Art Therapy: Draw it Out

Art is an outlet for the human experience, in sickness as well as health. It challenges and excites us, and it can ease our pain. Since the emergence of psychotherapy in the 19th century, the field has exploded. Therapeutic approaches are now used to address the psychological elements of a suite of conditions- everything from cancer to claustrophobia2– and an impressive range of therapy types have been developed. Therapists now harness many activities to aid the healing process, including creating art.

Being creative can be a therapy in its own right (even without a structured psychotherapeutic context), and has demonstrated benefits for both the sick and the healthy5. Art therapy is a form of expressive therapy that uses the creative process to facilitate patient self-exploration and improve his/her wellbeing. The process has two parts: the creation of art, and a verbalization of the experience, which is usually done as a patient narrative, though this is often aided by questions from a therapist1. There is no standard treatment1 and art therapy can incorporate any form of artistic expression, such as music, writing, drawing, and even digital media3.

art therapy
A picture is worth a thousand words.

Exercises can be direct, addressing the patient’s current situation overtly, or indirect, focusing on the patient’s inner life without referencing their current situation. Art therapy promotes self-expression and self-awareness, and gives the patient an opportunity to think symbolically about their condition, which promotes creativity and problem-solving skills. Communicating about their experience and artwork increases the patient’s understanding and integration of their experience. These benefits can transfer to and enhance the patient’s daily life1.

Art therapy is broadly considered a beneficial technique, and has rarely been associated with negative effects, such as exacerbating symptoms4. It helps with depression and rehabilitation1 generally, and reduces anxiety in breast cancer patients2 . It offers an alternative and to pharmacological treatments (i.e. medications)1, and is cost effective4. Perhaps most importantly, it allows patients to externalize their pain and confront it face-to-face, thereby seeing themselves more clearly. It offers patients a space to recast their suffering and call it by a new name: art.


  1. Blomdahl, C, AB Gunnarsson, S Guregård, & A Björkland. (2013). A realist review of art therapy for clients with depression. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 40: 322-330.
  1. Boehm, K, H Cramer, T Staroszynski, & T Ostermann. (2014). Arts therapies for anxiety, depression, and quality of life for breast cancer patients: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2014: 1-9.
  1. Choe, S. (2014). An exploration of the qualities and features of art apps for art therapy. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 41: 145-154.
  1. Crawford, C, C Lee, J Bingham, & Active Self-Care Therapies for Pain (PACT) Working Group. (2014). Sensory art therapies for the self-management of chronic pain symptoms. Pain Medicine, 15:S66-S75.
  1. Rankanen, M. (2014). Clients’ positive and negative experiences of experiential art therapy group process. The Arts in Pscyhotherapy, 41: 193-204.

Image source: “The Scream of Nature” by Edvard Munch,

Plague: Lights On

Aliases: plague, Black Death

Despite its relative scarcity in the modern world (thank you, antibiotics!), the plague still evokes vivid images of terror and destruction. Its dreadful impact has left scars, and it’s clear why: where it struck it left civilization radically altered. In this post, I will focus on one facet of its legacy: its effect on art.

The most famous incarnation of the disease, the Black Death, was a bubonic plague epidemic that started in 1347, at the dawn of the Renaissance. It decimated European society, killing approximately 1/3 of Europe’s population, with some cities losing more than 60% of their inhabitants. The disease continued to emerge in epidemics across the continent for the next 300 years1. The most obvious effect on the art world was that many great painters were laid low, cutting their careers short. But the plague’s influence was also more insidious. The survivors of these epidemics were shaped by them, and there is evidence of the plague in the work they created1,2.

As you’d expect, much of the art from the era of the Black Death dealt with issues surrounding the plague, especially death and dying. In fact, a new artistic genre featuring death as a central element arose during this time, the Danse Macabre or Dance with Death. It depicted a personified death summoning people to dance to the grave, starkly illustrating the fragility of life, and the universality of death. Plague epidemics also changed the patronage system that commissioned most artwork, which, combined with an emphasis on death, led to an increase in conservative religious themes in paintings of this period2.

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. While the plague certainly brought death into focus, it also demonstrated how precious life is, inspiring many artists to showcase life’s beauty in the wake of the disease. Really, the fact that art was being created at all is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. Despite arriving right when Europe was pulling itself out of the Dark Ages, the horrors of the plague didn’t snuff out what little light there was; instead, it survived and grew brighter1.


Cause: The bacteria Yersinia pestis causes the plague. Its natural hosts are rodents and other small mammals, including prairie dogs (not so cute now, huh?), rats, mice, voles, and rabbits. Although their predators may become infected from eating a sick animal (cats are particularly susceptible), the disease is normally transmitted between hosts by fleas. Humans can also contract it through contact with infected bodily fluids or tissues (such as skinning an infected animal) or, in the case of pneumonic plague, contact with infectious droplets coughed up by a sick person3.

Consequence: The three most common types of plague are bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic. All three cause fever, chills, and weakness. A person with bubonic plague will develop swollen and painful lymph node(s), called buboes, near the offending fleabite as the bacteria reproduce. Untreated, Y. pestis can spread throughout the body and result in septicemic plague, which causes abdominal pain, shock, and internal bleeding. Skin and other tissues, especially extremities, such as fingers and toes, may become necrotic (turn black and die). As mentioned above, pneumonic plague is the only type that can be directly transmitted between people, however it can also develop from untreated bubonic or septicemic plague. This type of the disease causes rapid onset pneumonia, with shortness of breath, cough, bloody or watery mucous, and can lead to respiratory failure and shock3.

Cure: The advent of antibiotics packed a punch for the plague. Although it is difficult to assess mortality rates, the best estimates indicate that mortality has dropped from a high of 66% before antibiotics to approximately 11% in modern epidemics. So while the plague remains a serious illness, it is very successfully treated by commonly available antibiotics3.


  1. Jones, J. “Brush with the Black Death: how artists painted through the plague”. The Guardian. 15 February 2012. Web. 20 August 2014.
  1. McCouat, P. Surviving the black death. Journal of Art in Society.
  1. Plague. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 28 November 2012. Web. 17 August 2014.

Image source: Danse macabre by Michael Wolgemut, Creative Commons