When you imagine life in your future career of art therapist, there’s a good chance that you’re focusing on just one facet of the profession. Developing the artistic experiences that help clients work through feelings, cope with physical and mental health issues and improve their wellbeing through better emotional understanding and functioning is only one of the responsibilities art therapists handle during a typical day in the profession. Art therapists also spend their workdays observing, communicating and managing paperwork and written records that include treatment plans and progress notes. Although certain aspects of an art therapist’s job are more appealing than others, it is the sum of all of your efforts that allow clients to see real growth and improvement.

Observation

In every task you undertake as an art therapist, you will use your observational skills. When you first meet a new client, you need to assess his or her needs so you can establish goals and figure out a treatment plan to help accomplish those goals. This treatment plan can be dynamic, shifting and changing as you observe your client’s progress and response to different artistic activities and therapeutic interventions. As your client works on the creative exercises you developed, observing where the client gets stuck or frustrated and how the client’s verbal and nonverbal communication changes can help you understand what further guidance you need to offer as well as how the activity is impacting the client.

Not everything you observe in an art therapy session is something that needs to be brought to the client’s attention or addressed right away. Some observations serve as benchmarks against which you can measure progress over time.

Communication

Art therapy may be considered a “nonverbal” form of therapy or counseling, but researchers say that designation is really a misnomer. Although the focus of art therapy is on understanding and exploring through creative expression rather than talk therapy, the written and spoken communication involved in this area of practice is crucial. In fact, art therapists report that the number-one most important task in their occupation is talking with their clients. Through talking, they build the client-therapist relationship, determine what sort of creative activities best fit the client’s needs and abilities, guide and instruct the client and reflect on the client’s creative process and the insights gained from it.

In addition to communicating with the client, you might also communicate and collaborate with other members of the client’s treatment team as well as the parents of minor clients.

Paperwork

Perhaps no one really enjoys doing paperwork, but the task is a necessary responsibility for art therapists, and it’s required more often than you might think. Art therapists must create written records of therapy sessions, including case summaries and progress reports, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). As a clinical practice, art therapy doesn’t mean the therapist chooses expressive activities at random or on a whim. Rather, the therapist creates a treatment plan for each individual client. That plan may include other therapeutic interventions besides artistic activities, such as traditional mental health counseling practices or psychotherapy techniques.

If your services are being paid through health insurance coverage, you may have some paperwork responsibilities related to insurance billing and coding. How extensive these responsibilities are vary by employer, with some having personnel dedicated to this work.

What Is a Typical Day in the Life of an Art Therapist Like?

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Designing and Guiding Art Activities

Developing, selecting and carrying out the creative experiences utilized in art therapy is, in all likelihood, the job duty that attracted you to this career in the first place. Fortunately, designing art activities and conducting these sessions are among the top three most important tasks in this career field. As you develop activities, you will draw from your graduate-level knowledge of counseling and psychology as well as art. You must make a lot of decisions, including the artistic medium and materials the client will use in the activity and what task you are asking the client to perform. In one-on-one art therapy sessions, you may tailor your activities more to fit an individual client’s needs, while activities used in group sessions might be more general.

Whether your client is painting, drawing, sculpting, creating a collage or using another form of media, he or she is relying on you to drive progress – and not only through the use of your technical knowledge of studio art. Rather than evaluating the quality of the client’s art or technique, you’re providing guidance to enhance the self-expression that is the goal of art therapy. By helping your client choose an element of the work of art to focus on and prompting him or her to think or talk about that aspect of expression, you can help bring about new insights.

The way you communicate the task to clients can change how they approach the experience and what they gain out of it. You may see different creative processes and artwork when asking clients what they want to become versus what they want to leave behind.

Additional Resources

What Does an Art Therapist Do?

What Makes Someone a Good Art Therapist?

Where Do Art Therapists Work?