What is an Art Therapy Degree?

Art therapists use art as a therapy to support health and well-being and treat and rehabilitate patients with physical, mental, or emotional illnesses or disabilities. Their goal is to help the whole person: body, mind, and spirit. Depending on individual cases, they may be focused on helping a patient express emotion, express creativity, experience less pain and anxiety, be more relaxed and sleep better, or simply make their hospital stay more positive.

Students who enter an art therapy degree program typically develop their skills as a painter, sculptor, or sketch artist.

This degree is of particular interest to individuals who have an interest in and appreciation for art, the science of healthcare and rehabilitation, and the psychology that connects them. Education programs in the field, therefore, combine all of these elements in courses that cover:

  • Fundamentals and Principles of Art Therapy
  • Biology / Human Growth and Development
  • Assessment – Determining Patient Needs
  • Designing Individualized Art Therapy Programs
  • Special Needs Care Techniques
  • Psychology
  • Communications

Program Options

Aspiring art therapists should choose educational programs that are accredited by the Accreditation Council for Art Therapy Education (ACATE) and the Commission of Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP).

Bachelor’s Degree in Art Therapy – Four Year Duration
The typical bachelor’s program in art therapy combines instruction in foundational subiects, theory and methodologies of the field, and an experiential component, which allows students to learn while creating art. Below is a sample curriculum:

  • Academic Writing
  • Quantitative Literacy
  • Scientific Reasoning
  • Introduction to Painting
  • Two Dimensional Design
  • Three Dimensional Design
  • Drawing Skills and Process
  • Art History Survey
  • Figure Drawing
  • Therapeutic Art
  • Developmental Art Therapy
  • Applied Art Therapy
  • Internship in Therapeutic Art – a field placement with a specific population, such as children, teens, the elderly, people with psychological challenges, people with medical challenges, or people on the autism spectrum
  • Art Therapy Seminar
  • Digital Studio
  • Introduction to Digital Design
  • Digital Media Art
  • General Psychology
  • Child Psychology
  • Abnormal Psychology
  • Personality Psychology

In addition to these core foundational, art, and art therapy courses, many programs require that students also complete one or more courses in the areas of culture and languages, literature and creative arts, philosophy and religious studies, and history and social sciences.

Master’s Degree in Art Therapy – Two Year Duration
Master’s programs in art therapy balance clinical and research skill development. Their goal is to prepare students to assume the responsibility of helping clients manage emotional, psychological, and social issues through imagery and art making.

The curriculum at this level of education includes intense coursework in psychological development, psychotherapy, psychopathology (the scientific study of mental disorders), and ethical issues. Most schools require that master’s candidates conduct original research, participate in extensive fieldwork, and submit a thesis on an art therapy topic.

  • Drawing, Painting, and Sculpture for the Art Therapist
  • Professional Development Seminar
  • Social Justice Practicum
  • Socio-Cultural and Multicultural Approaches in Art Therapy
  • Historical and Theoretical Perspectives of Art Therapy
  • Arts-Based Assessment, Research, and Treatment Planning
  • Introduction to Adlerian Psychology (psychotherapy approach based on the work of pioneer psychotherapist Alfred Adler)
  • Theory and Interventions: Group Skills and Practice
  • Adlerian Theory and Interventions: Children and Parents
  • Theory, Methods, and Applications of Intersectionality and Community Engagement
  • Theory and Interventions: Families, Couples, and Older Adults
  • Theory and Interventions: Trauma
  • Studio Art
  • Clinical Seminar
  • Basic Intervention and Assessment Skills
  • Pre-practicum Counselling/Art Therapy Lab
  • Clinical Practicum
  • Research Methods
  • Professional Development, Issues, and Ethics
  • Individual Appraisal for Counsellors in Practice
  • Theories of Psychotherapy
  • Life Span Development
  • Biopsychosocial Bases of Health

Doctoral Degree in Art Therapy – Three Year Duration
Doctoral degree programs in art therapy are aimed at individuals who wish to teach and conduct advanced research in the field. Many programs are divided into the learning modules listed below.

