Art Therapy

artFLUFFY WHITE CLOUDS IN A BLUE SKY. I’ve glued two piles of sequins beneath them. I’ve added some wavy lines at the bottom of the page and a green swirly bit off to one side, and stuck a little shiny disc in the middle. I am wearing a big shirt. I am holding a paintbrush. Can you tell what it is yet? Yes, I am doing art. Or, more accurately, I am doing art therapy.

Art therapy. Sounds like a contradiction in terms, doesn’t it? Take your average artist. Mad as two hatters. Disembowelled farmyard animals in tanks of formaldehyde. Large piles of bricks. Unmade beds surrounded by soiled underwear. And what about Van Gogh with the ear thing? If art were supposed to be a therapy, I think he’d be entitled to ask for his money back.

Personal development

Apparently, however, I’ve got it all wrong. Art therapy offers “a safe space to explore your own emotions and behaviour with a view to finding new ways forward”, according to the email sent around at work. Stress control? Personal development? Management team-building? It’s all possible, apparently, with the help of coloured crayons, sticky-backed plastic and a squeegee bottle. Art therapy? Pass me a smock. I’m your man.

“Art therapy is more to do with getting back to how we were as children, when there was no division between images and words and we could be equally articulate with either,” explains Vicky Barber, founder of art therapy organisers Art Flight. According to Vicky, using art as a medium to explore my feelings will bypass my intellect and open up a direct path to my emotions. I point out that the last time I worked with crayons I was wearing short trousers and drawing a squadron of Treen attack ships.

“It’s not a question of being good at art,” she says. “In fact, it’s much better if you don’t allow yourself to get too hung up on making a picture that looks like something. The more you can open yourself up to your feelings and put them down on paper, the better.”

Poster paints and glue

We retreat to Vicky’s art therapy studio. It’s a treasure trove stacked with poster paints, crayons, watercolours, racks of felt and cotton, scissors and glue, paper shapes, shiny stars, sequins, leaves, grass. There are pots of pasta, beans, rice, even trays of little plastic toys. It’s enough to give a Blue Peter presenter a heart attack. “Everything in the room is yours, says Vicky. “You can work as big as you like and make as much mess as you like.”

Vicky suggests that I paint a mandala. I’m not sure I’m up to tackling a portrait of one of the greatest political leaders in history. She explains that it’s simply a kind of circular painting. She asks me to draw a large circle and divide it into sections headed ‘Hopes and Ambitions’, ‘Spirituality’, ‘Achievements’, and one more of my choice. I decide to call the fourth segment ‘Daily Happiness’, in the hope that it’ll turn out nice and cheery. Dressed in an old stripy shirt (Vicky’s, not mine) I tackle this section first, painting a blue sky and adding two white clouds.

I decide to put my two children in it, but I have to find something that represents how much they mean to me. I take a jar of shiny sequins and glue some together to make two shapes in the sky. It looks like the work of a primary school art class, yet I find, inexplicably, that I have a lump in my throat, as if making an image of my kids is forcing me to experience my feelings for them. Vicky tells me later that it’s common for people to cry while doing art therapy.

Shiny silver paper

Next, I try the ‘Spirituality’ section. I think hard about spirituality. Nothing whatsoever comes to mind. I am staring at the paper. Spirituality. My mind is blank. “Just pick up the materials and go for it,” encourages Vicky, who is perched on a stool to my left. “Don’t think about it too much.” Right. I colour the section red, for no other reason, it seems to me, than that the red crayon is nearest my right hand. Then I slap thick blobby lines in yellow paint across it. Don‘t ask me what this means. I have no idea. I just liked the blobs. But as Vicky explains later: ‘Everything you do in art therapy means something. It comes from you, from somewhere inside.”

For ‘Hopes and Ambitions’, I paint a green vortex and sprinkle salt on it. It’s something to do with my future but I’m not quite sure what. To represent ‘Achievements’, I have a sudden urge to take shiny silver paper and glue a torn-up five-pound note to it. I have never torn up money before and have no idea where this image comes from, but for some reason, the act of doing this section makes me feel very angry.

Strong feelings

The half an hour Vicky has given me to do my mandala is now up. We take the picture into her consulting room. She asks me to describe the emotions I felt while I was painting. There’s no attempt on her part to analyse or judge what I’ve done. At the same time, some parts of the painting obviously stirred up stronger feelings than others.

I wouldn’t say I left Vicky’s studio feeling relaxed and stress- free. I actually felt more like I’d been through the emotional wringer. Art therapy certainly lived up to its billing as a powerful psychoanalytical technique. Feelings came out in the session that surprised and even shocked me. They would probably take a few sessions, and a lot of poster paint and sequins, to work through. The downside was that my new self-knowledge cost me an extra fiver. On the plus side, at least I’ve still got both my ears.

Find out more about art therapy at

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