The Expressive Arts Experience - Yvette Lyons, Ph.D., Expressive Arts Therapist

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So, you think you may want to add Art Therapy to your Practice?

Art has a natural way of helping people express what they can not find words for.  Since the language of image precedes the spoken word, image can access feelings and experiences that one may find it difficult to access by talking.  In art therapy, the use of color and form and image is a language all its own.  Emotionally recorded traumas and experiences that are stored in the emotional areas of the brain are activated during the art making process.  Neither client nor therapist need to have any artistic ability or training for art to work in the therapeutic process.  

 I frequently use an exercise called, “MAD, SCARED, SAD, GLAD”.  One at a time, I ask my students or clients to “show me what mad is like to you in color and shape”.  Then I continue with the other emotions.  Through this exercise, you can see how people experience their emotions.  This also opens the door to discuss the various emotions and how each person copes with or handles their emotional states.  When art is used in therapy, it gives both the client and the therapist a vivid picture of what is going on inside the individual.  Art is also preconscious, meaning you can see what may occur with someone before it actually happens.  For example, when working with substance abuse and chemical dependency, you may see images of alcohol or drugs showing up in their art BEFORE they relapse.  

I once worked with an adolescent teen who was about to transition from a live-in environment to independent living.  The client created a painting where the left side of the page was a sunny day with green grass and daisies, in the middle of the page a figure was painted walking towards the right, on the right side of  the painting was a dark, stormy day with clouds, dark sky, dark grass and lightening striking right before the figure.  This figure was about to walk into this storm, this darkness of the unknown, and  was anticipating disaster.  By this client being able to bring this image out in the open, we were able to address their fears of the unknown and work on a plan to help for transition into the next phase of life.  This is a good example of how art is used in therapy. 

Another adolescent  who was engaging in self harm behaviors, and hiding it due to shame attached to the behavior was unable to speak about this topic.   This client was not interacting with family or friends.  Unable to talk about the behavior they opted to draw a picture of a figure and drew lacerations where the cutting was being done.  Without any words the client continued to draw pictures of what they were experiencing, and where the hidden paraphernalia could be found.  Art becomes the language and the dialog between client and therapist.  

 Art brings the elderly out to socialize and remember.  Art is the way to reach children on the Autistic Spectrum.  Art becomes a new form of communication for couples, families and a way for children with terminal illness to express their experiences and feelings.  The avenues are endless. 

 There are many forms of art to use with clients.  Art Therapists are wonderful about sharing their art modalities with each other in order to have a multitude of art directives for therapy.  With Pintrist running rampant, there are so many ideas to be had.  There are many other art mediums that you can offer clients besides colored pencils, markers and paint.  There is collage, chalk pastel, oil pastel, multi-media art, clay work, doll making, mask making and mandalas to mention a few.  There are also materials such as, glitter, glitter-glue, beads, jewels, string, yarn, feathers and much more that can be offered to the client for the purpose of making art.  So, you might be wondering, do I have to fill my office with art supplies?  No, actually a few key items would give a therapist enough variety so that they can do art with anyone. 

 We have Expressive Arts Training Programs for anyone interested in using Expressive Arts to help others.  Whether you are a licensed therapist who wants to get additional training in how to use the arts in your practice, or you are someone who is entering the field of Expressive Arts for the first time.  Our training programs have a strong base in psychology, which gives our trainees a sound foundation.  

 I am the Director of the Expressive Arts Therapy at the San Diego University for Integrative Studies.  We offer a Certification in Expressive Arts, a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology with a Specialty in Expressive Arts Therapy, and a Clinical Psychology Degree in Expressive Arts Therapy.  For more information about our program please visit us at, or explore my web site for detailed information about our programs. 

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