How to Become an Art Therapist

What Does an Art Therapist Do?

art therapist with patient painting

Art therapists provide mental health treatment to people across the lifespan by creating and reflecting on art to improve functioning, wellbeing, and quality of life. Art therapists address feelings and behaviors by bringing together their knowledge and training in art and in psychology and counseling. Being able to bring one’s creative and artistic talent to a therapeutic setting makes art therapy a unique and rewarding profession. The fact that art therapy is practiced in a large number of settings and across the lifespan means good career opportunities.

But most importantly, art therapists are able to help individuals who may not be able to benefit from more traditional and “talk-based” therapies by using the powerful and distinctly human experience of art to facilitate healing and wellness. This leads to a high level of dedication, professional gratification and fulfillment.

Art Therapy Defined

Art therapy is built on two major tenets:

  • Art as a long-standing human activity to communicate with others and for self-expression
  • The active and guiding presence of a skilled and trained professional

Art therapy revolves around a patient or client creating art and the process he or she experiences. It may also incorporate reflecting on works of art created by others. Art therapy typically centers on the visual arts, which include drawing, painting, and sculpture. However, some therapists use performing arts such as music and dance/movement.

Art therapists are trained to use both formal and informal assessment when learning about their clients and developing a treatment plan. In addition to guiding the client to generate art, therapists are generally active participants and may co-create with the client. Art therapists make choices about the particular form of art used in the therapy, based primarily on a medium with which the client feels comfortable.

Through creating and reflecting on art, therapists both learn about and help clients communicate their thoughts and feelings, which often revolve around stress, anxiety, fear and negative self-views. Then the therapists work to support coping through such capacities as conflict resolution, stress reduction, enhanced interpersonal skills, making positive behavioral choices, and improving self-esteem. Art therapy is used with children, adolescents, adults, and the elderly for a diverse number of mental, emotional, cognitive, and medical issues. These often include:

  • Illness and disease, such as cancer and stroke
  • Developmental disorders like autism and Alzheimer’s
  • Mental health challenges such as depression and addiction
  • Trauma and loss for victims of violence or the death of loved ones
  • Personal improvements such as increased self-awareness

While these therapists themselves are well versed in fine arts theory and technique and are typically skilled artists, a client or patient does not have to be artistically trained or talented to benefit from art therapy. This is because the fundamental goal is to guide individuals to express feelings and thoughts primarily non-verbally, especially in the early days of therapy or more exclusively for those with communication deficits.

As mentioned earlier, art therapy is appropriate for people of all ages and is most suited to those struggling to express themselves and communicate. However, children do often respond particularly well; they tend to be less skilled verbally, are generally less self-conscious, and more frequently have art in their daily lives, all of which make the setting more familiar and acceptable than it is for many adults. An art therapist can successfully work with adults by establishing trust in the client-therapist relationship.

Workplace Details

Most art therapists provide direct services either individually or in groups, while a smaller number focus on research or teach. Art therapists who see clients work in a wide variety of settings, which can include mental health facilities, hospitals, rehabilitation centers, schools, nursing homes, community agencies, and private practice.

Many art therapists go the private practice route, where they may focus exclusively on art therapy or use that approach along with other types of therapy. Those who serve clients in an organizational setting are often an integral part of departments ranging from psychiatric to pediatric to geriatric. They typically provide services through a team approach and may work with psychologists, physicians and nurses, social workers, and/or teachers. When art therapists are researchers or faculty, they typically work in universities and other educational or research agencies.

Salary and Job Outlook

State
Average Wage
California
$64290
New York
$53680
Pennsylvania
$45310
Illinois
$45710
Massachusetts
$42250

Hover over any state to explore local income and job growth data.

