How To Become an Art Therapist

Art therapist and students painting in studio

The desire to create art as a means of individual, creative expression is an urge as old as humanity. The oldest known rock paintings by early humans are dated to as many as 73,000 years ago.1 Creating artwork at any skill level is a way to connect with the inner self; this makes art a useful tool for counselors, who can specialize in art therapy.

Art therapists are trained professionals who help their clients learn how to process difficult emotions and experiences. If you’re passionate about art and you’re looking for a meaningful career that will allow you to improve the lives of other people, consider becoming an art therapist. This career guide explores how to become an art therapist and how to get started in this field.

What Is Art Therapy?

Art therapy is sometimes thought of as an alternative to conventional psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy. However, art therapy can be used to complement conventional psychotherapy.

Art therapy can catalyze therapeutic healing. It enables clients to connect with their inner selves in a manner that does not wholly depend on finding the right words. Artistic expression can also serve as a conversation starter that helps clients build a rapport and share honest feelings with their counselors.

Art therapy is often used for pediatric patients, including those who have suffered traumatic experiences such as domestic violence and neglect, but it’s useful for individuals of all ages. Art therapy may be recommended for adults and seniors as well as for the following types of patients:

  • Veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Patients who have endured traumatic experiences ranging from acts of violence to natural disasters
  • Patients who have medical conditions, such as brain damage, that interfere with verbal communication

What Does an Art Therapist Do?

An art therapist’s work looks somewhat similar to that of a mental health counselor. Art therapists strive to create a soothing, nonjudgmental environment in the treatment room. This allows clients to feel comfortable and safe while confronting difficult emotions and experiences.

Upon meeting a new client, an art therapist will first conduct a thorough assessment. They will evaluate the client’s mental health concerns, needs, goals and comfort level with various art mediums. Based on that assessment, the therapist will develop an individualized treatment plan. The treatment plan may include details such as the artistic media that will be used and the psychological techniques that may benefit the patient.

For example, if the client is having trouble expressing their emotions, the art therapist may have them work with watercolors or oil-based paints. In contrast, clay is particularly well-suited to helping clients feel grounded when they are having trouble focusing.

While clients practice their creative expression, the art therapist guides them. The therapist will also interpret the artwork to assess their client’s mental state. An art therapist will track the client’s progress, write progress reports and plan for the transition to concluding therapy.

How to Become an Art Therapist: An Overview

If you’re still in high school and you’ve decided that you’d like to pursue this meaningful career, talk to your school guidance counselor about your plans. Discuss ways to add relevant courses to your schedule, such as studio art and psychology classes. You might also consider volunteering or pursuing an internship position at a local hospital or clinic.

Aspiring art therapists must plan to earn a bachelor’s degree, followed by a master’s degree. A future art therapist may apply to a dedicated art therapy degree program, although it’s also common to earn a degree in counseling with an art minor

Before selecting a college, you should determine whether you will need to obtain an art therapy license in your state. If so, confirm that the degree program you choose will meet the licensure requirements.

After graduating with your master’s degree and obtaining licensure, you’ll be ready to pursue an art therapy job in a variety of settings. Art therapists may work in hospitals, crisis centers, domestic violence shelters, community organizations or substance abuse treatment centers.

Earning Your Undergraduate Degree

After high school, the first step in the process of how to become an art therapist is to earn your undergraduate degree. You should earn a counseling degree, whether you choose a general counseling degree or one that has a specialization. Some specialization options include marriage and family therapy, trauma, substance abuse and pediatric disorders.

The specific type of counseling degree that’s right for you will largely depend on the types of clients you are interested in helping. For example, if you’d like to work primarily with pediatric patients, you could earn a counseling degree that focuses on childhood and adolescent disorders.

Regardless of the type of counseling degree you earn, you can expect to acquire foundational competencies in the field. You’ll study counseling theories, practices and techniques, and you’ll learn about human development and psychology. You may also study professional ethics and multicultural issues in counseling.

As you work toward becoming an art therapist, it’s smart to take as many studio art and related classes as possible when you choose electives. Even better, consider declaring a minor in an arts field or becoming a counseling/art double major.

Earning a Graduate-Level Counseling Degree

You’ll need to plan to earn a master’s degree after your undergraduate degree. People typically complete a master’s degree in counseling in two years. As with the bachelor’s degree, you could choose to earn a general master’s degree in counseling or one with an area of specialization.

The curriculum for a master’s degree in counseling will vary from one school to the next. In general, however, you can expect to take a deep dive into topics such as:

  • Theories and models of counseling, including techniques such as rational emotive behavioral therapy (REBT), existential psychotherapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Developing and maintaining a rapport with clients and planning for the termination of the counseling relationship
  • Diagnosing mental health challenges and designing appropriate treatment plans
  • Common mental health disorders among pediatric patients

Aspiring art therapists do not need to earn a doctoral degree after attaining a master’s degree.

Is a License Required Before Becoming an Art Therapist?

Depending on the state in which you plan to practice, there may be an additional step in the process of how to become an art therapist. Some states require aspiring art therapists to earn a license or certification before they are authorized to practice. The Art Therapy Credentials Board (ATCB) and the American Art Therapy Association (AATA) are the preferred authorities for information on licensure requirements.

Are you ready to help other people overcome their challenges through art therapy? If so, you can earn the necessary academic credentials at Grand Canyon University. In addition to our baccalaureate counseling degree options, the College of Humanities and Social Sciences offers many graduate-level counseling degrees. These include the Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling with an Emphasis in Childhood and Adolescence Disorders degree and the Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling program.

Click on Request Info at the top of your screen to take the first step toward pursuing a meaningful career as an art therapist.


1Retrieved from: History, History Stories, What Prehistoric Cave Paintings Reveal About Early Human Life in January 2022.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.