Visual Facts Interpretation in Art Therapy Practice - Dr. Rumiana P. Pankova - 04.05.2012

Dr. Rumiana P. Pankova


People wander whether art therapy is a mere interpretation of the contents of art means of expression, Images are forms of nonverbal communication and may naturally ask ourselves whether they contain hidden meaning and if possible how to interpret their contents.     Those participating in art therapies are interested in finding the meaning of their images-pictures as well.

Some people’s curiosity concerning interpretation arises from the traditional application of psychological tests for personality evaluation e.g. the Herman Rorschach test. It is quite natural to assume that since art therapy uses the images it can include their interpretation aiming at achieving evaluation or diagnoses.

To some extent art therapists are interested in the meaning of the pictures, canvases and other art forms and are often provoked by the symbolic of the images they are observing. Investigations have been conducted in order to determine whether there is any repetition in the symbols, art contents and drawing styles that may be related to emotional deviations, traumas, psychical diseases and neurological problems. For example, art therapists search for such types of contents that occur in the means of expression of adults having dissocialized disturbance or severe trauma from childhood. Art therapists have examined the symbolical and structural aspects in the drawing of mandula /circle/ in order to determine whether there is any relation between images and colors and some psychological and physical conditions. Psychologists, clinical advisors, art therapists and others examine ordinary drawings and what they may reveal about the personality, development, traumas and neurological symptoms among all the rest. That kind of work is aimed rather at the application of the means of expression in art and their evaluation than at personal development and self-understanding.

As long as there is concern in the significance of art in art therapy most of the leading therapists are focused mainly at the ways they can assist the personality creating art to find its existential way of expression in its work. To encourage people to reflect themselves in their works is an important stage of the therapeutic process due to several reasons. First, while it seems that there exist some universal symbolic in art expression the way that people express themselves is often very personal. Each one expresses his own uniqueness in his work including his previous live experience, cultural influence and personal prospective.  Second, individual experience in creating art reflects the way feelings, thoughts and ideas are transferred as well and in art therapy that aspect is immensely useful because the person creating art determines the significance of the image. These answers are part of the therapeutic process and are as personal as unique, as the whole art is.

The significance of the image is in the eyes of the creator indeed. As many people observe one and the same picture as many different aspects are to be found and accordingly completely different interpretations of the contents. If we observe a picture drawn during an art therapy session, without consulting its author for the meaning, we shall probably impose our opinion. Of course, we tend to propose or transfer our - believes, feelings, ideas and emotions upon the images we see. Finally, the meaning of the means of expression in art may be transformed in time. Usually it happens when you look at a drawing or picture created a couple of weeks ago – then toy may see new issues in it, to react in a new different way and receive new answers of what you are looking at. This is part of the magic of art and its part of the mystery when the identification of the special meaning of the drawing, the canvases or the sculpture is needed.

As long as art may be used to understand the personality that practices it to some extend; the process of art therapy and its capability to heal and rehabilitate increases. To assist people in understanding their own means of expression is essential part of art therapy but the process of art creation is as much important. Art therapy is a method with specific qualities for rehabilitation, changes and self-expression.

Visual thinking is our capability and intention to organize our feelings, thoughts and emotions concerning our environment throughout images. It includes everything we do – planning the day to our dreams through the night. Very often we use visual effects to describe our feelings for people and things we meet in our everyday life. Most of us are acquainted with the clichés: “picture is more eloquent than thousands of words” or talking about colors: “she blushed in shame”, “looking through pink glasses”. We see and define the world throughout visual descriptions, think through images and use them to express our emotions and experience.

Sigmund Freud, often referred to as the father of modern psychology, once noticed that dreams, feelings and thoughts are being lived mainly in visual forms. From that, he drew the conclusion that the frustrations of the patients, describing their dreams could be relieved if they are given the task to draw pictures of the aforementioned dreams. Freud also generalized that art is closer to the unconscious, because our visual senses include our ability of verbal express. The images are part of our earliest experiences – most of our preverbal thoughts come in the form of images and shapes. Even at older age, when we recollect an event, place or a person using our sensory modalities for sound, image, taste and smell, we also provoke a mental image of the experience.

Carl Jung, famous for his interest towards visual symbols in dreams and art, also noticed the importance of images in therapy. He observed that allowing the mood or the problem to be personalized or be presented as an image via the dreams or art, we could understand it more clearly, in depth and relive the emotions it contains within. Jung’s philosophy greatly influenced art therapy, which depends on images and memories, contained in dreams and their connection with feelings, which helps people resolve their emotional conflicts and problems.

Recent researches about dynamics of visual concepts show that traumatic experiences are often decoded in our consciousness in the form of images. This is why when we live through emotionally tough events such as violence or car crash, our consciousness could retain them as clear as photos. It seems natural that these memories come to mind in the form of "photos" first and techniques of visual art may offer us a unique way to express the traumatic scenes, bringing them to the mind in a "more indulgent" way.

