Art Therapy for Healing

By : James Yougler - Published On: March 29, 2017

portrait of a two mature guys doing an art

When we were in pre-school, we all had some form of art therapy. We all had to draw or color or paint a picture of our family.  Then, teacher came around and in a sweet voice asked us to describe who and what were all the doodles that we expressed and portrayed. And, if by chance, one parent was missing, or a baby was crying, or a dog was cut into two part, our nice, concerned teacher put on her "art therapist" hat.  More probing questions would have been gingerly tendered, and then, probably, we were given a hug. 

Someone once said that “a picture is worth a thousand words.”  Considering the above case, the teacher just had a window into a dysfunctional family. Children, especially pre-schoolers, benefit from art therapy primarily because their vocabulary is limited.  They are a bundle of emotions and energy that needs to be released. There is playtime that may reveal behavioral tendencies; performing arts (music, dance, etc.) that may bring out hidden talents; and visual arts which can become art therapy (painting, sculpture, etc.) that may tap into the subconscious and express all the feelings that children have no words for. Even children with learning difficulties benefit from art therapy by giving them a communication tool that allows them to emerge from their protective silence or calm down from their hyperactive behavior.  

Uses of Art Therapy

1. For Healing: The phrase “art therapy” was first coined by artist Adrian Hill who used his talent for drawing and painting to keep his mind and fingers pre-occupied while recuperating from tuberculosis.  In his book, “Art versus Illness” (1945), he documented his work with other patients in the sanatorium to “build up a strong defense against …misfortunes.”

2. For Self-Therapy: Another artist, Edward Adamson, extended Hill’s work to mental hospitals.  He encouraged social outcasts detained in asylums to come to his open studio in order “to paint or sculpt without any judgment or comment.”  Adamson and John Timlin published a book “Art as Healing” (1984) chronicling 35 years of work with mental patients, and Adamson’s collection of paintings by these patients. Adamson observed that people “healed themselves by the act of expressing themselves through art, without intervention or psychological interpretation of a therapist.”

photo of hands doing art therapy 3. For Psychotherapy: Psychologist Margaret Naumburg used “psychodynamic art therapy” to describe her method of psychoanalytic treatment between patient and therapist, with the therapist endeavoring to elicit the patient’s interpretation of his own symbolic images.  This communication encouraged free association and released the patient’s subconscious. Art Therapy as practiced nowadays evolved from this seminal work.  Currently, the communication between patient and a professional art therapist has become more interactive, with the therapist now providing insights and guidance to his patient towards self-discovery and self-awareness based on the patient’s own artwork.

4. For Communication: Art therapy has also been beneficial to:

  • patients afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease and other memory-loss illnesses
  • patients recovering from stroke, or traumatic brain injuries, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • to patients dealing with bereavement, depression or even simply aging.

Art therapy allows such patients to focus themselves, in spite of their prevailing disabilities, and to create pictures without fear of being misunderstood.  Faced with a blank sheet of paper, writing words do not come easy, but drawing all sorts of lines and circles do.

In conclusion, art therapy accommodates us in whatever physical, mental, emotional state that we may be in and provides us with a communication medium that is uniquely of our own creation.  By expressing ourselves, we are able to release the various positive or negative energies and emotions we have to deal with in our daily lives.