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ALABAMA
Median Salary: 
$40,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $27,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $68,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 9%
Projected Annual Job Openings: Fewer than 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Birmingham$27,530$37,620$68,980

ALASKA
Salary Data Not Available

2014-2024 Job Growth: 20%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

ARIZONA
Median Salary: 
$56,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $42,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $68,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 27%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Phoenix$42,590$56,030$66,690

ARKANSAS
Median Salary: 
$47,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $26,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $70,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 16%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Little Rock$37,030$56,510$72,120

CALIFORNIA
Median Salary: 
$68,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $33,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $82,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 12%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 60

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Los Angeles$29,520$61,360$81,200
San Francisco Bay$36,560$60,310$85,400
San Diego$29,980$42,640$82,350
Sacramento$39,480$68,720$82,360

COLORADO
Median Salary: 
$46,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $30,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $69,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 23%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Denver$34,470$49,590$71,930

CONNECTICUT
Median Salary: 
$54,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $34,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $83,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 3%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Hartford$40,640$68,190$89,010
Bridgeport$32,570$46,390$73,270
New Haven$34,990$48,110$78,140

DELAWARE
Median Salary: 
$36,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $31,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $53,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 11%
Projected Annual Job Openings: Fewer than 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Wilmington$31,710$36,850$61,560

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
Median Salary: 
$52,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $29,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $76,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 25%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Washington DC$30,950$53,630$77,210

FLORIDA
Median Salary: 
$50,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $32,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $72,800

2014-2024 Job Growth: 19%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 30

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Miami$35,780$61,510$76,000
Orlando$27,260$42,310$62,190
Tampa$31,750$47,420$63,960
Jacksonville$39,950$45,900$56,180

GEORGIA
Median Salary: 
$41,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $27,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $61,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: -2%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Atlanta$29,720$42,790$60,410
Augusta$19,630$36,040$63,970

HAWAII
Median Salary: 
$40,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $21,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $69,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 7%
Projected Annual Job Openings: Fewer than 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Honolulu$21,140$50,540$72,160

IDAHO
Median Salary: 
$50,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $38,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $65,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 15%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

ILLINOIS
Median Salary: 
$43,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $24,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $71,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 12%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 30

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Chicago$33,370$49,550$72,540

INDIANA
Median Salary: 
$37,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $18,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $57,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 16%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Indianapolis$18,750$38,460$57,850

IOWA
Median Salary: 
$42,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $28,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $62,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 10%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Des Moines$25,430$36,460$62,170

KANSAS
Median Salary: 
$34,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $21,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $54,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: -3%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Wichita$17,420$33,510$54,280
Kansas City$29,000$42,430$60,090

KENTUCKY
Median Salary: 
$39,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $27,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $61,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 36%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Louisville$29,540$38,780$51,640

LOUISIANA
Median Salary: 
$39,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $28,000
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $59,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 7%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
New Orleans$37,500$46,640$58,980
Baton Rouge$32,430$40,960$51,320
Lafayette$20,370$36,080$48,320

MAINE
Median Salary: 
$38,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $31,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $62,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 8%
Projected Annual Job Openings: Fewer than 10

MARYLAND
Median Salary: 
$48,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $24,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $73,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 21%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Baltimore$29,880$47,510$66,970
Frederick$45,500$67,390$85,380

MASSACHUSETTS
Median Salary: 
$40,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $27,000
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $60,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 3%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 30

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Boston$31,180$39,420$60,530
Worcester$22,490$32,520$53,420
Springfield$23,710$46,500$64,160

MICHIGAN
Median Salary: 
$47,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $31,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $62,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 13%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 30

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Detroit$37,090$51,370$62,860
Grand Rapids$29,080$39,830$60,200

MINNESOTA
Median Salary: 
$44,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $31,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $61,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 10%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Minneapolis - St. Paul$30,220$42,680$59,800
Rochester$24,980$44,510$67,560

MISSISSIPPI
Median Salary: 
$30,600
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $25,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $55,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 4%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Jackson$24,810$32,140$54,430

MISSOURI
Median Salary: 
$41,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $28,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $56,800

2014-2024 Job Growth: 7%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
St. Louis$29,570$42,000$60,400
Kansas City$29,000$42,430$60,090

MONTANA
Median Salary: 
$38,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $31,000
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $64,000

Job Growth Data Not Available

NEBRASKA
Median Salary: 
$37,600
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $30,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $53,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 8%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Omaha$32,120$44,890$60,390
Lincoln$31,780$36,270$44,920

