Round-Robin Art Making

December 29, 2016

(11) Comments

Collaborative ‘Round Robin’ painting created by a number of women, during one of my creativity development workshops.

 “Creativity is contagious.

   Pass it on.”

– Albert Einstein

I believe that any form of art making in a group is a collaborative experience. Even if each group member works on an individual piece, the shared group energy is contagious in a way that often brings about growth, new ideas, and shared experiences.

With that in mind, it is often exciting to encourage my art therapy group members to work directly with one another at times. I have used collaborative art making in many work settings – in shelters, day treatment programs, with Palestinian and Israeli teens, in adult creativity development workshops, and currently with my clients in a psychiatric hospital.

On one unit in the hospital I work with adults with chronic and persistent mental illness. Many of these individuals have schizophrenia and severe bipolar disorder. When the illness is at its most extreme, it can make it incredibly hard for these clients to connect with others in a meaningful way, if at all. One of my primary goals in art therapy groups on this unit is to help people connect socially and emotionally with peers and staff. Art therapy has proven to be an accessible yet powerful way to build bridges for communication.

Round-robin art is a method where each person starts with a piece of paper and draws or paints on it for a minute or two, before passing it to the person seated next to them. Each piece is added to and then passed on again. Depending on the number of participants, the drawings or paintings can go around several times, or just once until the original piece is back to each person. (It’s helpful to have everyone initial the back of the starting piece to keep track).

                                  Round Robin Art

Last week I wanted to try a round-robin art therapy group with my clients in the psychiatric hospital. I had assessed the atmosphere on the unit and milieu, and felt that although people were experiencing a range of symptoms that day, it might be a safe and nourishing time to attempt my round-robin idea during group.

As my clients filtered into the room and took seats around the table I wondered if my idea was a good one. Some people were staring vacantly into space, and others looked at me with somewhat guarded expressions. One individual was self-dialoguing softly at the end of the table without making any eye contact. The fact that everyone seemed to be in such different mental and emotional spaces actually helped solidify my desire to try the collaborative art making. I was curious to see if it would gradually help connect the group members in some way.

I gave each person a piece of paper and reminded them to write their name on the back. I placed an array of drawing materials in the center of the table – mainly colored pencils, gel pens, and markers. Then I told everyone to begin drawing on their paper. After about 2 minutes I told them to pass the drawing to the person next to them. I let them vote on which direction they would pass to, and they chose left. I said that if anyone felt uncomfortable participating, they could sit with us and draw but not take part in the shared drawing experiment. One man decided to work on his own piece instead, but his presence was a strong part of the group and he seemed to enjoy observing the round-robin as he drew an individual piece. The room was incredibly quiet as the round robin art commenced. After a few passes to the left, people slowly began to talk and comment on the evolution of each page. Many were pleasantly surprised to see what was unfolding in their original piece and delighted to see drawing elements that they would not have thought of. The mood lightened as people laughed and complimented one another on the continuing process.

We did this for about half an hour, and once everyone had their original piece back I asked the group to put down the drawing supplies and take a look at how far their piece had come. I also asked everyone to title their piece, if anything came to mind. An interesting conversation unfolded about the differences in the pieces. Some drawings very open in space and feeling, while others were crammed with imagery. A few pieces looked like only one artist had worked on them, while others clearly had the unique marks from several artists. Some of the mark making and symbols had been repeated by others, while others had taken off in completely different directions. Each piece was full of energy and fascinating intersections between artists.

Round Robin art

This was not an art therapy group where people processed on a deep level and opened up about their past. But that wasn’t the goal this time. This was a group that helped bring disconnected individuals together, in the creation of a shared experience through shared art making. The little things that shifted, such as increased eye contact and some light conversation were clear signs to me that the art had (once again) worked its magic.

I found that over the remainder of the week, the clients that had participated in this group seemed more comfortable opening up during subsequent art therapy groups. They had established a new baseline for communication and had gained a certain amount of trust in the group process.

I would love to hear some feedback from you now! Have you tried collaborative creating in your groups? What types of collaborations? Murals, round robin art, chain poems, dyad drawings? What has worked and what has been a struggle?




