Art Therapy in a Virtual World – Making Art over the Internet

When you walk into an Art Therapist’s office, it will look a little different to any other therapist’s office. You may still sit on a comfy couch or in a lounge chair. But close by there will be a table and a range of art materials; a drawing pad, crayons, oil pastels or pencils for drawing, possibly old magazines, scissors and glue stick for collage and maybe, a lump of clay.

But now in the time of social distancing and virtual therapy, art therapists are having to rethink how they enable clients to create and make art, if they can’t use their own supplies.

When I did my art therapy placement with Canteen, the participants in our online Art Group received their art resources for the 3-week program in the mail. Imagine their pleasure at receiving a box which included three parcels; one for each week, carefully wrapped like a special gift with a big label declaring “Do not open before session ….”. For these young people navigating a difficult life experience doubly affected by the threat of the pandemic, this made them feel special. Like Christmas had come early.

But when you sign up your first client for an individual virtual art therapy session or even your first online art group, you may not have the financial resources to distribute art supplies by mail. In the midst of the pandemic, Canteen stopped the distribution of materials by mail, to minimise the possible transmission of infection to this vulnerable client group. So as therapists we need to think creatively.

Of course, there will be clients who are arty or crafty and have a secret stash of materials that are totally appropriate for art therapy. Or they may have a child whose supplies they can raid for your sessions. Also, there will be clients who just can’t wait to make a trip to the stationary or art supply store, armed with your helpful list.

But there will also be clients, especially those who have been affected by job loss or are experiencing financial difficulties who will not be able to go shopping for supplies. So this means as art therapists, we have to think outside the box.

I have a basic list that I suggest clients have on hand for Art Therapy sessions:

  • Paper, ideally a sketch pad (at least A4, preferably A3) but plain printer paper or a pages from a notebook will do
  • Something to make colour with like crayons, oil pastels, paints, textas or colouring pencils
  • A glue stick and scissors
  • Some old magazines or brochures with images,

For children and adults, it can fun to create a “scavenger hunt” activity to find items that may be used in session.

  • Leaves, flowers, seed pods, feathers
  • Fabric, wool, ribbon, buttons
  • Cardboard rolls, wrapping paper, used Christmas and birthday cards
  • Kitchen items like dried pasta, coloured spices, string.
  • Old picture books or photos

For collage, the internet is a rich source of images which can be used in art therapy. The therapist can email some images to the client or ask the client to search for and print images that they would like to use in their art work.

With the advent of phone cameras, clients and therapists can also take photos that can be uploaded or printed for use in the art work.

Once you and your client have your supplies, it is necessary to create a work space where you can be together in the digital world, making and creating. Sharing art and talking about the symbols and images that emerge are crucial to the therapeutic relationship.

So how to do this over the internet?

  • The client can hold the image up to their camera but then, only the therapist can see the picture well.
  • The client can angle their monitor / camera to view the work. Both client and therapist can see the image together. But as a therapist, it is impossible to read body language or emotional reaction as the client is not seen.
  • My favourite method is to ask the client to take a photo of the image and share it by text, WhatsApp or Messenger. I look at the image on my phone, I speak to the face of my client and we both connect with the emotion as well as the image.

So delivering Art Therapy in the virtual world is definitely possible. Be creative in helping your client source art supplies and then consider your favourite ways for connecting together as you explore the meaning in the art.

Jenny Fisher – Expressive Arts Facilitator Writer, Storyteller, Photographer, Artist, Consultant & Coach Personal and Team Development through Story and Art