30+ Creative Art Therapy Exercises (with Pictures)
Check out our list of 30+ art therapy exercises for adults, teens and children. New ideas aren't easy to come by, so we've collected the best for you here.
Art Therapy Exercises for Adults
Art therapy is the practice of using creative expression to help create a sense of inner equanimity and peace. The practice can be used to soften trauma, to assuage anxiety, reduce depression, and boost self-esteem. The best part is: you don't have to be a trained artist to enjoy it. Art therapy is available to all, and helps foster a deeper connection to the self. The practice of art therapy has seen a surge in popularity in recent years, which makes sense in conjunction with depression rates rising.
But you don't have to be suffering to enjoy art therapy, it makes for wonderful outlet to reduce stress and find relief, no matter the circumstances. But where does one start with art therapy? We compiled an extensive list of excellent activities to introduce you into the world of art therapy. So grab your supplies, and dive into this expressive world of healing.
5 Art Therapy Group Ideas
1. Blind Contour Drawing
Supplies: Paper, pens, pencils, drawing boards or table.
Description: Split the group into pairs, inviting the coupled-off participants to sit across from one another. Ensure all participants have a pen and paper. Everyone in the group then draws their partner, but without looking down at the page. While drawing, you can keep your pen on the paper the entire time, or you can lift the marker, "blindly" estimating the gap between features. Even though it might be tempting to look down, practice resisting the urge, keeping your gaze on what's really in front of you.
Pro tip: It's more fun to instruct everyone to wait to look down until all members have finished their drawing to allow for a grand reveal.
Goals & discussion reflection: This exercise will not only likely get plenty of laughs, but also will challenge and improve participant's artistic ability to see. See if you can remain mindful throughout, noticing any discomfort that may arise, or any anxiety around wanting to make sure the picture looks good, and let it all go in the name of truly observing. We observe our partner, and we observe ourself. These works can oddly capture the essence of the subject, but give us a wonderful chance to truly see. When creating art based on a reference, we often get stuck looking at our page. If we can train our brains to spend more time looking at the subject, we will be able to uncover all of the details and translate that into our work. This exercise thus makes a great warm-up, and is a fun way to get into the creative flow.
2. The Five Senses
Supplies: Variety of objects for inspiration, and art supplies like crayons, markers, pastels, paper, etc.
Description: Find objects that encapsulate all of the senses. The classic example is a cracker or chip: it has a unique sound when biting into it, a flavor, you can feel the texture, looks distinct...you get the idea. Try to source objects that have vibrant expressions to the senses that include some contrast (maybe some are soft like a bag of flower, or somewhere in middle like cookie dough). Suggest group members select one of the objects an d spend a few minutes with it. Allow them to experience every sense as a focal point. Then, everyone draws their object using color and shape, keeping in mind the feeling the object invokes as they create.
Goals & reflection: There's more to this exercise than meets the eye...ear, nose, hands and mouth. Bad jokes aside, you're truly able to isolate the experience of a singular sense input. This usually inspires energy that translate to creative output, and instantly brings us into a space of mindfulness. In order to be present with our senses, we must be in the here and now. Ask people which sense they focused on most. And something else magical tends to happen with this exercise, when we focus on one thing, our mind softens and releases stress. It's a stark contrast to the everyday obsession of all the to-dos.
3. Bank of Affirmations
Supplies: One box or container per person. Square tissue boxes work perfectly, but you can use other wooden boxes, recycled containers, or even jars. Next, get all the decorating supplies you would enjoy using. This can be sequins, paint, scrapbook stickers, pencils, markers, sharpies, glitter, buttons, etc. You might type up the affirmations, you might write them on sticky notes, or perhaps on slips of paper you cut out with scissors.
Description: Ask everyone to write down a list of affirmations they want to embody or adopt as their own belief. Everyone can read their list out loud, and provide time for the group to add any new ones that may have come as inspiration from another person's list. Then, let everyone write their affirmation and decorate the cards to put in their decorated "bank". This exercise works well if everyone has 52, one for each week of the year to withdraw an affirmation.
