Departmentof Art Therapy/Counseling

AT/CN:Theories of Art Therapy

Rob Belgrod, ATR-BC,LPAT, LCAT

February11, 2022

History and Foundations of ArtTherapy

It is critical that art therapists assimilate a sound knowledge of the psyche and the innate capacity that humans have for change. We must be prepared to offer art materials based on what our clients are prepared to handle in their present developmental and emotional states (Rubin, 2016). Additionally, it is imperative that we know ourselves well, continually educate ourselves, and grow our spiritual practices so that we can provide the best care and support to our clients (Moon, 2017).

Bruce Moon’s concept of Art Therapy as a metaverbal process posits that art therapy does not rely on verbalization alone, but that through making artwork, our clients are able to express the unconscious in a manner that reaches beyond words. Often, before our clients are able to verbalize their feelings or emotions, they are able to engage with these feelings on canvas. The artistic expression gives form to these feelings that can be otherwise difficult to access. Creating art in a therapeutic setting provides the client with cathexis, which is the projection of libidinal energy onto an artwork. This mechanism provides the client with an outlet to express painful memories from the past that are not easily verbalized.As art therapists, it is our prerogative to have an open curiosity about our client’s artwork and to let the client be the expert in guiding us through the image’s meaning (Moon, 2017).


Bruce Moon presents the idea that images created spontaneously are manifested in order to teach important, unconscious lessons about ourselves. Often these lessons are the ones we would least like to learn, illuminating what blocks us from accessing our inner resources (Moon, 2017). Similarly, Margaret Naumburg’s psychotherapeutic approach to art therapy is based on releasing the unconscious by the act of spontaneous expression, integrating the inner world with the outer reality(Rubin, 2017). Making art offers an alternative mode for our clients to communicate and access painful emotions. Our client’s artwork is a confrontation with realities that they can either contend with, internalize or work through in order to self-transcend.  Moon’s definition of the soul is “a perspective that transforms random events into meaningful experiences (Moon, 2017).”  Moon goes onto say that “making art is to participate in soul (Moon, 2017).  Kate Cook, in her course Psychodrama Now! said that to be a therapist is to be a soul companion (Cook, 2022). 

Edith Kramer suggests that creating art is to sublimate, which is to transform primitive libidinal urges into an alternative act that does not result in instinctual libidinal satisfaction. For example, I may have the immediate urge to punch someone in the face. Rather than doing what my id is compelling me to do, I could sublimate by pouring red and black paint onto a palette and smearing or smashing it onto a canvas with a large paintbrush. This wrangles the libidinal instinct and gives it another more socially productive and acceptable avenue to be expressed. Catharsis is achieved and the person whose face I wanted to punch is spared (Kramer, 2016).


Analytical Psychology, constructed by Carl Jung, embraces the way in which the ego processes unconscious material through the investigation of complexes, archetypes and personal symbols. Jung’s view of the psyche is that humans are made up of dualities (inner/outer, conscious/unconscious) that are sometimes in dialogue and other times in conflict with one another. His method of the active imagination posits a dialogue between the conscious and unconscious which would expand the ego’s relationship with the unconscious, allowing the client to achieve psychological wholeness or individuation. Art making can be a conduit for this exchange between the conscious and the unconscious, moving the psychic material forth from the unconscious and onto the canvas or art page. Though he was not a trained artist, Jung had a daily art practice that utilized the mandala, creating circular drawings as a psychic container where he could delve into his own subconscious (Swan-Foster, 2016). 

Jung’s use of the mandala conjures the question of cultural appropriation versus cultural appreciation. Was Jung culturally appropriating when he employed the mandala as his choice of artistic modality? Or was he respecting an age-old cultural tradition and using the space as a psychic sacred container or map of the interior, as practiced by Tibetan Monks (Swan-Foster 2016)? If Jung’s mandala making practice is cultural appropriation, it would stand to reason those other contemplative practices learned from Eastern philosophies such as yoga, meditation, martial arts would also be considered cultural appropriation. My belief is that if there is respect for the origination of the practice, the user does not claim the practice as their own creative invention and the practice is approached from a place of mindful cultural humility, it can be considered cultural appreciation.

Contemplative practices such as yoga, tantra and mindfulness are all methods that aim to connect the mind to body and work to clear psychic clutter. Meditation centers and grounds one to the earth, helping them to be more attuned to the other, seeing the other as a reflection of oneself. This sort of deep inner listening is described as a gentle confrontation with oneself, where we can also access our inner biases and challenge ourselves to deal with our internalized oppression. I believe this practice is especially important for Art Therapists as we are absorbing the psychic energy of our clients. While a meditation practice helps us to become more attuned and focused on the present, it also aids in distinguishing our own psychic energy from that of our clients (Franklin, 2016).


