The idea of releasing tension through art dates back to Aristotle’s ideas of catharsis, where he believed that difficult emotions could be purged through exposure to dramatic tragedies, allowing the mind to experience distressing emotions in a safe environment. Today, the practice of art therapy is closely linked with the principles of Freudian psychotherapy, as patients use a variety of art mediums to express thoughts that they may find hard to communicate through written or spoken language.
The term ‘Art Therapy’ was originally coined by British artist Adrian Hill in 1942, who described how his artistic practice helped by “completely engrossing the mind (as well as the fingers)…releasing the creative energy of the frequently inhibited patient”. Hill documented his practice and his findings were published in his 1945 book Art Versus Illness.
So, how does Art Therapy help? Working in either group or individual sessions, patients and achieve success in completing tasks that may prove a struggle in the outside world. When creating a piece of art, one must proactively make decisions, take control over what they are doing, and express some aspect of their individuality. Art creation has been proven to boost self-esteem, as patients work through themes of development; taking something from creation to completion and having a safe space where they are allowed to make mistakes.
Much of art therapy is about communication between the therapist and the patient, building confidence in externalising difficult feelings or challenging topics of conversation. As well as improvised and spontaneous communication, there are also recognised tests to be done in art therapy sessions, such as the ‘Diagnostic Drawing Series’, the ‘Road Drawing’, and ‘House-Tree-Person’ drawing tasks. These exercises create a platform for therapists to ask questions about what has been drawn in a way that is not intimidating or directly connected to the patient’s own experiences. For example, the drawing of a road can be seen to reflect a person’s attitudes towards the past and the future, as well as indicate how they think about the themes of development and progression.
“Art creation has been proven to boost self-esteem”
Fascinatingly, there have also been tests constructed which help to identify dyslexia in the drawing patterns of very young children, who are thought to have a superior visuospatial skill. (Which in turn make difficult the reading of ordinary letter formations.) Studies have also shown that art therapy sessions have positively improved the social skills of many children aged 11-18 who are on the autistic spectrum. Although anyone can benefit from art therapy, the technique is often used for older people with memory problems, PTSD sufferers, terminally ill people, and younger children who have experienced trauma.
In the UK, art therapists can work privately, through the NHS or in schools, prisons or social services. Often people will have been referred to see an art therapist, and they do not need any background knowledge in art or skill in art practice to make use of the sessions. However, more organisations are beginning to see the benefits of creating art, whether or not the creator feels they have existing health problems. Artistic practice is recognised as being able to improve children’s creativity as well as academic performance, and improve general wellbeing in adults from various stages of life.
Whether you need a reason to slow down your hectic day, or a way of channeling your energy into something constructive, perhaps creating art is something we should all try again sometime soon. Not for anyone else, not to become the next Picasso, but just because it’s good for you and you just might enjoy it!