Feeling stuck? We even have an extensive list of incredible affirmations, just email us to get a copy of it (masterpeacebox @ gmail.com)!
Goals & reflection: This exercise provides the opportunity to reflect on your intentions and what values you want to start focusing on. While it certainly can work as an exercise for individuals, we think it's more powerful done with others to foster that sense of accountability that a group creates. Invite everyone to reflect on the power of belief
4. Group Cake Decorating
Supplies: One plain sheet cake per group (group can be broken into teams, which requires multiple cakes), plastic spatula, icing, sprinkles or any other cake decorating materials (this could even include children's toys...get creative!).
Description: Wait..I didn't know art therapy could involve cake? Well, now I'm definitely on board! In this exercise, divide the group into teams (usually 3-5 people per cake is enough to get the benefits of teamwork while ensuring everyone gets to play a role). Encourage everyone to pick a theme to start. Probative questions include: is your theme literal or abstract? Are they planning to use symbols or words at all? Have teams collective create a game plan and then let everyone take turns contributing to the overall design.
Goals & reflection: This exercise is deliciously fun. Something about it always seems to create a positive atmosphere. Socialization, teamwork and cooperation come together with creativity in a beautiful way. Reflect on what themes were chosen and how people felt in the group (did they want to lead, or perhaps did they feel more comfortable letting others decorate).
5. Who Listens To You
Supplies: Paper and any drawing supplies (pens, pastels, crayons, markets, etc.)
Description: This exercise is pretty straightforward, but powerful nonetheless. Ask particpants to draw someone in their life who listens to them. Give them a moment to think about it, and remind them this is someone who makes you feel valued and supported.
Goals & reflection: As a group, reflect on the importance of communicating with others and having your voice heard. This also allows the group to share beautiful stories, and conjure images of their own support systems, which instantly uplifts the energy in the room. Remind people it doesn't matter much about their artistic ability, rather, it's the feeling and the ensuing meditation on the power of relationships.
5 Art Therapy Ideas For Adult Self-Esteem
1. Mirror Drawing
Supplies: We suggest at least an A3 size of paper, because it will provide you with enough space to keep the drawing of your face true to size. Gather any materials you'd like to create the self-portrait (which can be mix-media): colored pencils, oil pastels, charcoal, paint, etc.
Description: Your task is to draw yourself. Set up your mirror so you can see yourself clearly, making sure your mirror is large enough to allow for this. Make sure you are physically comfortable and strained to see your reflection. Begin by breathing. Let your eyes observe the light, shadow, form, texture and lines of your features, without judgement. Try to view yourself like this is the first time you are seeing the image. Then begin by drawing from the inside and working your way out (this will help you not mis-judge the size of features, resulting in a squished face). You can play with duration and time intervals, giving yourself two, five, ten or twenty minutes to complete the same exercise. Or, perhaps, make this a long-term project. We suggest at least starting out with a few quicker, short sketch warmups. This will help get the energy moving and keep you from obsessing over getting the details perfect.
Goals & reflection: As you work on your portrait, try to get absorbed in the moment of creating. Remind yourself of all of your unique qualities. Refrain from judging, perhaps noticing if those thoughts come up (we don't ignore the thoughts, but we also don't indulge them). Reflect on the miracle of being human, and wish yourself peace in the enjoyment of being human.
2. Visualize Release
Supplies: Soothing music, any drawing materials, paper
Description: Play relaxing background music and let yourself start to get visualize stress releasing. Start to slow down your breathing, and allow the breath to become the focal point of your awareness. Now start to imagine all that you are breathing out, perhaps exhaling fear, anger, stress, etc. Or, maybe you're letting out love and light. Whatever you are releasing in order to relax. Think about color, texture, size and shape. Now draw what you breathed out. You can use any type of form or design to depict the feelings and thoughts.