To walk a spiritual path is to believe in the possibility of a reality greater than oneself and to experience some form of relationship with that reality. Allen suggests that art making in a therapeutic setting can be a means of recognizing and actualizing this relationship. The spiritual art therapist is seen as a fellow traveler, on a spiritual journey along with the client, open and in service to the reactions that may manifest. Art making is seen as a ladder that connects the individual to the divine and universal. It is therefore very important that the art therapy studio space is an atmosphere with the correct culture where the soul is allowed to come forward and unfold (Allen, 2016).

The Open Studio Project’s concept advocates that this communal atmosphere for art making helps the client to access spiritual ideas, cultivate life force energy and promotes acceptance of the interconnectedness of all life. The art making process at Open Studio begins with setting an intention for the artwork. Creating intuitively and spontaneously, the clients are asked to pay attention to the feelings experienced in the body as they make art. A dialogue is encouraged between the client and the image itself, where the image itself guides the maker to make artistic choices. After the artwork is complete, the process of witness writing and reading begins. The client records the feelings that presented, the internal dialogue they had with the image, and the ways in which the client judged themselves or the art throughout this process. It is then encouraged for the client to read aloud to the group, without comments from the group allowed. This allows the client to be seen and heard and hear their own thoughts and feeling, free from the perspective of the group (Allen, 2016).

Sarah McGee’s approach to art therapy is person centered and holistic, centering around the client as whole, their physical, psychological and spiritual aspects, as well as their place within their social communities. McGee uses traditional African healing practices in her art therapy practice. Western psychology does not give priority to spirituality in a way in which McGee could align, therefore she chose to move to Africa and totally immerse herself in an indigenous community, learning their spiritual healing practices. This culturally appreciative approach led her to become a spiritual healer in that community where she was given the honor of being considered a priestess. McGee draws on these beliefs and practices as guidance and motivation within her art therapy practice. It is important to her to provide an atmosphere of unconditional acceptance for her clients. McGee encourages collaboration between spiritual healers and Western practitioners rather than blind cultural appropriation of spiritual healing (Doby-Copeland, 2019).

Humanism Approaches

The humanistic oriented Gestalt approach to art therapy, urges clients to make their own interpretations and find their own meaning through art making. It encourages the client to be authentic and rooted in the present moment. The therapist enters mutually with the client into the therapeutic relationship realizing that this experience has the capacity to change both the therapist and the client. The art making process helps the client to synthesize the internal with the external and to view themselves as a complete and whole being. The goal of Gestalt art therapy is that both the client and therapist are capable of deriving from the structure of the client’s artwork certain behavioral patterns. Once the client gains awareness of thesepatterns, they are then able to incite change and move towards integration ofparts into the whole self (Rhyne, 2016). 

Existential emptiness often results in drug and alcohol abuse (Moon,1995). Existential art therapy could be a significant approach for people in recovery from drugs and alcohol. When one discontinues drinking, they are suddenly faced with the existential dilemmas that they had been avoiding. Chronic use of a substance becomes the solution to avoidance of existential emptiness. Recovery through existential therapy is learning to face fears directly, processing the feelings as they present, and noticing when one starts to use other avoidance mechanisms to avoid existential crisis. Living authentically, in charge of one's own choices, and developing the capability of redirecting to transform into a more meaningful existence are central tenets of existential therapy (Moon, 1995).

Creating art in an existential art therapy setting allows the client to create a personal system of decision making in order create or make meaning of their lives. The role of the existential art therapist is to create work alongside the client while being attentive to their potential emptiness and honoring the feelings that present, whether good or bad. The reality that pain exists is not to be denied, but rather, respected and honored in our clients, as well as in ourselves as therapists (Moon, 1995).

Reflective Conclusion

A point that I find to be salient is that creating artwork allows the client an alternative outlet to verbalization in order to express their feelings. As a person who experiences crippling anxiety when put on the spot and urged to communicate about vulnerable feelings, this thought deeply resonates with me. Artwork has always been a way for me to access and communicate feelings that have otherwise been repressed, like anger, rage, and feelings of abandonment. Art is a visual communication that comes from a spiritual place, bringing form to feelings that may not even be known to the maker themselves. As an art therapist, creating response art to heavy feelings we are left with after a session with a client can help to materialize the feeling, allowing us to separate the feelings and energies of the client from our own. In addition to a mindfulness practice, creating response art can also be a way of manifesting our biases so that the process of deconstructing those biases can begin, aiding in our multicultural competency. Finally, I have learned that it is imperative that as art therapists, we approach our clients with open curiosity as they make meaning through creating, allowing the client to be the guide and expert of their own experience of their artwork. 


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