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A Beginner’s Guide to Art Therapy

Overhead view of a woman painting roses.

Art therapy doesn’t require creative talent, but it can be a profoundly healing process. For anyone searching for stress relief, a way to reduce anxiety, or understand emotions, like depression and fear, art therapy is worth some research.

What Is Art Therapy?

Art encompasses many creative mediums, and each is a great asset in the world of art therapy. At its most basic, art therapy is a way to use creativity to express and work through your feelings. Anyone who’s ever had anxiety, depression, PTSD, or any other mental disorder knows it’s sometimes hard to understand or express your feelings—both to yourself and others.

Art therapy can help people of any age and is usually guided by an art therapist or mental health professional. Your therapist will give you an art therapy exercise to work through, and then go over the possible meanings of what you’ve created with you. All art has “hidden” meanings, and these are what therapists look for in art therapy creations.

After you finish a piece of work for art therapy, your therapist might ask some follow-up questions. She might want to know why you chose the colors you did and how you felt as you worked on the art. She might ask you what you’d name the piece or how you’d describe it. The therapist will also note your use of space, any lack of colors, the shapes you use, and if any people in your work are missing parts.

You don’t need to have artistic ability to gain and use insight from art therapy. Even if you’ve never sketched, written a poem, or made a collage, they can help you manage depression, anxiety, and more.

Types of Art Therapy

A hand drawing cartoons in a sketchbook.

All forms of art have a way of healing and helping people work through problems and feelings. Here are some of the umbrella types of art therapists commonly use in healing, and the different ways they integrate them into therapy:

  • Drawing, doodling, and sketching: This is probably the easiest form of art therapy because all you need is a pencil and a piece of paper. Again, you don’t need any art skills. No one is judging your talent, style, or whether you can draw a face that isn’t lopsided.
  • Painting: You don’t have to use brushes—you can even revisit childhood with some finger painting. You don’t have to paint anything specific, either; your piece could have people, things, or something completely abstract.
  • Photography: Taking pictures allows you to see the world through different eyes. The lens creates a barrier. The angles of your photos, as well as the subjects you choose, can reveal a lot about your feelings.
  • Digital Art: This format allows you to manipulate any art you (or anyone else) create. You can edit photos, create digital collages, or insert yourself into various scenes. Or, you can simply edit the textured look of a photo to evoke your feelings.
  • Sculpting: You don’t have to just make a bowl; you can sculpt a statue. You can use air-dry clay or the kind you have to bake. In fact, you don’t have to use clay at all! You can create with paper-mache (newspaper and glue). What you make, and its lines and the materials you use, all say something about your innermost feelings.
Hands sculpting a ball of clay.


  • Sewing: This, too, can be relaxing and cathartic. When you use sewing as art therapy, you choose fabrics that speak to you. Then, you turn them into something that expresses what you’re having trouble saying. You might create a quilt as a symbol of the warmth you’re not getting from a relationship. Or, maybe you create a doll to express feelings of loneliness.
  • Collage: These allow you to work with mixed-media. You can paint, use magazine clippings, glue on fabric, or anything else that catches your fancy. It’s an excellent way to express a multitude of feelings in one piece of art.
  • Writing: When used for art therapy, writing can take many forms, including lists of good and bad things or poetry. You can work through fears and confusion via short stories or essays. Many therapists also suggest you keep a journal of your feelings that you’ll then go through together during your sessions.

How to Use Art Therapy at Home

You don’t have to have a lot of fancy art supplies to practice art therapy at home. If you have a pen and notebook, you can keep a journal. If you have a smartphone, you can take pictures, and even edit them online. If you have a pencil and some unlined paper, you can draw.

There are a few art therapy techniques you can try on your own, and they can all help you in different ways.

Embrace Your Animal Guides

Draw or paint animals. Try whatever comes to mind first. Remember, you don’t have to be good at art to benefit from art therapy. Plus, since you’re trying this lesson on your own, no one else ever even needs to see it.

The animals that appear in your artwork will all reveal something about your inner feelings. You can choose animals to represent different things. For example, one might represent how you see yourself, while another represents your feelings.

A fish in a fishbowl could mean you feel trapped, or that your world is too small. Perhaps you think you’re under a microscope, in the same way people watch fish in their bowls. To understand the meaning of each animal, think about the traits of that creature. For example, wolves enjoy alone time, birds fly free, dogs are loyal, cats are aloof, and so on.

Sculpt Your Feelings

Air-dry clay is easy to work with, reasonably affordable, and you can paint it. When it starts to harden, you can add some water to make it workable again, as long as it hasn’t been out for hours.

So, grab a chunk of clay and close your eyes. Meld it into whatever your hands want to make. Maybe it will become an animal, an ashtray, a foot, a hand, or a bowl. Or, perhaps it will just become a shape that doesn’t have a specific meaning.

Once you’ve finished your sculpture, follow the instructions for drying it. Then, choose a color of paint that represents your feels and paint your sculpture. Maybe you’re feeling blue, or envious (green), or angry (red). Keep your sculpture. Whenever you experience those feelings again, use it as a sensory object you can touch to help you feel present and balanced again.

Find Your Strengths

A simple technique that can help you focus on good things, even during the hardest of times, is writing a list of your positive attributes and strengths. You can focus on your virtues, talents, or anything that makes you feel strong and accomplished.

Write this list in your diary or a journal. You want to be able to reference it again during challenging times.

Yvonne Glasgow Yvonne Glasgow
Yvonne Glasgow is a professional writer with two decades of experience. She has written and edited for nutritionists, start-ups, dating companies, SEO firms, newspapers, board game companies, and more. Yvonne is a published poet and short story writer, and she is a life coach. Read Full Bio »
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