Art Therapy: How It Works

“My loveness makes my wings grow big!”

As he spoke, he created pink circles radiating outward from his body map. This exercise is done each art therapy session to help this 6 year old learn to identify the physical sensations of his emotions. Gradually, his circles grew so large they overtook the page. Next, he added large, blue wings to the figure. I sat in awe, as I often do when clients make profound connections in their art therapy sessions. At these moments, I am certain I have the best job in the world. My name is Melissa Ayotte and I am a registered and board-certified art therapist and founder of Painted Path Art Therapy, LLC located in Columbus, Ohio. At Painted Path, we support the wellness of children, adolescents, and adults in both group settings as well as in individual sessions using a variety of art techniques and mediums.

What is Art Therapy?

Those calling my office for the first time generally know very little about art therapy. They reach out for support to remedy a strong sense of dissatisfaction with one or more areas of their lives. Often, progress in traditional talk therapy has stalled or there is a barrier to communication present making traditional talk therapy ineffective.  I explain art therapy as the use of art techniques and materials to strategically address areas of growth and development in individuals.

Visual Arts as the Cornerstone to Therapy

Art therapists are master’s degree trained professionals who are educated in the areas of human development, assessment and diagnosis of mental disorders, psychology, counseling & art therapy theory, studio art, ethics, and cultural competency. A good art therapist can perform an assessment and then tailor goals and treatments that fit the specific needs of each client. One person’s art therapy experience will likely differ greatly from another’s. For example, a client on the Autism spectrum experiencing communication difficulties has very different needs from a cancer patient trying to find meaning in his/her medical trauma. Art therapy can improve quality of life for both and many in between. What remains consistent is that visual art expression is central to gaining insights and cultivating self-awareness that support the client’s growth.

The Brain and Emotions

The area of the brain responsible for processing emotions, the amygdala, is also the area that processes imagery as well as sensory input. Human emotions can be complicated and becoming overwhelmed by them can impact sleep, appetite, relationships, learning, motivation, productivity, nervous system response, and can even cause physical illness. Those who become overwhelmed by their emotions may attempt to avoid them and the experiences that elicit such strong feelings. Attempts to do so can result in maladaptive behaviors and coping strategies that can impede personal success and quality of life. However, being that emotions are experienced in the amygdala along with sensory input and imagery, the latter two can be leveraged to help individuals better understand their emotions as well as support their ability to regulate them. As individuals become more effective and confident in regulating emotions, overwhelm decreases, and so does the drive to avoid them. This in turn decreases reliance on maladaptive behaviors and coping strategies.

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How Does Art Therapy Work?

An art therapist uses art materials and directives to activate sensory responses and generate imagery that is directly connected to emotions. This process helps one to re-experience emotions in a way that allows them to organize their feelings and form a narrative around an overwhelming experience. Once this occurs, it is possible for words to emerge that make communication possible. Ultimately, it is the goal of the art therapist to help the client gain personal insight, self-awareness, and new coping strategies that promote an improved level of functioning and quality of life.

What Art Therapy Is Not.

Art therapy is not the same as therapeutic art making. While most of us can agree that engaging in art making has inherent healing effects, the benefits of making art on your own are not the same as making art under the guidance of a credentialed art therapist. To be clear, both are beneficial. However, the outcome is different due to the therapeutic relationship established between art therapist and client. First, an art therapist is trained to assess, diagnose, and develop a course of treatment that serves as the guideline for therapy rather than simply making art that feels good or improves mood. Art therapists understand which art techniques and mediums best address specific needs and goals of clients and thus apply them strategically in treatment.

Keep Calm and Make Art

Due to the casual use of the term art therapy to entitle coloring books or to describe an evening at a wine and painting event, this has become confusing to many. Why? Simply because individuals feel lifted and restored from engaging in such activities and have experienced the soothing effects of engaging in art making. However, it is important to note there is a difference between art therapy and therapeutic art making. In some states it is actually illegal to use the term art therapy to describe anything other than therapy performed by a credentialed art therapist.

What Can Art Therapy Help With?

Art therapy can help with a number of life’s challenges.

  • *Autism
  • *Learning Disorders
  • *Depression
  • *Anxiety
  • *Relationship Issues
  • *Trauma/PTSD
  • *Illness
  • *Addiction
  • *Mental Illness
  • *Alzheimer’s and Dementia
  • *Transitions/Divorce
  • *Grief
  • *Spirituality
  • *LGBTQ Support

For this reason, art therapists can be found working in a variety of settings including private practice, hospitals, in-patient mental health treatment, addictions recovery centers, community mental health centers, wellness spaces, and spiritual centers. Art therapy can work well as an adjunctive treatment in collaboration with other therapy professionals or it can work well as the primary treatment.

Where Can I Find an Art Therapist?

The American Art Therapy Association (AATA) is the national professional organization that promotes awareness about art therapy and advocates for growth in the field. The website can be found at and has an Art Therapist Locator page. Most state chapters of the professional organization have a similar feature. These are good places to start.

