Art in Therapy? What you call it matters!

In a therapy session, the details are everything

To a therapist, just like an artist, the little details are everything. When we sit with a client we track physiological responses, posture, eye contact, tone of voice, reactivity, activation, our own responses—the list is practically inexhaustible. Most of us are naturals at this and are just putting our sensitivity to work. I love the feeling of being highly present and attuned to my client. I feel alive and curious and connected.

This particular detail is super important

One of the details that I like to pay particular attention to in an art therapy session, is how I refer to an art activity with my client. The fields of art therapy and expressive arts therapy use various names to refer to the therapeutic application of art in a session. The two most common terms are “Art Intervention” and “Art Directive”. My clients and I are most familiar with the term I use, “Art Invitation”. After a conversation with Shaun McNiff about my book, Creativity as Co-Therapist, I realized that the term “Art Invitation” was unique. His enthusiasm for this term was wonderful and he joked that The Art Invitation should be the title of my next book! I’d like to share with you some thoughts about each of these terms so that you can add “how you talk about an art activity” to your list of details to consider in a session. There is a time and place for all three terms, for sure. Giving careful consideration to the subtle (and not so subtle) differences is crucial.

What is an Art Intervention?

First let’s look at some of the definitions for Intervention.


  • the act or fact of intervening.
  • interposition or interference of one state in the affairs of another.


  • to come between disputing people, groups, etc.; intercede; mediate.
  • to come between disputing people, groups, etc.; intercede; mediate.
  • to occur or happen between other events or periods:
  • to occur incidentally so as to modify or hinder
  • to interfere with force or a threat of force:

Here is a collection of drawings that depict “intervention” made by folks that attended my NorCata workshop, “The Art of Invitation”.


Most of the images depict an act of coming between or separation from. There is force involved in many of the representations. There are also many arrows that either point or interpose on other elements in the drawing.

What is an Art Directive?

Let’s look at some of the definitions for Directive

  • an official order or instruction
  • something that serves to direct, guide, and usually impel toward an action or goal; especially:  an authoritative instrument issued by a high-level body or official

Here is a collection of drawings that depict “directive” made by folks that attended my NorCata workshop, “The Art of Invitation”.


Most of the images depict an act of pointing or ordering toward a specific end point with an arrow. There is a sense of power being imposed in these drawings with size differences being significant on the same page. There are also signs of piercing or penetration with the tip of the arrow.

What is an Art Invitation?

First let’s look at some definitions for Invitation.

  • the act of inviting
  • an often formal request to be present or participate
  • attractive in a way that makes you want to do something, go somewhere, be near someone, etc

Here is a collection of drawings that depict “invitation” made by folks that attended my NorCata workshop, “The Art of Invitation”.


Most of the images have hearts or rounded forms. Some show helping hands and have elements that look like radiant suns

What to consider when presenting an art therapy activity to a client.

The number one reason to suggest an art activity to a client during session is to call upon their creative process as a crucial element in change, growth, and healing.  Creativity is directly related to resilience.  So we want to assist our clients in increasing both.  (There are many, many other reasons to bring art into session.  If you haven’t had formal training in this area, please use caution until you can get some.)

Creativity is not for the faint of heart.  It requires facing the unknown, dealing with mistakes, continuing despite anxiety about the outcome, flexibility to change direction when things aren’t working out, and much more.  These skills are necessary for art making just like they are necessary for growth and healing—and just plain living, for that matter!

Here are the three terms lined up for comparison.


So, if you want to bring art into session AND your aim is to nurture your client’s creative resilience through that activity—what should you use? An Art Intervention? An Art Directive? An Art Invitation?

Shaun McNiff’s explanation in Trust the Process is really helpful in answering this question.

If I tell a person what to paint or write, I obstruct the forces moving through that person’s life at the particular moment. When we immediately tell people what to do in a studio, we alleviate the anxiety caused by the emptiness, but we also interrupt the gestation of the creative process, which may take time and maybe a certain amount of tension.” Shaun McNiff, Trust the Process

“What makes up an Art Invitation?

1. Uncertainty/Tension

If we invite our clients to create, we also invite them to experience and grapple with their own creative tension. We don’t take care of this for them by telling them what to do. Instead, we turn it over to them-giving them responsibility, independence and choice. It can be difficult for many clients, but with practice, the sense of master over anxiety and uncertainty generalizes to other things in life besides art making.

2. Collaboration

If we invite clients to create, we are inviting a give and take process where client and therapist can work together to find an art activity or direction that feels right. When the therapist extends an art invitation it is only a suggested starting place rather than an end goal for the client’s art. This is true to the creative process in that there is never one right way or one end product at the start of a creative endeavor.

3. Trust, respect, and understanding of the creative process

If we invite clients to create, we bring a trust and respect for the client’s creative process. It is empowering for the client. This way the client can own the art and their process as unique. Their success belongs to them. When we understand the creative process we don’t rescue our clients from the creative tension that will inevitably be present. Instead, we trust and empower that the client can embrace it and work with it.

The subtleties matter

When I was an intern, one of my supervisors told me that I leaned over in my chair too far. I thought it was ridiculous feedback. I reacted negatively until he explained the subtleties that he was seeing in my posture. I ended up truly appreciating his attention to details and his feedback.

What you call an art activity is another subtlety that matters. Give it some consideration? And, as always, your thoughts and discussion is welcome here at InnerCanvas. Just reply below.

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