Art therapy is an experience-based approach used to face emotions, decrease anxiety, enhance social skills, build confidence, and encourage mindfulness. It can help enrich the lives of individuals, families, and communities.
A professional art therapist uses art therapy activities to help treat personal and relational issues with individuals or a therapy group. He or she uses art projects to help improve a patient’s cognitive and sensorimotor functions.
Art therapy also fosters self-esteem and self-awareness, cultivates emotional resilience, promotes personal insight, aids in the reduction and resolution of conflicts, and advances change.
Art therapists use art and applied psychological theory and experience to make art therapy effective, as shown by this study from the American Art Therapy Association. The method engages mind, body, and spirit in a manner different from that of talk therapy. Expressive visual and symbolic communication allows people to express themselves when words don’t work.
Art therapy goes beyond simple arts and crafts and coloring books, and you don’t need to be good at art to take part in this mental health care method. Also, it’s not just for kids or the elderly. Everyone can benefit from art therapy when working with a professional art therapist.
Art Therapy Prompts
The following are art therapy ideas that use a person’s creative process, self-expression, and a lot of DIY, and which may have beneficial effects on the individual’s mental health.
1. Freedom looks like … Engage in visualization to create a piece of artwork that represents your idea of freedom and what it means to you.
Goal: The purpose of this exercise is to bring awareness to your vision of freedom.
2. Emotions wheel exercise. Think about your emotions and the colors that best represent those emotions. You can use the prompts to assign an emotion to each section of the wheel, and then designate a color and/or a picture you would like to draw that represents each emotion.
Goal: This exercise will help you view your emotions, such as anger and sadness, through a more objective lens.
3. Sculpt your emotions. Make a physical representation of the anger or sadness you feel or have in your life. You can create shapes, structures, and images that show your emotions.
Goal: Physically mashing and shaping sculpting materials will help you express and release some of your negative feelings.
4. Send artwork or a message away with a balloon. Use this exercise to get rid of negative feelings — such as writing down the word “angry” or a sentence about a negative situation in your life — or to send out positive feelings.
Goal: This exercise offers a physical representation of shedding negative emotions and/or spreading positivity to the world to enhance your well-being.
5. Document a happy experience you had. Using various art tools, document a happy experience you recently had. Create a visual representation of the event, the feelings, and the joy.
Goal: The exercise will help you express happiness and be a reminder of good times.
6. Heart exercise. Using an outline of a heart, draw the emotions, feelings, and experiences that live within your heart.
Goal: The purpose of this exercise is to track your view of your world and to identify feelings and healthy expressions of emotion.
7. How I feel today. Using the template above, choose colors, and/or emotions, to demonstrate where you feel certain emotions by coloring in the human outline.
Goal: This exercise will help you visually express how you are feeling.
8. Draw yourself on a paper bag. On a paper bag, draw a self-portrait. After you’re done, fill the bag with items that you feel best represent yourself.
Goal: The purpose of this exercise is to help understand how you think about yourself.
9. Color with crayon. Crayon is an imperfect art tool. Use it to be at peace with imperfections by creating not-so-straight lines, uneven colors, and patchy shading.
Goal: Learn to cherish human errors and be liberated from the constraints of perfection.
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10. Draw freely. Feel free of your own judgment by drawing in the dark or with your eyes closed; draw shapes, patterns, or whatever feels right.
Goal: Through this exercise, you’ll be able to create and express yourself without judgment or self-criticism.
11. Draw how you feel. Close your eyes and listen to your breathing and your body. Using drawing tools, draw and color your physical sensations to create an emotional and physical self-portrait.
Goal: The purpose of this exercise is to provide you with an image of how you view your physical and emotional being.
12. Flower exercise. With your eyes closed, think of a flower you love or would like to see. Think about your flower in terms of sight, smell, and touch. Draw what you imagine.
Goal: This exercise will help you overcome stress while training your imagination.
13. Imaginary planet exercise. With your eyes closed, draw a planet that you imagine would be in space, including details of the surface you see in your mind.
Goal: The purpose of this exercise is to help relieve stress while developing your imagination and fine motor skills.
Lines, Symbols, and Shapes
14. Draw a zentangle design. Zentangle is unplanned and abstract art that is created by various patterns and symbols, often made by drawing borders, connecting dots with lines, and shading open areas, usually done in black and white.
Goal: This exercise helps you let go and reduce stress.
15. Draw a mandala symbol. These geometric symbols, which can be drawn with traditional sand or with lines on paper from a center point, help aid in meditation.
