How to Become an Art Therapist


By Lilla Dale McManis, PhD
Therapist observing the artwork of a patient

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, recovery, and wellness.

In this article we will explore the profession of art therapist, including the following:

Art Therapy Defined

Art therapy is built on two major tenets: 

  1. Art as a long-standing human activity to communicate with others and for self-expression
  2. 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 and 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; and generally for 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.

While an art therapist would of course provide this type of therapy, it is important to note that other types of providers such as psychologists or school counselors may use the approach of art therapy and may or may not be certified.

Work Environment

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. If an art therapist specializes in providing services to a particular type of client, such as the elderly or cancer patients, the setting can vary to match that particular population.

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. Meanwhile, those in private practice are more likely to work alone. When art therapists are researchers or faculty, they typically work in universities and other educational or research agencies.

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. Additionally, art therapists will need to have access to space and materials/supplies with which to conduct their sessions.

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.

Along with the time and effort they have given to their training, many therapists enter this profession because they themselves found art to be therapeutic and are therefore intimately connected to their work. This leads to a high level of dedication, professional gratification and fulfillment.


Education and Training

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 have either an undergraduate degree or substantial coursework in both studio art (the making of visual arts) and psychology, along with a portfolio of original artwork. With those prerequisites, 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.

Coursework in the master’s program will typically include such areas as human and creative development; theories of art therapy, counseling, and psychotherapy; and assessment and evaluation. In addition, 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. The practicum prepares students for the internship and additional post-graduate supervised clinical experience that come after a degree is awarded. The practicum, internship, and post-graduate clinical placement are several hundred hours, so this represents a substantial commitment.


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”. A registered art therapist can elect to become a board-certified art therapist by passing a national exam given once a year at the annual American Art Therapy Association Conference, thereby demonstrating that they have extensive knowledge of art therapy theories and clinical skills.

There is the option to complete a program for counselors or psychologists with a specialization in art therapy; in this case, licensing through the American Psychological Association (APA) becomes necessary.

Skills and Competencies

The following major knowledge areas are applicable:

  • Fine Arts - theory and techniques to create and/or perform works of visual art, music, dance, or drama
  • Psychology - human development and behavior, learning and motivation, individual differences, research methods, and behavioral and affective disorders assessment and treatment
  • Therapy and Counseling - principles, methods, and procedures to diagnose and treat

There are also characteristic-based competencies that make for a successful art therapist. 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 and skilled at reading and interpreting non-verbal cues such as body language. Relationship-building is a necessary strength in order to establish and maintain a working relationship that is cooperative and constructive. Trust, empathy, and patience are essential.

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.

If you would like to gain the necessary education to become an art therapist, we highly recommend that you check out our free School Finder Tool located HERE.

Salary and Job Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) includes art therapists in the category of recreational therapists and reports the national average wage as $46,060 with a range from $27K to $69K. Looking at earned wages by state, again keeping in mind that art therapists are included in the category recreational therapists, California has the highest average salary at close to $60K, followed by Connecticut and New Jersey with salaries at $54K per year. California and Connecticut do show salaries up to $82K for the top 10%, while this figure is about $10K less for New Jersey. The states of Mississippi, Kansas, and Oklahoma are among the lowest paying at about $35,000 per year on average with the top 10% at about $50K.

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 promising with the BLS projecting a growth rate of 12%, which is faster than 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.

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Exploring Further

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

  • Learn more about art therapy from the American Art Therapy Association, whose content includes education requirements and standards, approved art therapy master’s programs, research, credentialing, career support, and professional development; and from the Art Therapy Alliance  for a wide variety of social media promoting and discussing art therapy.
  • Additionally spend some time reading scholarly articles as these allow you to better understand the profession and to see future trends. There are a number of academic journals such as “Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association," the “International Journal of Art Therapy,” and “The Arts in Psychotherapy." Some journals will have open or limited free access for all, while others are completely fee-based. If you are affiliated with a college or university, you are likely able to access fully at no cost provided your educational institution subscribes. Do keep in mind, if you really want to read a fee-based paper, first try going to the author’s website for an author copy, or the author may be willing provide a complimentary copy, if asked.
  • 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.

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