Expressive Art Therapy – What is it, How Can it Help and How You Can Do it

What is Expressive Art Therapy

Arts and Health is the practice of using the arts to improve health and well being, prevent disease and enhance health care experiences for patients and their families. It is a speciality arts discipline which is recognised both in Australia and overseas and is often referred to as expressive psychotherapy.


The use of the arts in health can offer us much more than simply feeling good. Art Therapy has been clinically shown to be a valuable tool by:

  • Reducing medication needs
  • Increasing tolerance of symptoms/treatment
  • Providing comfort and reduce stress and anxiety
  • Helping to alleviate pain
  • Allowing creative expression where words can not
  • Shortening lengths of stay in hospital
  • Enhancing capacity to resolve social issues
  • Promoting a sense of connection to the world around us
  • Transcending our immediate worries, fostering mindfulness
  • Expanding and enhancing our senses and perception/shifting our awareness
  • Be ‘in the moment’ and slowing down to allow for engagement
  • Being meaningfully productive
  • Increasing self-awareness and self-knowledge
  • Developing positive interpersonal relationships

Types of Expressive Therapies

  • Art therapy uses medians such as drawing, painting, sketching, collages of images, the creative process as well as the reflections of development, abilities, personality, interests, concerns, and conflicts. It is a therapeutic means of reconciling emotional conflicts, fostering self-awareness, developing social skills, managing behaviour, solving problems, reducing anxiety, aiding reality orientation, and increasing self-esteem.
  • Music therapy uses music to effect positive changes in the psychological, physical, cognitive, or social functioning of individuals with health or educational.
  • Drama therapy is the systematic and intentional use of drama/ theatre processes, products, and associations to achieve the therapeutic goals of symptom relief, emotional and physical integration, and personal growth. It is an active approach that helps the client tell his or her story to solve a problem, achieve a catharsis, extend the depth and breadth of inner experience, understand the meaning of images, and strengthen the ability to observe personal roles while increasing flexibility between roles.
  • Dance/movement therapy interrelates the body and mind and is defined as the psycho therapeutic use of movement as a process that furthers the emotional, cognitive, and physical integration of the individual. Dance/movement therapy effects changes in feelings, cognition, physical functioning, and behaviour.
  • Poetry therapy and bibliotherapy are terms used synonymously to describe the intentional use of poetry and other forms of literature for healing and personal growth. Often tis includes private journal writing.
  • Play therapy is the systematic use of a theoretical model to establish an interpersonal process wherein trained play therapists use the therapeutic powers of play to help clients prevent or resolve psychosocial difficulties and achieve optimal growth and development.


Understanding Emotions

  • Draw or paint your emotions. In this exercise, you’ll focus entirely on painting what you’re feeling.
  • Create an emotion wheel. Using colour, this activity will have you thinking critically about your emotions.
  • Make a stress painting. Choose colours that represent your stress and jab, scribble and paint your problems away.
  • Put together a journal. Journals don’t have to just be based around words. You can make an art journal as well, that lets you visually express your emotions.
  • Make sock puppets. Sock puppets aren’t just for kids. Make your own and have them act out scenes that make you upset.
  • Use line art. Line is one of the simplest and most basic aspects of art, but it can also contain a lot of emotion. Use simple line art to demonstrate visually how you’re feeling.
  • Design a postcard you will never send. Are you still angry or upset with someone in your life? Create a postcard that expresses this, though you don’t have to ever send it.
  • Create a sculpture of your anger. For this activity, you’ll make a physical manifestation of the anger in your life.
  • Paint a mountain and a valley. The mountain can represent a time where you were happy, the valley, when you were sad. Add elements that reflect specific events as well.
  • Attach a drawing or message to a balloon. Send away negative emotions or spread positive ones by attaching a note or drawing to a balloon and setting it free.
  • Paint inside a heart. Using a heart as a pattern, fill in different parts of the heart with the emotions you’re feeling right now.


