Creative Healing: Frequently Asked Questions about How Art Therapy Works

paint setArt therapy is a specialized area of mental health that uses art materials and the creative process to explore emotions, reduce anxiety, increase self-esteem, and resolve other psychological conflicts. The American Art Therapy Association states that art therapy can be an effective mental health treatment for individuals who have experienced depression, trauma, medical illness, and social difficulties. Making art in therapy can be a way to achieve personal insight as well as healing.

There’s more to art therapy than simply “drawing your feelings.” Art therapists are trained to lead people through the creative process in a therapeutic way. Just as your doctor may prescribe a medication or behavioral change to aid your physical healing, your art therapist offers art-based therapy interventions that are tailored to your needs. As with every aspect of therapy, the choice to engage with specific types of materials will ultimately be up to you.

“Art washes from the soul the dust of everyday life.” —Pablo Picasso

In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the top questions people have about art therapy.

Q: Do I need art training or experience to participate in art therapy?

A: No art experience is necessary for you. Your art therapist is highly trained in visual art as well as psychology, and he or she will guide you in the process of creating art using specific types of materials. All you need is a willingness to experiment and explore.

Q: What kind of training should my art therapist have?

A: Art therapy is a profession that requires at least a master’s degree in a program with specific art therapy components.

While expressive arts therapists are trained in art therapy, there is also the designation of art therapist whereby the therapist studies only art therapy. There are also associations that offer certification as a supplement to your education, rather than a degree. Many art therapists have an art therapy credential called an ATR that indicates they are registered with the national art therapy credentials board.

Q: What kind of art will I make in art therapy?

A: It depends on your interests as well as the therapeutic benefits of certain types of art for your situation. Art therapy can include a wide range of art materials and processes. Your sessions could potentially include activities such as working with clay, painting, making a mask, creating a visual journal, and assembling a collage. Most often, the focus will be on the process rather than creating a finished art product.

Q: Do I get to keep the artwork that I make in art therapy? Will the art therapist show it to anyone else?

A: Your artwork is your creation and always belongs to you. Some people choose to keep the finished artwork, while others may decide to leave it in the care of the art therapist. Your art therapist will not show your artwork to anyone without your permission. The code of ethics followed by art therapists specifies that an art therapist must safeguard a client’s art creations the same way he/she would protect any other privileged information.

Q: Why are some art materials more appropriate for my situation than others? What does it mean to have an art therapist prescribe an art process for me?

A: Art materials have inherent healing qualities, but some are more appropriate for certain types of situations. For example, there is a therapeutic difference between using colored pencils, which are very dry and controlled, as opposed to watercolor paint, which is extremely wet and difficult to control. Your art therapist has specialized training in assessing which materials to suggest based on the issues you are facing, your frame of mind during the session, and other factors. Art therapists also have an extensive personal background in studio art, making them personally familiar with the use of specific types of art materials so that they can guide you through any difficulties that may arise in the creative process.

Q: Will the art therapist “interpret” my artwork?

A: Art therapists can use a variety of approaches, just as counselors or psychotherapists may utilize different approaches. It is not customary for a therapist to interpret your art. In a humanistic or transpersonal approach to art therapy, the focus will be on the personal meaning that you find within your own creative work, rather than an arbitrary meaning imposed by the therapist. You are the expert on your own artwork and creative process, and the art therapist’s role is to facilitate explorations of your work rather than to analyze or interpret it.


Pablo Picasso Quotes—Art as Therapy. (2010, October 10). Retrieved May 6, 2013, from quotes:

© Copyright 2013 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Douglas Mitchell, LMFT

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • camille

    July 22nd, 2013 at 2:37 PM

    You know, I never would have thought that art therapy could help me through some of the toughest spots in my life, but let me tell you, once a friend finally convinced me that it was worth a try and I went for it. . . and my life has changed so much since that first day. There is something so freeing to me about this field that I just almost don’t have the words to describe what it has meant for me. I think that the big thing is that it allows me to have some time for me in a way that is not threatening, that isn’t hurtful, and I can say through my pieces what I have always wanted to express but without having to say a word at all. But it gets those feelings out that I didn’t even for the most part know that I was feeling, and I, let me tell you, there has been nothing else like it in my life. I encourage you to at least try it, find someone you can trust and work with, and you will feel the difference almost immediately.

