What is meant by Art Therapy?

Art therapy in the laboratories

Miriam Giusy Sangermano

“Art serves as a model of ego functioning: it becomes a free zone

in which it is possible to express and test new attitudes and emotional responses, even before these modifications take place at the level of everyday life “

What is meant by Art Therapy?
What is meant by Art Therapy?

(E. Kramer)


Art therapy has developed since the 1940s, in Great Britain and in the United States, to guarantee the psychic recovery of war veterans, who were traumatized and who had to return to the front. Therefore, special psychological assistance services are created in hospitals. This practice was initially implemented by artists sensitive to the communicative potential of art, in collaboration with psychologists and psychiatrists, and then developed to become an independent discipline. In this regard, it is important to remember the figure of Adrian Keith Graham Hill[1], who, after a long convalescence in an infirmary, spoke for the first time about Art Therapy, following the improvement observed on himself and on most of his companions. in the hospital.

What is meant by Art Therapy?

For Art Therapy we mean the set of all those therapeutic treatments which, through visual artistic activities, allow any individual to achieve inner well-being. This treatment aims at the reappropriation of the typical resources of the right hemisphere[2], stimulating the self-regenerative potential present in each of us.

Among the most used definitions of art therapy, those suggested by the AATA (American Art Therapy Association) and the BAAT (British Association of Art Therapists) stand out.

According to the AATA definition, art therapy favors self-expression and communication with the outside world. Therefore, it uses the creative process to improve and relieve emotional conflicts and to achieve greater awareness and personal development of individuals, regardless of their age.[3]

BAAT, on the other hand, defines this profession as a form of psychotherapy that uses different artistic expressions as the main form of communication, emphasizing that for this practice no previous experience or training in the artistic field is needed, since the ultimate goal is to make the ‘individual able to make progress on a personal level through the use of artistic materials, in a preserved and appropriate environment, designed precisely for the aforementioned therapeutic activity.4

Furthermore, both of the concepts outlined above take into consideration the broad psychotherapeutic sphere; however, today art therapy has enlarged its field of action, also including socio-educational intervention processes.

In this regard, it is important to emphasize that art therapy should not be confused with art education given in schools, since the former is not interested in the artistic product itself, but in the meaning of the individual’s internal experience.

What are art therapy workshops?

In general, a laboratory (from the medieval Latin Laborareum, derived from laborare, i.e. to work) is a room or a building equipped with adequate installations and intended for one or more activities, not necessarily of a scientific nature.

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Specifically, an art therapy laboratory is a protected and adequate structure, focused on the plasticvisual arts, with the aim of facilitating and creating opportunities that facilitate intuitive and playful learning during idle time.[4] To be considered as a leisure activity, the attitude of each individual must include four basic conditions:

  1. Freedom in the choice and development of the business;
  2. Pleasant experience;
  3. Introspective experience;
  4. Principle of informal, participatory and experimental learning.

(We will return to talk about the concept of idleness in lesson 2 of the same course).

In the educational field, above all, art therapy paths are outlined, useful for dealing with situations of temporary difficulty, relational issues or more simply to achieve the individual and collective wellbeing of any individual. In this regard, the school presents a variety of situations, as it is part of a multi-ethnic context, with students and teachers heterogeneous in their skills, their behavior and their economic conditions.

The goal of the art therapy workshops is to allow the individual to get rid of his suffering to regain his personality. Artistic expression thus manages to overcome the state of consciousness, bringing out all that is hidden in the deepest soul. So art therapy, using the language of symbols and using painting, drawing, dance as tools, is able to reactivate all the senses of the individual. In this regard, what one feels and experiences in the workshops is reflected in the artistic production in terms of quality and intensity of lines, strokes, colors, movements and in the way in which time and space are used. Therefore, the artistic expression is proposed as a symbolic representation of the inner world.

The obstacles of creativity

Creativity can often be hindered by several factors, which could later generate prejudices. The most frequent are:

  • Emotional blocks – characterized by the fear of being ridiculous and being judged. Such fear generates lack of confidence, little motivation or enthusiasm, lack of initiative.
  • Perceptual blocks – characterized by a limited vision of reality, which can lead to poor listening skills, reduced observation skills, egocentrism, etc.
  • Cultural blocks – this obstacle is present in the human being who needs to relate and integrate into society. The latter, for fear of not being appreciated, accepts the change in his personality, since he decides to adapt to certain rules of behavior and pre-established models.

To overcome these obstacles it is necessary for each individual to become aware of their existence, to then develop opposite capacities (opening the mind to new ideas, experimenting new things, setting challenges). In this regard, it is advisable to provide participants with a pleasant environment, which is able to inspire the creation of each one.

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Among the different techniques used to develop creativity, brainstorming or rain of ideas emerges. It is a didactic and practical process that aims to generate creativity mental about a certain topic. As the name suggests, the human being is intent on thinking quickly and spontaneously about ideas, concepts and words that can be related to a certain concept. The visual version of brainstorming is the sketch, which consists of making quick drawings that are useful for developing the final work or carrying out intermediate processes of synthesis and evolution of the various initial ideas.