NEVADA
Median Salary: 
$43,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $20,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $69,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 18%
Projected Annual Job Openings: Fewer than 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Las Vegas$28,760$50,870$71,350

NEW HAMPSHIRE
Median Salary: 
$46,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $35,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $59,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 10%
Projected Annual Job Openings: Fewer than 10

NEW JERSEY
Median Salary: 
$54,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $38,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $73,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 11%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Newark$42,510$55,330$76,130

NEW MEXICO
Median Salary: 
$36,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $28,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $62,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 4%
Projected Annual Job Openings: Fewer than 10

NEW YORK
Median Salary: 
$52,600
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $34,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $73,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 12%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 70

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
New York City$36,390$55,320$75,150
Buffalo$35,390$54,140$71,000
Rochester$33,860$46,460$68,820
Albany$33,160$42,610$66,100

NORTH CAROLINA
Median Salary: 
$42,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $26,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $60,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 18%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Charlotte$20,560$31,060$57,600
Raleigh$35,550$43,280$49,420
Winston - Salem$33,100$42,390$57,960

NORTH DAKOTA
Median Salary: 
$35,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $25,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $56,800

2014-2024 Job Growth: 23%
Projected Annual Job Openings: Fewer than 10

OHIO
Median Salary: 
$47,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $33,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $65,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 14%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Cleveland$37,900$50,320$67,790
Columbus$35,850$49,330$59,590
Cincinnati$29,650$47,650$62,720
Dayton$31,920$37,720$70,540

OKLAHOMA
Median Salary: 
$36,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $23,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $53,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 8%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Oklahoma City$24,160$36,640$55,080
Tulsa$25,720$40,460$54,820

OREGON
Median Salary: 
$52,600
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $40,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $69,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 15%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Portland$22,410$50,470$69,300

PENNSYLVANIA
Median Salary: 
$41,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $26,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $64,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 11%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 50

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Philadelphia$28,130$40,520$62,170
Pittsburgh$26,830$42,470$62,940
Harrisburg$32,280$38,380$58,250
Allentown$26,560$36,720$50,570

RHODE ISLAND
Median Salary: 
$36,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $23,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $59,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 14%
Projected Annual Job Openings: Fewer than 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Providence$24,620$37,830$59,570

SOUTH CAROLINA
Median Salary: 
$37,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $22,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $57,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 8%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Greenville$26,970$38,980$59,760
Columbia$22,370$37,200$57,580

SOUTH DAKOTA
Median Salary: 
$37,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $32,000
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $61,300

Job Growth Data Not Available

TENNESSEE
Median Salary: 
$39,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $18,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $69,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 10%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Nashville$31,570$49,050$73,810
Memphis$31,850$39,130$68,430
Chattanooga$16,180$18,760$30,090

TEXAS
Median Salary: 
$48,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $23,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $69,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 24%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 30

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Dallas - Ft. Worth$28,850$49,980$62,640
Houston$21,440$49,500$71,130
Austin$27,750$51,000$61,230

UTAH
Median Salary: 
$39,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $26,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $61,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 23%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Salt Lake City$27,450$44,070$63,670
Ogden$26,690$42,800$61,530

VERMONT
Median Salary: 
$39,600
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $25,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $55,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 4%
Projected Annual Job Openings: Fewer than 10

VIRGINIA
Median Salary: 
$41,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $29,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $63,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 10%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Virginia Beach$28,030$39,230$67,880
Richmond$33,460$43,280$61,620

WASHINGTON
Median Salary: 
$48,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $32,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $76,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 10%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Seattle$36,870$59,250$85,350
Spokane$35,390$46,010$57,550

WEST VIRGINIA
Median Salary: 
$48,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $40,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $63,800

2014-2024 Job Growth: 3%
Projected Annual Job Openings: Fewer than 10

WISCONSIN
Median Salary: 
$37,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $25,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $64,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 12%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Milwaukee$26,360$35,260$68,000
Madison$26,590$32,870$58,620

WYOMING
Median Salary: 
$46,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $40,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $57,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 6%
Projected Annual Job Openings: Fewer than 10

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) includes art therapists in the category of recreational therapists and reports the national average wage as $46,410 with a range from $28K to $72K. As always, salaries vary by geographic location across the United States. The American Art Therapy Association surveyed its 5000 members in 2013 and reports annual salaries from $30K to $80K.