Exercises for Relaxation

  • Paint to music. Letting your creativity flow in response to music is a great way to let out feelings and just relax.
  • Make a scribble drawing. With this activity, you’ll turn a simple scribble into something beautiful, using line, colour and your creativity.
  • Finger paint. Finger painting isn’t just fun for kids– adults can enjoy it as well. Get your hands messy and really have fun spreading paint around.
  • Make a mandala. Whether you use the traditional sand or draw one on your own, this meditative symbol can easily help you to loosen up.
  • Draw in the dark. Not being able to judge what you’re drawing or having to worry about whether it’s “right” can be very liberating.
  • Draw something HUGE. Then something very small. Getting your body involved and moving around can help release stress as you’re drawing.
  • Use colour blocks. Colours often come with a lot of emotions attached. Choose several paint chips to work with and collage, paint, and glue until you’ve created a colourful masterpiece.
  • Let yourself be free. Don’t allow yourself to judge your work. After all, there’s no way to fail and no right way to make art. Just draw, paint or sculpt until your heart’s content, it is about the action, not the final product.
  • Only use colours that calm you. Create a drawing or a painting using only colours that you find calming.
  • Draw in sand. Like a Zen garden, this activity will have you drawing shapes and scenes in the sand, which can be immensely relaxing and a great way to clear your mind.
  • Make a zentangle. These fun little drawings are a great tool for letting go and helping reduce stress.
  • Colour in a design. Sometimes, the simple act of colouring can be a great way to relax. Find a colouring book or use this mandala for coloring.
  • Draw outside. Working in the environment can be a fun way to relax and get in touch with nature while you’re working on art.

Reflecting on Personal Happiness

  • Draw your vision of a perfect day. Think about what constitutes a perfect day to you and draw or paint it. What about this drawing can you make happen today?
  • Take photographs of things you think are beautiful. No one else needs to like them but you. Print and frame them to have constant reminders of the beautiful things in life.
  • Make a drawing related to a quote you like. Take the words of wisdom from someone else and turn them into something visually inspiring.
  • Create a drawing that represents freedom. This activity has you think about the concept of freedom and what it means to you, creating a work of art that highlights just what it means to you as an individual.
  • Document a spiritual experience. Have you ever had a spiritual experience in your life? Draw or paint what it felt like.
  • Make a stuffed animal. Soft, cuddly objects can be very comforting. Use this project to create an animal that means something to you.
  • Work on a softness project. Using only soft or comforting objects, create a work of art.
  • Build a “home.” What does home mean to you? This activity will have you create a safe, warm place– it doesn’t have to be practical– that feels like home to you.
  • Document an experience where you did something you didn’t think you could do. We all need to do things that we’re scared or unsure of sometimes. Use this activity as a chance to commemorate one instance in your life.
  • Think up a wild invention. This invention should do something that can help make you happier– no matter what that is.
  • Make a prayer flag. Send your prayers for yourself or those around you out into the universe with this project.


Portraits for Getting to Know Yourself

  • Create a future self-portrait. This drawing or painting should reflect where you see yourself in the future.
  • Draw a bag self-portrait. On the outside of a paper bag, you’ll create a self-portrait. On the inside, you’ll fill it with things that represent who you are.
  • Choose the people who matter most to you in life and create unique art for each. This is a great way to acknowledge what really matters to you and express your gratitude.
  • Draw a portrait of someone who changed your life. If someone has ever helped change your path, for better or worse, draw this person.
  • Create an image that represents how you think others see you. Then, have someone in the class draw a portrait of you. Compare the results.
  • Draw yourself as a warrior. Start thinking about yourself as a strong, capable person by drawing yourself as a warrior in this activity.
  • Create a transformational portrait series. This project will help you to see how you’ve changed over time and represent those changes visually.
  • Create a body image sketch. If you have issues with your self-esteem and body image, this can be an interesting way to see how your perceptions match up with reality.
  • Draw a mirror. This activity is based around a Piet Mondrian quote: “The purer the artist’s mirror is, the more true reality reflects in it.” You’ll need to figure out what is still cloudy in your own reflection of yourself, drawing a mirror and depicting those elements on paper.
  • Draw yourself as a superhero. If you could have a superpower what would it be? This project asks you to depict your own image as a superhero with these powers.


Overcoming Trauma and Unhappiness

  • Draw a place where you feel safe. The world can be a scary place but in this project, you’ll create a place, draw, painted or sculpted, that makes you feel safe.
  • Create a mini-diorama. This diorama can highlight an important moment in your life or some trauma that you’ve experienced.
  • Create a collage of your worries. What worries you in your life? Cut out pictures from magazines to represent these worries.
  • Draw something that scares you. Everyone is frightened of something and in this project, you’ll get a chance to bring that fear to light and hopefully work towards facing it.
  • Turn your illness into art. Facing a potentially terminal illness? Turn your illness into something beautiful by creating art about it.
  • Paint a loss in your life. If you’ve lost someone you love or something, paint it. This will help you to remember but also to recover.
  • Make art that is ephemeral. Sometimes we have a hard time letting go, but this project will teach you that it’s ok if something doesn’t last. Use materials like sand, chalk, paper, or water to create art that you will destroy when it’s done.



