What is an Art Therapist

An Art Therapist is a professional trained in both art and therapy, who uses the creative process of making art to improve and enhance the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of people of all ages. This form of therapy integrates the fields of human development, visual arts (such as drawing, painting, sculpture, and other art forms), and the creative process with models of counseling and psychotherapy.

Art Therapists are skilled in applying a variety of art modalities (drawing, painting, sculpture, and other forms) as a means for individuals to express themselves and explore their emotions, thoughts, and memories in a therapeutic context. The process can help individuals resolve conflicts, improve interpersonal skills, manage behavior, reduce stress, increase self-esteem and self-awareness, and achieve insight.

Art Therapists work in a wide range of clinical, educational, and community settings. They may work with individuals, couples, families, or groups in diverse settings such as hospitals, schools, psychiatric and rehabilitation facilities, wellness centers, forensic institutions, crisis centers, senior communities, and private practice.

To become an Art Therapist, one typically needs a master’s degree in art therapy or a related field such as counseling or psychology with a concentration in art therapy. Professional credentials often require a combination of postgraduate clinical experience and passing a national examination. In many countries, Art Therapists are required to be licensed or registered with professional bodies that oversee the standards of practice and ethics in the field.

What Does an Art Therapists Do?

Art Therapists play a multifaceted role in the healing and personal growth of individuals across a wide spectrum of needs. Their primary goal is to facilitate self-expression through the creative process of art-making and to use that process as a vehicle for therapeutic healing and insight. Here’s a closer look at what Art Therapists do:

  1. Assessment: They assess clients’ needs, abilities, and interests through art-making, observation, and discussion. This assessment helps in understanding the client’s psychological, emotional, and developmental state.
  2. Treatment Planning: Based on their assessments, Art Therapists develop individualized treatment plans that incorporate art-making into therapeutic objectives. These plans are designed to target specific goals such as improving communication skills, relieving emotional stress, enhancing social skills, or coping with trauma.
  3. Facilitation of Art-making: They facilitate the process of art-making, guiding clients in exploring their feelings, thoughts, and experiences through various art forms. The process is not about the artistic value of the work but about finding meaning and understanding through creation.
  4. Interpretation of Artwork: While they do not interpret artwork in the traditional sense, Art Therapists help clients explore the meaning of their art and the thoughts and feelings it evokes. This process can lead to insights and understanding that might not be accessible through verbal communication alone.
  5. Integration of Therapeutic Techniques: Art Therapists integrate a range of psychotherapeutic techniques with art-making practices to support clients’ therapeutic goals. This could include cognitive-behavioral strategies, psychoanalytic approaches, or mindfulness practices, among others.
  6. Psychoeducation: They provide psychoeducation to clients and their families, helping them understand the therapeutic process, mental health conditions, and strategies for coping and healing.
  7. Collaboration and Referral: Art Therapists often work as part of a multidisciplinary team, collaborating with other healthcare professionals such as psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, social workers, and educators to provide holistic care. They may also refer clients to other services when necessary.
  8. Advocacy and Awareness: They advocate for the use of art therapy within the broader healthcare and educational communities, raising awareness of its benefits and contributing to the field’s body of research.
  9. Continuing Education and Supervision: To maintain their professional credentials, Art Therapists engage in continuing education, research, and supervision to stay current with developments in the field and to continually refine their own practice.

Art Therapists work with a diverse client population, including children, adolescents, adults, and the elderly, in individual or group settings. They address a wide range of issues, including mental health problems, emotional difficulties, developmental disorders, neurological conditions, physical illnesses, and social or behavioral problems. Through the therapeutic use of art, they facilitate expression, exploration, and understanding, helping individuals to heal and grow.

What is the Salary Range for a Art Therapists?

The salary range for Art Therapists can vary widely depending on several factors, including geographic location, type of employment setting, level of education and experience, and the demand for art therapy services in the area. As of my last update in April 2023, here’s a general overview:

  1. United States: In the U.S., the average salary for Art Therapists ranges from approximately $40,000 to $60,000 per year, with more experienced therapists potentially earning up to $70,000 or more. Those working in private practice may have higher earning potential, depending on their client base and session rates.
  2. Canada: In Canada, Art Therapists’ salaries can range from CAD 40,000 to CAD 60,000 per year, with variances based on similar factors as in the U.S.
  3. United Kingdom: In the UK, starting salaries for Art Therapists in the NHS (National Health Service) can range from £31,365 to £37,890 (Band 6 of the NHS Agenda for Change pay rates), with more experienced therapists (Band 7 or higher) earning up to £45,000 or more.
  4. Australia: In Australia, Art Therapists typically earn between AUD 50,000 and AUD 70,000 per year, with variations based on experience and workplace settings.

