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What Is Art Psychotherapy?

"The therapeutic role of the arts in alleviating human suffering and resolving emotional conflict predates the birth of art therapy as a profession by thousands of years. The novelty of art therapy lies in its merging of these practices with the relatively new fields of psychiatry and psychotherapy."

(Shaun McNiff)

Art Psychotherapy (or Art Therapy, the terms are interchangeable) is a form of psychotherapy regulated by the Health and Care Professions Council - HCPC - in the United Kingdom. This organisation ensures that Arts Therapists adhere to appropriate standards of conduct, performance, ethics, proficiency, and Continuing Professional Development, in order to remain on the register. Renewal of registration occurs biannually. 

Art Psychotherapy is a profession in the general field of counselling and psychotherapy, and is distinct from what might be considered 'art based activities,' or 'art as therapy.' Art Psychotherapists have completed an in depth Masters level qualification, and can be found working in the NHS, the third sector, independently with organisations such as museums and galleries, and in private practice. Whilst using art materials can certainly have a therapeutic benefit in itself, working with a qualified and experienced Art Psychotherapist emphasises engaging with the deeper qualities of images and creative processes within the therapeutic relationship (between client and therapist), with the purpose of nurturing the capacity for reflection, and experiences of insight, understanding, and healing. 

As with many other forms of Psychotherapy, at the heart of the work is the 'therapeutic alliance' between patient/client and therapist. This term relates to the unique nature of the interaction between the two people, which is intended to create a trusting relationship in which it is possible to work with themes of a deep and personal nature. You can read more about this on the 'My approach' page.

The art in Art Psychotherapy also forms a key part of this relationship. What is created during the session is not judged in terms of its artistic merit—whether it is deemed to be 'good' or 'bad'—but instead offers a means of communication and expression. The 'art' made in Art Psychotherapy differs to an artwork that may be created with other intentions, such as for exhibition, or sale. Your experience of making it, and the context in which it is made (the therapy session), are also considered to be part of the image, and the various meanings it may have. 

When you use the art materials my role is to facilitate and encourage engagement with the image. We adopt a 'spirit of enquiry' attitude towards what has been made, with the intention of deepening insight, leading to understanding about how the image relates to your life, and your experience of the therapy session. The image can function in a symbolic or subtle way, allowing us to approach the artwork from different perspectives. People often think that once an image has been made the Art Psychotherapist will then tell them what it means. In practice, the process is much more about exploring possibilities collaboratively. You will have your thoughts and feelings about the image, and I will have my responses to it as well, and these may be shared verbally.  We are not necessarily aiming to pin the image down to one fixed interpretation, and any meaning an image may have can also change over time, in the evolving context of the therapy. 


Sometimes it can feel challenging for adults to engage with the art materials in a therapy session. This is understandable in many respects; it might be a very unfamiliar thing for you to do; it could feel 'childish'; it might bring up feelings of incompetence, or not being 'good enough'. Many people will be able to recall an experience of their creative efforts (in a broad sense) being rejected at some point in their life, and the therapy setting can bring these into the foreground. This could range from childhood pictures being laughed at or criticised, through to much more adult situations where your ideas and ambitions for life have not been met with interest or encouragement, or worse.


If you experience difficulty with using the materials, or feel uncomfortable to begin with, we explore this in a psychological context, as we consider how similar difficulties and feelings may appear elsewhere in your life. Sometimes a necessary part of the therapy is about working through what limits your authentic self-expression, in order to reach a place where you can experience a greater sense of creative agency. In this sense, even not using the materials can be enlightening in a psychotherapeutic setting.

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