The Art of Healing

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By Rob Gray MAPS, Director, Centre for Educational and Clinical Art Therapy
Read the full article at www.psychology.org.au

download-6Picture a patient sitting across from a therapist, unable to voice her innermost thoughts; unable to vocalise her hidden shame; unwilling, even in this safe haven, to speak aloud the fears that have plagued her since childhood.

Now imagine the same patient given a blank sheet of paper, a bottle of glue and a stack of pictures – pictures of people, pictures that express emotion, pictures of nature, and pictures that appear as one thing to one person and something else to another.

Given the freedom to express herself with art rather than words, the client opens up. She remembers her earliest days, when pencils and crayons gave her the freedom to express herself without the complication of words. Encouraged to create, both then and now, she subconsciously lets her guard down, and with it, allows her emotions to stream forward like a raging river. This is psychology and creativity melded together in a counselling context. This is art therapy.

The unique relationship between art and psychology, which both have potential for conflict and healing, can make defining art therapy difficult. Consequently, some art therapists practice primarily according to the principle that the process itself is the main healing effect (‘art as therapy’), whereas others focus on the unconscious material and the exploration of the deeper meaning of the artwork (‘art in therapy’).

In ‘art as therapy’ approaches, drawing is the main focus. Something emerges that can be experienced rationally, emotionally, spiritually or physically. The therapist also can ask clients how they felt while drawing and how this relates to their life. The emphasis is about the process, not the content of the artwork.

In ‘art in therapy’ approaches, the client explores the deeper meaning of the picture by describing what she actually sees in the picture and not what she thinks about the picture. This is often the part of art therapy when the unconscious becomes conscious, and clients realise just how connected everything in their lives is.

A great inspiration for many art therapists is Freud’s frustration with words. He noted: “We experienced it [a dream] predominantly in visual images…part of the difficulty of giving an account of dreams is due to our having to translate these images into words. ‘I could draw it,’ a dreamer often says to us, ‘but I don’t know how to say it.’” (Freud, 1916-1917; p. 90). Some ideas are difficult or impossible to put into words. Clients who can externalise their trauma, for example by drawing it on paper, can experience relief.

Images represent an alternative medium for expression and communication. Once experiences are externalised as images, it is easier to talk about them by describing the artwork or talking about the art-making process. For some people, however, producing images can be embarrassing or a destructive experience, and clients may try to avoid or resist it regardless of its beneficial potential. Despite this reluctance, the concept behind art therapy is that sharing the meaning of images may lead to a better understanding of the client’s presenting problem and create change.

As a psychologist and art therapist, I often find that clients open up vocally after drawing. I would like to use the well-known metaphor of an iceberg to describe the two major aspects of human personality. The tip of the iceberg that extends above the water represents the conscious mind. Beneath the water is the much larger bulk of the iceberg, which represents the unconscious. Words come easier to clients’ minds and unconscious material pours quickly to the surface once they start describing their images.

Surprisingly, most current art therapists challenge Freud’s view of symbols which frequently occur in images as products of repressed unconscious conflicts. Symbols relate to transforming and integrating personal experiences, both pathological and healthy, and should not be seen in isolation, but connected to the client’s individual experiences.



A highly regarded art therapy lecturer from Germany, Robert Gray has degrees in art therapy, psychology and theology. As a psychologist, he is able to present art therapy practices in an evidence-based context which further facilitates a well-founded and comprehensible training program. He leads the field in art therapy with his unique integration of psychological techniques and spiritual practices. Robert is the founder and director of the College for Educational and Clinical Art Therapy.

Rob is a speaker at the ABNLP 2017 Australian NLP Conference taking place in Sydney, 25-26 February.