Art Therapy: When Colours and Shapes Speak More Than Words

Traditionally, any discussion related to a counselling process has always been looked at as a ‘four-wall process’ in which there is a large recliner or sofa for the ‘patient’ to sit on, while the ‘doctor’ sits on his chair, asks questions and makes his notes. But how often can one find the right words to describe one’s thoughts and feelings without a sense of being judged or mistaken? While verbal communication is essential, it is a very conscious process. And we as humans, often speak a lot without saying anything. That is where art therapy comes in!

Art therapy is the “use of art materials for self-expression and reflection in the presence of a trained art therapist”. Clients who are referred to an art therapist need not have previous experience or skill in the art as the art therapist is not primarily concerned with making an aesthetic or diagnostic assessment of the client’s image. The overall aim of its practitioners is to enable a client to effect change and growth on a personal level using art materials in a safe and facilitating environment”. (BAAT, 2003).

Art Therapy

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Art therapy involves the use of imaginative techniques such as drawing, painting, collage, colouring, or sculpting to help people express themselves artistically and examine the psychological and emotional undertones in their art.  Art therapy uses art media, the creative process, and the resulting artwork altogether as a therapeutic and healing process. It consists of a triangular relationship that is developed between the client, the art, and the art therapist.

Art therapy sessions do not follow a concrete structure. Human problems and goals are always changing and therefore, a flexible approach to therapy is important. The consensus with most art therapists is that it is not the aesthetic value of the art that matters, but the experience of the person creating it. Where an art class is focused on teaching technique or creating a specific finished product, art therapy is more about letting clients focus on their inner experience. With the guidance of a credentialed art therapist, a client may be able to “decode” the nonverbal messages, symbols, and metaphors often found in these art forms, which should lead to a better understanding of their feelings and behaviour so they can move on to resolve deeper issues. The lines, shapes, and colours, as well as the materials chosen by the client, may all be helpful and indicative of certain patterns of thoughts and behaviours. Ultimately, the art therapist helps the client in better self-perspective and understanding through their own works. A key goal in art therapy is to improve or restore the client’s functioning and his/her sense of personal happiness.

Art therapy integrates psychotherapeutic techniques with the creative process to improve mental health and well-being. Clients – young, old, and in-between – can explore their feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts, foster self-awareness, manage behaviour, develop social skills, improve reality orientation, reduce anxiety, and increase self-esteem. Thus, the applicative value is not restricted only to a certain age, gender or problem. Also, it is perfectly usable by everyone even if they are only seeking better self-understanding. Art therapy allows catharsis as well as the consequent processes of healing and therapy while being completely non-judgemental. 

art therapy

Image Source: Photo by Francesco Ungaro from Pexels

The basis of art therapy lies thus in the belief that most of our internal conflicts stem on an unconscious level. Various psychological theories have been applied to this field and it has developed its own specialities based on the various schools of thoughts. However, the certain common baseline is to help the client express freely using the colours, drawings or whatever material he or she chooses, and facilitating that journey to reach a positive state. 

In India, art therapy has begun to play a role as an adjunct to many psychologists.  On a personal level, I believe it has helped me grow as an individual and better understand myself. While pursuing my own journey as a Counsellor, my passion for the arts introduced me to the field of Art Therapy.  When I made my first ‘art therapy artwork’, there were many inhibitions. I consciously chose what to draw as well as the colours in the aim to create an aesthetic picture. What I discovered was my need to always be presentable and appropriate to others showed up in my own artwork. As we moved on to further sessions, I let the art be as intuitive and child-like as possible. This journey also helped me to be less restrictive with myself and let things around me happen, rather than trying to control even the external factors. 

By incorporating mindfulness exercises along with art therapy, it has been shown to improve psychological stability, emotional awareness, increase self-esteem and self-acceptance as well as improve attention span. Some of the exercises done include:

  1. Draw a picture of yourself – Self -acceptance
  2. Colour your emotions – Identify associations and triggers
  3. Tree of life and rooting – Self-awareness
  4. Paint and walk or paint with fingers – Multi-sensory approach 
  5. Create a collage that expresses your feelings and emotions
  6. Before-and-after art pieces – To evaluate changes in psychological wellbeing

Art therapy proves effective when given time. It may be structured or allowed to flow as per the therapist’s approach, as well as the client’s response. However, many studies have now shown that it can serve as an excellent adjunct to counselling or often may by itself act as a primary mode of therapy.  Stress, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder(PTSD), family and relationship problems are some conditions that may be handled extremely well by a trained art therapist.

In brief, art therapy has developed itself as a branch focusing on mental health and self-development through the mediums of drawing, colouring, sculpting and various other creative processes and thereby, allowing for true non-verbal inner expression and freedom.


colour wheel art therapy

Colour–Emotional Wheel based on the original idea by Robert Plutchik

An expression of how I want to grow– from one person to bring connected to the world; Like a seed to a flower:


art therapy express

One of my first works when I created everything with the right shape and attempted to get good aesthetics. The subject was “The ultimate dream”.

A journey of life. Representing my connection to the divine source:

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