As a therapist, I have a range of materials that clients can draw on in their therapy to help them make sense of their experiences and drawing or painting are used by many clients.
When clients first come to visit, they are offered the opportunity to complete a ‘projective drawing’. This is a drawing that shows a person, a tree and a house and it is used as a way of seeing how the client views their inner world, their relationships with others and their place in the world. I always offer some time to talk about the drawing with the client after they have completed it and I learn so much about how they see themselves through the drawing and our conversation.
Using drawings to understand people is not new, it dates back to the 1920s and has more recently been developed and it is these works that inform our understanding as therapists.
In sessions, clients always have the opportunity to use art materials if they choose. Carl Jung’s work on the importance of images and symbols is key to how we interpret art (and sand trays) as therapists. Jung (and Freud) considered drawings to contain key images and symbols from the unconscious brain and it is generally considered that pictures from the unconscious cannot be as easily masked or hidden as verbal communications.
Gregg Furth says that ‘to know ourselves we need to bring into consciousness what is submerged in our unconscious’ and clients can learn a lot by looking closely at their art and being guided by a therapist’s knowledge and experience. As with sand trays, a therapist should never directly interpret a client’s art: their own private symbolic language may be completely different to the accepted interpretations of symbols.
When looking with a client at their art, my intention is always to learn from the client’s perspective. I might ‘wonder’ or ‘notice’ or be ‘curious’ about something, but it is always the client’s interpretation that is important. It is also important to note that although I will notice a huge amount in a client’s artwork, not everything I notice needs to be said: the journey to understanding is the client’s and well-chosen words are the most powerful.
As a therapist, every aspect of a drawing or painting is interesting. This includes the choice of materials, if a rubber is used, colours, shapes, directions of movement, placement of objects, size of objects, repeated objects, missing items, the order in which the artwork is completed and much more. Obviously not every element appears in every piece of art and the finished piece must be considered as a whole as well as its individual elements.
Sometimes clients don’t want to talk about their artwork or respond to the therapist’s thought and that’s OK. In therapy, whether the client is working in clay, sand, paint, pencil, with miniatures or anything else, the work will speak to a therapist in a far deeper way than the client sometimes chooses to, and that’s the joy of a therapy that isn’t talking-based. Words can help clarify what a client is thinking, but their work will speak too.
Working though art is a very comfortable and safe way of communicating for children and young people and they often find that sharing their world and their experiences through their artwork is easier than talking. Particularly, when dealing with extremely negative experiences such as trauma or abuse, art allows a client to ‘speak the unspeakable’ – they can share the experience without having to put it into words and can work through metaphor which adds another layer of safety for them when reviewing the situation.
Ultimately, art gives clients another language in which to share their experiences and allows them and the therapist to communicate through images, with their shared understanding deepening the effectiveness of the therapy.