These figures are meant to provide a broad overview and should be taken as approximate values. Salaries can fluctuate based on the demand for art therapy services, the therapist’s level of specialization, additional skills, and how art therapy is integrated into broader therapeutic or educational programs.

Additionally, it’s worth noting that the field of art therapy is still growing, and with increased recognition of its value in various therapeutic, medical, and educational settings, opportunities and potentially salaries may also increase over time. For the most current salary information, it would be beneficial to consult specific job listings in your area of interest or professional organizations related to art therapy.

What is the Career Outlook for Art Therapists?

The career outlook for Art Therapists is generally positive, reflecting broader trends in the mental health, wellness, and healthcare fields where there is a growing recognition of the importance of holistic and alternative approaches to care. As awareness of the benefits of art therapy expands, so does the demand for professionals skilled in this therapeutic discipline. Several factors contribute to the career outlook:

  1. Increased Recognition: Art therapy has gained increased recognition as a valuable method for addressing mental health, developmental, educational, and social issues. This recognition is leading to more opportunities in various settings, including hospitals, mental health clinics, schools, community centers, and private practice.
  2. Integration into Healthcare and Education: There’s a trend towards integrating art therapy into comprehensive care models in hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and educational settings. This integration is creating more positions for Art Therapists who work alongside other professionals to provide holistic care.
  3. Growing Demand for Mental Health Services: With rising awareness and destigmatization of mental health issues, there’s a growing demand for mental health services, including art therapy. This is particularly true for populations that might not respond as well to traditional talk therapy, such as children, those with trauma, or individuals with certain disabilities.
  4. Specialized Areas of Practice: Art Therapists have opportunities to specialize in areas such as trauma-informed care, working with veterans, the elderly, or individuals with specific disorders like autism, which can open new career paths and demand for specialized services.
  5. Research and Evidence-Based Practice: Ongoing research into the efficacy of art therapy is bolstering its legitimacy as an evidence-based practice, which in turn supports its inclusion in therapeutic programs and insurance coverage. This can lead to greater adoption and more job opportunities.
  6. Telehealth and Digital Platforms: The expansion of telehealth services, including online art therapy sessions, has opened new avenues for practice and can increase access to art therapy services, potentially expanding the market for Art Therapists.

However, like any career, there are challenges that can affect the outlook, including funding for arts in healthcare, variability in licensure and regulation between regions, and the need for ongoing advocacy to ensure art therapy is recognized and reimbursed by insurance companies. Additionally, salaries and job availability can vary widely depending on geographic location, setting, and the therapist’s level of education and experience.

Overall, for those passionate about art and helping others, art therapy offers a fulfilling career path with diverse opportunities for growth and impact. Continued advocacy for the profession and research into its benefits will likely play crucial roles in shaping the future demand for Art Therapists.

10 Skills an Art Therapist Needs to Develop

Art Therapists need a unique blend of skills that encompass both the therapeutic and artistic realms, along with strong interpersonal abilities. Developing these skills is essential for effectively supporting clients through their therapeutic journeys. Here are key skills and attributes that are important for Art Therapists to develop:

