How is art therapy different to colouring books?

Below is an excerpt from an interview I did with alternative health podcaster Sarah Kottman a few months back, addressing the question of how art therapy is or isn’t different from colouring in books.

Here is my answer to that question:

I know coloring books are extremely popular at the moment, and in and of themselves I think they’re delightful, but they’re not art therapy. That’s my personal and also my professional opinion.

I love the fact that people are yearning for simpler and more hands-on experience. In colouring in people can enter a state of complete focus and attention to detail and appreciation of beauty, of color and of lovely designs and lovely images, I think there’s a really simple aesthetic delight in that. I don’t see that that is harmful in any way. I think it’s a lovely addition to somebody’s toolkit of relaxation, in the same way that that having hot bath or a nice cup of tea at the end of a stressful day is a great thing to have in your toolkit. I certainly really see the pleasure that people get from adult coloring books.

What I would say, though, is that they’re not the same thing as art therapy in the clinical way that that phrase “art therapy” has been used by art therapists in the many Art Therapy Associations around the world for many many decades now; as they’ve defined and evolved this profession and this craft.

The reason that they’re not the same as art therapy really links to a couple of the things I think I mentioned earlier. The relationship with the therapist is something that you don’t have when you’re working by yourself on a coloring book. Also, the processing of emotions and the opportunity to really develop the witness is missing, again, from this kind of one-on-one joyful, pleasant, stress-relieving activity of coloring-in. I see them as far, far, far distant cousins, if you’d like. They’re somewhere on the same family tree, but they’re certainly not the same thing and they’re not even that close relative.

I use the example sometimes of massage. A lot of people know that massage is a lovely therapeutic intervention to have if you have a pulled muscle or you have stress and tension in your body, etc. Now, on the one hand, you could choose to give yourself a little bit of a shoulder rub at home, and you’re probably not going to do any harm, and it might feel quite nice and it might be pleasant for that shoulder. But, you’re not going to be able to reach all around you. If your shoulder is sore to start with, you might not have the full range of movement to actually give it a really effective massage. If you’re injured in some way, you quite possibly don’t have the skills and experience and knowledge to know how to best use massage to heal yourself, where to focus, what kinds of pressure, what kinds of touch.

I use this in a metaphoric sense to draw the parallel between making at home or coloring at home and working with an art therapist. The benefit of working with an art therapist is that you’re drawing on skills and knowledge and experience of somebody who makes this their key area of work and makes art-making for the purpose of healing, for the purpose of therapeutic benefit their core business. It’s another scale altogether of experience that you’re able to have. We are social creatures. There’s something to be said about the powerful healing benefit of actually sharing with somebody else and being heard and being received and being affirmed.

That’s what coloring books, as lovely as they are in their own way, they don’t have to offer.

Self-guided art making can be a healing tool, I recommend it for my clients and use it myself. I certainly encourage people to continue a healthy art-making practice as part of their on-going well-being strategy. And I think that creative expression outside the lines, what we do when we’re faced with a blank page, can be even more interesting than what we do when we’re facing a coloring book. Making art from scratch requires us to trust ourselves and access a creative side of ourselves, take a risk, and allow something brand new to come into the world. It also allows us to express the good the bad and the ugly – art making can be really physical, really channeling and expressing our emotions in a very tangible way. We might make artwork that is angry, sad, bleak, quirky, curious, funny, joyful, beautiful. We have the full range of expression available to us when we go outside the lines.

But you know what? Modern life is very busy, and a lot of people are operating under very high levels of stress almost around the clock. That’s not a particularly healthy state for our nervous system to be in. It’s actually really great if people, as I say, have different things in their toolkit just for their daily stress relief and well-being. Perhaps they could also think about adding some other art-making or perhaps working in groups or working with an art therapist to go in the kit as well.

To hear the rest of the podcast head over HERE.


If you’d like to try art therapy techniques first hand why not sign up for my Wednesday night Women’s Wellbeing Group held face to face in Glebe, Sydney. It starts this week! See what other clients are saying about this and other groups with me.

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