Goals & reflection: Reflect on the experience of relaxation. Notice what emotions seem to come alive in the artwork. With this practice, you'll start to become more in-tune with your inner state, being able to visualize stress and give it color and shape and a way to express itself. Through this, we can detach from the stress. Stress is just an experience passing through. It's not who you are deep down. Hopefully, you'll gain a better understanding of yourself and your feelings through this art therapy technique.
3. Self Esteem in Clay
Supplies: Any type of clay
Description: Work to create different representations of what self-esteem means to you in clay. Perhaps you create different versions of yourself across time, to show growth or what it means to step into a good space. Or, maybe you focus on creating a representation of yourself and other representations of the insecurities that block you from being your ideal self.
Goals & reflection: Notice how you see yourself in your mind. How do you portray yourself with the clay? What traits do you highlight? If you chose to work with representations of insecurities, is it helpful to see these as outside of you? How do they look?
4. Draw your armor
Supplies: Crayons, markers, paper, pastels, pencils, etc.
Description: Think about what protects you. Reflect on what outside forces are interfering with you. What is your armor? How does it look? Create a piece based on your own armor. It can be literal or abstract.
Goals & reflection: Reflect on what your defenses are and what are the reasons you have them in place. Do you lash out? Distance yourself? Hide? Yell? Explore your visual representation of armor: is it large or small? Bright or dark? The goal is to start to break down one's defenses and start to gain a deeper sense of self in the awareness of your own defense mechanisms.
5. Smile Collage
Supplies: Glue-sticks, magazines, photographs, newspaper, scissors, mixed-media
Description: Make a collage of all the things that make you smile, or perhaps of smiles themselves. Think of a variety of sources to gather your images. Bring to mind your own joy throughout this entire process. Does it feel contagious to spend hours looking at smiles? Do you feel elevated looking at things that make you smile?
Goals & reflection: Reflect on what truly makes you happy and brings you joy. Let this serve as a totem, a reminder, and something to spark joy when you need it most. The goal here is to reconnect with your own deepest desires, the things that are inherent and part of what makes you you.
5 art therapy ideas for adult depression
1. Body Scan
Supplies: Any drawing materials and paper
Description: Complete a mindful full-body scan. Close your eyes, and start to visualize relaxation melting all the way down your body, from the scalp to the eyebrows, eyes, nose, mouth, jaw, neck, shoulders, etc. Scan all through every part of the body, mentally seeing these parts starting to release and relax. Feel free to play calming music during this exercise. Take either two sheets of paper or one sheet folded in half and draw yourself before and after the body scan.
Goals & reflection: See how your piece may represent the process of relaxation. It may also be a nice reminder of the fact that we can in fact regulate our mood. This exercise will highlight the importance of learning how to self-soothe.
2. Papier Mache Masks
Supplies: Papier mache paste (3 or more cups of flower, 1 cup water, 1/3 cup salt, 2 tbsp vegetable oil, with the option to add food coloring). We suggest newspaper or a drop cloth to mitigate mess on your workspace surface. For constructing, you'll need the finished paste, balloon and strips of newspaper. For decorating, consider fabric, feathers, collage materials, etc.
Description: Blow up the balloon and cut out strips of newspaper. Dip the strips into the paste and place them to cover the space needed to make a mask (roughly 3/4th the way around). Let it dry for about 24 hours (more if still not hardened). Then, pop the balloon and cut out eye and mouth holes to make the hardened papier mache resemble a mask. If you'd like, you can start decorating as is, or you can create nose, lip and eyebrows (elevated features) by soaking paper towels in the mache paste and molding the features like clay. After this is dry, you can decorate any way you see fit.
Goals & reflection: Explore the idea of self-image. What masks you might put on in your daily life? Need inspiration? Watch the Ted Talk above to see how these masks can really work to bring you healing. Reflect on your feelings as you create and decorate you mask. See how you feel at the end.