  • Franklin

    July 23rd, 2013 at 4:28 AM

    I don’t want to speak for everyone but I know that for me I never even wanted to take an art class in school because I was afraid that everything that I did would be wrong!
    I am sure that I would feel that way if I tried art therapy too, because I have such a need to be right and do things right that I would constantly be wondering if this was right or if I was being judged for my lack of talent.
    Needless to say this might not be the most productive pursuit for me.

  • Maria

    May 7th, 2015 at 5:05 PM

    Hi Franklin, I too was like that when I began my Art Therapy training cert, now I don’t worry at all about the result, it’s the process which is fascinating, and it makes the finished product all the more fascinating, especially to me, but others too. You have to let go of your expectations and free yourself up to let your unconscious feelings out, your true self, very very powerful and freeing, whilst initially in the presence of a good art therapist.

  • Lisbeth Lanpher

    April 24th, 2014 at 5:07 PM

    I love Good Therapy. I wonder, however, why you don’t have a licensed Expressive Arts Therapist as your topic contributor. You always have good articles on the subject, but I think that it might be even better with an actual professional art/expressive therapist at the helm.

  • Jo Sahlin

    April 25th, 2014 at 9:05 AM

    Hi Lisbeth,

    Thank you for your message! We agree. Some topics are more popular than others, but we constantly accept Topic Expert applications (and member articles) for any topic. If you know any therapists who would be a good fit for membership and would like to apply to be a Topic Expert, please encourage them to apply! You can click Douglas Mitchell’s name at the top of this article for a list of more articles about Expressive Arts Therapy.

    Thanks again for contacting us!
    Jo Sahlin
    Assistant Editor

  • Douglas

    April 25th, 2014 at 2:11 PM

    I completely agree Lisbeth, the more the merrier. I’m certainly not the only one who has experience in this area. And, for clarification, I am a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern with my concentration in Expressive Arts. I don’t claim to be a expert in Expressive Arts Therapy, but I enjoy being a topic contributor and writing on the topic.

  • joann k

    March 8th, 2015 at 10:47 AM

    Art therapy gave a voice to my trauma of childhood sexual abuse. My therapist is also a certified art therapist and saved my life, so much that I gave up my corporate career to start my own non-profit, to help others. I also do my own art all of the time now, it is a blessing!

  • Jessann H.

    April 30th, 2016 at 3:08 PM – here is a great example of an art therapy project you can do at home.

  • Keren

    March 23rd, 2017 at 9:48 AM

    Hi My is Keren I’m the Community Worker I have a pt. that is going through a big depression I research a program of Art or music because my pt. is interesting in Art or music. there is any research that can me to help this pt. Thanks

  • Samantha

    November 13th, 2017 at 2:14 PM

    one day I want to be a art or music therapist so now I am doing resaerch

  • Gh k

    January 24th, 2018 at 10:40 AM


    I would like to share how I did my own art therapy after trying to take my life. I started drawing in the hospital by drawing things which were bothering me. I also explored changing the lines in the drawings to make my art better. There is hope just believe.
    Gh k the empathic artist

  • Moss

    September 24th, 2021 at 9:22 AM

    Same! I’ve been interested in art therapy for a while.

  • Olivia

    June 27th, 2022 at 11:25 AM

    Thank you for explaining that you don’t need any art experience to benefit from art therapy. My daughter has been thinking that this might be a good form of therapy to try for herself. She doesn’t have any formal art training, so it’s good to know she can still benefit from it.

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