  • Eva

    I’m not an art therapist (yet), I’m only at the beginning of my art therapy journey (I started an education program this year, but I’m not even sure if I’m really going to practice it some day), but I wanted to thank you for sharing your work here. Your writing is clear and inspirational and I really enjoy reading all your posts! So, thank you for this space and sharing your experience. 🙂

    • ats

      Eva, thank you so much for your comment! Welcome to an amazing art therapy journey. No matter what you do in terms of later practicing or not, I can guarantee the journey will enrich your life. Please reach out to me any time if you’d like to share more of your experiences on the path – the trials and tribulations as well as the joy.

  • Lisa

    I have recently started working in a private rehab centre and finding the group dynamics challenging! I have used a round robin only once so far but it was a great success, really lightened the mood within the group. I gave a theme of city scape, ( they were having trouble starting ), love to hear more of your trials and tribulations working with mental health groups, feeling a little clunky!

    • ats

      Hi Lisa! Thank you so much for your comment. I completely hear you, that working in a rehab center can be challenging in terms of dynamics but also very rewarding as I’m sure you’re already finding. I also do work on a dual-diagnosis unit, and can relate to unique issues that arise. I love what you wrote about the round-robin experiment helping to lighten the mood. It makes a wonderful ice-breaker, or an entire group project. I often use humor in my approach (of course respectfully) to help slowly meld into the group dynamics.

      There are many strong defenses at play with many of these clients, and for good reason – due to trauma and other factors. Embrace the ‘clunkiness’ and try to own it! I will often try to model flexibility and lightheartedness to my clients when I make a mistake or something doesn’t go according to plans. It helps show that we all have the ability to learn and grow from mistakes and not be so rigid.

      One more thought…when first starting out in a new setting, I often use collage during the first few groups as a generally accessible way to start building relationships. I put a ‘buffet’ of pre-cut images in the center and encourage clients to create a piece that reflects where they are at the moment. This usually lightens the mood and usually engages everyone. I’ll be sure to keep posting other ideas, and let me know what other group ideas you are exploring!

  • Karen VC

    First I’d like to say that your’s my be the first art therapy blog that I’ve read that I can truly connect with. I appreciate your honest, clear, direct (not to be confused with harsh) writing style when speaking about art therapy. I am a former ATR, now a macro social worker, who has been out of art making and psychotherapy practice for many years. My motivation to read your blog is that I am exploring (in my mind at this point) returning to both. Getting back in to art making is purely a question of making the time and committing myself. Returning to art therapy is more challenging as I live in a part of the country that oddly is not as well acquainted with it as I would have thought and is lacking in a community of art therapist peers.

    With respect to the round robin technique, well, this post really took me back. I used it a number of time in inpatient and day treatment settings – SMI/co-occurring populations. And yes, I too found that the process is about building connections between people who are often primarily focused on managing an interior world they experience as chaotic and frightening. I loved your response to the blank sheet of paper. Rather than viewing it as “resistance” or finding fault with yourself as somehow inadequate to this patient’s needs, you found the meaning. I asked myself as I read those words if I would have been so insightful?

    Thanks for a very educational and inspiring post. I will be back.

    • ats

      Karen, thank you SO much for your comment. I am glad that you found your way here! I am excited for you to be re-connecting with your background and path as an artist and art therapist. That is very inspiring to me. Please (please) keep me updated on your adventures and explorations. I hope that you can start gathering and/or forming a community of art therapists – both online (like here) and in person. It’s incredibly helpful for all of us to stay connected and inspired in what is both amazing and challenging work.

  • Tessa Wyatt

    I have been thinking of doing this in lots of different ways – with folded books and increasingly complicated ideas – I think I might have a go just like this next time !!! Thank you for all the detail

    • ats

      Oh I love the idea of folded books! I say, go for it. I sometimes have ideas brewing for a while before I try them out in group and it’s always exciting to give it a go. Let me know if you do and how it goes!

  • theartgorgeous

    Life is all about art.. I Really love art in this blog you gave me the huge information about art.thanks for sharing this with us.

    • ats

      Thank you for following my blog! Glad you are enjoying!

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