THERE'S A HOLE IN MY SIDEWALK - By Portia Nelson
I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost… I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.
I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend that I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in this same place.
But, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in … it’s a habit … but, my eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.
I walk down another street."
3. Reflection of "The Hole"
Supplies: Paper, crayons, markers, pens, pastels, etc.
Description: Read the above poem entitled "The Hole, An Autobiography in Five Short Chapters" by Portia Nelson (1993). Rest in a moment of silence to let the poem sink in. Then try one of these artistic reflection exercises:
- Draw yourself trying to get out of a hole, which is a representation of your depression.
- Draw a general interpretation of the poetic piece.
- Describe the feelings and specifics of your own depression and draw the inside of what the hole looks like to you.
- Draw yourself surrounded by problems, or holes, associated with your depression.
Goals & reflection: One of the goals of this exercise is problem solving. Think about how you process your depression. Do you repeatedly walk down paths you know you shouldn't? Are you self-sabotaging? Don't get judgmental, but stay inquisitive of what are your habits around your depression. This exercise also gives you a wonderful opportunity to reflect on how you are trying to overcome the problems, and remind yourself that you are in fact working toward happiness.
4. Draw Your Depression
Supplies: This exercise can really be performed with any artistic medium. Consider pens and pencils, markers, paint, canvas, paper, etc.
Description: We suggest starting with a brief meditation or mindful check-in. Then, when you are a bit more relaxed, reflect on the experience of your depression. Now, draw or paint a visual representation of that depression. You can be literal or abstract, just stay connected to capturing the feeling.
Goals & reflection: The goal is to get the energy of the depression out of you. It's helpful to see it visualized, further distinguishing it, separating the depression from who you truly are. We can start to see it as an experience and we can reflect on what we do in the moments when it arises, how we cope, and that there are moments when it isn't present. You'll gain some self-awareness and a sense of control when you see the image on the outside, subject to analysis.
5. The Worry Tree
Supplies: Drawing paper and materials (markers, pastels, crayons, pens, etc.)
Description: Draw an outline of a tree without leaves. You can also print out an outline of a tree if you prefer not to draw it. Then, use words, symbols, figures, shapes to capture the essence of your worries and concerns and place them where the leaves would be.
Goals & reflection: This exercise is helpful in expressing problems. It helps us get that energy out of the body. Notice the personality of this tree. What is the width, height, liveliness, and any other qualities of the tree. Is it crooked? Is it ominous? Is there a root system? Can you reflect and trace back to the roots, thinking about the causes of the worries that are in bloom?
5 Expressive Art Therapy Ideas
1. Mindful Mandala
Supplies: Drawing paper, colored pencils work really nicely, or any other drawing supplies.
Description: A mandala is a concentric geometric pattern. It is often used to represent the metaphysical or cosmological landscapes. Luckily, there are a million mandala coloring books to choose from these days. You can also create your own, starting from the center and making your way out, adding symmetric designs. Or, you can grab a paper plate and draw the outside of a circle and work your way toward the middle. Try to let the drawing reveal itself as you enter a flow state, not needing to plan too much ahead.
Goals & reflection: This is a wonderfully expressive exercise and opportunity to hone in a state a focus. Notice how you feel before and after, and let yourself create anything you desire. You'll likely enter a soothing space of enjoying the moment.
2. Meditation Painting
Supplies: Canvas, paint, paintbrush, cup of water, paper towels, protective cloth or newspaper.
Description: Perhaps start with a light breathwork exercise to start to transition out of your busy day into a state of mindfulness. Then, similar to the mandala exercise, allow the painting to reveal itself. Don't force anything. See what emerges and move in whatever way feels good even if it doesn't feel like it looks good. Want a little guided meditation to play? We crated one a while back to guide you through a mindful painting process, check it out here.
