18 Art Therapy Activities & Exercises to do with your Clients in Therapy

When you think about art therapy, what comes to mind for you? You may have initially thought of painting or drawing, nonetheless, there are other creative options that can be used. This includes writing, sculpture, collages, photography, textiles, and digital art. The medium that you use with your client will be dependent on their experience, preferences, and reaction to different forms of art therapy. Keep reading to learn 18 Art Therapy Exercises and Activities to do with your Clients.

As an example, if you have a client who struggles with anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder, you may opt to avoid sculpting, as this may increase your client’s symptoms leading to more distress. Additionally, for some clients, you may find yourself leaning towards trying a new medium that they haven’t been exposed to impacting the possible outcomes that they can experience.

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Traditional psychotherapy, when used properly, can help clients navigate their lives in a healthy manner. Individual differences have an impact on the type of therapy used as well as the frequency and duration of treatment. As we work with clients, it is important for us to be mindful of the clinical gains that they are making, and determine if another approach would better fit their needs.

Art therapy can be used in individual, group, couple, and family sessions.  The American Art Therapy Association defines art therapy as:

“Art therapy is a mental health profession that enriches the lives of individuals, families, and communities through active art-making, creative process applied psychological theory, and human experience within a psychotherapeutic relationship.”

Why Art Therapy?

Art Therapy is chosen for several compelling reasons:

  1. Non-Verbal Expression: Art Therapy provides a non-verbal means of expression, allowing individuals to convey thoughts, feelings, and experiences that may be difficult to articulate verbally.
  2. Effective for a Range of Issues: Art Therapy is versatile and can be applied to address a wide range of mental health concerns, including trauma, anxiety, depression, grief, and addiction.
  3. Creativity and Self-Expression: It fosters creativity and self-expression, enabling individuals to explore their inner world and gain insight into their emotions and behaviors.
  4. Emotional Release: Art Therapy allows individuals to release and process emotions in a safe and therapeutic way, reducing emotional distress.
  5. Mindfulness and Presence: It promotes mindfulness and being present in the moment, helping individuals connect with their experiences and develop greater self-awareness.
  6. Customized Treatment: Art Therapy can be tailored to the unique needs and preferences of each individual, ensuring that therapy is personalized and relevant.
  7. Positive Therapeutic Relationship: Art Therapists emphasize building a strong therapeutic relationship characterized by empathy, support, and collaboration.
  8. Integration and Healing: Art Therapy supports the integration and healing of emotional wounds, fostering self-acceptance and personal growth.
  9. Long-Term Benefits: Many individuals who complete Art Therapy report lasting improvements in their mental health, self-esteem, and overall well-being.
  10. Transdiagnostic Application: While initially developed for specific issues, Art Therapy can be adapted to address a broader range of concerns, making it suitable for clients with diverse issues.
  11. Resilience Building: It fosters resilience by helping individuals develop coping skills and creative problem-solving abilities to navigate life’s challenges.
  12. Cultural Sensitivity: Art Therapy can be applied with cultural sensitivity, respecting diverse cultural perspectives and values.
  13. Enhanced Communication: It can improve communication skills, especially for individuals who struggle with verbal expression.
  14. Promotion of Personal Growth: Art Therapy encourages personal growth and self-discovery, enabling individuals to explore their identity and life purpose.
  15. Self-Exploration and Self-Reflection: Art Therapy supports self-exploration and self-reflection, helping individuals gain insight into their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

Art Therapy is particularly well-suited for individuals seeking a creative and expressive approach to therapy, those interested in exploring their emotions and experiences through art, and those looking for alternative ways to address mental health challenges. It offers a unique and therapeutic outlet for self-discovery and healing. Keep reading to learn Art Therapy activities to try with your clients.

Art Therapy Exercises That Can Benefit Mental Health Concerns

Art therapy is a fantastic option for a variety of individuals who are living with mental health concerns. Art therapists are mindful of the art therapy exercises and the mediums they use with each client to ensure it is appropriate for them and their needs. Clients may have hesitations about engaging in art therapy because of their comfort with creative arts, so it is important to assure them that the benefit of art therapy comes from the process and not “how good” their art is. In actuality, they may end up surprising themselves with their creations!

Art therapy can be used with individuals who could benefit from the following goals:

  • Improve conflict resolution skills
  • Improve self-esteem and self-awareness
  • Enhance social skills
  • Improve sensorimotor functions
  • Improve cognition
  • Encourage insight
  • Develop emotional resilience

Research has shown that Art Therapy can be beneficial for clients who have the following concerns or characteristics:

  • Trauma-related concerns
  • Prison inmates
  • Heart Failure
  • Alzheimer’s
  • Anxiety
  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Stress and distress
  • Depression
  • Burnout
  • Obesity
  • HIV/AIDS
  • Negative symptoms associated with Schizophrenia
  • Older adults

Art Therapy Activities

There are a number of art therapy exercises that can be used within each medium option. As mentioned above, it is important to consider any potential consequences or distress your client may experience from working with certain mediums.

Examples of art therapy exercises that you can use include:

Painting

  1. Provide your client with materials, and ask them to draw out their stress. If they were to visualize their stress, what would it look like? Ask them about the different colors that were used, and lines that were made. Allow for time to process their experience.
  2. Ask your client to paint how they feel. Encourage them to tune into their body’s sensations, thoughts, and emotions. Explore the colors they used and the visuals that they created. Allow for time to explore their creation, and discuss what they observed about themselves during this art therapy activity.
  3. Ask your client to paint happiness. Be vague in your directions so that they can use their creativity to show what they feel happiness looks like. Allow for time to process their experience, as well as how they feel about the level of happiness in their life. Can they do anything to bring more happiness into their life?