Goal: The purpose of this exercise is to help you loosen up your mind and body and lessen fatigue.
16. Draw with symbols and shapes. Using lines, shapes, and colors, create images that express your feelings while thinking about why you used the lines, shapes, and colors you did.
Goal: The purpose of this exercise is to help you understand your feelings.
17. Create art using only lines. This simple art form can be used to express emotions you’re feeling.
Goal: This therapeutic activity will provide you with a visual representation of your feelings and emotional state.
18. Paint with your hands. Get your hands messy and have a good time with finger painting, spreading the paint, creating shapes and blobs and anything that comes to mind.
Goal: Allow yourself to have fun and be messy. Let your inhibitions go for a while.
19. Paint with just your body. Feel free and empowered by painting with your body as the paint tool. Use fingers, toes, hair, and other parts to create shapes and shades and apply color to a canvas.
Goal: The purpose of this exercise is to help you explore the possibilities and the beauty of your body.
20. Paint, scribble, or draw your stress out. Choose colors and other art tools that represent your stress and scribble and paint those stressors away through lines, colors, and your creativity.
Goal: This exercise helps relieve stress while allowing you to explore your creativity.
21. The unsent postcard. Express your feelings to someone that you might still be angry at by designing and writing a letter or postcard — that you don’t plan on sending — with words, images, and colors that express your feelings.
Goal: The purpose of this exercise is to provide an outlet for negative emotions you may be holding on to.
22. Create an invention. With your favorite art tools, design an invention that would make you happier. Don’t be constrained by reality. Create whatever would make you happy every time you use it.
Goal: The purpose of this exercise is to help you better create your own happiness and express your creativity.
23. Make short-lived art. Using sand, chalk, paper, or water, you can create a piece of art that can easily be destroyed after you’ve created it.
Goal: Letting go is not easy; this therapeutic activity will help you accept that some things are temporary and learn to release those things.
24. From illness to art. If you have a serious, potentially life-threatening illness, use your art skills to turn it into something beautiful by representing your emotions through shapes and colors; perhaps even imagine life without the illness.
Goal: The purpose of this exercise is to work through depression, anxiety, and other emotions related to having a serious medical issue.
25. Make art based on a quote or poem you like. Quotes and poems have the power to change our moods. Use words to create a visually inspiring piece of art, such as drawing the image the words evoke or sharing the colors you think of.
Goal: This exercise combines the meaning and beauty of the words with your art to create a visual reminder of the words’ effect on your life.
26. My life is like … Fill in the blank: “My life is like ____,” and draw a representation of your life today, such as a river, a mountain, a desert, etc.
Goal: Through this exercise, you’ll create a visual representation of your emotions — your view of your life — that you can compare to reality.
27. Use plaster to make a sculpture out of your hand. After it dries, you can write all of the good things your hand does for you directly onto the plaster.
Goal: The purpose of this exercise is to reflect on the things that make you happy and express gratitude for them.
28. Use a rock as your next canvas. You can use this exercise to paint the things that empower you or the struggles you want to overcome on a rock.
Goal: Rocks are solid and stable. This exercise is meant to offer you the strength to achieve and overcome challenges.
29. Write on leaves. Create a gratitude tree by writing what you’re grateful for on leaves you find. Then hang the leaves on branches or paste them to a banner.
Goal: The purpose of this exercise is to remind you of all the good things and people in your life for which you are grateful.
30. Just create. Let yourself be free and make the art how you want to make it without judging yourself. Draw, paint, sculpt — whatever you want, however you want — without concern for any “rules.”
Goal: By letting yourself be free to create, you’ll be more laid back and relaxed.
31. Create artwork using your nondominant hand. Give yourself grace and a chance to try something new and discover new ways to create.
Goal: This exercise will help you “unlearn” what you know about style, control, and discipline, and to recapture the freedom you felt as a child.
32. Mix colors. On a sheet of paper, draw several circles with a pen. Color in each circle with a different color. Once the colors have dried, apply different colors to each circle to see what the new color will look like.
Goal: The purpose of this exercise is to overcome emotional stress and develop the imagination.
33. Create your own permission slip. We all have personal traits, but sometimes we view those traits as faults. Create a physical permission slip to give to your future self so that instead of feeling defeated about a personality trait, you may give yourself permission to minimize the feeling of defeat.
Goal: Minimize feelings of defeat, or even self-hatred, with this exercise.
34. Draw something large. Move around and draw something very large. You can even go outside and use some chalk on the sidewalk to get your body moving.
Goal: The range of motion needed to create a large drawing can help release stress.
