Art Therapy: Definition, Types, Techniques, and Efficacy

“A single picture is worth a thousand words.” A universal truth? Undoubtedly. Now, therapy is frightening. Any kind, really. Its taboo realm is riddled with shame-inducing hours, and the very nakedness of our psyche invites more than unwelcome emotions. Quite a ride. Therapy isn’t supposed to be easy. There are no shortcuts and no evacuation slides, just the good, old breasting the emotional plane. Full throttle. Words don’t come easy, either. Verbally endowed as we are as species, most of us stutter before our monumental inner truths. More often than not, conveying the intangible waves proves to be an arduous journey through the vast darkness. And that’s where art therapy comes in. It’s designed to tread the uncharted waters of the psyche. Sounds interesting? Let’s buddy up and dive in together.

Art therapy: the definition

What is art? The answer is more than elusive, as it transcends the boundaries of “definable.” The interpretation is exclusively subjective; it’s personal. What we do know is that art, be it any of its majestic forms, is capable of conveying the undescribable in us; the silent language of our psyche and our emotional apparatus. Pain, elation, agony, utter madness. All in a single brush stroke. Forever encrypted, a subliminal dialogue fearing no judgment and shame. So, what is art therapy, then? Being a hybrid field, art therapy targets emotional as well as psychological nuances for the purpose of examining and treating psychological disorders like depression. It cleverly combines applied psychological theory with creative expression.

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The creative process utilizes hands-on human experience and art-making as a vessel for improving mental and emotional well-being. Being one of the best affordable online therapy options, art therapy is certainly enjoying its popularity momentum.

man and traditional therapist sitting and talking about art therapy options
Are you looking for something new? Meet art therapy.

A brief art therapy history

The term “art therapy” was introduced in 1942 (yes, 81 years ago) by Adrian Hill, a well-established British artist who intentionally or accidentally discovered the miraculous health benefits of drawing and painting for the ones recovering from tuberculosis. In the very beginning, artists were accompanied and supervised by psychologists and psychiatrists since their educational field had little (i.e. nothing) to do with medicine. There were no formal training programs or art therapy courses back in the 1940s. Fortunately, the healing benefits were documented by writers, and “the word” simply got out.

Fun fact: incredibly enough, art therapy emerged in Europe and in the United States simultaneously. And independently so. All rights reserved.


These five lovely and influential lady writers immensely contributed to art therapy being recognized as a legitimate field:

  • Edith Kramer
  • Margaret Naumburg
  • Elinor Ulman
  • Hanna Kwiatkowska
  • Florence Cane

The innovative method initially raised some heavy eyebrows. Today, we have the luxury of options, a myriad of options. All we have to do is to pick one from the best online art therapy programs pool. So, a thunderous clap for the progressive minds who made this possible. We owe you.

Creative therapy types

Art therapy is just one of many creative therapy forms. Creative therapy niche? Exquisitely versatile. Other creative therapy types include:

  1. Writing therapy
  2. Music therapy
  3. Expressive therapy
  4. Dance therapy
  5. Drama therapy
man in gray hoodie and jeans dancing depicts art therapy alternatives
Let’s dance! Put on your red shoes and dance the blues away.

Writing therapy

Also known as poetry therapy, this option focuses on healing through expressive writing. It cultivates the ability to observe our emotions and thoughts through therapeutic storytelling and journaling.

Your therapist may advise you to do this, or you could start writing on your own to help yourself deal with emotional turmoil. However, even in this case, be mindful of all the hazards of mental self-treatment. Guidance and supervision from a trained professional are always preferable.

Music therapy

Music therapy is a creative approach that utilizes the healing properties of music to help individuals improve their well-being and mental health. It may include composing music, playing instruments, singing, and listening.

Expressive therapy

Expressive therapy is frequently mistaken for art therapy; although similar, expressive therapy draws from a variety of forms such as painting, sculpting, psychodrama, writing, movement, dance, and play, whereas art therapy focuses on one particular form of art.

