The Creative Process – Art Therapy and Art Making

October 19, 2008

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In exploring the creative process in my life, and then in a therapeutic relationship, I realized that the two processes truly mirrored one another. I began by tracing my own experiences with art materials from a young age and through different stages such as high school, undergraduate art school, after college, and in my current stage of life. I then thought about my experiences so far in working with clients at my internship at Housing Works, and the different stages of the relationship as time evolves. On another level I have experienced and continue to experience both processes of art making as well as being a client, since I am a painter, and also have been in therapy myself for a number of years. I am also inhabiting the role of art therapy intern – doing individual and group art therapy with my clients.

I come from a painting background and tend to describe my own creative process in terms of painting, but when I speak about creativity here, I mean it to refer to any type of artistic expression – including music, dance, drama, writing, and other forms of creating.

I began to see the artist’s and the client’s journey as taking different forms and phases throughout life. I feel that the two creative processes share remarkable similarities. To make it easier to explore I divided the continuous journey into different phases that were inspired by my own experiences so far relating to my artistic evolution as well as my overall growth as a human being so far. These creative phases are described here.

The Foundation

All the arts we practice are apprenticeship. The big art is our life.
(M.C. Richards)

As a child I’m sure that my art materials were fairly limited and might have included things like crayons, paper, (and maybe markers when I had shown a little restraint in handling the crayons). As I got older my material vocabulary expanded and came to include many more materials like paint, clay, textured pastes, and various surfaces. As I became familiar with each material it would open up the option to explore even more materials.

With my new clients we have to begin by building on a foundation of trust and empathy before deeper therapeutic work can take place. It can take a few days to start to build a foundation, or even years as we often hear from therapists regarding their ongoing work with a client.

Starting To Explore

Creative work is play. It is free speculation using the materials of one’s chosen form.
(Stephen Nachmanovitch)

I see this stage as beginning as soon as I was able to begin to manipulate materials – whether it was banging pots and pans together as a toddler, or scribbling on paper with crayons. At a young age, almost any surface and material becomes a possible noise maker or artistic creation – even surfaces that parents would rather keep “un-artistic” !

In art therapy, once a basic foundation of trust has been created between client and therapist, the exploration can begin. It might begin tentatively as the client begins to take small creative risks. Over time the experimentation with forms or feelings may expand. Perhaps in the beginning the client will only feel comfortable using materials such a pencil and pen – materials that allow the person to feel relatively in control. Perhaps color is out of the question, until the client begins to feel a basic sense of security within the therapeutic setting. As time progresses, the art therapist and client will ideally expand the exploration of new materials and techniques.

Greater Incorporation of Materials and Understanding

When the soul wishes to experience something she throws an image of the experience out before her and enters into her own image. (Meister Eckhart)

By the time I was in high school and creating art, my knowledge of art materials and various techniques, theories, and other artists had greatly expanded. I began to create work that was directly inspired by certain famous artists that I resonate with at the moment. My work in high school was extremely eclectic as my interests in the art world were constantly shifting and changing shape as I learned more and studied different artists. One week I was doing pencil drawings, the next pen and ink, and then the week after that, trying out oil paints for the first time.

Some clients come to therapy with an art background and others do not, but either way I have found that as the sessions unfold most clients will begin to incorporate newer and unfamiliar materials into their repertoire if given the possibility. Exploration of materials can cause a client to feel anxiety, excitement, or often a mixture of both feelings.

Finding Resonance with Certain Materials

The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.
(C.G. Jung)

Over time and especially starting in college, I began to develop a stronger pull to certain materials over others – particularly acrylic paint and mixed media such as texture pastes and collaged materials. Although I love to experiment with other materials, these are the ones that have fascinated me and resonated with me the most over the last number of years.

Similarly, in the relationship between therapist and client, certain approaches may start to emerge that prove more effective than others. This could take the form of different theoretical approaches that the therapist utilizes, or simply small routines that begin or end each session. An art therapy client will usually be drawn to certain materials and techniques over others. Some of my current clients work almost exclusively in pen and ink on paper, while others work week after week with acrylic paint on canvas. Each client feels a certain resonance with certain materials, whether it is a conscious or an unconscious one. The client’s choice of materials will often change to reflect his or her changing mental and emotional stage.

Building a Personal Vocabulary with Materials and Symbols

Living is a form of not being sure, not knowing what next or how. The moment you know how, you begin to die a little. The artist never entirely knows. We guess. We may be wrong, but we take leap after leap in the dark. (Agnes De Mille)

Finding a certain resonance with materials in the case of the artist, or with methods in the therapeutic relationship allows both to gain greater coherence creatively and therapeutically. After this has started to happen, certain imagery and symbols in the studio begin to emerge fairly reliably despite the varied number of pieces. Similarly, with therapy the therapist and client will begin to see patterns emerging in the themes that are explored. They will keep emerging even if one or both people are not directly addressing them.

It is up to the artist or the client to hold each new symbol or theme up to their own light and decide whether it will be integrated into their sense of self, set aside for later, or discarded all together.

The Continuous Dialogue

A painting is never finished – it simply stops in interesting places.
(Paul Gardner)

An artist’s body of work will continue to evolve for as long as the artist keeps creating in life. Similarly, even after a client has stopped seeing a particular therapist, the dialogue that was started in the therapeutic relationship will ideally be carried out of the therapist’s “office” and out into the world. The dialogue will change forms and evolve within the context of old and new relationships as the client has new experiences.

This is yet another aspect that creating for the artist and the art of therapy have in common. Neither one is black and white, especially in the fact that both are ongoing. An artist may complete a specific painting, but then it is onto the next piece and the next. Each piece consciously or subconsciously informs the next in some way. Similarly, the experience of therapy itself ideally expands outwards into widening circles within the client’s life.


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