Three Approaches to Art Therapy

When practicing art therapy, there are typically three main approaches used: the Humanistic Approach, the Psychodynamic Theory, and Cognitive Behavioral Art Therapy. Within these three approaches, there are different strengths and weaknesses each one possesses.

The Humanistic Approach focuses on Carl Jung’s ideas, such as analytical and archetypal psychology. This type of art therapy focuses on exploring emotional conflicts, self expression, and self-actualization. To practice this approach the therapist has to be very empathetic and non-judgmental of the client because the goal is to help them. The Humanistic Approach does not have as much scientific research and proof as other therapies like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, but populations that this approach is best for suffering from grief/loss, depression, and children whose parents suffer from addiction.

The Psychodynamic Theory focuses on Freud and his follower’s beliefs in psychology. This theory focuses on the self and object consistency as well as becoming an individual. There is a larger focus on defense mechanisms as well as transference and dream analysis. An art therapist may do a string and ink painting directive with a client. A string and ink directive is when the client uses string dipped in ink, usually blue or black, to make scribbles with their eyes closed. Then they find an image within the scribbles and complete it. This therapy is very beneficial for those suffering from mood disorders and personality disorders. 

Cognitive Behavioral Art Therapy focuses on teaching the client to problem solving, stress reduction, and changing behaviors. This is a client-centered therapy with an emphasis on behavior and emotions. Play therapy is used by art therapists, especially when working with children because it puts the client at ease. For play therapy, the art therapist will knead clay or paint alongside the client. This is important because if the client feels uncomfortable or unsafe with the discussion they can redirect attention to the art directive. Populations who benifit from this are those suffering from PTSD including survivors of sexual assault, especially children, mood disorders (mainly anxiety and depression), OCD, and eating disorders. 

Humanistic Approach, the Psychodynamic Theory, and Cognitive Behavioral Art Therapy are the three main approaches used by art therapists, and there is a greater breakdown of ideas within each approach. This is just a simple summary of the three different approaches to give a better understanding of what it is an art therapist actually does and how it benefits clients. 




Malchiodi, C. A. (2012). Chapter 1 and Chapter 6. In Handbook of art therapy (pp. 11–82). essay, Guilford Press. 

Rubin, J. A. (2010). Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3. In Introduction to Art Therapy (pp. xiii-68). essay, Routledge Taylor and Francis group. 

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