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Exploring the Differences: Art Therapy vs. Therapeutic Artmaking

by Lauren Fallat, LPC LPAT ATR-BC

Art therapy and therapeutic artmaking both involve the use of creative expression for therapeutic purposes, but they differ in their approach and goals. Art therapy is a form of psychotherapy in which a trained art therapist works with clients to use art materials and techniques to explore emotions, thoughts, and experiences. Therapeutic artmaking, on the other hand, is a more informal approach to using art for self-expression and relaxation without the involvement of a trained art therapist. In this blog post, we will explore the key differences between art therapy and therapeutic artmaking, and discuss the benefits of each approach.

In art therapy, the emphasis is on the experience of creating in the presence of a non-judgmental and accepting witness, the art therapist. There is less emphasis placed on the quality or aesthetic value of the artwork, as an object to be critiqued, and rather, the emphasis is placed on a balanced experience of the process and final product. This experience and safe environment can help individuals focus on the present moment and connect with their emotions and inner experiences. Having an art therapist to guide and support the therapeutic process can make a significant difference in the effectiveness of using art as a tool for healing and personal growth.

It is important to highlight that the art therapist, a key component of the art therapy process, is a graduate-level mental health professional who uses the creative process as a way to both promote healing, self-awareness, and personal growth, and to enhance the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of their clients. Art therapy from this perspective holds the potential to assist individuals to gain insight into their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and develop a greater sense of identity and self-acceptance.

Art therapy is also a nonverbal form of therapy, which can be particularly beneficial for individuals who may feel overwhelmed or intimidated by the traditional talk therapy setting. The use of art materials can provide a sense of safety and comfort, allowing individuals to express themselves more freely and openly. In addition, art therapy can be a highly adaptable form of therapy, suitable for individuals of all ages and abilities. It can be used with individuals or groups, and can be tailored to meet the specific needs and goals of each individual.

So, who might benefit from engaging in art therapy sessions with a registered art therapist? Art therapy can be helpful for people with a wide range of mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, addiction, and eating disorders. It can help individuals explore and express their emotions, increase self-awareness, and develop coping skills in a non-verbal way. Unlike traditional talk therapy, art therapy uses art materials and techniques to facilitate communication and self-expression. This can be especially helpful for individuals who have difficulty expressing themselves verbally or who may feel more comfortable expressing themselves through art. Art therapy can also be a powerful tool for individuals who have experienced trauma, whether it be from abuse, neglect, or other traumatic events. It can help them process their experiences, express their emotions, and work towards healing.

Therapeutic artmaking, on the other hand, refers to the use of art-making as a therapeutic tool, without the involvement of a trained art therapist. It may be used by individuals or groups as a means of relaxation, stress relief, or self-expression, and may or may not be guided by a facilitator. The focus is on the process of creating art rather than on the interpretation or analysis of the artwork.

Therapeutic artmaking can provide a number of benefits, including reducing stress and anxiety, increasing self-awareness, promoting relaxation, and fostering creativity. It can be a useful tool for individuals who may not have access to formal art therapy services, or who may want to incorporate art into their own self-care routine.

Coloring books, for instance, have become increasingly popular for their calming and stress-relieving benefits. Mindful coloring involves focusing on the present moment and using coloring as a way to reduce stress and promote relaxation. In addition, creating a collage by cutting and pasting images from magazines, newspapers, or other sources can be a powerful tool for self-expression. The process of selecting and arranging images can help individuals explore their emotions, thoughts, and experiences, and can provide a sense of control and empowerment.

It's important to note that while therapeutic artmaking can be a beneficial practice, it is not a substitute for professional mental health treatment when needed. Individuals with significant mental health concerns should seek the guidance of a trained mental health professional.

In summary, art therapy is a structured form of psychotherapy that involves the use of art materials and techniques to promote healing, while therapeutic artmaking is a more informal approach to using art for self-expression and relaxation.

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