Drawing Out The Self


What is Art Therapy

(7 pages, including 2 images)

This is an explanation of  how the Dewdney Approach to art therapy differs from other forms of the discipline.

Some background is provided on the development of art therapy in  North America in the 1950s.         

The chapter shows how Irene and Selwyn Dewdney developed their own techniques, which eventually centred on the principle that the therapist should not interpret meaning in a client’s drawings, but rather help the client  to examine what their own drawings might reveal.


 I admit that interpretation can be very enticing; on occasion, I too have been tempted to interpret the artworks of my clients.  I assume that these lines become blurred for other art therapists as well.  But we do our best to stay disciplined, and to avoid interpreting the clients’ artworks for them.

Everything in the Drawing Matters

All art therapy is based on the theory that the graphic expression, whatever the medium, is valid.  As an expression of our feelings, it has much — or even more — credibility than our spoken words.   Very frequently, clients will say after drawing, “It didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to,” or “It looks like this because I don’t know how to draw.”

Art therapists do not subscribe to the notion of the accident in the drawing.  Rather, they believe that accidents have as much — or even more — importance than other parts of the graphic expression.  All that has been shown in the drawing has meaning, because it was drawn by the client.  This does not mean that the client has succeeded in drawing what he or she had originally intended or wanted to draw.  Rather, it means that what is there, on the paper, is important, even though it may be different from what was intended.

Is this not true about a great many other parts of our lives?  When we look at ourselves, we not only look at the parts of ourselves that function best, but also at our accidents and mistakes.  We incorporate within ourselves both our good intentions and our failure to achieve these intentions.

Art therapists believe that it is the totality of drawings or paintings — including all of their distortions and accidents — that provides clients with information about themselves.  In fact, the distortions and accidents may be the most valuable parts of the work because they can illuminate truths the client barely recognized.  Their drawings may very well reveal more to the clients than anything they might tell themselves.  Most people do not censor their drawings and paintings in the way that they learn how to censor their speech.  Very early in childhood, people learn how to get rewards or avoid punishment by saying the right thing or by avoiding saying the wrong thing.  But very few people transfer these defence mechanisms to drawing.

In my experience as an art therapist, even my clients who are trained artists will draw the unexpected in their art therapy sessions.  With all their drawing skill and training, they do not have complete control over their therapeutic artwork.  Their drawings, like those of clients who are not artists, may unintentionally include distortions or have missing parts, although these mistakes may be fewer in number than those of non-artists.  I find repeatedly that clients invariably draw my eye to the more significant parts of their drawings.  It is the distortion, the erasing, or the obvious blank part in the work that cries out for attention.  This will be discussed in more detail in Chapter 7, with several examples of drawings by clients.

Art therapists are aware of the symbols present in most graphic expressions and there are art therapists who choose to work almost entirely with the symbolic content of artwork.  But I am an art therapist who works primarily with the manifest or overt content of drawings and paintings.  It has been my experience that there is a great deal to be explored in this manifest level of the work — the part that is so easily seen in the drawing.  This level is understood by my client, and I place a high value on a process that can be understood by both of us.

I acknowledge the value of other therapeutic approaches; but I will not be focusing on symbolism in clients’ drawings.

Today, people are continually confronted with images.  We are inundated with them.  With the advent of television and computers, and in particular the internet, images have become more fleeting, their permanency more in doubt.  What effect this will have on the profession of art therapy has yet to be determined, but one should not generalise about what art therapy is or what it will be.  The base for all art therapy is and will continue to be the art expression and the visual experience of the work shared by client and therapist.