Emotional Landscapes

February 10, 2018

(5) Comments

acrylic on canvas
Sara Roizen

‘Life is like a landscape. You live in the midst of it but can describe it only from the vantage point of distance.’

– Charles Lindbergh


Art therapists tend to love working with metaphors, and I’m no exception. Metaphors spontaneously arise in art and serve as an entry point for connection and meaning.

In my art therapy groups at the hospital and at the shelter I’ve been introducing new visual starting points for groups as a way to utilize the power of metaphor in creativity. A while back I wrote a post on exploring resilience in art therapy by looking at photographs of resilience in nature and then having clients create their own symbols for inner resilience using nature imagery.

I was struck by how difficult it can be for clients to come up with the ways they are resilient when asked in a literal sense. Yet when they had nature imagery to fuel the discussion and art making, they were able to identify their resilient qualities quite easily. For example in my groups I’ve heard phrases like ‘I bend like the tree but don’t break,’ or ‘I feel vulnerable like the flower but I’ve been able to push through hard experiences like the flower through pavement.’

Since the resilience in nature group has seemed beneficial to many clients, I’ve been exploring other ways to explore our emotions and experiences through metaphor, while using pre-existing art as an inspiration . For the past couple of weeks I’ve been leading an ’emotional landscape’ art therapy group.

Inspiration & Brainstorming 

Painting by:
Emily Jeffords

I begin by placing some images of painted landscapes in the center of the table. I include a couple of well known paintings such as Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ as well as works by newer contemporary artists. The photos in this post are some of the examples I have provided clients. I aim for a wide range in style and mood. I’m often intrigued by how quickly the group members begin talking about the images and picking out their favorites while explaining why. It becomes clear that having the clients observe the artwork of others serves as an important connecting point for the group.

Art Time

After we talk about the images from other artists I ask everyone to take a moment and get in touch with their inner world. A few deep breaths can help bring clients back into their bodies after a lively group discussion. Next I ask them to tune into their emotions as much as they feel comfortable doing. For some clients, this request might be too triggering. I find this especially true for clients who are extremely anxious or have significant trauma backgrounds. If it’s too much to get in touch with an emotion in the present, I’ll often ask them to do a brief review of their week and pick one predominant emotion for inspiration. Being able to scan emotions over a longer time period is more accessible for certain clients. Then I ask them to imagine that their emotions could form a landscape. Some guiding considerations to prompt art might be: What would their emotional landscape look like in terms of color, intensity, setting, style, and feeling? I remind them that landscapes can be vastly different and can include settings like the woods, oceans, deserts, fields, mountains, etc.

Art by: Natasha Newton

Art Materials

Whenever possible I like to offer my groups a variety of materials from drawing to painting supplies. This allows clients to choose the material that resonates most with them. However it can be helpful to simplify materials too, depending on the specific group members you are working with. When using only drawing materials I place markers, colored pencils, and oils pastels on the table. Many clients enjoy chalk pastels since they are easy to blend. Just be mindful of the amount of dust chalk pastels can create and check beforehand to see if anyone has issues with the dust. Chalk pastels may also bring up feelings associated with being out of control for some. They spread so quickly and smoothly that certain clients may be surprised and then overwhelmed to find the paper (and themselves) suddenly covered in chalk dust. When appropriate, with painting I often offer acrylics because they lend themselves to multiple methods of handling and expression. Watercolor and watercolor crayons are also excellent choices for this exploration.

Processing The Art

Painting by: Elaine Jones

Processing of the artwork often happens organically as clients make art. At other times I have completely silent groups during art making. I welcome the silence and never rush to fill in the silence with my own questions or comments. Silence can be supportive and grounding, especially as a sanctuary from the often frenetic energy of the hospital. If we have created in silence I offer space for sharing and reflection towards the end. I might open up this part of group with questions such as:

Can you show us what you’ve created and say as little or as much about it as you’d like? What was this process like for you?

Did anything that emerged in your piece surprise you?
Did you plan the image out ahead of time or did it seem to emerge on its own?
Does a title for your piece come to mind?
If you could magically shrink in size and hop into your art, where would you like to land in the image? What would it feel like to walk through this landscape? Are there resting spots in it? Are there any areas you can’t easily access?

If time allows I encourage clients to respond to their art piece with a few written lines in the form of a poem, question, or dialogue. They may also move in a way that represents the art or share a song that emerges while looking at the piece.

But Really…Why Emotional Landscapes?
Some therapists may steer away from such a direct invitation to create directly from our emotions – especially in an acute inpatient setting. There are many times when I choose a subtler approach in terms of direction and theme. It is always necessary to assess on a moment to moment basis and make creative therapeutic adjustments as we go. However, my core belief that you have to ‘feel it to heal it’ is a guiding force for me as a therapist and on my own healing path. Whenever we sit down with a group of individuals, there are feelings in the room. Many feelings. That’s a given. At times it can be like addressing the elephant in the room, rather than trying to peer over the elephant as he sits in the center of the table (on the art supplies!) The ability to tap into metaphor – in this case the landscape – provides a direct yet perhaps gentler bridge into the realm of emotions. Asking clients to place any emotions within a broader inspired landscape may open up more symbolic space for the emotions, while grounding them in our connection to the greater world around us.

As always, I love to hear from you! Please share your ideas, questions, or adaptations to this art invitation.

The famous ‘Starry Night’ by Van Gogh.


  • Linalynn Schmelzer

    This was great to hear how gentle you approach sessions. Allowing for silence, choice, exploration, and observation. Well done!

    • ats

      Thank you! I’m glad that you connected with this post.

  • Mary Bell

    I just discovered your blog and am super intrigued! I have roots in Studio Art and was interested at an early age in Art Therapy. In college, I also studied French and ended up going that route. I have taught French for 25 years and am ready for a change. I have just applied to start a MA program at Lesley Univ. in Expressive Art Therapy. I loved reading about this particular session where you led the patients on a tour of their emotional landscapes. I especially liked how you encourage using different media within the visual arts as well as different forms of art – movement, music, poetry, etc. I am primarily interested in Art Therapy as in the visual arts but am also interested in being able to incorporate other expressive forms of therapy as well. From reading your blog, it seems that you do this naturally. Reading about what you do is inspirational and confirms for me that I am making the right choice to pursue a career in Art Therapy. Thank you, Mary

    • ats

      Hi Mary,

      That is very exciting! I have several friends who did the Lesley program, focusing on art therapy and one with music therapy. An incredible program. I am very drawn to the expressive arts continuum and integrating multiple modalities. I’m glad that this blog helps validate your choice in career! I look forward to hearing about your program and experiences as you pursue this path. Please feel free to keep in touch. 🙂

  • Sarah Barton


    I am a masters student pursing my degree in counseling. Your website has inspired me so much. I’d love to ask you some questions via email about your journey to art therapy if you’d be willing.


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