Art therapists often utilize multiple theories and approaches in their practice, but usually have one or two art therapy theories that provide their guiding principles. When I first started studying art therapy, I had a limited understanding of a few theories and was completely clueless as to how I would build an approach. With the large volume of therapeutic models, it was difficult to find what aligned with my personal values as an art therapist, as I was not yet in a place where I felt comfortable in my approach.
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Keep reading to learn about a few different art therapy theories and how I inform my approach to art therapy.
The Vancouver Art Therapy Institute’s course on history and theories introduced me to some of the founding art therapy philosophies and theories as they emerged and evolved through time. Some art therapy theories felt that they were right for me but as I continued exploring them, I found that they weren’t the right fit. The same went for the theories that I was initially hesitant to embrace.
As I researched and closed any misunderstandings, I was able to identify what theories would guide my practice. My personal theory should be viewed as living and constantly evolving as I progress through my art therapy training and career. I was also advised that I should never put a theory in stone because if we create a closed system out of our theories, we will not be able to respond openly to new contexts.
A Sample of Art Therapy Theories
Going into every existing art therapy theory and approach would be quite a heavy read so I have selected a few to provide a glimpse into what is out there.
Gestalt Art Therapy
Gestalt theory focuses on the idea that change can naturally occur when someone expands their awareness of what they are experiencing in the present moment (Corey, 2011). My interpretation is that employing a Gestalt approach to art therapy would focus more on the process of the art-making and the client’s immediate perception of their art. Through the sensory experience of art therapy, clients can gain insight about their relationship with their environment.
Postmodern Art Therapy
Postmodern principles reinforce the belief that there is no one style, construct, and medium that is appropriate for every client.Alter-Muri and Klein (2007)
Postmodern approaches to art therapy resonate with me because they promote implementing multiple approaches and using them based on what is best for the client. What works for one client may have a different outcome with another. I also tend to use a solution-focused approach when a goal is defined. I think about what can be done in the present to get to what is wanted or needed in the future. There is much more to postmodern approaches than this but these principles are what stood out to me the most and help guide my practice.
Person-Centred Art Therapy
My therapeutic approach is mainly informed by person-centred principles. If an environment has the correct conditions, I believe that people can identify problems, make their own goals, and make the effort to reach them through self-directed means. This is known as self-actualization. I aim to facilitate an environment where that change can take place.
What Is the Goal?
The client not only has to work towards change but their ideal self needs to be in harmony with how they see themselves in the present (Corey, 2011). This doesn’t mean that they need to always be at the height of their goals, but rather that they have an awareness of and hold acceptance for where they currently are on their self-actualization journey. This awareness includes the acceptance that self-actualization is an ongoing process and a continuous struggle (Corey, 2011). The congruency between the present and future-self is an important factor in the client feeling empowered about where they stand throughout the process.
Yes, I know this sounds like I’m saying the client does all the work so you’re probably wondering why an art therapist would be necessary if someone is capable of making their own change. The art therapist can provide the space and the tools that a client may be lacking so that they can start or continue their efforts towards growth. Throughout the therapeutic relationship, the client and art therapist will work together to find what is needed to meet the client’s goals. This could even mean using a completely different approach!
What’s My Approach to Art Therapy?
I have already touched on this briefly but to elaborate, I take a person-centred and postmodern approach that allows me to have the client lead the session while also utilizing other approaches as they are needed. For longer sessions, I may come prepared with a warm-up activity that I find relevant to get the session rolling but I always provide the opportunity for my clients to create freely, followed by a discussion.
I typically do not provide art directives or prompts when facilitating a session because I want the client to create and express whatever is needed in that moment as opposed to following a plan I made based on our last session. I might have felt it to be beneficial then but there could be completely different circumstances or problems to work through by the next session. Of course, if it is identified that the client needs more guidance or a different approach to reach their goals and it is requested, I will come prepared with a plan.
I want to address the fact that there is much more information on the theories and approaches than I have presented, including my own. What you see is a snapshot of an expansive world. Trust me, I’ve written about 13 pages on person-centred theory alone. If you would like to learn more, please look to the references at the bottom of this article. As I continue my studies and articles, you will most likely see how my working theory continues to evolve. I’m glad to have you all on this journey.
Art Prompt: Creating With Nature
If you’re looking for a reason to get outside, then this activity is for you!
All you need to do is roam around your neighbourhood, go to a park, or anywhere that you can find objects to create with.
To the left is an image of a tree shape that I made with fallen branches and leaves. I found it interesting that what was once part of a whole tree was put back together in the image of its former body.
Please do not pluck or pull any plants or living organisms from their home when completing this activity. The goal is to find objects that have been discarded and create something new. This one is a fun activity to get outdoors but it might also provide an opportunity for reflection on your relationship with your environment.
Alter-Muri, S., & Klein, L. (2007). Dissolving the boundaries: Postmodern art and art therapy. Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 24(2), 82-86.
Corey, G. (2011). Theory and practice of counseling and psychotherapy. Cengage learning.