Goals & reflection: Express yourself without falling into the criticism or praise of your work. Just be. You'll enter a soothing meditative space of flowing with the moment. And the process is a cathartic transfer of energy. Bringing the inner world out, and giving it form, without having to explain it in words or with logic. Trust the process, and mindfully check in at the end to see how you feel. Notice any shifts.
3. Paint Flicking
Supplies: Canvas or paper, acrylic or tempera paints, paintbrush (or can be done with old toothbrush), water, container or cardboard box. Plastic drop-cloths highly recommended.
Description: Set up a protected area with the plastic drop-cloths and container or cardboard box. If you are using a cardboard box, cut out the top and one side and place it on top of the drop-cloths. Now place paper or canvas on the bottom of the box. Flick paint onto the canvas in a controlled manner (you can strike the paintbrush against your other hand). Let loose and have fun!
Goals & reflection: How did this feel? Did you feel a sense of freedom? What emotions came up while creating the piece? Can you think of a title? This method is great for releasing anger, or energizing yourself out of a state of apathy. It's expressive, kinetic, and creates beautiful artwork.
4. Designs with Tape
Supplies: Canvas or thin cardboard, masking tape, markers, crayons, pastels, paints, magazine photos, glue, scissors, etc.
Description: Use the masking tape to create different sizes and shapes across the cardboard or canvas. This is going to create negative space on your piece. So, you'll then want to draw or paint on the canvas. Then, remove the tape and see what designs emerge. You can now go back and fill in the empty space with new designs if you so choose.
Goals & reflection: This activity pushes you to experiment. Reflect on if you felt the urge to fill the entire space of the canvas, or if you were comfortable with the negative space. Overall, the main objective here is to express yourself. So let go of any judgements, and get creative.
5. Clay Time
Supplies: Any type of artistic clay.
Description: Start by kneading the clay, visualizing it as a stress-ball of sorts, melting away any tension. Bring mindful awareness to the sensations of the clay, noticing the texture and temperature. Create amorphous shapes with the clay. This is abstract, and there are no right or wrong approaches.
Goals & reflection: Were you tempted to create something representational? How did it feel to mindfully work with the clay? Do you feel more relaxed? Goals include trusting the intuition and boosting creative confidence through experimentation.
5 Art Therapy Ideas for Children
1. Draw a Pet
Supplies: Any drawing materials and paper.
Description: Your child may already do this by nature, but invite your kid to draw a pet, real or imaginary, current or of the past. Introduce probing questions to help the child bring the pet to life: ask what the pet liked to do, any toys it had, how it would move, etc.
Goals & reflection: Ask the child to think about what that pet means to him or her. This is a great way to facilitate a moment around positivity and love, and proves a great chance to reflect on relationships.
2. Color Mood Pyramid
Supplies: Paints and a canvas or paper.
Description: Ask the kids to draw a large pyramid or triangle. Then, have the participants fill in the triangle with colors that represent their different moods. Have them start with colors that represent negative moods and gradually fade into a representation of positive feelings. The top can hold the brightest most positive color and mood.
Goals & reflection: Take note of if anyone asks why is the sad mood at the bottom. Let them know they can recreate again if they feel it is more suitable to have the happy emotions at the base. The goal of the exercise is to give kids a chance to see how their moods change, and reflect on what behaviors happen in those moods.
3. Draw Yourself As a Superhero
Supplies: Paper and any drawing materials.
Description: Chat with the children about superheroes. Now, ask the kids to reflect on the strengths of those heros, and then ask them about their own unique strengths. Then, invite the kids to draw themselves as a superhero.
Goals & reflection: This is a great chance for the child to build self-awareness, reflecting on their own abilities. Think about how the hero helps others. What ways do we give back? This helps the child see that there is an intrinsic element of service in the hero, not necessarily just individual strength.
4. Finger Puppets
Supplies: Glue gun is helpful, gloves, and decorative craft materials, wiggly eyes, (pipe-cleaners, foam, yarn, buttons, feathers, felt, ribbons, etc.)