The job outlook for recreational therapists through 2024 looks as strong as the overall job growth picture in our country; the BLS projects a growth rate of 7%, which is equal to the average. Now facing age-related concerns, the BLS notes that baby-boomers are the most likely to access services. The top industries with the highest concentration of employment are psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals and other specialty hospitals, nursing care and assisted living facilities, followed by offices of other health practitioners.

While the profession appears sound, several leaders in the art therapy field are writing that jobs exclusively for certified art therapists are not as prevalent as in the past. The reason, they say, is that more graduate programs are offering a master’s in counseling with a focus or specialization in art therapy, as opposed to a strictly art therapy master’s program. The former gives graduates an option to have both a license as a counselor or psychologist and a certification in art therapy. These leaders voice concern that the intent and spirit - as well as the training related to art therapy - may be diluted in the movement to make the degree more diversified. The choice of which degree to seek is therefore an important consideration.

Compare Salaries by City

New York City NY Median Pay

$55320 Per Year

$26.59 Per Hour

Chicago IL Median Pay

$49550 Per Year

$23.82 Per Hour

Steps to Become an Art Therapist

1

Get your undergraduate degree.

Becoming an art therapist includes a number of steps; these requirements are developed and overseen by the American Art Therapy Association. First, aspiring art therapists must earn an undergraduate degree that includes substantial coursework in both studio art (the making of visual arts) and psychology, along with completing a portfolio of original artwork. Graduate programs will have prerequisites for enrollment, so your best bet is to research those early in your undergraduate education. This way, you can ensure you satisfy them before graduation with your degree.

Show Me Schools »

2

Earn a master's degree.

Having gained the necessary academic foundation in college, students must then obtain a master’s degree in art therapy or a master’s in counseling with a concentration in art therapy from an accredited college or university program. These master’s programs are usually about two years in length. In addition to undergraduate coursework and portfolio requirements, each university may have other requirements, such as the GRE (Graduate Record Exam) for instance.

Programs expect a thesis or major project where the student demonstrates the ability to understand and use research. This is followed by a practicum course where the students apply their knowledge in a practice-based and closely supervised setting.

3

Complete an internship and post-graduate clinical placement.

The practicum during a graduate program prepares students for the internship and additional post-graduate supervised clinical experience that come after a degree is awarded. Altogether, these three components are several hundred hours, so they represent a substantial commitment.

4

Earn the necessary credential or license, depending on your grad school decision.

Art therapists are credentialed rather than licensed. The group that oversees the credentialing of art therapists is the Art Therapy Credentials Board (ATCB). They determine that candidates have the necessary degree and clinical experience. Upon approval, practitioners can use the title “registered art therapist”.

However, if you chose to complete a graduate program for counselors or psychologists with a specialization in art therapy, then licensing through the American Psychological Association (APA) becomes necessary.

Exploring Degree Paths

BACHELOR'S DEGREE

4 years

To practice as an art therapist, you’ll need to earn a master’s degree in counseling, marriage and family therapy, or a related discipline.

Your journey to becoming an art therapist starts with four years of undergraduate study. You can major in any subject, but it’s important to complete some coursework in the following areas:

  • Studio art classes in drawing, painting, and 3D media
  • General, developmental, and abnormal psychology

    Show Me Schools »

A few colleges offer bachelor’s degrees in art therapy. This can be excellent preparation for grad school, though you’ll still need a master’s to practice.

College is also a great time to gain some work or volunteer experience in mental health settings. Not only will this help you get into graduate school, it’s also a good way to test whether art therapy is the right career for you.

MASTER'S DEGREE

About 3 years

After graduation from college, it’s on to your master’s program. This usually means earning a Master of Arts in either counseling or marriage and family therapy with a concentration in art therapy. (Other types of master’s degrees can also work, so long as they meet your state’s licensure requirements. See also the educational requirements for Registered Art Therapist certification.)

