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Understanding the Expressive Therapies Continuum Part 5: Perceptual Level Processing

by Lauren Fallat, LPC LPAT ATR-BC

In our previous blog posts in the series on the Expressive Therapies Continuum, we have explored the bottom level of the continuum containing the Kinesthetic and Sensory components of information processing within the hierarchical framework. Within the Expressive Therapies Continuum (ETC), there exists 3 different levels of information processing when engaging in the expressive arts. On the second level of the ETC, we encounter the Perceptual and Affective components. In our previous blog post, we provided an overview of the Affective component and will now explore further the Perceptual component and how it balances emotional processing and expression.

Within the Perceptual component of the ETC, individuals working with art materials rely on visual imagery and formal elements during the artmaking process. Based on Lisa Hinz’s conceptualization of the ETC in her book, Expressive Therapies Continuum: A Framework for Using Art in Therapy, the focus relies on how an image can accurately portray internal experiences. Within the realm of art, visual elements might include line, shape, color, form, size and texture.

Hinz referenced Vija Lusebrink’s research from 1990 on the Perceptual component, summarizing that often materials with strong ‘form potential’, including tile, wood and metal, can have a calming effect on the individual due to their apparent structure and stability. There is an isomorphic effect that occurs when we handle and witness a structure coming together and a form assembling into something whole. In her book, Hinz also reflects on ways in which affect and emotion can influence one’s visual imagery, in which certain shapes or colors can be emphasized or distorted to match an internal felt state.

Our perceptions of the world can be based on how we visually see and experience that which is around us in our environment. According to Hinz and her research on the subject, at an early age we may develop schemas or rough outlines of how we see the world around us. These schemas often are a way of communicating important information. Much research has also been conducted on preferences for visual imagery and often we seek gestalts or combinations of parts in a whole image that appear symmetrical, balanced, harmonious and stable.

When working within the realm of the Perceptual component, Hinz stated that “The healing quality of the Perceptual component of the Expressive Therapies Continuum has to do with the power of limits.” When working with line, color, form and texture, the limits then become set via the quality and structure of the materials used to create these elements. Within a healing framework, often it can be satisfying to color in mandalas or symmetrical shape formations, with emphasis on the boundaries of the lines containing the structure of the shape and colors used. Think about the idea of ‘coloring in the lines’ as a practice for containing one’s emotions and regulating oneself so that such a task can be accomplished. It takes focus and practice to apply color to a designated area just as it takes focus and practice to regulate one’s emotional reactions.

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Reference List:

Hinz, L. D. (2020). Expressive Therapies Continuum: A framework for using art in therapy (2nd ed.). Routledge.


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