Figurative language in making art is a less popular way of communication and therefore is less controlled. Contrary to that,  in some people words can be used to hide and avoid showing their real feelings. Dumb forms of expression such as creativity may be an open window towards feelings and thoughts that are hidden or inaccessible through linguistic expression. This ability of creating art can open free ways towards emotions and ideas that have remained locked in the subconscious.

It has happened to all of us to not be able to express some experiences or feelings in words. In art therapy, people are being encouraged to unlock what they could not express in words, through sculptural forms, painting or other art media.

Since expression through art is not a linear process and does not need to obey the language rules such as syntax, grammar, logic and writing correctly, it can simultaneously display all their complexity. Art therapist Harriet Wadsan calls this "spatial array of art": the ability of art to convey the relationship with space, colors and lines. For example, it is difficult to explain the relationship between family members. Depicting the interaction in the family, at different times, places and connections between members, they can be displayed in the same drawing or painting. Something that can take full paragraph of words for explanations may be offered far more clearly in a simple drawing. Ambivalent, confusing, even contradictory elements can also be collected in a drawing or painting because art, unlike language has no structural or organizational rules. This ability of art to contain paradoxical elements helps people to integrate and synthesize ambivalent feelings and experiences.

Creating art is associated with different skills - including design, decoration, molding, modeling, sculpting, painting and other professional and psychomotor techniques. Painting and sculpting are also psychomotor experiences that touch on the merits because they include vision, movement, sound and other senses, according to what materials and tools are used. As children, we learn through our senses - by scribbling on sheets of paper or playing and pretending. According to psychologist Eugene Gendlin these experiences include "felt sense" - a physical perception of the situation, person or event. Added to the thought, the felt sense is a way to make sense, which helps understanding and comprehension of the world around us.

Sensory qualities in the creation of art, often pave our path to awakening our emotions and perceptions, even easier than having to deal with words. In the case of emotional trauma, loss or violence, creativity helps to reintegrate the complex emotions expressed by our sensitivity. Since tactile sensations - such as working with clay, crayons or other surfaces - may provoke a soothing and relaxing experience, making art also can help the process of recovery and emotional healing. Sensory qualities of expression through art helps not only reduce stress but also restore and assemble the "felt sense" of traumatic memories.

Art therapy can help in the release of emotions. If we use the language of philosophy and psychology, this experience is related to catharsis. "Catharsis" literally means "clear", "treatment" and in therapy, it refers to the expression and release of strong emotions, aiming at shutting or transforming a painful experience. All emanations of Visual Arts and their new synergetic forms can have influence by reflowing painful or distressing sensations. For many people the opportunity to recreate ideas, experiences and emotions through art has a positive effect, while for others, the dialogue about the traumatic experiences, embodied in the images is a real catharsis.

The process of creation in art therapeutic model also may alleviate emotional stress and anxiety by becoming a psychologically liberating answer that changes your mood. For example, it is known that creative activity increases brain levels of serotonin, a chemical factor that is associated with depression. Some people experience the art form as a meditation and there they find their place and peace. The repetitive, soothing abilities of painting and working with clay may induce "discharge answer", calm the heart rhythm and breathing, leading to stress reduction.

Art therapy is perhaps one of the few therapeutic techniques which creates tangible product. It offers the opportunity to create something lasting, which contains meaning, expression, feelings. This constant quality of art is of obvious benefit, because it documents in a concentrated form ideas and feelings that may be seen later and compared with other images. Examination of the products of creativity generated in the weeks and months allows to see the change through time and the pattern of thoughts, feelings, events and themes.

Despite of the creative process and communication through symbols being the two main beams of the art-therapy, there are several additional aspects that may be perceived as therapeutic. In the immediate sense, making art is an activity that can bring self-esteem, encourage risk taking and experimentation, to awaken new skills and enrich your life as a whole. While these aspects of art therapy may seem like fun, creative process - to create something with your hands, out of your own fantasy - is a powerful feeling with clear positive therapeutic effects. There is something personally meaningful and true in the creation with own hands and imagination. Creating art touches many different chords of our nature. It may revive pleasant, past experiences of the children's drawings, and the pride of the completion of a clay sculpture or arrangement of photos for a collage. 



Cane, F. (1983). The artist in each of us. Craftsbury

Common, VT: Art Therapy Publications.

Hiscox,  A. &  Calisch, A. (1998). Tapestry of cultural issues in art therapy. Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publications.

Junge, M. & Paige, P. (1994). A history of art therapy in the United States. Mundelein, IL. American Art Therapy Association

Kramer, E. (1998). Childhood and art therapy (2nd ed.). Chicago: Magnolia.

Kwiatkowska, H. (1978). Family therapy and evaluation through art. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

Naumburg, M. (1987). Dynamically-oriented art therapy: Its principles and practice. Chicago: Magnolia.

Rhyne, J. (1973). The gestalt art experience. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing.

Rubin, J. (1984). Child art therapy (2nd ed.). New York: Van Nostrand/ITP.

Rubin, J. (1984). The art of art therapy. New York: Brunner/Mazel.

Rubin J. (Ed.). (2001). Approaches to art therapy. New York: Brunner/Mazel.