Art therapy combines art and psychotherapy to give individuals a way of expressing themselves through art. Although nowadays art therapy draws more heavily on verbal psychology models, its roots go back to an innate capacity in all of us to make marks. There is something incredibly valuable in image making in which through using materials we change and transform our state of consciousness.
Anyone and everyone can engage with art therapy since no talent or art credentials are needed. And although anyone can work with art therapy, it works specifically well for those who have problems expressing or naming feelings in words or conversely people who over express verbally, allowing other channels of experience to be occupied. Art making can be a dynamic or gentle process that helps individuals reflect and allows us to embody difficult experiences and feelings.
Although there are other types of expressive therapies (such as the performing arts), art therapy typically utilises more conventional forms of art making such as painting, drawing, sculpture, illustration, photography or any other type of visual art expression or art media. Art therapists have a deep understanding of art processes and therapeutic practice, and work with individuals and groups in a variety of settings, such as in private practise, adult mental health services, with early trauma or pre-verbal abuse, with learning disabilities, child and family centres, palliative care and the prison and forensic services.
Many different approaches and theories inform art therapy, with influences from the psychodynamic models, humanistic and cognitive, behaviour or developmental. All these different art therapy approaches work with clients in different ways. Some may act primarily as a witness to the art making journey, others act as interpreters of the art work, encouraging transference and controlling the understandings of symbolic significance, while others leave the discovery and insight to the client.
Art therapists place a lot of importance on holding the space, observing during the process, and reflecting with the client afterward. In classic art therapy, the therapist stands further back, and although they might invite you to draw and reflect on image making, intervention is not emphasised. Art therapy arguably has its roots in the open studio environment where anyone could come and make images and work through things internally without talking to anyone or intervention.
I use art therapy in my practise through the model of Process Work which encourages active intervention and engagement with the process and as a model it gives therapists permission and a means of coming in more, rather than standing back. But clearly art therapy and Process Work differ as a Process Worker is not trained as an art therapist and does not have the background or deep understanding of how to work or support his client to work with such a vast array of art materials, perhaps even the sanctity of work or theoretical knowledge around image making.
Materials used in art therapy are limited only by the therapist’s imagination and might include paper, canvas, poster board, paints, pastels, inks, markers, pencils, charcoals, fabrics, string, adhesives, clay, wood, glazes, wire, bendable metals and natural items like shells or leaves. Providing an assortment of colours and textures can enhance and enrich the process, allowing for more diversity within the image making exploration.
The art therapist knows how to use the materials and is trained to make links between her own internal world and what comes out in image. She has a theoretical understanding of diagrammatic images where a rudimentary or linear image reveals unspoken memories and embodied images where no words can substitute for the image as feeling is communicated through it. The art therapist also takes time to create the space, places emphasis on respecting the atmosphere, the client’s folders and taking care to look after the work produced. They would also take time to look back at the work with the client to see how things have developed over time, supporting a reflection on their own work.
So you get a sense of how Process Work addresses working with art in a therapeutic setting, I’ll discuss a recent client session, with a lady I’ll call Jane. We began with me asking Jane to feel the feelings of the issue she was working on and focus and find a way to express those feelings by choosing the materials. I asked her to see what attracted her attention and what she liked the idea of working with. She chose to work with pastel as this is a familiar medium for her. She said she knew it would allow her to feel freer in her image making. I asked her to use the pastels without thinking too much. I suggested that she feel the feelings and make marks using those feelings, and asked her to image what her experience would look like on paper. She felt the energy and then drew it.
My invitation to use the materials in whichever way she chose is a kind of ‘blank access’. With a blank page and a variety of different materials at her disposal, the emerging process is already supported to move forward. Both an art therapist and Process Worker might work in this way, but Process Work differs in that it observes the process even before this point of blank access.
