Art Therapist

How to Become an Art Therapist

Health and Social Care Careers

Care Learning

5 mins READ

An art therapist is a mental health professional who uses creative art-making processes to help individuals explore emotions, improve mental well-being, and resolve psychological conflicts.

They work in various settings, such as hospitals, schools, and community centres, facilitating both individual and group therapy sessions.

What education is needed?

Becoming an art therapist necessitates a postgraduate degree accredited by the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC).

Generally, the process is laid out as follows:

Undergraduate Degree:
Start by obtaining a bachelor’s degree. While it is ideal to have an undergraduate degree in a related field like art, psychology, social work, or a health and social care discipline, it is not strictly necessary. However, a strong portfolio demonstrating your proficiency in art and understanding of psychological principles will be advantageous.

Postgraduate Qualification:
Enrol in a master’s degree in Art Therapy or Art Psychotherapy. Several universities across the UK offer these programmes and they are typically two years full-time or three years part-time.

Examples of universities include Goldsmiths, University of London, and the University of Hertfordshire. The curriculum usually combines theoretical studies with practical placements, giving you a rounded education.

Upon completing your postgraduate degree, you must register with the HCPC. Only upon successful registration can you legally practice as an art therapist in the UK. The registration process includes submitting evidence of your qualifications and passing a character and health assessment.

Continuing Professional Development:
Once you begin practising, you need to maintain your knowledge and skills through Continuous Professional Development (CPD).

The HCPC will look for evidence of your CPD activities as part of the re-registration process every two years. This can include attending workshops, seminars, or pursuing additional accredited courses.

What Does it Take and Skills Needed?

Becoming an art therapist requires a blend of intrinsic qualities, academic knowledge, and practical skills:

Human Empathy and Compassion:
An essential attribute for any therapist is the ability to empathise deeply with clients. Understanding their thoughts, emotions, and experiences will help you connect and offer appropriate interventions.

Creativity and Artistic Skills:
While you don’t need to be an exceptional artist, a solid foundation in art techniques and creativity is necessary to guide and encourage clients in their creative expressions.

Strong Communication Skills:
Both verbal and non-verbal communication are integral to this role. You must be an active listener and capable of interpreting the underlying messages within a client’s artwork, as well as articulate insights and suggestions clearly and compassionately.

Psychological Resilience:
Working with individuals who may have experienced trauma, mental illness, or severe emotional distress requires a level of psychological resilience. You must have strong self-care practices and an awareness of your mental health boundaries.

Cross-disciplinary Knowledge:
You should understand psychological theories, mental health issues, and therapeutic practices. Courses will often cover human development, psychopathology, and therapeutic techniques, augmenting this knowledge.

Organisational Skills:
Managing client records, session plans, and therapy outcomes entails being highly organised and maintaining confidentiality.

Ethical Awareness:
Having a solid understanding of ethical practices is crucial. This includes adhering to the HCPC standards and maintaining professional boundaries.

What You Will Do Including Duties?

As an art therapist, your primary goal is to help individuals improve their mental health and emotional well-being through creative expression. Your duties might include:

Conduct initial assessments to understand clients’ needs, preferences, and backgrounds. Gather information on their psychological, social, and emotional status through interviews and observations.

Planning Therapy Sessions:
Design and plan therapy sessions tailored to individual or group needs. This involves selecting appropriate art materials and techniques that align with therapeutic goals.

Facilitating Art Therapy Sessions:
Guide clients through artistic processes in a safe, supportive environment. Encourage self-expression through various art forms such as painting, drawing, sculpting, or collage-making, and discuss the themes and emotions that emerge.

Interpreting Artworks:
Analyse and interpret the meanings behind clients’ artworks to uncover hidden emotions, trauma, or thought patterns. Facilitate discussions that help clients gain insights into their own behaviours and feelings.

Keep detailed records of therapy sessions, client progress, and any significant observations. Documentation is crucial for evaluating the effectiveness of therapy and making necessary adjustments.

Often work in multidisciplinary teams with other healthcare professionals such as psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and occupational therapists. This ensures a holistic approach to client care and allows for the sharing of valuable insights.