  1. Artistic Skills: Proficiency in a wide range of artistic mediums and techniques is crucial. Art Therapists must be able to guide clients in expressing themselves through various forms of art, such as painting, drawing, sculpture, and digital media. This doesn’t mean being an expert in all art forms but having a solid understanding and enough skill to facilitate others’ creative processes.
  2. Therapeutic Knowledge: A deep understanding of psychological theories, counseling techniques, and therapy models is essential. Art Therapists should be well-versed in the principles of psychotherapy and be able to integrate them with art therapy practices.
  3. Empathy and Sensitivity: The ability to empathize with clients, understand their feelings, and respond with sensitivity is fundamental. Art Therapists often work with individuals dealing with emotional pain, trauma, or mental health issues, requiring a compassionate and patient approach.
  4. Communication Skills: Strong verbal and non-verbal communication skills are necessary for building rapport with clients, conducting assessments, and facilitating therapy sessions. Art Therapists must also be able to communicate effectively with other healthcare professionals and stakeholders.
  5. Observational Skills: Being able to observe and interpret non-verbal cues, artwork, and behaviors to gain insights into a client’s emotional state or needs is a key skill. This involves a nuanced understanding of how art can reflect underlying psychological processes.
  6. Cultural Competence: Understanding and respecting diversity in cultural backgrounds, beliefs, and values are crucial. Art Therapists work with clients from a variety of backgrounds and must be sensitive to cultural differences in interpreting art and therapeutic needs.
  7. Analytical and Interpretive Skills: While Art Therapists do not “interpret” artwork in the traditional sense, they help clients explore the meanings and emotions their art may represent. This requires careful, non-judgmental analysis and the ability to guide clients in self-exploration.
  8. Problem-Solving Skills: Creativity in problem-solving is important not only in facilitating art-making but also in adapting therapeutic approaches to meet the unique needs of each client.
  9. Professionalism and Ethics: A strong ethical framework and adherence to professional standards are necessary to ensure client confidentiality, respect, and safety. Understanding the legal and ethical considerations in therapy and art therapy specifically is crucial.
  10. Self-Care and Self-Reflection: Art Therapists must practice self-care and engage in regular self-reflection to manage the emotional demands of the work and prevent burnout. This also involves seeking supervision and continuing education to support personal and professional growth.

Developing these skills requires a combination of formal education, practical experience, and ongoing professional development. Engaging in personal art-making and therapy can also enhance an Art Therapist’s understanding of the creative process and its therapeutic potential.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Art Therapist?

Becoming an Art Therapist involves a series of educational and professional steps, and the total time it takes can vary depending on the individual’s starting point, educational path, and the specific requirements of the country or state in which they plan to practice. Here’s a general timeline for becoming an Art Therapist, primarily based on standards in countries like the United States:

Undergraduate Education (4 Years)

  • Bachelor’s Degree: The first step is obtaining a bachelor’s degree. While some pursue a degree specifically in art therapy, many art therapists start with undergraduate degrees in related fields such as psychology, counseling, fine arts, or social work. During this time, gaining experience in art and psychology through coursework is beneficial.

Master’s Degree (2-3 Years)

  • Master’s in Art Therapy: A master’s degree in art therapy or a related field with a concentration in art therapy is typically required to become a professional Art Therapist. These programs include coursework in psychology, counseling, and art therapy theory and practice, as well as supervised clinical practicums or internships.

Postgraduate Clinical Experience (2-3 Years)

  • Supervised Experience: After completing their master’s degree, graduates often need to complete a certain number of supervised clinical hours practicing art therapy. The specific number of hours can vary but is usually around 1,000 to 1,500 hours. This requirement is part of the process to become a registered or board-certified Art Therapist.

Licensure and Certification

  • Licensure: Some regions require Art Therapists to be licensed to practice. The requirements for licensure can include education, supervised clinical experience, and passing a professional examination.
  • Certification: In places like the United States, Art Therapists can become registered and board-certified through the Art Therapy Credentials Board (ATCB) by passing the Art Therapy Credentials Board Examination (ATCBE). Becoming a Board Certified Art Therapist (ATR-BC) is a mark of professional recognition in the field.

Continuing Education

  • Ongoing Learning: Art Therapists are required to engage in continuing education to maintain their certification and stay updated on best practices in the field.


The journey to becoming an Art Therapist typically takes about 8 to 10 years after high school, encompassing undergraduate education (4 years), graduate education (2-3 years), and postgraduate supervised experience (2-3 years), followed by the licensure and certification process. This timeline can vary based on the individual’s pace, educational path, and the specific regulatory requirements of the location where they intend to practice.

12 Typical Art Therapists Courses

The curriculum for Art Therapists is designed to provide a comprehensive foundation in both art and psychology, equipping students with the skills and knowledge necessary to use art as a therapeutic tool. A typical art therapy program, particularly at the master’s level, combines coursework in art, therapy, and psychology with hands-on clinical experience. Here are some common courses you might find in an art therapy program:

