An Introduction to Art Therapy
Art Therapy is an evidence-based intervention developed in the mid 1940s for the management of mental health disorders in both adults and children. It is widely used in Europe and the United States but the practice of art therapy is still in its early stages in Australia.
Art therapy encourages self-discovery and emotional growth. Evolving from Freud and Jung’s theories of the unconscious, art therapy is based on the belief that visual symbols and images (as in dreams) are the most accessible and natural form of communicating to the human experience. Clients are encouraged to visualise and create a representation of thoughts and emotions that they may not otherwise be able to articulate.
Art therapists assist people in accessing their own image-making abilities.
They do this by jointly exploring the meaning of their images in light of the relationships and personal experiences they have encountered which, of course, may be distressing or nurturing. The art therapist’s great advantage is being able to facilitate the client’s expression of their inner world that they may find difficult to verbalise. The art therapist supports the processes of emotional integration and growth by providing a safe, reliable and therapeutic environment within which the client can create and use images to develop insight and achieve personal change.
Art Therapy: Then and Now
If you’ve ever marvelled at the primitive sketches of the Lascaux caves or the rock markings of Arnhem Land, you’ve witnessed the power of imagery. Imagery has been used create and share narratives since the earliest recordings of time. In fact, long before modern language, movable type and social media, images, symbols and objects were used to communicate deep cultural and personal meanings. It’s no surprise that death and loss feature heavily in ancient imagery, since imagery has the power to both define what it is to be human and to elucidate and transform difficult human experience. From masks worn for self-preservation and protection to the use of symbols to heal sickness, art is a seasoned healer that transcends time and verbal language.
From the cave to the Sunday painter, normal people in ordinary settings have been using art for personally helpful purposes” (Pergjini, 1999).
Despite its informal longevity, art therapy has only really emerged as a therapeutic paradigm over the past century. A British educator and the author of Art Versus Illness, Adrian Hill is generally acknowledged as the first person to use the term ‘art therapy’ to describe the therapeutic application of image-making.
Hill believed that the practice of art, “in sickness and in health”, could turn society away from war by encouraging appreciation of artistic creativity. The author of Art Versus Illness (1945), he envisaged art therapy as becoming an integral part of the National Health Service. In the same decade, the “mother of art therapy”, Margaret Naumburg, defined art therapy as a distinct form of psychotherapy, viewing artistic expression as a way to manifest unconscious imagery (Cane et al., 1983).
Around the same time, Edith Kramer introduced the idea of “art as therapy”, eschewing verbal interpretation for the therapeutic scope of the creative process. Kramer said that “in the creative act, conflict is re-experienced, resolved and integrated…”
According to her, symbolising destructive and aggressive feelings would effectively prevent them from being acted out. In conjunction with the relationship with the therapist, image-making may instil control over feelings and in turn engender behaviour change (Waller Diane, 2006).
The famous Sigmund Freud and his equally famous student Carl Gustav Jung gained celebrity status, paving the way for talk-based counselling methodologies in the work with unconscious images. Fast-forward to today, there are now two fundamental ways of doing art therapy—art as therapy and art in therapy. While the CECAT courses emphasise art expression as symbolic communication, both art in therapy and art as therapy contribute to art therapy’s effectiveness and most art therapists subscribe to both definitions (Birtchnell, J. 2009).
As practitioners, we can harness the legacy of last century’s psychotherapy frameworks, contemporary brain science, innate human drives to communicate inner experience and creativity to deliver powerful, transformational therapeutic experiences.
The art therapist makes creative experiences available to disturbed persons in the service of the total personality… ” (Ulman, 2001).
Art Therapy: Exploring our Official Timeline
Art as therapy used in mental health institutions.
Art in therapy began when psychologists and psychiatrists started using drawings and paintings as a way to replace verbal communication (often if it was not successful), to prompt discussion or to reveal unconscious information.
Behavioural therapy developed in opposition to psychoanalysis with their strong focus on the life instinct which includes sexual instincts (‘Eros’) and death instinct which includes destruction and death wish (‘Thanatos’) as core impulses, possibly out of a need for something more tangible, dependable, measureable and reliable after the terrifying world wars.