35. Scribble draw. You can turn a scribble into something beautiful with your creativity. Make lines, add color, and create a scribbled masterpiece.
Goal: This exercise helps you tap into your creativity and relax as you do so.
36. Color in a drawing. Use a coloring book, or create your own drawings and outlines to color.
Goal: The purpose of this simple exercise is to help relax your mind and body.
37. Draw in your favorite place. Traveling opens the mind to new ideas. Pick your favorite place to be in and go there to draw something you want to draw.
Goal: This exercise takes you out of your normal environment into a different, yet familiar, setting, unleashing creativity and promoting a positive mood.
38. Draw outside. Literally, take your art out-of-doors. Getting closer to nature can get your creativity flowing and relax you.
Goal: Being outside is fun and relaxing and promotes a connection with nature.
39. Draw your fears. Get closer to facing your fears by making what scares you more real, and relatable, through a drawing.
Goal: The purpose of this exercise is to bring your fears to light and work toward facing them.
40. Draw your favorite childhood memory. Take a few moments and think back to your childhood, recalling especially pleasant times. Using your favorite art supplies, draw a visual representation of your favorite childhood memory.
Goal: The purpose of this exercise is to help relieve stress and fatigue.
41. Sketch a mountain and a valley. A mountain represents your happiest times, and a valley represents your saddest times. You can add specific events into the artwork.
Goal: This exercise will help you find balance in the good and bad times of life.
42. Create unique drawings for the people you love the most. Show your gratitude by creating something for a loved one.
Goal: The purpose of this exercise is to bring to light what is most important in your life — your loved ones — and express gratitude for them.
43. Sketch your body image. On a canvas or paper, draw how you see your body to help with body image issues.
Goal: This exercise can help you discover how your body perceptions compare to reality.
44. Draw your mirror reflection. What is reflected in the mirror when you look at it? Is something standing in the way of your reflection? Depict what might be standing between you and your reflection.
Goal: Discover how what you see in the mirror compares to the reality of who you are, and what needs to change to clear up the reflection.
45. Draw your name. On a large piece of paper, draw your name as large as you can to take up as much space as possible.
Goal: The purpose of this exercise is to explore your identity and promote self-acceptance.
46. Draw a portrait of a past and current self. Divide a piece of paper down the middle by drawing a line. Draw yourself as you’ve always seen yourself with the line dividing your face down the middle. Now, choose one side for your past self and one side for your current self to represent the change you’ve made from past to present.
Goal: This exercise helps illustrate how much the self can change over time.
47. Use objects that mean something to you as inspiration for a self-portrait. Instead of drawing yourself as you look, draw yourself by drawing various types of objects that mean something to you.
Goal: This exercise offers a chance to reflect on who you are and how you see yourself by examining why you chose the objects you did.
48. Create a portrait of your future self. Create a visual representation — a drawing or painting — of how you wish to see your future self.
Goal: Learn about yourself, your goals, and how you might become who you want to be in the future.
49. Create a visual of how you think others see you. Use this to compare to the self-portrait you made of how you see yourself.
Goal: The purpose of this exercise is to get to know yourself and examine your relationships with others.
50. Draw yourself as a strong warrior. What is a warrior to you? Pick up a pencil or paintbrush and create an image of yourself as that strong warrior.
Goal: This activity will help you begin to think of yourself as strong and capable.
51. Draw yourself as a superhero. Decide who you would be as a superhero and what your superpowers would be, and draw what that would look like.
Goal: This project will help you see yourself in a more powerful light.
52. Draw a picture of someone who changed your life for better or worse. Draw a person who has impacted your life in one way or another.
Goal: The purpose of this exercise is to acknowledge the people who have affected your life.
53. Create a portrait series of yourself over time. By drawing self-portraits of yourself over time, you create visual representations of how you’ve changed.
Goal: You’ll be able to see how you’ve grown and changed in your life with these drawings.
54. Draw yourself as your spirit animal or plant. Use your creativity to draw yourself if you could be an animal or plant.
Goal: This exercise will help you understand your self-identity.
55. Draw your favorite character traits. Celebrate yourself by drawing representations of all of your good character traits as you see them.
Goal: This exercise can help you relax and relieve stress and fatigue while creating a more positive self-image.
56. Draw all of the positive things in your life. Think of all of the things in your life that have helped you in one way or another and draw them.
Goal: Acknowledging positive life elements will evoke happiness while allowing an expression of gratitude.
57. Draw your inspirations. Draw the things and people that inspire you. Give them the colors and forms that represent the feelings you have about them.
Goal: The exercise will help you realize what you have and be happy.