Conducting Research:
Engage in research activities to contribute to the field of art therapy. This may involve evaluating the outcomes of your therapeutic interventions or working on larger research projects to advance clinical practices.

Supervision and Training:
Participate in regular supervision sessions to reflect on your practice, gain further insights, and ensure adherence to professional standards. Additionally, you may be involved in training and supervising trainee art therapists.

The Work Setting for an Art Therapist

Art therapists can work in a variety of settings. These include, but are not limited to:

Hospitals and Clinics:
Many art therapists are employed in NHS hospitals and mental health clinics where they work with patients suffering from various mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, and schizophrenia.

Schools and Educational Institutions:
In educational settings, art therapists may work with children and adolescents, helping them deal with behavioural issues, learning difficulties, and emotional problems.

Community Centres:
Art therapists often work in community centres, providing accessible mental health services to the public. They may run workshops, group therapy sessions, and individual consultations.

Care Homes:
Therapists in care homes typically work with elderly populations, including those with dementia or chronic illnesses, using art to improve cognitive and emotional well-being.

Prisons and Correctional Facilities:
Within these environments, art therapy can be particularly effective in addressing the mental health needs of inmates, helping them to express themselves and develop coping strategies.

Private Practice:
Many art therapists set up their private practices, offering tailored therapy sessions to individuals, couples, families, or groups.

Career Progression Opportunities for an Art Therapist

Advanced Clinical Roles:
With continued experience and CPD, you can advance to senior or specialist art therapist roles. These positions often involve overseeing a team of therapists, supervising trainees, and developing specialised programmes.

You may move into managerial roles, such as the head of a therapy department, where you will be responsible for strategic planning, budgeting, and overall service delivery.

Academic and Research:
Pursuing further qualifications, such as a PhD, can open up opportunities in academia. You might engage in teaching future art therapists, conducting research, and contributing to academic journals.

Policy Development:
Experienced therapists might work with governmental or non-governmental organisations to develop policies that shape mental health services and integrate creative therapies into broader healthcare systems.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Is it necessary to be a good artist to be an art therapist?
No, while a solid understanding of art techniques is beneficial, it’s more important to be able to facilitate others’ self-expression. The therapeutic process is more about the clients’ use of art to explore their own thoughts and emotions rather than creating high-quality artwork.

How much can I expect to earn as an art therapist in the UK?
Salaries can vary widely depending on experience, location, and work setting. Entry-level positions typically start at around £30,000 annually, with more experienced therapists earning upwards of £40,000. In managerial or highly specialised roles, salaries can exceed £50,000.

Can I work internationally with a UK qualification in art therapy?
Yes, many countries recognise qualifications from UK institutions, but it is important to check the specific registration requirements of the country where you intend to practice.

What are the occupational risks associated with being an art therapist?
Like many therapeutic roles, art therapists can experience emotional and psychological stress due to the nature of their work. Regular supervision, self-care practices, and professional support networks are essential to mitigate these effects.

Is there a demand for art therapists in the UK?
Yes, there is a steady demand for art therapists, particularly in mental health services, educational settings, and community organisations. The increasing recognition of the importance of mental health care means the demand is likely to continue growing.

What types of clients do art therapists typically work with?
Art therapists work with a diverse range of clients, including children, adolescents, adults, and the elderly. They often work with individuals experiencing mental health issues, trauma, bereavement, disability, chronic illness, and developmental disorders.

Do art therapists work alone or in teams?
While art therapists may conduct therapy sessions one-on-one with clients, they often work as part of a multidisciplinary team of healthcare professionals. This team approach ensures comprehensive care and supports the therapist in their practice.

Are there opportunities for art therapists to work in the digital space?
Yes, particularly in light of recent developments, there are growing opportunities for conducting therapy sessions online. However, this method requires ensuring secure, confidential communication platforms and adapting techniques for virtual interaction.


Embarking on a career as an art therapist can be profoundly rewarding, offering the chance to blend creative skills with psychological insight to effect positive change in individuals’ lives.

Through proper education, continual professional development, and a compassionate approach, you can build a fulfilling career that contributes meaningfully to the health and social care sector.

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