  • Create a motivational collage. You can hang this collage somewhere you’ll see it every day. Filled with images you find motivating, it’ll help you keep pushing on.
  • Create a face collage on a mask. We all wear masks of some sort. This project lets you highlight what’s in your mask and the face you put on for the world.
  • Create a clutter collage. Are there things cluttering up your life? In this project, use words and pictures to show the clutter in your way.
  • Create a calming collage. Choose images that you find soothing, calming or even meditative and combine them to create an attractive collage that can help you to relax.
  • Collage a painting. To complete this exercise, you’ll first need to create a simple, abstract painting on paper. Then, tear this painting up and create another. Think about how you felt when you had to tear up the first painting and which you like more.


Exploring the Self

  • Draw images of your good traits. Creating drawings of your good traits will help you to become more positive and build a better self-image.
  • Draw yourself as an animal. Is there an animal that you have a special interest in or feel like is a kindred spirit? Draw yourself as that animal.
  • Create a timeline and draw the most significant moments in your life. This timeline will be the story of your life, with the most important moments highlighted visually.
  • Put together a jungle animal collage. Choose jungle animals that you find the most interesting, draw them, and then reflect on why you’ve chosen these specific animals.
  • Sculpt your ideal self. If you could make yourself into the perfect person, what would you look like?
  • Paint the different sides of yourself. In this project, you’ll paint the different aspects of your personality, giving each a visual representation. You might only have one or two, or maybe even twelve.
  • Make art around your fingerprints. Your fingerprints are as unique as you are. Use ink and paint to make art that uses your fingerprints.
  • Draw yourself as a tree. Your roots will be loaded with descriptions of things that give you strength and your good qualities, while your leaves can be the things that you’re trying to change.
  • Design a fragments box. In this project, you’ll put fragments of yourself into a box, helping construct a whole and happier you.
  • Paint an important childhood memory. What was a pivotal memory in your childhood? This activity asks you to document it and try to understand why it was so important to you.
  • Write and illustrate a fairy tale about yourself. If you could put yourself into a happily ever after situation, what role would you play and how would the story go? Create a book that tells the tale.
  • Design a visual autobiography. This creative journaling project asks you to look back at your life and make a visual representation of it.
  • Create your own coat of arms. Choose symbols that represent your strengths to build your own special coat of arms.
  • Draw a comic strip about a funny moment in your life. Enjoy a moment of levity with this exercise that will focus in on a comical even that happened to you.
  • Create a box of values. First, collage or paint a box the represents you. Then, place items inside the box that represent the things you value the most.


Expressing Gratitude

  • Document your gratitude visually. What things are you grateful for in your life? Paint or collage a work that represents these things.
  • Create a family tree of strength. This exercise honours those around you who support you. Paint those close to you who offer you the strength you need.
  • Make something for someone else. Making something for someone else can be a great way to feel good and help someone else do so as well.
  • Make anchor art. Who are the anchors in your life? In this project, you’ll make an anchor and decorate it with the people and things that provide you stability and strength.
  • Draw all the positive things in your life. Everyone has at least one good thing in life, so sit down and figure out what makes you happy– then draw it.
  • Sculpt your hand in plaster. Once it’s dry, write all the good things you can do with it right onto the hand.
  • Paint a rock. This project is meant to offer you strength. You can approach it in two ways. One option is to paint the rock with things that empower you. The other is to paint it with struggles you overcome.
  • Write on leaves to create a gratitude tree. What are you grateful for? This project asks you to write those things on leaves to construct a tree or banner of gratitude.
  • Map out the connections in your life. Draw yourself at the centre of this project, then map out how you’re connected to everyone else in your life. It will help make you feel much less alone.
  • Create a snowflake out of paper. Write ideas about how you are unique on the snowflake.
  • Build a personal altar. This is a highly personal project that will help connect you with your spiritual side and honour your resilience.