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  • Writer's pictureLynn Cukaj

What is Art Therapy?

Updated: Aug 22, 2021

Art Therapy for Children, Teenagers, and Adults

The birth of art therapy was the result of many components converging. It was the combination of psychiatry, psychoanalysis, projective techniques, art education, and drawings along with the vital contributions of Margaret Naumburg and Edith Kramer. Their definitions of art therapy are a personal expression of their techniques.

Art as therapy approach as in Kramer’s work, in which art is in of itself therapeutic. In contrast, art in psychotherapy approach, as seen in Naumburg’s work, in which art is seen to symbolically communicate issues related to personality, feelings, and other aspects that a person is dealing with. They pioneered the uniqueness of the use of art as a therapeutic approach in treating clients/patients. Through their individual efforts, art therapy is now a profession that is recognized for its therapeutic effectiveness in treating patients/clients.

The American Art Therapy Association offers the following definition: art therapy is an integrative mental health and human services profession that enriches the lives of individuals, families, and communities through active artmaking, creative process, applied psychological theory, and human experience within a psychotherapeutic relationship.

Art therapy is used to improve:

  • foster self-esteem

  • self-awareness

  • cultivate emotional resilience

  • promote insight

  • enhance social skills

  • reduce and resolve conflicts & distress

  • cognitive & sensorimotor function

  • advance societal and ecological change


Judith Rubin further delineated the use of art therapy by breaking it down into its individual components: art and therapy. Rubin stressed that as an art therapist one must know art; the materials, creative process, and the potential that art contains. In addition, an art therapist must be knowledgeable about human development, the therapeutic relationship, mechanisms of how individuals change, psychodynamics, and interpersonal relationships (p. 292). The utilization of art in therapy is typically used by counselors who have received special training (Gladding, 2016). According to Gladding (2016), there are four benefits of using the visual arts in therapy; taps into the unconscious and helps patients/clients express themselves nonverbally; symbolization of feelings in a unique, tangible, and powerful way; inspiration and helpful for individuals to gain insight into their personalities; most art tasks are viewed by patients/clients as non-threatening (p. 95). In addition, Gladding (2016) pointed out how the visual arts can be a tangible reminder of the therapeutic process for the patient/client (p. 96). As a result of limited verbal skills and lack of concrete thinking, young children have difficulty participating fully in traditional counseling formats which rely heavily on verbal expression (Klop, 2017). The process of drawing, painting, or constructing is a complex one in which the child brings together diverse elements of his/her experiences to make a new and meaningful whole. Drawings help the counselor to understand what is important to the child in a way that is often not readily available from verbal expression alone (Klop, 2017; Malchiodi, 2007).


For more therapeutic activities and resources on how to incorporate Art Therapy into your life, read more from Lynn's Creative Expressions Blog.

Learn more about Art Therapy and Lynn Cukaj, Board Certified Art Therapist here:


American Art Therapy Association. (2017).

Gladding, S. (2016). The creative arts in counseling (5th Ed.). American Counseling Association.

Klop, S. (2017). Sometimes words just ain’t enough-enhancing the contribution of children in

therapy through creative expression. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 38, 283-294.

Kramer, E. (1993). Art as therapy with children. Magnolia Street Publishers.

Malchiodi, C. (2007). The art therapy sourcebook. McGraw-Hill.

Naumburg, M. (1973). An introduction to art therapy. Teachers College Press.

Rubin, J. (1984). Child art therapy: understanding and helping children grow through art (2nd

Ed.). Van Nostrand Reinhold.


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