In the last 50 years psychologists, psychotherapists in general and art therapists in particular have dramatically increased their knowledge and understanding of psychological disorders and their treatment; however, by the end of the century Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000) claimed that psychologists knew very little about what makes life worth living. This focus on positive aspects of life started the movement of positive psychology (Gable & Haidt, 2004).
Positive psychology aims to address the imbalance between studies on disorders and studies on what contributes to optimal functioning of people (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). Advocates of positive psychology recognise, however, that the rest of psychology is not negative, and that distressing, dysfunctional and negative aspects of life are reality and need to be dealt with (Gable & Haidt, 2004). The objective is to integrate and complement the existing body of knowledge (Gable & Haidt, 2004).
Peterson, Park, and Seligman (2005) claimed that there are several findings that indicate, for example, that strengths of character can buffer against ill health. Although these findings are important, positive health extends beyond the absence of illness (Ryff & Singer, 1998). Therefore, positive psychology attempts to contribute to the existing body of knowledge but with its main focus on optimal functioning independent of illnesses and disorders.
A Little Less Conversation
As a practising psychotherapist with more than 25 years’ experience working with families and serious mental health disorders, I believe that the curative potential of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), coined in the 1960s and recognised as the dominant psychotherapeutic paradigm, is limited.
While it may eventually access unconscious thoughts underlying unhelpful behaviours and emotions, that level of depth may take years, which contraindicates health insurance provisions for a limited number of subsidised sessions per year. It often then becomes a panacea, failing to provide lasting change, with adverse implications for both clients and society.
Yet while Art Therapy is founded on psychoanalytic and psychodynamic approaches, art therapists need to take CBT seriously and integrate its useful elements into practice on an as-needs basis. For instance, once art therapy has fostered the client’s insight into deep psychological problems, CBT may provide a method to rebuild their thinking and behaviour.
Studying At CECAT
Art therapy is often imagined as a kind of creative playground, with the therapist supervising a process which, while often therapeutic in its own way, has little bearing on concrete outcomes such as altering core beliefs or schemas that underpin lifelong troublesome ways of being in the world. Art therapy, however, can be much more than that.
By using image-making to access parts of the mind, you will, at the end of this course, be prepared to guide clients on their journey to uncharted, exciting parts of themselves. You will learn to collaborate with clients to make their unconscious conscious and help them realise the capacity to process and integrate what they didn’t know was holding them back.
Whether you’re a psychologist or social worker working in mental health or family therapy or an artist wishing to channel your passion into helping others while gaining deep personal insight, the expertise you will acquire in the CECAT courses will equip you to co-pilot journeys to parts of clients’ selves crucial to healing and help them to live the life they couldn’t otherwise imagine. Unlike many verbal therapies, this therapeutic process appoints the client as the expert and empowers them to find their own solutions by interpreting their guided image-making. It can be immensely empowering.
The idea of using images to access submerged material isn’t new. Freud and Jung famously theorised that images—in the form of dreams—were like an access code to the unconscious. Research increasingly supports combination therapies using creative practice and talk therapy. The techniques you will learn through the CECAT courses fuse evidence-based psychotherapeutic principles with verified neurobiological frameworks to both bypass and leverage language centres to unlock, process and transform. Imagine an elevator in a high-rise apartment building that only goes to certain floors unless you have a key tag. You will learn to give clients their own all-floors pass. As a fringe benefit, as you study, you will also undertake your own personal journey of discovery.
Robert GrayDirector and Senior Lecturer at CECAT
Registered Art Therapist and Psychologist
MA A. Th., AThR; B. Soc. Sc. (Psych.) (Hons.), MAPS.; BA. Theol. (Hons), MA Theol.
A highly regarded art therapy lecturer from Germany, Robert Gray has become a much sought-after art therapy lecturer and practising art therapist in Australia. His unique approach spanning psychodynamic, humanistic, spiritual and cognitive behavioural frameworks has distinguished him as a thought leader who is frequently invited to present at conferences in Australia and abroad.
Trained overseas and multilingual, German-born Robert shares the benefits of his international affiliations and access to cutting-edge research published in various languages with his students and readers. Robert is a professional member of the Australian and New Zealand Arts Therapy Association (ANZATA) and the Australian Psychological Society (APS).