Methodological approaches

The methodological bases of art therapy are closely connected with the creative process and in this regard, three distinct approaches can be outlined:

  1. Creative-relational – the art therapist offers a wide variety of plastic, pictorial and alternative materials (shaving foam, legumes, pasta, leaves, fabrics, etc.), with the aim of encouraging creativity and self-expression . This is a usual approach proposed above all to primary school children (kindergarten and elementary). In this case, no teaching is necessary, since the latter would inhibit natural creative development.
  2. Educational or technical – is based on the design of a well-structured program with specific objectives. This is an approach recommended above all for rehabilitation and for the design of educational art workshops. Therefore in this case the participants need to receive basic training to know how to use new materials and to be able to bring out their innate creative abilities in the best possible way.
  3. Globalizing: combines the previous approaches with the aim of carrying out educational and creative activities, stimulating self-expression and promoting personal development. This is a particularly recommended approach for informal, educational and recreational workshops.

Although art therapy for development and socio-educational intervention focuses above all on creativity, it should be emphasized that, in order to have a better result, it is necessary to associate this activity with the contemplative practice of art. Neuroscience has shown that, when the human eye contemplates a work of art, the latter activates the brain area of pleasure.[5] In this regard it is good to remember two important scientific contributions:

  1. The first concerns a study carried out by the University of Westminster in 2006 which illustrates how people’s stress levels decrease after visiting an art gallery – on the other hand, Stendhal’s syndrome is precisely the testimony that the emotion produced by art has a somatic counterpart.[6]
  2. The second sees an accurate study by the University of London in 2019, in which a correlation is outlined between the frequency with which one uses art and life expectancy, stating that those who visit at least once a year a exhibition or museum lives longer.[7]


The art therapy laboratories offer different tools for investigation and healing, to improve a certain situation of psychosomatic malaise. Therefore, valuable experiences are carried out on the processes and dynamics of creativity, in order to enrich the person and promote their cultural and personal growth. Finally, to obtain better benefits, one could think of combining this activity with the contemplation of artistic works.

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The close affinity of art with the primary process, the power of art to create organizations or structures without imposing the daily routine of life on the fantastic complexities of the inner world of man, makes possible the search for the hidden,

of the formless, of the repressed, of the bizarre without abandoning the drive towards form.

In art, form is the garment of internal truth.

(E. Kramer)


Clow A., Fredhoi C., Normalisation of salivary cortisol levels and self-report stress by a brief lunchtime visit to an art gallery by London City workers, in Journal of Holistic Healthcare 3(2), Westminster 2006, pp. 29-32.

Del Corno F., Lang M., Trattamenti in setting di gruppo. Psicoterapie di gruppo, terapie familiari, artiterapie, terapie sociali, Milano 2004.

Francourt D., Steptoe A., The art of life and death: 14 year follow-up analyses of associations between arts engagement and mortality in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, in British Medical Journal 367, Londra 2019, pp. 1-10

Kramer E., Art Therapy in a Children’s Community: a study of the function of art therapy in the treatment program of Wiltwyck School for Boys, Pennsylvania 1958.

Kramer E., Arte come terapia nell’infanzia, Firenze 1977.

Ulman E., Art therapy: problems and definition, in Bullettin of Art Therapy, 1, n.2, 1961

Ulman E., Art therapy, in Herink R., The psychotherapy handbook. The A to Z guide to more than 250 different therapies in use today, New York, pp. 31-33. (Read More Spirituality)


www.baat.org/About-Art-Therapy www.arttherapy.org/aata-about.html

[1] Adrian Hill was a British artist who was commissioned as an artist by the Imperial War Museum during the First World War to record the conflict on the Western Front. Between 1917 and 1919 he made 180 pen and ink drawings, with the aim of immortalizing the examples of devastation in France and Belgium.

[2] The two cerebral hemispheres perform very distinct functions from each other and are connected by a callous section (intermispherical commissure of the brain, composed of nerve fiber systems). In the left hemisphere reside the functions of verbal, analytical, symbolic, abstract, temporal, rational, digital, logical, linear language; while in the right one reside the functions related to non-verbal sensory perception (images, sounds, smells, tactile sensations, taste, etc…).

[3] Del Corno e Lang 2004: 181; www.arttherapy.org/aata-about.html. 4 www.baat.org/About-Art-Therapy

[4] It is a period of quiet in which the individual interrupts his usual activities.

[5] According to some historical sources, in the thirteenth century the British, to get rid of stress, took healing trips. Among the destinations recommended by the doctors there were above all Italy and Greece, for their rich artistic culture.

[6] Clow e Fredhoi 2006: 29-32.

[7] Francourt e Steptue 2019: 1, 8-9.

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