What’s different in Process Work is that a client’s process might need amplification in a different channel even before the image making process is explored. For example, perhaps a client needs to go into movement or focus on the auditory channel before beginning the process of working with the materials. In my work with Jane, she needed to access her proprioception before she could put pastel to page.
Unlike art therapy, the Process Work model focuses on the structure of process, one way of doing this is through identifying and distinguishing between a primary and secondary process. The primary process is that which we are more identified with, more familiar with, which we often value more highly in ourselves, this might contain both conscious and unconscious material. A secondary process refers to that which is by and large less conscious and with which we identify less. Often secondary processes are in conflict with the values of the primary identity and disturb the primary identity.
The Process Worker’s task is to unravel and bring awareness into the secondary process. Early in my session with Jane, I reflected that her initial marks looked like an amazing bird of paradise and I sounded their mating call, she agreed with this, but then gave clear feedback that she didn’t want to draw a bird of paradise. At this point we didn’t know where the bird existed in the structure of her process. Later we discovered that something in her wanted to keep things harmonious, nice, easy and pretty (the bird), and that she’s holding back from making a mess (with people and on the paper). At this point, we knew the bird is more primary and the mess more secondary. So we follow the secondary.
Art therapy also encourages awareness around what is conscious and unconscious, and an unfolding of the unconscious to bridge the gap between conscious and unconscious material, illuminating blocks and inhibitions along the way. For example, an art therapist would work with the way things are placed on paper, perhaps a house is drawn with closed curtains. She might then help to notice that and bring it to awareness. In a Jungian sense, she might also encourage the art maker to dream it on, finding out if there’s a narrative behind the image i.e. I wonder who is in the house.
In Process Work, the ‘edge’ separates the primary and secondary processes through its belief system. It is at this point, at the edge, that we begin to double signal, and the conflict between the primary and secondary begins to escalate. Edges help to generate awareness of how we hold ourselves back or experience being held back – they are like limiting belief systems. In image making, an edge might be depicted visually as something that can’t be bridged or moved beyond, such as a cliff or black boundaries. A Process Worker might challenge the client to move over the edge, or just navigate the edge.
Working closely with the edge in this way requires Process Work training working with the channels of human experience (visual, auditory, movement, proprioceptive, relationship, world and spiritual) to gauge what is primary and secondary, enabling a client to switch to more occupied channels where needed. An occupied channel is where the client might feel more comfortable, lets say they can hear the bird of paradise, then that would be something to follow, as it’s where the experience naturally flows – like a Taoist, it’s best to follow nature. Then we might pay close attention to our own internal process as a therapist, our environment’s signals and our responses, something more unique to Process Work.
When working with Jane, it was clear she had an edge to making a mess. To help her over that edge, I encouraged her to make a mess on another piece of paper first. I was following her feedback as to what was primary and secondary and picked up the mess being secondary, and keeping thing harmonious as primary. In conventional art therapy too, the therapist might offer a new piece of paper, but add more emphasis on reflection of what came up when making those images, inviting the client to notice and perhaps asking them to think about the process of making a mess and where else that might be difficult in life.
A Process Work therapist prefers to just track the process. I might amplify a dream, bringing it back to life, or hunt the disturber. My role is to find out about the different parts or critics, help unravel where they come from, while also amplifying the process and bringing awareness to it. Process Work is interested in working with and amplifying all the channels. When amplifying the visual channel, the Process Worker might ask the client to see or look in more detail, asking what they notice when they are looking, or perhaps the feedback suggests making the colours more vivid, a red even more red.
Inviting someone to draw is an amplification method on its own. I asked Jane to not hold back in her image making on the new paper so she didn’t muddy the bird – her primary process, which was obviously sacred to her. As she spoke of wanting to come from the deepest part of herself, I asked her what the deep part of her wanted to do and she said that it just wants to be messy. So I supported the deep part to come out and do whatever it wants with no restrictions. I amplified this by affirming it’s the deepest part.