  • Epistemology (the philosophical field revolving around the study of knowledge and how to reach it)
  • Theoretical approaches and philosophical foundations
  • Practicum
  • Research

Here are some examples of art therapy research and Ph.D. topics:

  • The Use of Diagnostic Drawing on the Adolescent Population
  • The Effectiveness of Clay vs. Drawing in Expressing Emotions within the Elderly
  • Art as a Vehicle to Personal Meaning
  • The Effect of Humor on Art Therapy
  • The Incorporation of Nature into Art Therapy

To enter a doctoral program in art therapy, students generally must have achieved a specified minimal grade in master’s level courses in assessment, counseling and psychological theories, cultural and social diversity, human growth and development, and psychopathology. They must also have compiled a portfolio of personal art work representing a range of media (drawing, painting, sculpture), and completed significant work experiences in the field of art therapy.

Degrees Similar to Art Therapy

Depending on the level of degree, programs in this discipline may include courses in music history, theory, composition, ear training, and performance, as well as production techniques and methods and the business of music.

Music Theory and Composition
The typical music theory and composition curriculum is focused on the process of creating music through the elements of sound (overtone, timbre, pitch, amplitude, and duration), melody, harmony, rhythm, texture, structure/form, and expression (dynamics, tempo, and articulation).

Music Therapy
Music therapists use music as a therapy to support health and well-being and treat and rehabilitate patients with physical, mental, or emotional illnesses or disabilities. Their goal is to help the whole person: body, mind, and spirit. Depending on individual cases, they may be focused on helping a patient express emotion, express creativity, experience less pain and anxiety, be more relaxed and sleep better, or simply make their hospital stay more positive.

The scientific study of the mind and behavior is the focus of psychology degree programs. In simple terms, psychology students study the way that humans and animals act, feel, think, and learn. As noted above, music therapy involves the psychological connection between music and well-being.

Social Work
Social work is about helping people solve and cope with problems and challenges in their everyday lives. Students who pursue a degree in the field gain the knowledge and skills, as well as the ethics and values, to work for social justice for individuals, families, organizations, and communities. The typical curriculum examines issues such as child welfare, mental health, poverty, aging, domestic violence, and marginalized groups.

Skills You’ll Learn

As is true for most degrees that involve healthcare and interacting with others, earning an art therapy degree leaves graduates with a considerable transferrable skill set:

  • Social Perceptiveness – awareness of others’ feelings and why they react as they do
  • Integrity / Dependability – genuine concern for others
  • Listening – giving full attention to what others have to say
  • Speaking – effectively conveying information
  • Critical Thinking, Problem Solving, and Decision Making – using logic and reasoning to consider issues and implement solutions
  • Service Orientation – a customer service mindset
  • Learning Strategies – choosing teaching methods and procedures that are right for the situation and for the learner
  • Assessment / Evaluation – monitoring performance and making adjustments as necessary
  • Negotiation and Persuasion – bringing people together to reconcile differences
  • Time Management – effectively and productively using one’s time
  • Stress Tolerance – dealing calmly with unexpected and challenging situations

What Can You Do with an Art Therapy Degree?

Healthcare is a very large employer of art therapists. In hospital settings, for example, art can be used to maintain a calm and soothing patient environment and promote healing. In nursing homes, art therapists use art and social interaction to help patients reduce their isolation, improve their cognitive skills, boost their energy, and stay mentally and physically active. Consider this list of occupational options within the healthcare field:

  • Hospitals and Medical Centers
  • Psychiatric Hospitals
  • Community Mental Health Centers
  • Retirement Homes / Senior Centers
  • Rehabilitation Facilities
  • Agencies serving persons with developmental challenges
  • Outpatient Clinics / Day Care Treatment Centers
  • Early Intervention Programs (for children with developmental delays)
  • Nursing Homes and Assisted Living Facilities
  • Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation Programs
  • Hospice Programs
  • Crisis Centers

Some public and private school systems have art therapy programs, in which therapists use art to promote communication in the classroom and help students manage behavioral issues and disabilities.

Increasingly, art therapists are finding work with prisons and halfway houses. Art therapy is often cathartic for prisoners, allowing them to express their feelings without having to talk about them in the naturally demoralizing prison setting. Studies have revealed that art therapy reduces disciplinary issues among inmates and repeat offenses among those that are released.

Private Companies / Private Practice
There are private companies that hire or contract art therapists to go into hospitals, schools, and other settings.


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