Drawing

  1. After providing your client with the needed materials, ask them to draw a heart. Inside the heart, they can write emotions that they have been carrying. This can include emotions that challenge them and those that they are comfortable with. Allow for time to explore their experience with the exercise and their emotional experiences.
  2. Provide your client with the needed materials. Ask them to draw how they are feeling, and use your time to explore the visual that they have created. Allow for time to explore their drawing, and exploring their emotional experience. 
  3. This Before and After Worksheet can be used to explore changes that your client had after a specific experience. They will be asked to briefly describe the event, and then include the emotions that they felt in the space provided, which is shaped as a heart. Allow for time to process their experience with the identified event, as well as any long-term effects they have experienced from this event.  

Writing

  1. Providing your client with journal prompts can be used as an art therapy exercise. To begin, ask your client to write about a time that they were happy. Encourage them to provide details and be specific. Allow for time to explore their experience, and what led to them choosing this particular experience for their activity compared to other options.
  2. Ask your client to write a letter that they never intend to send. This letter can be written to their past self, future self, or someone with whom they have unresolved feelings. Once this is completed, ask your client to read the letter aloud in session. Allow for time to explore emotions that came up for them, and discuss what they would like to do with their letter (ie. save, rip up, crumple, or burn if possible).
  3. Provide your client with this Past vs. Present Self Worksheet which asks your client to write down characteristics of their past and present self.  Once the writing portion of the worksheet has been completed, ask your client to draw themselves in the space provided. While you process this worksheet, you can place the sheets next to each other to show the mirror image of their head.

Sculpture

  1. After providing your client with the needed materials, ask them to sculpt with an emotion that has been challenging them lately. Examples include loneliness, sadness, and anger. Appropriate questions for this art therapy exercise include asking why they chose to shape it as they did, and what their emotional experience was throughout the exercise.
  2. Encourage your client to create something using their nondominant hand. This exercise can explore their ability to try something new and sit with emotions that may arise. This can include discomfort, frustration, and uncertainty. Spend time exploring their experience and processing the emotions and thoughts that came up during this art therapy activity.

Collages

  1. Provide your client with the needed materials, and ask them to create a collage that brings them joy. They can include words, places, things, phrases, hobbies, and interests. Allow for time to explore how often they are able to engage in these activities, and if they feel they could include them more in their day-to-day routine.
  2. Ask your client to create a collage of their life. Allow for time to explore the images that they choose, and discuss any concerns that they would like to improve upon.

Photography

  1. Ask your client to take a picture, or photos, of something they find beautiful before your next session. In your next session, ask your client to share their photos. Spend time exploring what it is about the photo that they feel is beautiful, and how they felt during this art therapy activity. 
  2. Ask your client to take a photo of themselves before their next session, and to bring a printed-out copy. In your next session, take time to ask them what they see when they look at their photo and explore remarks that stood out to you, the good and the bad.

Textiles

  1. With the needed materials, encourage your client to weave a project. Allow them to choose the color and other descriptions of their project. Allow for time to explore this experience, and any changes that they observed in their thoughts, emotions, and within their body. Explore how weaving can help cope with their mental health symptoms.
  2. Knitting is an example of a textile art therapy activity that can be used to cope with stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms. Knitting can also help retain brain functioning and hand dexterity.

Digital

  1. Ask your client to choose an existing art piece that they know of, and ask them to improve upon it. Why did they make the changes that they made, and how does their version impact them emotionally compared to the original? 

Final Thoughts On Choosing Art Therapy Activities For Your Clients

While you may be able to incorporate different activities that resemble art therapy, it is important to recognize that individuals who offer art therapy are likely professional art therapists who have been trained in the application of art therapy. These professionals have earned their master’s degree in art therapy, which includes a supervised clinical internship. As stated by the American Art Therapy Association, art therapy is a profession, not a modality.

If you are interested in learning more about how an art therapist can bolster your client’s treatment experience, we encourage you to consider  Continuing Education courses and other training opportunities. By increasing your knowledge and understanding of the application and benefits of art therapy, you can share your knowledge with clients who may benefit from working with an art therapist.

TherapyPatron.com helps mental health professionals better serve their clients. Our (editable, fillable, printable PDF) therapy worksheets can help you streamline your practice, effectively deliver different types of therapy, and support your clients be the best version of themselves.

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Resources:

  • Regev, D., & Cohen-Yatziv, L. (2018). Effectiveness of Art Therapy With Adult Clients in 2018- What Progress Has Been Made? Frontiers in  Psychology, 9, 1531. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01531
  • Hu, J., Zhang, J., Hu, L., Yu, H., & Xu, J. (2021). Art Therapy: A Complementary Treatment for Mental Disorders. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, 686005. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.686005
Kayla VanGuilder, MA, LCMHC
Author: Kayla VanGuilder, MA, LCMHC

Kayla is a Mental Health Counselor who earned her degree from Niagara University in Lewiston, New York. She has provided psychotherapy in a residential treatment program and an outpatient addiction treatment facility in New York as well as an inpatient addiction rehab in Ontario, Canada. She has experience working with individuals living with a variety of mental health concerns including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and trauma.

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