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Art Therapy: Emotional Exploration

by Lauren Fallat, MA LPC ATR-BC


“How are you feeling?”


Does this question evoke any immediate responses, thoughts, or sensations? We may hear this question often when we come to therapy and it may be a question that we are asked by people we have relationships with-family, friends, coworkers, sponsors, teachers, caregivers, etc. Some of us may invite this question as an opportunity to express emotions that we have been experiencing with a trusted friend, while some of us may dread this question or be unsure of the answer. It is not uncommon for us to say “fine”, “good”, “okay” in response to this question- and yet often these answers, while being protective in some circumstances, may actually deprive us of receiving deserved support, understanding, validation and reassurance.


It is not uncommon for many of us not to even know what emotion we are feeling, which makes it difficult to identify or understand what we are needing and how to communicate this. Art therapy provides a unique platform in which non-verbal expressions become the language in which we can start to make sense of and externalize the emotions that we are experiencing.


So how can we use art to express what we are feeling?


I usually like to start with basic elements of art: line, color, value, shape, form, texture and space. With these elements, we can evoke inner sensations as well as externalize the effects of these sensations through the art media. I will also have a feelings chart available so that I can look over names of different emotions and see if any of them seem appropriate or serve as inspiration for the drawing or painting. Sometimes I will create an image made up solely of different lines- zigzags, curved, swirling, circular, jagged, wavy, straight, short, long etc. Think of what a sharp jagged line might evoke versus a smooth, wavy and flowing line. How these lines interact with each other might also provide information about how these different emotions feel- whether they are separate or felt in an overlapping or simultaneous way.


One might even decide to create an image using one color of different values (lighter tints to darker shades). Think of the emotions an image of just one color might evoke- such as all black, all blue, all yellow. Think about color combinations and how different colors can mute others or cover others when they are overlapped. Sometimes it is helpful to add colored tissue paper to add texture- an emotion that is light and airy might be best represented by a flat piece of tissue paper, as opposed to an emotion that may feel more chaotic might be best represented as crumpled or torn.


Representational drawing can also be utilized to express one’s emotions and better understand how these emotions are experienced. One may personify their emotions and create a character that reflects the traits that one might possess who embodies a certain emotion (think of the movie Inside Out (2015) with the characters of Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust).


Clay may be a healthy medium to utilize when one is channeling feelings of anger or hurt, as this can be a very constructive and grounding material to work with, requiring physical energy and focus. A three-dimensional clay sculpture may use symbolism to evoke feelings, such as the sculpture of an erupting volcano to represent feelings of rage or anger or a sculpture of a tree to represent feelings of growth or hope.


In thinking about painting materials, one may want to create abstract acrylic paintings that use a variety of overlapping or blended colors to represent an image of anxiety or depression. Watercolor paints may be useful in processing grief and loss through its translucent application and fluid movement, which can often evoke a sense of powerlessness, awe and acceptance of the nature of the material.


There are an infinite number of ways that one may be able to explore her/his/their emotions in the art therapy process. It is helpful to keep an emotion list available and to write or journal to the image that is created as well as to reflect on the emotions that arose during the art making process. Think about your comfort or discomfort with the materials, with the process, with the final product.




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