58. Create a drawing of your dreams. Keep a dream journal and then use your descriptions to draw what you dream about.
Goal: You can learn about yourself from your dreams and tap into your inspiration.
59. Butterfly dream and nightmare exercise. Draw a silhouette of a butterfly. Fill it in with one wing depicting a dream and the other wing depicting a nightmare.
Goal: The purpose of this exercise is to study your fears and discover your inner resources.
60. Do one doodle a day. Doodle your emotions, how you feel, what you’re doing, or what you want to do.
Goal: This exercise offers you a chance to take a break from your hectic day to reflect and be creative.
61. Draw monsters in place of your real fears. Think about something that frightens you and use your tools to give it form, color, and shape.
Goal: Creating your own representation of a monster based on your fear will take some of its power away.
62. Spontaneous drawing. Draw an illustration of your idea of a fairy tale or an element from your favorite fairy tale.
Goal: The purpose of this exercise is to draw your attention to your real experiences.
63. Doodle without purpose. By yourself, or with a friend, draw random doodles and pass your pencil along to your friend.
Goal: This exercise helps you enter deeper into your world and reflect.
64. Connect your doodles. Start with one doodle and create other doodles from that one doodle.
Goal: Open your mind to possibilities and delight as one doodle grows into something magical from your efforts.
65. Use calming colors. Create artwork using colors that you find calming.
Goal: The purpose of this exercise is to calm both the mind and body and offer a feeling of wellness.
66. Paint to music. Music reveals and unleashes emotions. Play some music that resonates with you and express your feelings through a paintbrush.
Goal: Through art and music, you can begin to relieve emotional stress and also to relax.
67. Make a painting of a perfect day. Paint your ideal perfect day and see how much of it you can turn into reality today.
Goal: This exercise will help you think about possibilities and how you can make positive events happen in your life.
68. Paint a loss. Painting a loss, whether it be a lost loved one or a loss of another type, can help you remember and recover.
Goal: Remembrance and recovery go hand in hand. This activity will help you learn how to express grief and negative emotions.
69. Paint your safe place. Using art and your memory, create a place that makes you feel safe.
Goal: This exercise will help you find safety in a scary world.
70. Paint a spiritual experience you had. Draw or paint the emotions you felt when you had a spiritual experience.
Goal: The purpose of this exercise is to reflect and grow from your spiritual experience.
71. Happy moments. Paint positive memories or moments in an abstract art form.
Goal: This exercise will tap into your creativity while creating a positive life feeling.
72. Paint your feelings. Focus on your feelings and emotions and paint what and how you feel.
Goal: The purpose of this exercise is to help you identify and better understand your emotions.
73. Create a family tree painting. Think about those family members who have supported you and given you strength, and paint a representation of them.
Goal: Use this project to honor the people you are grateful for and who support you.
74. Use watercolors to express your bodily state. Decide how you feel on a given day or at a given moment. Draw an outline of your body on a canvas or piece of paper and use watercolors to demonstrate how you feel, physically and emotionally.
Goal: The purpose of this exercise is to analyze your physical and emotional feelings while entering a state of relaxation.
75. Wet paint exercise. Keep your thoughts and creativity flowing by painting on an already wet canvas.
Goal: This exercise will help you develop your imagination and ease emotional stress.
76. Paint blowing. After adding paint to paper with lots of water, use a thin tube to blow toward the painting to create various color spots and mix the colors.
Goal: This exercise benefits coordination and helps alleviate stress.
77. Paint different moods. Paint the various moods (sorrow, happiness, depression) you might be feeling in the moment.
Goal: This project helps you develop your empathy.
78. Make your own stuffed animal. Using different materials, you can create a stuffed animal that is comforting or means something to you.
Goal: The purpose of this exercise is to explore your happiness and find comfort.
79. Create snowflakes out of paper. On each snowflake, write out what you’re grateful for or what makes you unique.
Goal: The purpose of this exercise is to celebrate you and acknowledge what you’re grateful for.
80. Create a confident mask. Instead of making a mask to hide yourself, make a mask that expresses how you feel and empowers you. Cover the mask in symbols that make you feel strong.
Goal: This mask can help empower you overall or before difficult situations.
81. Make an art journal. Instead of writing, use a different type of journaling — your artwork — to tell a story and represent your emotions as events, both positive and negative, take place in your life.
Goal: The purpose of this exercise is to help deal with your emotions.
82. Pilot your dreams. On a piece of paper, draw a happy dream you’ve had on the left half of the paper and a nightmare on the right half. Fold it into a paper airplane, and let it go.
