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What is Art Therapy?

One of the more surprising aspects of being human is that we often can’t tell other people or, more strangely, even ourselves about many of the emotions that course through us. We can be angry but have little idea we are so; or sad but unaware what our sadness is about. Asking ourselves direct questions may not, in the circumstances, be of any use. We can be relegated to the status of confused observers of our own minds; our feelings both within us and yet not easily accessible to us.

Photo by Ilnur Kalimullin on Unsplash

It was in a bid to overcome this conundrum that the discipline known as art therapy was developed in the middle of the twentieth century. During the Second World War, the English artist and educator Adrian Hill observed that the wounded soldiers he was looking after in a sanatorium could be helped to understand and process the traumas that they otherwise held mutely within them by being offered a chance to sketch and draw — following a range of simple imaginative exercises. In his book of 1945, Art versus Illness, Hill coined the term ‘art therapy’ to describe how certain drawing tasks could help a frightened mind to unclench and express itself and so enable patients to identify and work through their difficulties.

Art therapy has, since, then, grown into a major discipline that sits alongside, and complements, standard psychotherapy. Like psychotherapists, art therapists want to bring unconscious emotions to the surface but whereas the former are limited to the sometimes clumsy or stifled medium of language, the latter can work off the reliably rich evidence that emerges whenever we are given a blank sheet and a prompt to express ourselves with pen or pencil.

In most of the exercises favoured by art therapists, we quickly sense that there is no expectation on us to be able to draw ‘well’, we’re just being invited to show where we are at emotionally. One exercise asks us to: Draw the mood you are in right now as an abstract shape. Another prompts us to: Draw yourself as a tree. What binds the exercises is a hope of nudging us towards richer forms of self-knowledge:

Art Therapy Exercises

— Draw a present: what would you like to be inside it?

— Draw a map of your anxieties; give them each shape and form.

— Draw a giant tear: write what is in it.

— Draw a bridge, with a near and a far side to it. On the near end, write you need to get away from and at the far end, write what you like to move towards.

— Draw yourself in the centre of a piece of paper, then add other key members of your family or intimate friends around you. Now draw arrows connecting you to each person and write beside them what you ideally need to say to each of them.

— Draw what you are angry about.

— Draw an outline of your body. Where is pain concentrated?

— Draw an anchor on the seabed and a ship on the surface. What is keeping you from moving on?

— Draw yourself as an animal; what do you feel about your choice?

— Draw a mountain and then a molehill; write down, with reference to your life, what (more) accurately belongs to each one.

— Draw a circle to represent your life; shade in the negative proportion, leave blank the positive portion. Discuss.

— Draw the ideal life: where are you living, who are you with, what’s everyone doing. Compare with reality.

— Draw your nuclear family. Then observe who you have placed next to whom and the distances between them. 

— Draw the person you want to love. What is important to find in them?

— Draw the top of a mountain: what have you overcome?

— Draw a timeline of your life. Put in the key painful events. 

— Draw a very safe space. What do you need to stay away from?

— Draw a ‘Stop’ road sign. What do you want to put an end to?

— Draw an egg and something coming out of it that is not a chick but instead something new and important in your life. What would you like it to be? 

— Draw a giant question mark; write what should go under it.

— Draw ‘the many versions of me.’

— Doodle some shapes, whichever come to mind and feel most satisfying, at around the same time every day for a week. What might the different choices reveal?

— Draw ‘the situation I am in.’

What is poignant is how disconnected we may have grown from some of our central truths — and how powerfully an amateur drawing can return us home. 

It should also be pointed out how interesting it is to do art therapy in a group; looking over a shoulder at what a friend or new acquaintance is doing can be humblingly richer than asking them how they are.

School art classes may have unwittingly confused us as to what we should be doing when we draw. As art therapy appreciates, the most fruitful purpose of our sketches may be to help us to assemble a range of ever clearer portraits of our elusive true selves.

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