Description: If you use a pair of old gloves, you can cut off the fingers and tape or sew the base of the fingers to prevent it from falling apart. Add features and decorations to the puppets. You can dress them with fabric and give them wiggly eyes to come to life.
Goals & reflection: After the puppets are made, let the kids play with them. Give them a chance to talk about themselves through the puppet, asking what the child's name thinks about certain things. This gives the child the opportunity to express themselves without worry.
5. Create A Collage
Supplies: Scissors, glue sticks, yarn, magazines, coloring books, stickers, paint, pencils, etc.
Description: This one is beautifully simple: ask the kids to make a collage of things that make them happy. They will have plenty of ideas!
Goals & reflection: This is a great exercise to hold the child's attention, improving their focus, and encouraging them to finish whatever they start. They are also working on self-reflection to think about what brings them joy. A good amount of problem solving goes into the act of puzzling their composition together. This is highly expressive and good for experimentation too.
5 Art Therapy Ideas for Teens
Supplies: Black pens, Microns work well. Colored pencils if desired.
Description: Create a messy line doodle, allowing the lines to overlap in certain areas. Then, fill in certain chunks of your design with a unique pattern. Each section gets a new pattern. You can also use a circularly object, or any other object, and trace it on your page in different overlapping positions. Fill the segments with patterns. If you'd like, you can add color.
Goals & reflection: This activity will entrance adults, children and teens alike. The goal is to achieve a state of focus and flow. Experiment with patterns, and express yourself freely. Get lost in the act.
2. Words and pictures
Supplies: Sheets of drawing paper, drawing utensils, and index cards with various nouns (nouns work best, as they are concrete: dog, cat, flower, etc.)
Description: Let everyone in the group write a few nouns onto the index cards. Then, place the index cards face down onto a table. Pass out the drawing paper. One player then picks up an index card and has to draw whatever is written on the card in one minute. You can use your phone to set a timer for one minute, and after the time is up, other members guess what the drawing is. If someone gets it right, the artist and the person who guessed properly get a point. If no one is correct, the artist can either take no points, or get an additional 30 seconds to draw. But, if no one guesses correctly after the additional 30 seconds, the artist subtracts one point from his or her score.
Goals & reflection: This is a good exercise for group bonding, cooperation, and entertainment.
3. Mimic Famous Artist
Supplies: A reference book or smart phone to pull up images, and any art supplies you have available to recreate pieces inspired by your chosen reference.
Description: Review the works of a famous artist. Discuss the work of that artist, and get inspired. Using your own style, create a piece inspired by one of their works. For example, if Picasso is the inspiration, perhaps the teen creates surreal portraits.
Goals & reflection: Notice how everyone has their own unique visual language. Even if they try to recreate or pull inspiration from a renowned artist, their own style always seems to peek through. This is also a great way to educate teens about certain artists in an engaging, interactive setting.
4. Value beads
Supplies: String, claps, pliers, beads and any other available jewelry making supplies.
Description: As the group to think about what values they care about. Write out the values and let let a certain type of bead (color, size or shape) represent each value. Make a piece of jewelry inspired by the selection.
Goals & reflection: This exercise helps facilitate a reflection of what is important to the teen. They can grow a sense of self-awareness and acceptance that their values don't have to be the next person. We can all have our own set of values, and this opens the discussion to show how our values can guide our decisions.
5. Macramé Play
Supplies: Yarn / rope.
Description: We suggest using resources like YouTube or Udemy to sharpen your skills with macramé, learning the methods and then creating something fun: a friendship bracelet, earrings, coasters, a plant holder, wall hanging art, etc. The material is forgiving, low mess, and will hold teen's attention for hours. We have our own lesson you can check out too!
Goals & reflection: This activity is great to challenge critical thinking, problem solving, spatial awareness, dexterity, and focus. You really will be surprised how the kids will lose track of time and get into a mindful state of being with the artistic medium.
Phew! There you have it... A very long list sure to keep you engaged in creativity for days on end!