  1. Introduction to Art Therapy: Offers an overview of the field, including its history, foundational theories, and the various approaches and modalities within art therapy.
  2. Theories of Art Therapy: Explores the theoretical underpinnings of art therapy, including psychoanalytic, cognitive-behavioral, humanistic, and other psychological theories as they apply to art therapy.
  3. Human Development and Psychology: Covers the stages of human development from infancy through old age, including cognitive, emotional, and social development, and how these stages can be addressed through art therapy.
  4. Art Therapy Techniques and Applications: Focuses on the practical aspects of using art as a therapeutic tool, including different techniques, materials, and interventions for various populations and settings.
  5. Group Art Therapy: Explores the dynamics and processes of facilitating art therapy in group settings, including the roles and interactions of participants and how to manage group therapy sessions.
  6. Assessment and Evaluation in Art Therapy: Teaches students about various assessment tools and methods used in art therapy to evaluate clients’ needs, progress, and outcomes.
  7. Cultural and Social Diversity in Art Therapy: Addresses issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in art therapy practice, including working with clients from diverse cultural, racial, and socioeconomic backgrounds.
  8. Ethics and Professional Practice in Art Therapy: Covers the ethical and legal considerations in the practice of art therapy, including confidentiality, professional boundaries, and standards of practice.
  9. Clinical Practicum/Internship: Provides hands-on clinical experience under supervision in a variety of settings, such as hospitals, schools, community centers, or private practices, allowing students to apply their knowledge and skills with real clients.
  10. Research Methods in Art Therapy: Introduces students to research design, methodology, and analysis in the context of art therapy, encouraging the integration of research-based evidence into practice.
  11. Psychopathology and Diagnosis: Offers an understanding of mental health disorders and the diagnostic criteria used in clinical practice, including how these can be addressed through art therapy.
  12. Creative Materials and Processes: Explores the properties and uses of various art materials and processes in therapy, and how different media can be used to facilitate expression and healing.

These courses aim to build a well-rounded foundation that prepares students for the complexities of therapeutic work, integrating artistic creativity with psychological insight. The combination of theoretical knowledge, practical skills, and clinical experience is crucial for effective practice as an Art Therapist.

Career Opportunities in Art Therapy

Career opportunities in art therapy are diverse and can be found across various settings, reflecting the wide applicability of art therapy in addressing mental health, developmental, educational, and social needs. Here’s an overview of potential career paths and settings where Art Therapists can work:

Clinical Settings

  • Hospitals: Working in both inpatient and outpatient units, including psychiatric, rehabilitation, and medical units, helping patients with physical and mental health issues.
  • Mental Health Facilities: Providing therapy in residential and outpatient mental health clinics for clients with a wide range of mental health disorders.
  • Addiction Treatment Centers: Supporting individuals in recovery from substance abuse and addiction through therapeutic art-making.
  • Private Practice: Offering individual or group therapy sessions, often specializing in particular areas such as trauma, anxiety, depression, or family therapy.

Educational Settings

  • Schools: Working in elementary, middle, and high schools to support students’ emotional and social development, including special education settings.
  • Colleges and Universities: Providing services to college students and potentially teaching or supervising future art therapists.

Community and Social Services

  • Community Centers and Nonprofits: Offering art therapy programs to enhance community wellness, including programs for underserved populations, veterans, and the elderly.
  • Senior Centers and Assisted Living Facilities: Helping older adults with cognitive and emotional challenges, including those with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Correctional Facilities: Working with inmates to address emotional and behavioral issues, facilitate rehabilitation, and prepare for reintegration into society.

Specialized Therapeutic Settings

  • Hospice and Palliative Care: Supporting individuals and their families facing terminal illness and end-of-life issues.
  • Veterans’ Hospitals and Services: Assisting veterans with PTSD, trauma, and adjustment disorders.
  • Children’s Hospitals and Pediatric Units: Specializing in working with children facing medical conditions, trauma, and chronic illness.

Research and Education

  • Academia: Teaching future art therapists in undergraduate and graduate programs, conducting research, and contributing to the body of knowledge in the field of art therapy.
  • Workshops and Seminars: Leading workshops and seminars for professional development, community education, or personal growth.

Consultancy and Advisory Roles

  • Program Development: Developing art therapy programs for schools, community organizations, healthcare facilities, or businesses.
  • Policy and Advocacy: Working with governmental or non-governmental organizations to advocate for the inclusion of art therapy in public health, education, and social policies.

The field of art therapy offers a rewarding career path that allows professionals to make a profound impact on the lives of individuals across the lifespan. Art Therapists have the flexibility to work with a wide range of client populations, tailor their approach to meet diverse needs, and continually grow professionally through engagement with different therapeutic contexts and ongoing research. The demand for art therapy services is expected to grow as more people recognize the value of integrative and holistic approaches to health and wellness, opening up even more opportunities for those in the field.

