Art therapy

A common preconception about art therapy is that in order to do art therapy with a therapist, one must be artistically gifted. However, this assumption does not correspond to reality. Art therapy is available to anyone who wants it. Because art therapy, contrary to what most people think, is not about creating art, but about gaining access to one’s own inner world and coming to terms with oneself and one’s inner self. For this reason, art therapy is sometimes called a “mirror to the soul”.


The theoretical premise of art therapy is that creating images and working with various artificial media can have a healing effect on people. Art therapy is not unimodal, but offers a variety of different methods, approaches and techniques with which to work. For example, we not only work with pen and paper or other colors, i.e. painting, but also with plastic-cultural techniques and materials such as clay or with photography. Other arts such as music, drama or dance or poetry are also used in art therapy.

What all these different techniques and methods have in common is that they are intended to create or bring forth inner images, which are carried outward through the respective chosen art form. Through this non-verbal expression of personal feelings, many people find art therapy to be one of the most pleasant forms of therapy, since they are not forced to verbalize their concerns or problems from the beginning. For these reasons, art therapy is considered a patient-centered form of therapy.


By expressing their memories and emotions non-verbally, art therapy enables patients to learn to perceive their environment and themselves in a different way. In addition, art therapy offers relaxation from everyday life and time, which one has for oneself. Through the occupation with oneself, this form of therapy can strengthen self-awareness and self-confidence, and one’s own needs and abilities can be better recognized, resulting in a resource-activating effect of the form of therapy. The main objective of art therapy is to find oneself, i.e. to answer the question “Who am I?” and to redesign one’s life around oneself in such a way that it fits one’s own personality, goals, abilities and desires. Through this mode of action, art therapy has a strengthening effect on the resilience of personal, social and economic health and promotes personal responsibility and initiative.


Art therapy is a relatively young and new form of therapy. Its emergence can be traced to about the mid-twentieth century independently in Europe and the United States. About a hundred years earlier, around 1850, scientists came to the conclusion that working with the hand was good for the mind and soul. Until that time, people who showed mental abnormalities or illnesses were simply gathered together and placed in an asylum, where they served out the rest of their lives. This new insight also led to new methods of dealing with mentally ill people, who were now allowed to leave the confines of the asylum and work by hand in the garden or in the fields. On the basis of this realization, socially higher-ranking people also began to express their feelings and problems in the form of pictures and sculptures, because these works were more appropriate to their status than the rough work in the field or garden. Around 1920, this movement gave rise to the first studios in which various art forms could be tried out. Also known is an exhibition organized by Hans Prinzhorn, who had collected the pictures of people with mental illnesses and made them available to the public for viewing. The concept of art therapy suffered a setback with the development of the first psychotropic drugs around 1950, which provided a simpler and faster way of treating the symptoms of mental illness. Nevertheless, art therapy is still widespread today and is used in many areas of medical prevention, treatment and rehabilitation.

Art therapy and health insurance

In most countries, including United States, art therapy is practiced as part of the psycho-social services offered in many clinical facilities as well as an outpatient form of therapy. In Germany, art therapy is not legally supported or covered by health insurance outside of a hospital stay and only in combination with other forms of therapy. In contrast, in some other European countries, such as Switzerland and Great Britain, art therapy has been an integral part of the clinical health care system for years.

Approaches and methods

Artistic-art pedagogical approach

Emotions create a relationship between forms, movements, body and mind. For this reason, for the application of art therapy according to the artificial-art-pedagogical approach, it is not the art itself that is important, i.e. not the intellect, but the creation of the art. So it is observed how movement and colors are used. A well-known method for this approach is messpaining.

Psychotherapeutic approach

The human being deals with inner images on a daily basis, whether it is remembering a situation or thinking and planning an upcoming situation. Even during sleep, at night while dreaming, we see images in front of our inner eye. Particularly firmly anchored in our memory are very positive and also very negative images. For example, many people have a very detailed image of their last major crisis in their mind. People with post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental disorders linked to trauma or anxiety often also have a problem with the same frightening images coming into their heads again and again. In clinical terms, this is often referred to as “flashbacks.” According to the psychotherapeutic art therapy approach, such people are asked to draw the corresponding situation or memories and feelings linked to it. After this process, the picture is then discussed together with the therapist. Classic questions can be “What are you drawing?” or “How does it make you feel?”.

Anthroposophical approach

The anthroposophical approach assumes that bodily and psychological, as well as spiritual processes can be stimulated through pictorial design. According to this approach, “artistic creation” includes not only drawing and painting, but also three other basic forms of therapy. The four basic forms of therapy of the anthroposophical approach are:

  • Therapy by means of music
  • Painting therapy
  • Therapeutic speech formation
  • Therapeutic plastic design

Art-oriented / art-based approach

The art-oriented / art-based approach summarizes several art-therapeutic approaches. Common to all these approaches is that they are intermodally oriented. Thus, art-oriented / art-based approaches involve not only one form of art, but various arts such as dance, drama, music, or poetry. This approach thus moves away from the classic painting therapy form of art therapy. Art-oriented / art-based approaches include:

  • The art philosophical approach
  • The anthroposophical approach
  • The philosophical approach

These three approaches have in common that they do not deal directly with the client’s problem, but try to achieve a decentralization of the problem in the form of a solution-oriented approach. The aim of this approach is thus to detach the client’s view, which has so far been focused on the problem, from the problem and to broaden it, so that new solution possibilities and perspectives open up for the client.

Application areas

The fields of application of art therapy are very broad. For example, music therapy can be performed with babies as young as a few months old and even with premature babies. But also adults with personal problems can work together with an art therapist on their personal development or the solution of their problems in the clinical, educational or social field. But professional art therapy can also be supportive in old age, when working with seniors or nursing home residents.

Art therapy can also be used for various mental illnesses and somatic disorders. For example, there are studies showing that dementia and Parkinson’s patients became calmer by moving to music or they showed longer lucid phases after these exercises. Also in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorders of, for example, refugees or otherwise traumatized people, art therapy can help to deal with the issue. In depressive patients it could be proven that their self-perception as well as sensitivity improved through art therapy applications. In addition, these patients were able to better recognize and depict their own limits after therapy and more easily recognize, stop and redirect negative thought processes. For many patients with a mental disorder, art therapy can continue to have a calming and balancing effect. Other disorders that can be treated with art therapy are: Eating disorders, schizophrenia and exhaustion depression as well as burnout cases.

Art therapy can also be used in the treatment of somatic diseases. For example, many oncological (cancer) patients in rehabilitation centers practice art therapy, through confidence and self-esteem in relation to the disease are promoted and patients can talk with less fear and more openly about their limitations and symptoms of the disease.

Art therapist study, further education, profession?

You can become an art therapist in different ways. On the one hand, one can do an art therapy training in a therapy practice. On the other hand, however, it has also been possible for some years to study art therapy at various colleges, universities and private institutes. Within the framework of the study of art therapy, a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Arts can be acquired. Contents of the study are on the one hand art-historical thus theoretical contents, in addition, many practical examples and practical work, which must be made frequently in the self-study. A doctorate as well as distance learning are also possible in the subject of art therapy. Many art therapists have also completed a classical art degree and then followed up with further training to become an art therapist. Even though art therapy cannot be billed by the state as a psychotherapy format in Germany, there is also further training in the field of art therapy for psychotherapists.