While it’s not absolutely necessary to attend an approved or accredited art therapy master’s program, doing so can streamline the certification process (and sometimes state licensure, too). Two organizations currently provide accreditation and approval for this field:

In order to gain admission to art therapy graduate programs, you’ll need to meet prerequisites studio art and psychology. Some schools also require applicants to submit an artwork portfolio.

Art therapy master’s students begin their studies with a series of courses in subjects like:

Art therapy techniques

Set treatment goals and select appropriate media and activities to support them.

Art therapy assessment

Practice selecting, administering, and interpreting tests to inform counseling practice.

Group art therapy

Learn how to form and facilitate a counseling group for different purposes.

Ethical and legal issues

Explore how laws, ethical codes, and professional standards guide art therapy practice.

Students also complete at least 700 hours of practicum and under the supervision of a certified therapist. During these experiences, they provide therapy services to real-life clients in academic and community settings.

Depending on the program, students may also complete an original art therapy research project that furthers their academic and clinical interests.

Keys to Success as an Art Therapist

Necessary Skills and Qualities

Trust, empathy and patience

These qualities are essential to relationship-building, a necessity in order to establish and maintain a working relationship that is cooperative and constructive. In addition to the obvious need to be artistic and creative, those who enter this profession are typically very attuned to other people’s feelings.

Communication skills

Since many individuals seeking therapy are not able to convey their feelings and thoughts directly, art therapists are typically skilled at inductive reasoning built on the ability to put together seemingly unrelated information to draw conclusions. Related to this, they must be able to communicate with the client by providing words for them that capture what clients are conveying through their art. Therapists must be skilled at reading and interpreting non-verbal cues such as body language.

Desire for independence and responsibility

This profession is one of high specialization and requires a fairly sizable amount of training. Therefore art therapists have quite a lot of independence, but also substantial responsibility carrying out their specific tasks. Starting with the area of assessment, art therapists are uniquely situated to administer, score, and interpret very particular assessments, many of which require explicit expertise. To provide therapy requires an ability to bring both an artistic sensibility and a thorough understanding of psychology and counseling techniques.

Vigor

The professional demands on art therapists can be compounded for those who work in an organizational setting, as they may be responsible for heavy caseloads, resulting in long hours. Art therapists in private practice may have more flexibility in their schedules, but must be able to see enough clients to make this choice economically viable. Those who work in academia are often expected to publish regularly and be awarded grants, both of which require extensive time and effort.

Additional Credentials

Certification by the Art Therapy Credentials Board is voluntary in most states but preferred by many employers. Available credentials include:

  • Provisional Registered Art Therapist (ATR-Provisional) - For recent graduates of accredited programs working under supervision
  • Registered Art Therapist (ATR) - Must meet educational and post-education experience requirements (graduation from an accredited program is the easiest pathway)
  • Board Certified Art Therapist (ATR-BC) - For ATRs who pass an advanced knowledge exam
  • Art Therapy Certified Supervisor (ATCS) - For experienced ATR-BCs who provide clinical and academic supervision to other therapists

Explore Further

If you would like to further explore becoming an art therapist here are some action steps with resources from reputable sources:

  • Interview art therapists in your community. The American Art Therapy Association has a directory, or you can use Psychology Today Therapists and search by a number of areas such as location, client characteristics, and by treatment orientation including art therapy.
  • Review current jobs to determine the landscape of the art therapy profession. You will be able to see where jobs are located both by locale as well as types of organizations, the kinds of clients being served, and salary and benefits. Popular online job boards have many features such as filters, notifications, and the ability to build a profile.
Lilla Dale McManis, PhD

Dr. Lilla McManis has been a psychologist for the past 20 years. She holds a PhD in educational psychology, a master’s degree in special education, and a bachelor’s degree in child development. Over the course of her career, Dr. McManis has worked directly in the K-12 school system, in universities, in state government, and in private industry. Currently she is President & CEO of Parent in the Know and Early Childhood Research Solutions, where she focuses on the assessment of children in the areas of intelligence, achievement, and social-emotional functioning and the feelings, attitudes, and behaviors associated with effective parenting.

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