Opinion  April 24, 2024  Abby Andrulitis

An Introduction to Art Therapy: Its History and Practice

Wikimedia Commons - Leire Markinez Calvo

An example product of art therapy. Leire Markinez Calvo's painting based on her feelings. 2021. License

Art has been used as an outlet for the expression of emotions for centuries, though it wasn’t until the 1940s that it was specifically deemed a form of therapy in the United States and Europe. The term “art therapy” was originally coined by British artist Adrian Hill and is now formally recognized by the Oxford Dictionary as “the use of visual arts activities such as drawing, painting, or modeling as a form of communication and expression in psychotherapy.” 

Wikimedia Commons - Adam Harangozó

Aerial view of a sanatorium located in Jeti-Ögüz. 2018. Photograph by Adam Harangozó. License

This deliberate movement of art from muse to medicine really began to take off when treating patients with tuberculosis. With cases skyrocketing in the early 20th century, patients were often confined to sanatoriums– specialized hospitals used to isolate individuals for treatment of specific diseases, typically located in the countryside for access to fresh air. Dealing with both illness and isolation, these patients were given the opportunity to combat their loneliness by occupying themselves with painting and drawing. This artistic outlet proved beneficial when those patients were perceived to be suffering less overall than those who did not participate. Not only was art a distraction, but it also gave the patients a feeling of freedom, control, and normalcy which ultimately improved their mental well-being.

Seeing the positive impact of art engagement in clinical settings, art therapy was soon formally integrated into mental hospitals. Artist, psychologist, and educator Margaret Naumburg was one of the pioneers of this integration as she advocated for the exploration and healing of emotions through artistic expression. Having a background working with children, Naumburg pushed to establish art therapy as an actual discipline in schools, and eventually even taught classes on it. Similarly, Austrian painter and educator Edith Kramer was yet another pioneering woman of this movement. She used art therapy in her classroom by having students with emotional and behavioral problems release their anxieties and anger into visual means.

Wikimedia Commons - Leire Markinez Calvo

"Emotional Fluctuations, Color By Color" side by side canvas painting by Leire Markinez Calvo. 2021. License

Now a more commonplace installment in schools, hospitals, psychologists’ offices, and even some prisons, art therapy is a hands-on mechanism used today to help people cope with a multitude of physical and mental ailments– ranging from cancer to trauma associated with domestic violence. Some examples of art therapy include: channeling anger through pencil-scribble doodles; painting with colors that make you feel calm; constructing your perceived family dynamic out of clay or paper dolls; or even looking at different works of art to analyze which emotions they bring out (also known as neuroaesthetics). 

Although drawing out one’s feelings may be looked at as a learning tool for children, on the contrary, there is no real limit to who can benefit from art therapy. For those looking for actionable modes of self-help, art therapy is an accessible medium that can be done in the comfort of one’s own home.

About the Author

Abby Andrulitis

Abby Andrulitis is a New England-based writer and the Assistant Editor for Art & Object. She holds her MFA in Screenwriting from Boston University. 

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