Learn About Being an Art Therapist

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published December 10, 2019

What does an art therapist do?

An art therapist uses creative tools such as sculpting, painting, drawing and collages with the aim of emotional, creative and spiritual growth for their clients. They use guided exercises to help clients express themselves through art. Art therapists work with a wide range of patients who have a variety of mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, past trauma, PTSD, phobias and behavioral disorders.

Art therapists also:

  • Complete an initial assessment to determine a client’s needs and complete follow-up assessments regularly to determine the effectiveness of treatment

  • Develop an individualized treatment plan that incorporates creative expression, psychotherapy and counseling techniques

  • Establish goals for individual sessions and long-term objectives for therapy

  • Use art to open discussions regarding the client’s individual challenge

  • Instruct clients on using different mediums, such as paint, clay and yarn

  • Customize programs for groups such as schools, nursing homes, wellness centers, prisons, hospitals, military bases and shelters

Average salary

Art therapists usually hold full-time positions, though some may work part time or on a contract basis. The salary for an art therapist depends on a variety of factors, including the size, location and type of employer. The art therapist’s education and experience can also affect salary. For the most up-to-date salary information from Indeed, click on the salary link.

For the most up-to-date salary information, click on the Indeed Salaries page linked for each role below.

  • Art therapist

  • Some salaries range from $7.95 to $81.95 per hour.

Art therapist requirements

Art therapists need a combination of education, certifications and training to develop the skills needed for the role. 

Education

Art therapists need to have a minimum of a master’s degree in art therapy. Courses that a student might take during an art therapy program could include:

  • Theories of art therapy

  • Counseling

  • Psychotherapy

  • Ethics and standards of practice

  • Assessment and evaluation

  • Individual, group and family art therapy techniques

  • Human and creative development

  • Non-verbal symbols and metaphors

  • Multicultural considerations

  • Research methods

Some art therapists earn a doctoral degree to expand their job opportunities and increase their earning potential. Those who wish to open their own art therapy practice should have a Ph.D. or Psy.D.

Training

Art therapists must complete internships in clinical, community or other settings, with at least 100 hours of supervised practicum and 600 hours of supervised art therapy clinical internship. They must also receive preparatory training in studio art. 

When entering the workforce, art therapists may receive on-the-job training to learn more about their facilities’ practices and procedures. An art therapist may receive instruction on online calendaring programs, client files and specific processes.

Art therapists can also gain off-the-job training in the form of seminars, lectures and conferences. During these functions, an art therapist can learn the most current information in their field, network with fellow professionals and discover new treatment techniques. 

Certifications

The American Art Therapy Association grants professional practice credentials on three levels:

  • Registered Art Therapist (ATR): Granted when a candidate completes educational requirements and supervised clinical practice.

  • Board Certified Art Therapist (ATR-BC): Awarded when a candidate completes educational requirements, supervised clinical practice and passes a written examination. The candidate must also submit proof of their continuing education requirements. 

  • Certified Supervisor Credential (ATCS): Offered after the candidate has obtained their ATR-BC certification and demonstrated leadership abilities.

Besides earning a certification, you may need to obtain a license to practice in certain states. As there are a variety of licensing boards depending on the state, it is best to review the regulations for the location in which you want to practice to determine if you’ll need a license. Earning a license may require a minimum degree, experience and education hours to apply.

Skills

Art therapists need a mix of skills and qualities, including: 

  • Artistic ability: This skill involves experience in studio arts, including sculpting, painting, ceramics, photography and working with textures. Art therapy projects often need studio spaces, so experience with studio arts is essential to becoming an art therapist.

  • Compassion: One of the main goals of art therapy is to provide clients with skills to improve their lives. To do this, an art therapist must be compassionate and empathic toward clients.

  • Creativity: Art therapists use many artistic and visual arts tools to help clients recover from emotional issues. To best use artistic tools, creativity is important. Art therapists offer creative suggestions to guide their clients in using tools during sessions. 

  • Communication: Art therapists work with clients to improve communication skills. To improve this skill, art therapists should be able to understand the needs of their clients and communicate treatment plans. 

  • Active listening: Good listening skills build trust and help the client communicate during therapy. Successful art therapists have listening skills and can use them to gather important information and insight into a client’s thought process and issues.

  • Knowledge of psychology: Art therapists work with clients with a variety of issues. Psychology focuses on the study of mental processes and behaviors and can provide insight into why a client acts a certain way.

  • Computer skills: Many art therapists use computers to input clinical notes or communicate with team members. It is important to have basic computer skills, including email platforms and software. 

Art therapist work environment

Art therapists may work in areas with the following characteristics:

  • Sitting during therapy sessions

  • Using computers to complete clinical notes and reports and to communicate with other team members

  • Communicating regularly with team members and administrators

The role of art therapy is expanding, and there are many opportunities for those wishing to enter the field. Some institutions employing art therapists include:

  • Schools

  • Hospitals

  • Outpatient clinics or day treatment centers

  • Addiction treatment facilities

  • Prisons

  • Community agencies

  • Rehabilitation centers

  • Skilled nursing facilities 

  • Home health agencies

How to become an art therapist

Here are the most common steps to follow to become an art therapist:

1. Pursue education.

You must first complete a bachelor’s degree. You can get a bachelor’s degree in nearly any field, but it’s helpful to take courses in psychology and art. Once you have a bachelor’s degree, you must apply to master’s programs in art therapy from an accredited higher education institution. Your master’s degree must include clinical internships. If you wish, you can pursue a doctoral degree instead of a master’s, but you should be prepared for a longer education period. 

2. Gain relevant work experience.

Besides internships, it’s helpful to volunteer with organizations to build your resume. Consider volunteering with a local healthcare facility or community center while you complete your education.

3. Receive certification.

The American Art Therapy Association grants certifications depending on your education and experience. Depending on the state in which you want to practice, you may need one of these certifications. Earning a certification can also expand your job opportunities and increase your earning potential. 

4. Earn a license.

Depending on the state you plan to practice in, you may need to obtain a license. Review your state’s guidelines to determine whether you must apply for a license.

5. Prepare your resume.

Your resume should include your education, internships, certification and licensing information. You can also include any volunteer opportunities and relevant work experience. Add any special awards or achievements you earned during work or at school.

Art therapy job description example

Our mental health and addiction center looking for a qualified and licensed art therapist. The successful candidate will be responsible for initial assessments, creating treatment plans, therapy sessions and attending team meetings. They must be able to work effectively as a team member. Experience working in a mental health environment a plus.

Master’s degree in counseling or art therapy and appropriate board certifications and licenses required.

Specific responsibilities include:

  • Meeting with clients and creating session plans

  • Plan activities and maintain the room and equipment

  • Organize one-on-one and group activities

  • Assess clients and recommend appropriate artistic activity

  • Design projects based on individual clients

  • Engage with clients based on projects

  • Work closely with case managers and other health professionals

  • Complete daily and weekly reports on client progress

  • Organize and order supplies as needed

Required skills include:

  • Excellent interpersonal, communication and listening skills

  • Knowledge of theory and practice of psychotherapy and the role of art in therapy

  • People-oriented

  • Dependable

  • Innovative and creative

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