Dance therapy

Dance/movement therapy (DMT) utilizes nonverbal communication and body movement to support emotional, psychological, physical, and intellectual health. Combined with the best online cbt therapy (cognitive-behavioral therapy), music and dance therapy can give excellent results.

Drama therapy

Theatrical in its core, drama therapy is an active, experiential practice that allows participants to express feelings, tell their stories, or even reach catharsis through the intentional use of theater and/or drama processes.

Art therapy techniques

The ultimate goal of this creative therapeutic approach is to open the individual’s channel of self-expression without enforcing a head-on verbal collision of one’s impeding truths. Various techniques offer unique, innovative, and, most importantly, less intrusive ways to develop healthy coping skills, as well as gain essential personal insight.

The seemingly “infantile” approach is used to help individuals reach the depths of self-awareness, explore feelings and thought patterns, up their soft skills, and boost self-confidence and self-esteem. The techniques include:

  • Drawing
  • Painting
  • Doodling
  • Scribbling
  • Finger painting
  • Collage
  • Coloring
  • Sculpting
  • Clay
  • Photography
  • Carving
  • Molding clay
  • Pottery
child's crayon doodle representing art therapy
Doodles aren’t just for fun.

How it all works

Be it the best online therapy for OCD, or a childish-like creative approach, one thing is for certain: oblivion is not an option in therapy. So, how does something as naive as doodling help us grasp the inner unfathomable? Skepticism is absolutely in order (but, heads up: after a session or two, it might mysteriously vanish into thin air).

As one creates art, or better yet, as one starts subconsciously portraying inner turmoil, analyzing the emotional plane product simply becomes inevitable. The colors we use, the flow of a single stroke, the amount of applied pressure, the subliminal messages; suddenly, it all becomes too clear and impossible to unsee. What we make and how it makes us feel; through immersing ourselves in our art, we can look for patterns and themes that are, indeed, impacting and dictating our behavior, mechanisms, feelings, and thoughts.

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What can art therapy help with?

Art therapy is no one-trick pony. In fact, it is used for treating various mental disorders, albeit often in conjunction with other psychotherapeutic methods. For example, in addition to AT, the ones who experience emotions intensely generally opt for the best online DBT therapy available. Cognitive-behavioral therapy and group therapy are also used in treating different mental conditions. Conditions that the therapy may benefit include:

Furthermore, it is also beneficial for less common issues, including:

  • individuals with certain conditions, such as dementia and autism
  • trauma survivors: war, natural disasters, exile
  • individuals with significant health problems, such as terminal illnesses, brain injuries

Additionally, this creative form of therapy can help with “less acute” conditions, such as:

  • dysfunctional family dynamics (preferably alongside standard online family therapy treatment)
  • age-related issues
  • emotional difficulties

Less obvious benefits

Art therapy is not solely reserved for the “doom and gloom” scenarios. No. It can also help us enhance our existing skills simply by:

  • teaching us how to manage stress and handle holiday blues
  • improving our conflict resolution approach
  • strengthening our social skills
  • enhancing our ability to regulate strong emotional responses, such as embarrassment, anger, frustration
  • teaching us self-awareness and expanding our understanding of the self
black and white photo of a man with a beard and glasses touching his forehead depicts how art therapy can transform
Draw, and you shall reap cognitive rewards.

Children can benefit, too

Kids and finger painting rampage? Please, a match made in heaven. On a serious note, research finds that this form of creative therapy can support children in facing the following challenges:

  • processing childhood trauma
  • coping with health conditions, such as chronic asthma
  • coping with a juvenile criminal conviction
  • special educational needs and disabilities

How effective is art therapy?

