What is the Best Way to Become an Art Therapist?

Updated November 22, 2022 · 4 Min Read

Learn more about having a career as an art therapist, and how to begin your journey towards becoming an art therapist today.

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Art therapists work with children, the elderly, and everywhere in between those age ranges using different forms of art to help clients physically, mentally, and emotionally. The benefits of art therapy range from reducing stress to improving fine motor skills. Therapists use art therapy for counseling, physical rehabilitation, and behavior management to assist clients dealing with abuse, mental illness, social or emotional issues, neurological and cognitive problems, trauma, physical conditions, family issues, anxiety, and addictions. When considering a career in art therapy, those interested should evaluate the best way to become an art therapist.

See our ranking of The Best Undergraduate Degrees in Art Therapy Ranked by Affordability.

Required Skills and Traits

The field of art therapy is centered on both the practice of art and various aspects of therapy. Human development, psychology, and interpersonal communication are essential, as is an understanding of how to identify the symbols and messages conveyed through art in order to identify other issues and begin to understand a client. In addition to understanding the clinical, therapeutic, and diagnostic sides of the profession, art therapists must also be educated in the creative arts, which could range from expression through studio art, dance, music, or another form of creative art.

Some of the traits that are helpful for art therapists are empathy, patience, passion, understanding, sensitivity, keen observation, and insightfulness.

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Does a Successful Art Therapist Need an Artistic Background?

An art therapist doesn’t necessarily have to have a background in art. But, some knowledge of an artist’s tools can help. A patient isn’t going to be painting a picture that belongs to a certain era in art history. The artwork will be original and serve a practical purpose. Ideally, the artwork will help the patient to deal with pent up feelings and fears in order to heal from mental distress. An art therapist with an artistic background will be aware of different types of paints, clay and drawing tools. Therefore, he or she can provide a varied collection of supplies to a patient. Art therapists without artistic backgrounds sometimes hire artists to help them advise the patient on the various supplies that are available. An appreciation for imaginative art is certainly a plus for any art therapist.


Art therapy students take different courses depending on the program, but common coursework includes study of multi-cultural studies, theory and practice, art analysis, studio art for therapy, and various courses in psychology and human development.

The American Art Therapy Association has a full list of the accredited master’s degree programs approved and recognized by the Educational Program Approval Board of the association.

Clinical Experience

Because art therapy is a specialized form of medical care, entrance into this profession requires a set number of hands-on experience, or more commonly known as clinical practicums. While specific requirements may vary based on school program, the AATA reports art therapy students must complete at least 100 supervised practicum hours and a minimum of 600 clinical internship hours. It’s important to note, training programs may feature longer practicum and internship requirements. The aforementioned are minimums to graduate from an accredited program.

After Degree Completion

Different areas have different requirements for education and licensing due to varying regulations. Employers will also have their own set of requirements. In the United States, potential art therapists will need to have a minimum of a master’s degree in either art therapy or a master’s degree in a counseling-related discipline and a specialization or additional coursework in art therapy.

After receiving the master’s degree, professional art therapists will complete a practicum or internship to become a registered art therapist through the Art Therapy Credentials Board. The credentialing programs through the ATCB include designations for registration, board certification, and certification in art therapy supervision. The certifications help to support the professional code of ethics and standards for the art therapy profession.

The American Art Therapy Association has additional helpful information for anyone interested in the art therapy profession. The Art Therapy Certifications Board has information on what additional requirements and certifications are required in the U.S. as well. While certification may not be required in a local area or for a particular employer, certification is typically always a good idea and highly recommended.

Once certified, art therapists can be part of a group clinical practice or work in their own private practice. Additionally, medical institutions, community programs, nursing homes, wellness centers, educational institutions, hospitals, mental health centers, prisons, group homes, and some government agencies utilize art therapy in a variety of ways.

Necessity of Credentialing

Art therapists require a specific set of skills to practice effectively and safely. It is first important to note that an art therapist is still a therapist, and may, therefore, be working with individuals with a variety of psychological issues (such as trauma, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, etc.). Therefore, a solid understanding of psychology and how to interact in a therapeutic way with the client is important. In addition, understanding the importance of client confidentiality and behaving ethically to meet the needs of the client is crucial. Beyond knowledge of therapy, the professional should a strong understanding of the types of art they intend to utilize in order to be effective. This combination of skills makes the requirement for certification necessary for an art therapist.

In order to consider oneself an art therapist, numerous qualifications need to be met to ensure one is competent. A master’s degree, knowledge of psychology and art, supervised hours, and an AATA recognized registered art therapist title are necessary for one to practice art therapy ethically.

Excellent Blogs About Art Therapy

For those interested in studying art therapy and making it their career, there are many excellent art therapy blogs to explore. These blogs infuse future practitioners with practical knowledge and invaluable insights into the industry as well as the latest news and trends. Here are 4 great blogs about art therapy.

Adventures in Art Therapy

Published by a registered, licensed and board-certified art therapist named Lacy Mucklow, this blog was awarded the top art therapy blog of 2010. It provides lots of industry news along with prevailing trends in the industry. There is also plenty of valuable information that readers can glean from more than 13 years of archived posts. The site further offers extensive resources in its sidebar. These resources include links to various art therapy sites, links to art therapists and general art links.

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Psychology Today Arts and Health

Published by the same company behind the popular Psychology Today magazine, this blog covers a wide range of trending topics in art therapy. Written by Cathy Malchiodi, who is an experienced art therapist and also the author of more than a dozen books on the subject, the site blurs the line between a blog and a full-blown online magazine by comprehensively examining important issues in the industry. Information posted here is often unique and thought-provoking, and it is especially well written.

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Creativity in Art Therapy

Those interested specifically in the application of art therapy for children should consider frequenting this blog. It is published by Carolyn Mehlomakulu, who is a registered and licensed art therapist who works with both young children and teenagers. In this blog she shares her many years of experience with them and goes beyond theory by providing lots of practical information that future art therapists can use in their own practice. As an added benefit, she also provides readers with a free copy of her art therapy ebook. She offers a free newsletter, too.

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Creative Juices Arts

Published by certified therapist Chris Zydel, this art therapy blog is like no other. It provides a very unorthodox approach to art therapy, and it offers future practitioners a sometimes radical approach that they will unlikely be exposed to in an academic environment. The site also provides lots of valuable resources related to the industry, and it offers a free newsletter as well.

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