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Art Therapy Activities: Using Art Images with Clients

Relationship Advice blog

Need some relationship advice? In addition to the tips and tools in the Relationship Repair Game, this blog has articles, inspirations and explorations to support personal growth, healing, and conflict transformation in relationships. 

Art Therapy Activities: Using Art Images with Clients

Stuart Watson

Research shows that 95% of the mind's activity is occupied by the subconscious…the language of images. It is also estimated that the subconscious mind is one million times more powerful than the conscious mind.  For this reason, artistic images such as the cards in “Relationship Help! The Relationship Repair Game” can be engaging and effective tools for art therapy activities and interventions to use with clients. Provocative, stirring images provide a non-threatening way to convey meaning, surface difficult to express emotions, reveal unconscious patterns and inspire openness to new relationship advice. 

When using art images as part of an art therapy activity, clients can experience a cathartic release that is grounded and more deeply integrated by having something to physically hold and manipulate. The ways to use the deck images with clients are only limited by the imagination. What follows are some tips and ideas to get you started. 

Introducing Art Images to the Client  
I recommend pre-sorting the images into different piles selected for specific purposes, and only setting out 11-22 cards at a time, as to not overwhelm the client with options.  Introduce images to the client in a way that invites their deeper truths and intuition to circumnavigate their habitual stories and defense mechanisms. This is especially important the first time you use the cards, you can use simple reminder cues for subsequent uses. This might sound like:

“Notice which ones you are drawn towards, even if it doesn’t make sense or seem to fit what is on your mind. Try to let the images choose you rather than you choosing them; maybe by some feeling that is evoked (pleasure/curiosity or discomfort), basically either noticeable attracted to or repelled from. Or you might just notice which ones your fingers linger over, trusting the body to guide you.”

Once they have chosen a card, encourage them to sit with the image in silence for a minute, noticing thoughts and feelings that arise.

Rapport Building
In the beginning stages of the appointment you can invite the client to pick an image which calls to them, then after reflecting on it, ask them how it represents what they are bringing in (how they are doing at the moment) or what their goals are for the session. If used early in the session, it is best to use more broad and open ended prompts such as “what do you notice”, “what about the image strikes you”, or “how does that apply to your life?” to let them find the connections that are relevant to their life.

Ask the client to select a card that represents a specific relationship dynamic in their life. It could be a relationship with their partner, parent, or work, or a relationship with another part of themselves, such as their inner judge, their child, their higher self, their past or future self. Some questions you might pose are:

“Describe some of the elements of the image, in terms of how they represent your relationship?”, “What are the primary and secondary (more hidden) emotions the image evokes or expresses?”, “What parts of the image seem fixed/unchangeable and what parts might be altered?”, “What happened right before this moment or what will happen next?”, “How do you imagine the other person feels about being in the image?” (assessing empathy), “What is missing from the image or not adequately represented about this dynamic?”

The images can also be used to identify and work with a troubling or dominating emotion. That might sound like: “If anxiety (or anger) were one of the bodies in one of these images, how would it look? How does it relate to you (the other body)? What would it say? What does it care about?”

Art Therapy Activities and Interventions
Art is an excellent medium for creating and integrating new awareness, rewriting the meaning of old wounds and adopting new narratives, and developing new skills for higher functioning. Having identified an image that represents the prior experience or functioning in a relationship (maybe an image selected in a prior appointment), ask them to select a new image which symbolizes how they want to be, feel, express their new healthy boundaries, exemplify a realistic way to counter the negative cognitive distortion. 

This might sound like: “Pick a new card that symbolizes what it would look and feel like if this problem/habit were solved.” Or, “What card represents how it might look if you could trust/accept yourself more?” Or, “How would it look if anger (or anxiety) were no longer present?”

The client can also describe, or re-draw the image themselves to represent the change they are seeking, changing some of the features and positions of the two beings in relation to each other. For more tangible integration you might ask: “What will it take, and what will you need to do to make that happen?  Metaphorically, how would that look in this image? (To ground their learning with an image they can remember). Are they any potential obstacles, and how would you handle them? What will practically support you in incorporating this new way of acting/being?”

Send the client home with a photocopy of the image they worked with as a reminder of the healing and growth they are undergoing.

Skill Building
When you are counseling couples, they may select cards themselves, then practice with each other. What is more potent is handing each client a stack of 7 cards, and ask each to pick one relationship advice skill/tool (card) that would be most helpful for them if their partner was to do. Then, they exchange cards and practice that skill with each other (with your support). Their homework can be to practice it 3 times per week.

End of Session/Closure
Art images can be used to reflect on an emotional shift or progress made pre- and post-session. Make the client a copy of the text side of each card which describes a specific skill, practice the skill with the client during session, then encourage the client to practice that relationship skill with people in their life between sessions.

Other Art Therapy Ideas
This article is intended to only scratch the surface of ways to use artistic images in counseling environments, and spark your own creativity. Keep in mind that the most potent interventions are ones in which you create in the moment, that are custom tailored to the client and the issues they are currently working to manage, heal, and transform.

What new ways have you discovered to use the art or tools in the deck? Send us an email and let us know, so that we can share with other counselors. Consider joining the Relationship Repair Game's mutually supportive Professional Affiliate Program.