What does the research tell us? Is it effective? While there is sufficient evidence to support its indisputable benefits, findings on its potential to produce effective results are giving us mixed signals. The culprit? Studies are small and, unfortunately, inconclusive. Hence, additional research is needed in order to explore and determine just when and how art therapy can be implemented for maximum results and called an absolute success. However, this is what we do know:

  • A study finds that it successfully alleviates symptoms of depression and increases self-esteem in seniors living in nursing homes
  • Another study finds that art therapy can significantly lessen trauma symptoms in adults (PTSD, abuse, etc.) and reduce levels of depression
  • Furthermore, the ones undergoing medical treatment for cancer found the creative therapy to be effective, as they reported experiencing a significant improvement in their quality of life, as well as reduced psychological symptoms of the treatment process

So, should we trust its potential healing powers? The answer is – probably, yes. Although not as omnipotent as one would hope, it can do no harm. If we’re struggling with depression, the most sensible course of action would be to find the best online therapy for depression; and then introduce art therapy for that extra self-expression momentum. And see where we go from there.


Skepticism is alive and well. Though many support its healing properties, others remain invariably skeptical of art therapy. So, yes, it’s true, the effectiveness of the creative approach raises some well-thought-out questions, such as: How do we get the adults to play? From a psychological point of view, the observation is more than fair.

Unlike children, who indulge in animism opulence (animism: the attribution of a living soul to inanimate objects, plants, and natural phenomena; i.e. Santa Claus is coming to town), adults have a hard time connecting to the “inner child” and let the authentic expression flow in an unobstructed manner. As adults, we are less than inclined to cooperate and participate wholeheartedly, which can only hinder the healing process.

two young men playing video games
You can’t tell me what to do.

The “I’m not an artist” excuse

Adults live in a world of ruthless competition; that’s all we know. (Hunger games? mode ON.) So, another hindrance at our creative therapy doorstep. Individuals often believe they’re not “talented enough” for the treatment to be a success; their artwork doesn’t speak volumes and can hardly be called a masterpiece. The goal of art therapy is not to showcase transcendent brush strokes at the Venice Biennale but to find our self-expression and finally let the daunting inner beasts play. The naive expression is intrinsic to human existence; it knows no age, special talent, or artistic inclination. Adolescence and hormonal wrath? We can search for the best online therapy for teens, but why not let them sculpt all the anger?

Art therapy settings

This, too, proves its versatile nature. It can be done practically anywhere. From private mental health offices and schools to inpatient offices and community centers. This type of therapy offers setting variety. Other options include:

  • Hospitals
  • Wellness centers
  • Art studios
  • Correctional facilities
  • Homeless shelters
  • Universities and colleges
  • Group homes
  • Nursing homes
  • Women’s shelters
  • High schools
  • Elementary schools

Should you try it?

It really depends. Although generally considered beneficial, it might not help with certain mental health conditions. People suffering from schizophrenia may not find it effective. Also, if the individual is experiencing severe anxiety (panic attacks, generalized anxiety, etc.), finding the best online anxiety therapy option is recommended. And, again, the ones who find their artistic expression inferior may struggle with consistency, as resistance and hesitance can impede any tangible progress. So, is it for you? Only you will know.

woman sitting in front of painting
Self-doubt will get you nowhere.

What to expect from art therapy

As with any form of therapy, the initial encounter will be about determining our therapy goals and learning what the therapist and their sessions have to offer; treatment plan, time span, etc. The first few sessions may go completely uninterrupted, as the therapist will allow us to acclimatize and merely observe the process of art creation. Once we finish the piece, and at times during the process, questions will ensue.

  • What was the thought behind the work?
  • Were you able to cognize and follow mood changes as the piece progressed?
  • Name the emotions; anger, fear, guilt, shame, etc.
  • Did it evoke any memories?
  • What was the easy part about creating the artwork?
  • And the difficult part?

Before providing observations, the therapist will ask about the experience, thoughts, and emotions.

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Final words

Art therapy can be an extraordinary experience, but only if we let it. Remember, it’s designed to tread the uncharted waters of our psyche. If you feel art therapy is not the right choice for you, that’s okay, too – plenty of fish in the sea. If you find that your mental health needs a little TLC, we’re here. You can find all the best online therapy services and providers right here on the Consumer Opinion Guide. Our experts have all the information a human being in distress (or out of sheer curiosity) could ever need.



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