How do I Become an Art Therapist?

Dee S.
Dee S.

Art therapy is a profession in the mental health field that lets a patient create art in the form of paintings, sculptures, drawings, or other creative measures so that her emotions can be revealed. Feelings are brought forward, thoughts are expressed, and conflicts are resolved through art rather than through verbal communication. Colors, details, spatial arrangements, proportions, and technique are examined by the art therapist to determine how the patient sees her world. In general, the patient is using art to show her subconscious thoughts, feelings, desires, and fears. Consequently, the decision to become an art therapist can be very rewarding.

Art therapists help people communicate feelings through art.
Art therapists help people communicate feelings through art.

The path that one must take to become an art therapist is fairly specific. Art therapists must meet specific educational standards. Each country has their own select standards for those wishing to become an art therapist. For example, in the United States, the standards are set out by the American Art Therapy Association and in England, they are dictated by the British Association of Art Therapists; however, in France art therapy is not recognized as a “true” profession – so there is no regulation and anyone can call themselves an art therapist. In the countries where art therapists are regulated, students must have a master’s level education in art therapy or counseling with an emphasis on art therapy, if they want to practice professionally.

Art therapists usually begin with their own background in a specific medium.
Art therapists usually begin with their own background in a specific medium.

The master’s degree programs usually include courses in pathological art expression and normal art expression. There are often courses that specialize in art therapy with children and those with special education needs. Other courses that may be taken by those wishing to become an art therapist include art therapy with stroke patients, therapeutic counseling, psychotherapy, and other courses dedicated to psychology – such as how the alter ego defends itself, theories of personalities, and clinical treatment issues.

Classwork is only the tip of the iceberg for those who want to become an art therapist. In most cases, many hours of studio fieldwork experience are also required – especially for those art therapists who want to become registered. Usually, the student is encouraged to intern at a variety of settings – from clinics to hospitals to community centers to treatment centers. By experiencing each kind of setting, an art therapist can decide where she would to work. For example, some art therapists may prefer to work in psychiatric centers and others may find work at prisons or halfway houses fulfilling.

On a personal level, there are also qualifications to become an art therapist. Someone must be sensitive to the emotions of her patients; she must have empathy and be emotionally stable, herself. She must also have plenty of patience – a breakthrough can take time and patients can be very fragile on an emotional level. She must also have strong interpersonal skills and communications skills, as well. She must also understand art media.

Dee S.
Dee S.

Dee is a freelance writer based in Colorado. She has a B.A. in English Literature, as well as a law degree. Dee is especially interested in topics relating to medicine, legal issues, and home improvement, which are her specialty when contributing to wiseGEEK.

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Discussion Comments


I find this job amazing. I want to pursue this career, hopefully. I just graduated high school, and I'm about to enroll in college in a few months, but can someone tell me what courses I should go into?

I want to work someday in a mental institution, or a prison/correctional facility teaching them art. I do understand that I need to go to university like DEF if I want to make some good cash, and do my masters, but I'm starting off in college because I'm not ready for uni just yet. I get that it's the long way to do it, but it's the best for me.

I guess what I'm saying is I just need someone to tell me what to take because I have no clue how to get to where I want to be. Should I take community studies, criminology, social work classes, victimology or justice studies? And what do I take in uni? Please someone, help. The counselors at the college have absolutely no idea. Your help will be greatly appreciated!


I work as an art teacher and I have followed Montessori Method to work with young kids. I just realized that as an art teacher I should have to do more than teaching art. Since my teenage I involved work with kids in streets. I want to help more kids with my understanding and experiences. So I decided to be an art therapist.


Can anyone give me some more information about how to become an art therapist in Switzerland? I am really interested in this career, but I can't find any information on how to get started.

I am worried that I will have to go out of the country to get the training, and then come back and set up my own practice -- do you think that this is the best way to go?

If anyone has more information on this topic I would be very grateful for your input.

Thank you.


I think it is such a shame that many people don't recognize art therapy as a "real" job. My best friend is an art therapist (one of the very few male ones), and it is work, believe you me.

My buddy works with prisoners, and you wouldn't believe the kind of stuff that he finds out, and how involved he ends up getting in these people's lives. He says sometimes its more "therapist" than "art" -- something about drawing or creating just opens up the floodgates on these people, and they pour out their life stories to you.

I really admire him, because I could never do that -- it's just too emotionally involved for me. Call me damaged or whatever (or send me to an art therapist), but I just can't get that close to people -- it's too much for me, but I really, really admire those people who can do it.

They deserve a lot more respect than they get.


I have a friend who is becoming an art therapist, and she says that it is the most challenging, yet rewarding thing she has ever done. Many people think that to become an art therapist is just to become a teacher -- but it's really so much more.

My friend Steph is training to work with young children who come from abusive backgrounds, so she really sees a lot of very rough stuff, even in their drawings and artwork. It's not really a 9 to 5 job, and it's not something that you can really just leave when you go home.

She says that you really become personally involved with your clients, and it can be really draining. I know you mentioned that art therapists need to be emotionally sensitive, but I would say that's a little bit of an understatement. You have to be willing to really live through these people's pain, because it's what you see and encourage them to produce.

All in all, it's a very emotional job -- but according to Steph, rewarding when you realize that you have helped someone heal.

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