What Should I Look For In An Art Therapist?

First, look for an art therapist that is credentialed by the Art Therapy Credentials Board (ATCB). Here is a list of the credentials you may see behind the names of art therapists and what they mean:

  • ATR-P indicates a Provisionally Registered Art Therapist who has completed a master’s degree program in art therapy and is working under the supervision of a credentialed art therapist to acquire post-graduate clinical hours.
  • ATR indicates a Registered Art Therapist who has met all education and post-graduate requirements and is registered with the ATCB.
  • ATR-BC indicates a Registered and Board Certified art therapist who has met all education, post-graduate requirements, and has also passed the national board examination.
  • ATCS indicates an Art Therapy Certified Supervisor who has completed all education, post graduate requirements, and has also passed the national board examination. In addition, these individuals have acquired additional experience making them suitable as supervisors of ATR-P’s.

In order to become credentialed by the ATCB, one must submit proof of completion of education and internship requirements as well as documentation of post-graduate supervised clinical hours. Once credentialed, an art therapist is required to uphold specified professional ethics and obtain ongoing continuing education in order to maintain his or her credentials. While seeking services from a credentialed art therapist does not guarantee a great experience, seeing an art therapist that does not hold credentials does not guarantee  that you will be working with a qualified therapist. This is important because many states do not currently have laws in place to enforce who can and cannot practice art therapy. The ATCB operates independently of AATA and is responsible for regulating all national credentials for art therapists as well as handling disciplinary actions for infractions. Art therapists in good standing can be checked at

Second, the more you know about what you need and what you are looking for, the easier it will be for you to find an art therapist that is a good fit for you. Begin with asking yourself basic questions about preferences such as do you wish to work with a male or female therapist, a therapist that facilitates your experience or puts you in the driver’s seat, a therapist that creates along side you or observes while you create? Make note of your answers.

Third, you want to look for an art therapist that has experience in the particular area you are seeking help with. Each therapist should have developed his or her unique style and area of expertise. While art therapists can be adept at working with a variety of populations, what is the area the art therapist has worked most with?  What additional trainings or certifications does he or she have and do these apply to your specific needs?

Fourth, make sure you ask what the art therapist’s clinical approach or philosophy is and try to get a sense as to whether it is congruent with your own. All credentialed art therapists are trained to be culturally competent and sensitive to differences in race, religion, or sexual orientation. However, one example is some art therapists work under a medical model and focus on pathology while others take a strengths-based approach. Their fundamental approach can influence everything about your experience with him or her. You may not know exactly what you are looking for, but when you ask this question, make note of how you feel about the answer. Positive resonance will likely stimulate further conversation to clarify the matter.

Interview Your Prospective Therapist

Never be afraid to ask for a meeting on the phone or in person to determine if the therapist is a good fit for you. Some art therapists offer free consultations, while others may charge a fee. Either way, it is always best to get as much information up front to empower you in making a decision you are comfortable with. Remember, you are in charge of your healing journey and it is never wrong to decide not to work with a therapist who is not right for you, even if you have invested a few sessions before learning this. A good therapist is one who is willing to have this conversation with you and may even be able to make further recommendations that would be helpful.

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Melissa Ayotte

Melissa Ayotte


  1. What is Art Therapy? | The Flourish Center on September 23, 2018 at 7:47 pm

    […] Art Therapy: How It Works […]

  2. Ashley on January 11, 2019 at 8:38 pm

    This page really helped on clearing some things up about art therapy for me. I am debating whether or not to purses this as a degree in college and this helped a lot thank you.

    • L. Samuel Gracida L. Samuel Gracida on January 12, 2019 at 4:29 am

      Absolutely Ashley! We are glad that you found this information helpful. Would love to know if you decide to pursue art therapy!

  3. winny on January 29, 2019 at 9:06 am

    i would like to know about the objective of art therapy

  4. Rochelle Wyndham-Johnson on April 28, 2019 at 8:54 pm

    Hello, I am a an artist and have been drawing , painting, designing and doing just about everything art related. I started drawing when I was five, I went o college for commercial arts in 85, then received my associates degree in 2004 for computer graphics designs, I then went back to college for another associates in Human Resources and received that degree in 2018, finally I am back for my bachelor’s in Business. I have taken more than my share of psychology classes, served in the military and have lead, managed and counseled many people in my lifetime. I am presently in college and have started an art club, I want to include art therapy, but why with my many many years of life’s experience do I have to have a master’s to be an art therapist? I must admit, that I found your article clear and concise and it makes me want to incorporate art therapy in our club even more. I see that there are a lot of veterans, and som nursing students at my college loves the idea of such a thing. How can I make it useful on a smaller scale with what me and my cofounder knows and have dealt with in our person walks of life with other people during our travels through the world? Thank you in advance for any input.

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