Art Therapy for All Ages and Issues

Laurie Cox, PhD, LCPC

Several years ago,  a counselor friend of mine told me that she had observed an art therapist and that she was very much unimpressed, stating “I could have done that”.  Whereas that may very well have been true…that on the surface the counselor could have “done that,” what she wasn’t aware of is that art therapy is more than just giving a directive and talking about the artwork.   What my counselor friend wasn’t aware of is that theory was driving the art therapist’s choice of directive, and that not only the materials matter, but whether the materials are chosen by the therapist, or the client also matters. She also failed to understand that the way in which the product is created (i.e., what art therapists refer to as the process), and what is discussed about the artwork (i.e., the person) are as equally important as the product itself.

The field of art therapy dates to the mid 1900’s with its roots in psychoanalytic theory.   There are two branches of art therapy:  art as therapy and art in therapy, the latter also known as art psychotherapy.  The premise of art as therapy is that creatively expressing oneself can be therapeutic in and of itself.  During art as therapy, one may gain insight or understanding or unexpectedly express emotions, but this is not the goal or intention in art as therapy.  The goal is to sublimate one’s feelings into the creative process and can be a healthy coping mechanism. Art as therapy can be done on one’s own without the guidance of an art therapist.

Art psychotherapy, also known as art in therapy, on the other hand, also can lead to emotional expression, insight and understanding, and is therefore also therapeutic. However, art psychotherapy is more directive, goal-oriented, and driven by the theoretical orientation of the art therapist and the client’s issues and needs.  Art psychotherapy also involves a verbal discussion between the client and the art therapist about the person’s intentions, emotions, and the symbolic meaning of the imagery.  Subsequently the art therapist can provide guidance and therapeutic intervention for the client.

In almost every art therapy session, a client will say that they do not know how to draw, or they are a “terrible” artist.  One does not need to be an artist to do art therapy. In fact, sometimes having artistic talent can impede the process.  Art therapy is for all age groups and can be done in both individual and group settings, and more recently has been implemented in telehealth sessions.  It has been utilized with clients with varied issues such as depression, anxiety, abuse and trauma, addictions, conflictual relationships, loss and grief, hyperactivity, and obsessive-compulsive behaviors, to name a few. 

A typical art therapy session begins with a discussion of what is art therapy for the novice client.  Clients are encouraged to let go of their inhibitions about the creative process and they are reminded that almost all individuals still draw at an elementary school aged level, which is the time that most stop experiencing art in the school setting.  Clients are typically given a choice of 2 to 3 materials (i.e., in the case of drawing) and then are given a directive.  In both individual and group settings, the art process can take as long as 30 to 40 minutes.  Clients are always encouraged to date their work and give it a title.  Following the creative process, the artwork is processed verbally between the client and the art therapist, and if in a group setting, often other group members will give feedback or ask questions.  Sometimes the discussion may be more structured, and other times less structured, depending upon the client issues and treatment goals.  Clients are encouraged to keep their work and reflect upon it later, either in a future session or on their own.

Art therapy is a fascinating field that involves the use of drawing, painting, mask making, collage, ceramics and other art media. It can help facilitate emotional expression, gain insight about relationships, build self-esteem, express anger, reduce depression and anxiety, process loss and grief, get in touch with one’s identity, and assist with problem solving and goal setting.  Recent research in the field of art therapy has been moving into the allied health and integrative (mind-body) medicine areas.  Research on the brain and artistic expression has shown that art therapy can reduce stress, integrate traumatic memories, reduce pain and fatigue, assist in the treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease, and improve overall quality of life. 

—Laurie Cox, PhD, LCPC, CADC, LMT, Art Therapist

Laurie Cox has been an art therapist since 1998 and is also a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor, Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor, and Licensed Massage Therapist. 

To become an art therapist, one must complete a master’s level Art Therapy program that includes courses in Art, Counseling, Psychology, and Clinical Art Therapy. 


Kramer, E. (1993).  Art as therapy with children.  Chicago, IL:  Magnolia Publishers.

Malchiodi, C. (2013).  Defining art therapy in the 21st century:  Seeking a picture of health for art therapy.  Psychology Today. APA.

Rubin, J. A.  (1987)  Approaches to art therapy:  Theory and technique. New York:  Bruner/Mazel Publishers.