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What is Art Therapy?

Updated: Jul 25, 2021

Art therapy has demonstrated various benefits, including amongst those populations with dementia and disabilities [4]. It has also shown to relieve stress, raise self-esteem, regulate emotions, as well as change behaviours in a positive manner [5,6].

By: Varsa Murugesu

As human beings, we have the ability to convey feelings, thoughts, and ideas through various forms of communication. Oftentimes, we find it hard to express ourselves with words and spoken language alone. Before written language was invented, communication was conveyed through paintings and drawings on cave walls [1]. Although this drawn artform is no longer the primary means of communication, it is still seen in all aspects of daily life, including in psychotherapy [1,3].

Defining Art Therapy

Art therapy is a form of psychotherapy where creativity and psychology is combined to provide therapy for individuals [2]. Through art therapy, patients learn to understand their feelings and cope with challenging situations by expressing themselves through artwork [3]. This method of utilizing art therapeutically can also benefit many people as a way to relieve stress and reduce anxiety [3].

This type of therapy incorporates drawings, sculptures, and paintings, and can be combined with other regular therapy procedures to stimulate the patient’s body and mind, as well as to analyze the underlying messages in the patient’s art pieces [3]. Art therapy is not as simple as an individual sitting with a canvas and a paintbrush; it requires a licenced professional called an ‘art therapist’ [3].

Typically, therapy begins with the patient and the art therapist working together on a treatment plan that includes some type of artwork. Then, the patient will start working while the therapist watches and asks questions about coping mechanisms.

Effects of Art Therapy

Art therapy has demonstrated various benefits, including amongst those populations with dementia and disabilities [4]. It has also shown to relieve stress, raise self-esteem, regulate emotions, as well as change behaviours in a positive manner [5,6].

Since creating art doesn’t necessarily involve any verbal communication, this is especially useful to those who are deaf. Art psychotherapy helps to offer an alternative solution to those who are uncomfortable or don’t benefit as much from other forms of therapy [5,7,8]. This can also provide those who are non-verbal communicators a way to express themselves through art. Marilyn Hoggard explains this in her paper about working as a deaf art psychotherapist in a mental health and deafness unit in Manchester [7].

According to Hoggard, it was easier for most deaf patients to communicate using art [7]. In her paper, she recalls a boy named “Charlie” who was unable to communicate with sign language and instead used drawings to show images of his childhood after his mother died [7]. However, art does not only have to consist of drawings or paintings; one other patient used crocheting to create images representing her psychosis [7].

In another paper regarding the effectiveness of art therapy with adult clients, a literature review was conducted with articles relevant to terms like “art therapy” and “efficacy” [8]. It involved analyzing the effectiveness of art therapy in patients who had cancer, mental health problems, trauma victims, prison inmates, the elderly, and those who were facing daily challenges [8]. Out of those groups, art therapy was found to have a significant positive effect on every group except those with mental illness and trauma victims [8]. Studies failed to find significant effects on trauma victims and more research is needed with regards to how art therapy impacts mental illness [8].

In general, more research is still needed to properly assess the true scope of the efficacy of art therapy.

Art therapy is a unique approach to psychotherapy. The idea behind making art for therapeutic reasons is nothing new. While the technique may not be very popular in the present day, it holds great potential and is a suitable option for those who may be visual learners. The best part about art therapy is that you don’t even need to be great at art! It’s more about the feelings and thoughts experienced when you are making it.


Rhea Verma


Majd Al-Aarg

Additional Credits

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash


  1. Zalac F, Fleerackers K [Internet]. Toronto (ON): CBC News; 2020. Did early humans communicate with cave signs?; 2015 May 21 [cited 2020 Sep 15]. Available:

  2. What is art therapy? [Internet]. Parksville (BC): Canadian Art Therapy Association; 2020. 2020 [cited 2020 Sep 16]. Available:

  3. Art therapy [Internet]. New York (NY): Psychology Today; 2020. 2020 [cited 2020 Sep 16]. Available:

  4. Deshmukh S, Holmes J, Cardno A. Art therapy for people with dementia. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews [Internet]. 2018 Sep 13 [cited 2020 Sep 12];. Available from:

  5. Upson J [Internet]. Brampton (ON): Canadian Council on Rehabilitation and Work; 2020. The role of art therapy in mental health & recovery; 2018 Jul 25 [cited 2020 Sep 15]. Available:

  6. Malchiodi C [Internet]. New York (NY): Psychology Today; 2020. Why art therapy works; 2016 Aug 30 [cited 16 Sep 2020]. Available:

  7. Hoggard M. Art psychotherapy with people who are deaf or hearing impaired. International Journal of Art Therapy [Internet]. 2010 Dec 21 [cited 2020 Sep 12];11(1):2-12. Available from:

  8. Regev D, Cohen-Yatziv L. Effectiveness of art therapy with adult clients in 2018 — what progress has been made?. Frontiers in Psychology [Internet]. 2018 Aug 29 [cited 2020 Sep 14];9(1531):1-19. Available from:

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