7 Steps to Becoming a Art Therapist

Becoming an Art Therapist involves a series of educational and professional steps. Here’s a detailed pathway to guide you through the process:

1. Obtain a Bachelor’s Degree

  • Major in a Related Field: While some pursue a degree specifically in art or psychology, others may choose fields such as counseling, social work, or a combination thereof. Your undergraduate education should ideally provide a foundation in both art and psychology.
  • Coursework: Ensure you take courses in psychology, art, and counseling to prepare for graduate studies in art therapy.

2. Gain Relevant Experience

  • Volunteer or Work: Gain experience in settings that allow you to work with diverse populations or in therapeutic contexts, such as hospitals, schools, community centers, or mental health facilities. This exposure can be invaluable for your graduate school application and your future career.

3. Complete a Master’s Degree in Art Therapy

  • Accredited Program: Enroll in a master’s program accredited by the American Art Therapy Association (AATA) or an equivalent body in your country. These programs typically include coursework in art therapy theory and practice, psychological development, assessment methods, and ethical issues.
  • Clinical Practicum/Internship: Part of your graduate program will include supervised clinical experience, which is essential for developing practical skills in art therapy.

4. Fulfill Postgraduate Supervised Experience Requirements

  • Supervised Hours: After earning your master’s degree, you’ll need to complete a certain number of supervised postgraduate hours in a clinical setting. The specific requirements can vary by location but typically involve 1,000 to 1,500 hours of supervised practice.

5. Obtain Certification and Licensure

  • Board Certification: In the United States, become a Registered Art Therapist (ATR) by submitting documentation of your education, supervised experience, and any other requirements to the Art Therapy Credentials Board (ATCB). After becoming an ATR, you may opt to take the board certification exam to become a Board-Certified Art Therapist (ATR-BC).
  • State Licensure: Depending on where you intend to practice, you may also need to obtain a state license. Licensure requirements vary by state and can include passing a licensing exam and submitting proof of your education and supervised experience.

6. Continue Professional Development

  • Continuing Education: Engage in ongoing learning through workshops, seminars, and courses to keep your skills up-to-date and maintain your certification and licensure.
  • Professional Involvement: Join professional organizations such as the American Art Therapy Association (AATA) or equivalent groups in your country to stay connected with the art therapy community and abreast of developments in the field.

7. Specialize if Desired

  • Areas of Specialization: Consider specializing in working with specific populations (e.g., children, veterans, the elderly) or in areas such as trauma, mental health, or neurological conditions. Specialization may involve additional training or certifications.

Key Considerations:

  • Timing: The total time to become an Art Therapist can range from 6 to 8 years post-high school, considering undergraduate and graduate education, as well as postgraduate supervised experience.
  • Flexibility and Resilience: The path to becoming an Art Therapist requires dedication and flexibility, as you may need to navigate varying requirements, gain diverse experiences, and adapt to the evolving landscape of mental health care.

By following these steps and committing to both personal and professional growth, you can build a rewarding career as an Art Therapist, making a significant impact on the lives of those you work with through the power of art and therapy.

Organizations and Societies for Art Therapists

For Art Therapists looking to connect with professional organizations, here are some key societies and their websites:

  1. American Art Therapy Association (AATA): The AATA advances art therapy as a regulated mental health profession and supports art therapists throughout their careers. It provides resources on educational standards, certification, licensure, and continuing education, as well as opportunities for advocacy and membership in a community of professionals. For more information, visit American Art Therapy Association.
  2. International Expressive Arts Therapy Association (IEATA): IEATA encourages the creative spirit and supports expressive arts therapists, artists, educators, and consultants using integrative, multimodal arts processes for personal and community growth and transformation. It offers professional registration, educational resources, and a platform for international networking. For further details, check out IEATA.
  3. Canadian Art Therapy Association (CATA): CATA sets the standards for the education and practice of art therapy in Canada. It provides information on becoming an art therapist in Canada, including the requirements for professional and registered membership, and lists accredited Canadian art therapy programs. Visit Canadian Art Therapy Association for more specifics.

These organizations play a crucial role in supporting the professional development of Art Therapists, advocating for the profession, and ensuring the quality of art therapy education and practice. They offer a wealth of resources for anyone interested in pursuing a career in art therapy or seeking to advance their professional knowledge and skills in the field.

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