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Free Association Techniques in Art Therapy

by Lauren Fallat, LPC LPAT ATR-BC

Free association is a technique promoted originally in Freudian psychoanalysis that has been used to encourage self-reflection, awareness and exploration. In therapy, free association is often used as a way for the individual in therapy to better understand their thoughts and feelings by allowing a free flow of these ideas to generate in a non-linear format. By talking about whatever comes to mind without censoring or judging it, individuals can gain insight into their subconscious thoughts and patterns. This process can be used with great success in both mental health counseling and art therapy to promote self-awareness and self-reflection on significant aspects of one’s current struggles or stressors. The process of free association can be done during a therapy session, or as part of a self-guided exploration process.

Free association can also be used in art therapy as a way to generate and explore visual symbols associated with specific words or themes, which can have profound meaning and connections to our current lived experience and emotional state. In art therapy, it is encouraged to create artwork based on what we might freely associate with various colors, images, textures, sounds and happenings in the moment. This can be a helpful way to explore emotions and feelings that might be difficult to express in words.

In this blog post, we will explore a drawing technique that can be used as a way to elicit emotional content in one’s art and channel the thoughts and feelings emerging in the process. This technique focuses on freely associating words and ideas for a limited amount of time and then generating artwork and symbols inspired by this content.

1. Timed Free Association Exercise

Timed Free Association is one way to work with spontaneously generated thoughts, emotions, ideas and memories in a contained way. In this process, an individual is tasked to write down as many words as possible within a designated amount of time. The amount of time can be as long or short as one chooses. It may be interesting to try 1 minute bursts, 2 minutes and then 5 minutes and see how the length of time influences the material that comes forward. This technique can be used as a basic warm-up exercise or as the foundation for a long-term self-exploration directive. One might also consider starting with a word (either chosen ahead of time or inspired by the objects or ideas in one’s current environment) and then freely associating ideas from that starting point.

Once the time has expired, we then have a chance to review the words in front of us and reflect on the themes, elements and associations that appeared on the paper. It is at this point that we can allow our creativity to take over and play around with ways of combining the elements presented to us. We can decide how to combine the words into a singular theme or drawing or sculpture. We can allow the words to help us generate a story.

These images are meant to aid us in bringing to awareness themes, motives, emotions and intuitive thoughts that may be unexplored, unexamined or swimming somewhere in our subconscious. When we bring to life what has not yet been seen or thought about, we then awaken different elements, expand on our perspectives and open up new possibilities for understanding ourselves.

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