lives.

Who Can Benefit from Art Therapy?

Research shows that art therapy benefits diverse client populations, and can be effective in a variety of formats. Art therapists work with people of all ages and challenges in life, including patients with severe behavioral problems and addictions, to clients without medical or psychological issues who are simply looking for personal insight into their lives. Art therapy is most commonly recommended for people with medical, educational, developmental, or psycho-social impairment. Art therapy is also an effective treatment for people dealing with the following issues:

  • Individuals who are struggling with frightening memories or upsetting emotions as a result of trauma, combat  or abuse
  • Persons with serious medical health conditions or disabilities such as traumatic brain injury, cancer, depression, autism, anti-social personality or dementia
  • Couples attempting to reconcile emotional conflicts
  • Individuals seeking personal growth and increased self-esteem
  • People experiencing stress, anxiety, and other problematic behaviors.

The underlying goal of art therapy is to improve or restore a client's functioning and his or her personal feelings of well-being. This begins with an art therapist encouraging the client to engage in the creative process, to explore their feelings, and to enjoy the pleasures of making art. Art therapy does not require the client to be talented or an artist, to experience the benefits. An art therapist's job is not to teach art or critique a client’s work, instead, art therapists work with clients to dive into the underlying messages communicated through their art, and combine psychotherapeutic counseling techniques to promote personal development, foster self-awareness, and build coping skills.

Where Do Art Therapists Work?

Art therapists practice in a variety of traditional settings including hospitals, rehabilitation care units, assisted living centers, psychiatric facilities, senior communities and schools. They also work in some less familiar settings like wellness centers, forensic institutions, clinical research facilities, detention centers, and crisis centers.

Private practice is also very common for professionals who specialize in art therapy.

What Are the Education Requirements to Become an Art Therapist?

Art therapy is a mental health profession, first and foremost. The practice of art therapy requires an educational background in human development, psychological and behavioral disorders, counseling theories, and therapeutic techniques. The minimum educational standards established by American Art Therapy Association require all entry level practitioners of art therapy to have a master's degree from an institution of higher learning recognized by a regional accrediting body approved by the Council for Higher Education Education (CHEA).

Art therapists must also have a strong understanding of visual art. Art therapy often embraces a variety of art forms, such as sculpture, painting, drawing and others, so a practitioner of art therapy must have experience working with these art mediums, and the ability to guide a client through the creative process.

What Is the Average Annual Salary of an Art Therapist?

Art therapy salaries are influenced by such factors such as experience, location, and the ability of a practitioner to market themselves (if in private practice). For this example, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics considers art therapists as recreational therapists for salary purposes.   Data published supports the fact that professionals working in areas of higher population density (major metropolitan areas) will earn higher salaries.  In 2014, art therapists, who fall under the broad category of recreational therapists, earned a annual average salary of $46,060. Professionals in the top 10 percent of the category earned $69,230.

Additional Resources and Further Reading