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Jun 2014 by PCI College

Art Therapy - Speaking Without Words

"Often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain" Carl Jung Liz Rackard introduces us to art therapy and its relationship to other models of psychotherapy ahead of the Art Therapy CPD workshop in July. Liz will also facilitate a workshop on Art Therapy & Self-Care at this weekend's National Counselling & Psychotherapy Conference

'There seems to be a paradox in writing about art therapy. Much of its essential healing power lies beyond words – experiencing is perhaps the best way of understanding. Art therapy can offer a way of exploring and expressing areas of ourselves that lie beyond the reach of words, and can create a bridge between inner and outer, towards greater integration of the two.'  (Nowell Hall, 1987: p157)

It is interesting to consider the similarities and differences that exist between art therapy and other more verbal forms of counselling and psychotherapy. However, trying to pin down, identify or describe the elements and dynamics of art therapy and their relationship to other models of psychotherapy is challenging.  Like trying to pin down or describe flowing water, it is better to put your hand or foot in and just feel it.

art therapy can be said to be part of the genealogy of psychotherapy, its' most striking difference, and what sets it apart from other models of psychotherapy, is the centrality it gives to the process of working with art materials and the images that arise from this process. So why should we be concerned with image making and what significance do images have in a therapeutic context?

Art Theraoy Workshop Liz RackardDevelopments in neuroscience are giving us new insights into how we function as humans and the complex ways in which we receive and process information and feelings. As babies we are able to see, feel and sense before we can talk or think and, as adults, we continue to dream in complex and at times incoherent pictures. Imagery is a function of the right side of the brain and all our experiences and their accompanying emotions are perceived by the body and the right brain as imagistic sensations. The left brain, which is not an experience of feeling but an interpreter, then gets to work analysing, evaluating, and judging this content based on our individually conditioned belief systems. Have you ever had a 'gut reaction' to something where you thought 'No, this isn't for me' only to override that reaction because you didn't think your feeling made sense? Images come before words and can give us direct access to what we are really feeling, not what we think we should be feeling.

Art Therapy Child moulding playdoughWorking with images and art materials in the process of playing, doodling, painting, sculpting, constructing, drawing, creating allows us to tap into this other part of our psyche and to express what we are feeling without words and without judgment. Working with images and materials can be a joyful and freeing experience and the simple act of getting in touch with how something feels and expressing it visually can in itself offer a sense of relief.

Images that are created can be explored and reflected on and it is the art therapist's role to assist the individual in this process. As with dreams, each individuals work is unique. It is the creator that makes the connections and is the expert on what has been produced. Images don't always need to be analysed or explained.  Sometimes the direct release of feeling into a piece can have a therapeutic benefit in itself. The feeling has been transferred onto the page or into the clay and is now ‘held’ there, no longer being carried by the person. It can be good to know that the emotion is contained safely and can be reflected on at another time, perhaps with greater clarity.

What is the value of working with images in a counselling context? Working with materials and engaging in art making can allow a client to bypass the censorship imposed by the conscious conditioned mind. By engaging in art making in a therapeutic context a client may access their feelings more easily. This can be particularly useful for individuals who have difficulty in expressing themselves verbally, but equally useful for individuals who are very cerebral and use a lot of words as a defence against feeling. Working with materials can allow an individual to feel more comfortable and less threatened when accessing more difficult parts of themselves and can be a very grounding experience.

Art therapy can provide an alternative means of expression for individuals who find it difficult to express themselves verbally e.g. children, adolescents, the elderly, people with learning difficulties, people experiencing depression or other kinds of psychiatric conditions, to name just some areas of application.

Many positive benefits of working creatively with art materials have been identified. Studies show that creativity can heal by changing a person’s physiology and attitude from one of stress to one of deep relaxation. When people engage with the creative arts, even as passive observers e.g. looking at a beautiful painting like Monet's 'Water Lilies", the process can create hope, restore optimism, and enhance the capacity to cope with debilitating problems (Rockwood Lane 2005).  As the origins of counselling, psychotherapy and art therapy are all entwined they have much in common in terms of theoretical foundations and concepts.  However, the experience of art therapy is qualitatively different. And one can only know what that experience feels like by trying it out, by stepping in the stream.

Liz Rackard
PCI College Lecturer

Liz Rackard is an art therapist and practising artist who is passionate about creativity and the therapeutic benefit of art making. A graduate of the National College of Art & Design she worked as an artist and designer before training as an art therapist at Crawford College of Art. As an art therapist her main interest is in child, adolescent and adult mental health. She has facilitated creative art making in many different settings and continues to explore different approaches and techniques.  She has exhibited in both solo and group exhibitions and carried out a number of commissioned works.  She currently works with vulnerable children in  educational settings while  continuing her own art practice  which includes creative  journalling.

Liz will facilitate a one-day CPD workshop in Art Therapy in PCI College, Dublin City Centre on Saturday 19th July 2014.  Click here for more details and to book your place.

Relevant Links / Online Resources:

References / Further Reading:

Case C & Dalley T, (1992) The Handbook of Art Therapy, Routledge
Ganim B & Fox S (1999) Visual Journaling, Going Deeper than Words, Quest Books
IACAT, Irish Association of Creative Arts Therapists, Uses of Art Therapy. Retrieved June 16 2014
Nowell Hall P, et al. (1987) Images in Art Therapy, Tavistock Publications Ltd
Rockwood Lane M.(2005) Creativity and Spirituality in Nursing, Implementing Art in Healing, Holistic Nursing Practice 122-125. Retrieved June 6 2014,

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