Art Therapy – What it is and how it has shaped my work
I believe that art can be incredibly therapeutic, in many different ways, and I wanted to share my experience here of having art therapy, which is a form of counselling using art.
I wanted to write about my experience – partly because I think therapy is still talked about very little compared to how much people actually have it (I would say about a good 25% – 50% of people I talk to about therapy have had some form of therapy in the past), and partly because art therapy is really very powerful and I wanted to share how it has helped me, in case it could help you too. I also wanted to share some of my artwork from this.
These are images I made in my first session
Why I went to art therapy
I went sort of by accident really. I have had my own therapy in the past – on and off for a few years, and have also studied Psychodynamic counselling. Last year I did a week long intensive foundation course at the British Association of Art Therapists. I really enjoyed it – but found the art sessions as a group brought up quite a lot of emotions for me. I had actually gone to visit Cate who became my art therapist as I was interested in volunteering, but ended up having therapy with her after she really made me think about some of my artwork.
Some pictures were quite stressful and angry
And others were more relaxed and playful
How it helped me
I started out in my art therapy wanting to put into words and explore something that was under the surface that I wasn’t able to articulate. This turned out to be my emotional language and more importantly giving myself permission to fully embrace being myself – and within that, to call myself an artist – and actually believe it too.
Going through this process has dramatically changed how I communicate with my husband (for the better), it has given me a huge amount of confidence, and a much much deeper understanding of myself and who I am.
It has also very much fed into my work as an artist, life coach and art teacher. The way I teach is all about providing a relaxed space and helping people to find their own form or style of creative expression, which in turn helps people to feel a lot more confident. And a lot of my own work is about tapping into how I’m feeling in the moment and expressing this through art.
Collage – ripping up paper can be extremely satisfying!
I guess I was perhaps a bit of a unique client because being an artist too I could continue making art work outside of the sessions – sometimes it was something I decided I wanted to do leading on from our work together, and sometimes it was just work I happened to be doing and thought it would be interesting to talk about. I think this made the process move forward in massive leaps and bounds because it wasn’t limited to a once a week exploration.
How art therapy works
When you are in the therapy space, you have a table and lots of art materials available to you, and you have the choice whether to make art or talk, or both. You can make whatever you feel like making, and can use which ever materials you feel like using. There is no right or wrong. And at points during the session you talk about the image you are making, as well as reviewing your artwork from previous sessions if and when you wish.
It is a strange process to sit and talk to someone about yourself and your life anyway (if you aren’t used to it) but then to sit and draw while they observe you too, that takes some getting used to at first!
Why choose art therapy over regular counselling?
For me art therapy has worked on such a deeper level than any other form of therapy I have had – and it’s hard to describe why in words. It’s like there is another presence in the room, which helps you to express how you feel. You can do things with your hands rather than just talking. You can see yourself more clearly. You can make a mess and it’s OK.
I wouldn’t say it was easy – not at all, it was very hard work at times and there were times I didn’t want to go, but ultimately overall it has been a fantastic experience and I would recommend it as a form of therapy to anyone who is considering having therapy or counselling.
I made this with my therapist Cate in my last session, and have it hanging on my studio wall as a reminder of our work together.
- The Art Therapy Agency – More information about Cate Smail and the art therapy organisation she is part of in London
- BAAT – British Association of Art Therapists – What is art therapy?
Note: The way I teach art and make my own art has echoes of this in it, but is NOT art therapy.