Goal: The purpose of this exercise is to recognize trauma or stress in your life in order to overcome it and eventually achieve inner peace by releasing the paper airplane.
83. Create a New Year’s resolution object. Instead of writing down a New Year’s resolution, create an object that visually represents a promise you have made to yourself.
Goal: The purpose of this exercise is to help you set a visible goal to inspire your progress.
84. Create your own emblem. Superheroes aren’t the only ones who can have emblems. Create a sign that symbolizes who you are as a person.
Goal: Emblems help create awareness of interests and aspirations.
85. Decorate a souvenir. Use a souvenir as a memory holder and decorate it with abstract or concrete representations of special days from your past.
Goal: The positive memories from these special days will help on the not-so-good days.
86. Make an intention stick or object. Create or find a physical object (such as a stick) that can work as a symbol for strength or comfort, and decorate it with string, feathers, glitter, beads, etc.
Goal: This physical object can provide a reminder of strength and offer peace of mind when you recall its creation.
87. Make a dreamcatcher. Create a dreamcatcher that you can keep with you to encourage good dreams while you sleep.
Goal: The purpose of this exercise is to create a time of peace and good dreams.
88. Create a stencil. Use cardboard or various other materials to create your own stencil for a more personal drawing.
Goal: This project focuses your creative mind on the tools you need to create works of art.
89. Forgive and create. Decorate a box for a person you wish to forgive. Write the person’s name on a slip of paper and include it inside the box. Decorate the box with nice images and words that represent how you hope to feel by forgiving them.
Goal: The purpose of this exercise is to draw you closer to your desired inner state of forgiveness.
90. Map a visual representation of your brain. Draw what you imagine your emotions and thoughts and your brain look like to get a better idea of how your brain works.
Goal: The purpose of this exercise is to help you better understand how your mind works.
91. Create an art installation of a safe space. Instead of physically building a safe space for yourself, draw your most realistic version of a safe space you would like to go, filled with meaningful, nostalgic objects.
Goal: This exercise creates a visual “place” for good feelings to enter your mind and body.
92. Design a home. Design your version, no matter how outrageous, of what a home means to you.
Goal: This exercise creates a warm, safe place for you to imagine.
93. Map out the people you have in your life. Draw yourself in the center and then map out all of the connections you can think of in your life and how close each one is to you.
Goal: With a visual representation of the people close to you, you won’t feel so alone.
94. Construct a collage of your stress. Using magazines, newspapers, or old books, create a collage using various images to represent your worries and stressors.
Goal: The purpose of this exercise is to give expression to your stressors and help you begin to relax.
95. Create a color collage. Use a single color to express the emotions you’re feeling and create art by finding images with that color, writing with that color, and painting with that color, and then collaging with those items.
Goal: The purpose of this exercise is to help you make sense of your current emotional state.
96. Paint, draw, or collage the things you’re grateful for. Document the things and people you are grateful for in the form of a collage using mixed media.
Goal: This project will help you to feel happy and grateful for the good people and things in your life.
97. Cut and paste a painting to make a collage. Cut up a painting you made and use the pieces to turn it into a collage — a new work of art.
Goal: The purpose of this exercise is to show how closely related creation and destruction can be.
98. Collage a poem. Cut out random words from old books, newspapers, or magazines to craft your own poem.
Goal: This project will tap into your creativity and inspiration to use found words to write something new.
99. Torn drawing exercise. Rip up a drawing you made and use the pieces to create a new work of art.
Goal: The purpose of this exercise is to unlock new levels of creativity.
100. Self-portrait with words collage. Draw a self-portrait. Cut out words from old books, magazines, newspapers, etc., that represent who you are and paste them around your self-portrait.
Goal: This is an exercise in self-exploration for positive self-thinking and well-being.
Art therapy activities serve a purpose beyond arts and crafts. These activities engage your mind, body, and spirit in a way that allows you to communicate your thoughts and emotions through visual and symbolic methods rather than with words alone, fostering self-esteem and self-awareness. Alternative to Meds programs include various forms of art therapy to guide you through your recovery process.
Lyle Murphy is the founder of the Alternative to Meds Center, a licensed residential program that helps people overcome dependence on psychiatric medication and addiction issues using holistic and psychotherapeutic methods.
Medical Disclaimer: Nothing on this Website is intended to be taken as medical advice. The information provided on the website is intended to encourage, not replace, direct patient-health professional relationships. Always consult with your doctor before altering your medications. Adding nutritional supplements may alter the effect of medication. Any medication changes should be done only after proper evaluation and under medical supervision.