Around this point she noticed how she internally projected out her own inauthenticity (the bird) onto me, experiencing my support as inauthentic. She noticed then that the part that wanted to allow mess doesn’t suffer fools and lies. We are then clear that the bird is the primary part that goes along with people’s games even though she sees them very early on. She notices a movement that arises with the mess and she gets a sense of its annihilative energy which she fears – she doesn’t want the paper to become a brown mess. I agreed that it might not be pretty, and she grapples with the payoffs from both roles – the one that’s harmonious and the messy one that’s threatens that.
As she looked at the picture, she was feeling freer and noticed that she was less worried about the outcome. She also noticed that actually it didn’t look very messy at all, and that the mess, in fact, enabled something. She noticed sceptres in the picture too, sharp edges and how those sceptres bring out the mess. She brought in some personal history around this, around fearing disappointing people but knowing that she was not doing a service to people at a deeper level unless she allowed for mess. She realised that she can also trust the mess, despite her edges around it. She realised that this helps her live and trust the mess more and she got excited as she noticed that the inharmonious colours are actually quite appealing.
Another difference between art therapy and Process Work is occupied and unoccupied channels. If a client’s process becomes submerged in an unoccupied channel, where they are not familiar, such as with an extreme state of consciousness (psychosis etc), the Process Worker would switch channels out of the unoccupied channel into a more occupied channel. Channels automatically couple, and a Process Worker might add in channels to create a more multi-channelled experience of the process, especially if a process has gone as far as it can in one channel. This helps to amplify the process.
In Process Work, art making could be likened to a composite channel, as all the other channels of our experience are used when working with image making. A Process Worker, noticing other channels coupling, might support the amplification process by intervening to give the client materials that support the unfolding of those other channels. Art materials have their own intrinsic properties, and different materials support different channels, each helping access processes in a different way. For example, clay supports someone bring out strength, proprioception and movement channels – whether it is physical or emotional strength. Working with fingers prints could support early buried memories to surface. Whereby, visual images might require an art material that enables a strong representation of colour.
Art expression and the image making process create visual metaphors or symbols that describe perceptions, experiences, beliefs or emotions. Spontaneous art making helps to express inner experiences and unconscious forces as felt senses are projected into image making. Art making allows expression of symbolism, metaphor and feeling with much of the same freedom of dreams. When working with expressive art making, the unconscious is readily drawn forth and unearthed in ways not always accessible through talking therapy, for example mask making might deepen understanding of a client’s deep sub-personality, something very secondary to a client.
Process Work might amplify the work of a sub-personality mask by then encouraging a playing out of the different roles, the critic or attitudes displayed or constellating in response in the therapist. The Process Worker might swap roles, helping the less occupied role also have more awareness. All roles and parts in the process are brought into awareness to support client wholeness. This is slightly different to Jungian work with art which aims for a synthesis, integration and resolution between inner, subjective experiences and external reality. As Process Work respects the diversity within the wholeness, it encourages each part to be lived more fully, and integration may or may not be a part of that.
In art therapy, symbolic meanings found in art making can be important, but symbols tend to ask for interpretation. Metaphors, on the other hand, generate description and multi-layered meanings rather than a single interpretation; and it’s this metaphoric experience of art expression that is generally explored in art therapy. For example, interpreting a snake as a sexual symbol as opposed to exploring its other aspects through metaphor, like its texture or what it might say illuminates the metaphoric qualities and personal meaning.
Process Work is similarly not interested in the interpretation of symbols, but in the entirety of all the experience and the personal, subjective meaning for the client. We encourage clients to give shape to their experiences in a form that closely reflects their experience. So while an art therapist might confine herself to drawing the snake and perhaps adding texture and narrative, dependent on feedback a Process Worker might be interested in how the body of the snake exists in the client in the here and now. Process Work does not confine itself to any one or two channels of expression and is always looking for where the future self, in the moment is expressing itself in hidden ways.