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Working with Shapes: Understanding the Use and Symbolism of Primary Shapes in Art Therapy

by Lauren Fallat, LPC LPAT ATR-BC

Guided drawing in art therapy often incorporates the use of primary shapes as a foundational element in the artistic process. Primary shapes, such as circles, squares, and triangles, serve as fundamental building blocks that can be combined and manipulated to create more complex forms. This approach is particularly beneficial in art therapy because it provides a structured and accessible way for individuals to express themselves visually. By breaking down images into basic shapes, participants can focus on the creative process without feeling overwhelmed by the complexity of detailed representation.

The importance of using primary shapes in art therapy lies in their ability to facilitate self-expression and communication. For individuals who may find it challenging to articulate their thoughts and emotions verbally, engaging with simple geometric forms can serve as a non-verbal language. Shapes become a means of conveying feelings, experiences, and perceptions that might be difficult to put into words. This non-threatening and symbolic form of expression can be especially valuable for those dealing with trauma, anxiety, or other emotional challenges.

Working with Shapes

Shapes hold psychological meanings that can evoke various emotions and associations. While interpretations can be subjective, there are common psychological associations with certain familiar shapes. Here, we'll explore some of these meanings:

1. Circles:

Circles often symbolize unity, wholeness, and continuity. Psychologically, the shape of a circle can evoke feelings of completeness and harmony. It represents cycles, eternity, and a sense of interconnectedness. In art therapy, using circles may convey a desire for balance, inner peace, or a need for a supportive community. Additionally, circles can represent the self and the ongoing journey of personal growth.

2. Squares and Rectangles:

Squares and rectangles are associated with stability, order, and structure. Psychologically, these shapes convey a sense of security and predictability. When used in art, squares and rectangles may represent a desire for organization or a need for control in one's life. Alternatively, these shapes might be employed to explore feelings of confinement or the boundaries individuals place on themselves.

3. Triangles:

Triangles are dynamic shapes that can evoke a sense of tension, direction, and energy. Psychologically, triangles may symbolize conflict, ambition, or the pursuit of goals. In art therapy, the use of triangles might express a desire for growth and upward movement or signify internal and external challenges. The orientation of the triangle can influence its psychological meaning, with upward-pointing triangles often representing aspiration and downward-pointing triangles suggesting introspection or vulnerability.

4. Spirals:

Spirals are shapes that radiate from a central point, suggesting a journey or transformation. Psychologically, spirals can symbolize personal evolution, continuous growth, and the cyclical nature of life. In art therapy, individuals may use spirals to explore their own developmental paths, the ups and downs of life, or the process of self-discovery. The direction and size of the spiral may convey specific emotional nuances.

5. Hearts:

Hearts are universally recognized symbols of love and emotion. Psychologically, the heart shape is closely linked to feelings of affection, connection, and compassion. In art therapy, the use of hearts may express romantic love, self-love, or the desire for emotional intimacy. The size, color, and context of the hearts can provide additional layers of meaning, reflecting the complexity of the individual's emotional landscape.

6. Organic Shapes:

Beyond geometric shapes, organic or irregular shapes can also hold psychological significance. These shapes often mimic forms found in nature and can evoke feelings of freedom, spontaneity, and authenticity. In art therapy, using organic shapes may be a way for individuals to tap into their inner creativity, express emotions without constraints, and connect with a more primal and instinctual aspect of themselves.

Understanding the psychological meanings behind familiar shapes is a valuable aspect of art therapy. It allows therapists to guide individuals in exploring their emotions, experiences, and aspirations through the intentional use of shapes in their artistic expressions, fostering a deeper understanding of the self and promoting psychological well-being.

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