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  • Rubi Garyfalakis

What’s the Difference Between Art Therapy and an Art Class?

Published on March 14, 2017

If you’re interested in art therapy or thinking about checking it out, you may be wondering what the difference is between art therapy and an art class. In fact, this is a question we are asked all the time, so we wanted to share some thoughts about it here on our blog.

From our perspective, these are the main differences between art therapy and an art class:


a. Art therapy involves a therapeutic relationship. This is the most important element of any type of therapy and what makes it unique from other kinds of activities. There are specific boundaries and elements to a therapeutic relationship. The therapists at Art as Therapy follow the ethical guidelines established by the Canadian Art Therapy Association and the College of Registered Psychotherapists of Ontario. Only those who have received the appropriate graduate training can offer art therapy. Although art therapy usually involves art-making, it is first and foremost a form of therapy, similar to talking to a social worker, psychologist, medical doctor, or psychiatrist who offers psychotherapy.

b. An art class may involve relationships but it does not involve the intentional therapist – client relationship. A teacher or instructor’s role is different than a therapist’s role, and the student-teacher relationship has very different dynamics than the therapeutic relationship. Art teachers are required to be skilled and competent in the areas that they teach, but they do not receive the same training required to practice as an art therapist.


a. Art therapy takes place in a confidential contained space. This is very important whether it’s individual or group art therapy. This means that the space has a door that can close, and has frosted windows or curtains to ensure privacy. Confidentiality is essential to creating a safe space where clients can express whatever is on their mind. Clients are free to share with anyone they like about their art therapy sessions and what happens during those sessions, but it is important that they have the option of anonymity and confidentiality if they so choose.

b. An art class may take place in a more open space, it doesn’t have to be confidential. Art classes may happen in a classroom, in an art studio, or at a community centre. Parents or friends may watch or participate in the class. The class members may be friends or may change from week to week.


a. The main goal of art therapy is self expression. The goal is to express or communicate something, and art-making is often one way of doing so. Since the goal is expression, this impacts how art supplies and artwork itself are viewed. Read more about this below.

b. The main goal of an art class is to learn something or to experiment with a new technique. The goal is usually to make something specific. Students may be replicating an example or following the instructor step by step. This goal of learning and creating something specific impacts how art supplies and artwork are viewed as well.


a. In art therapy, art materials are viewed as one possible tool for self expression. The therapist is familiar with the art materials based on a continuum from controlled to less controlled. For example, a pencil is easy to control and requires fine motor skills. Watercolor paints or acrylic inks are much harder to control and tend to require larger movements. They work best with bigger paper. Oil and chalk pastels are somewhere in the middle between controlled and less controlled. When viewing art materials in this way, the art therapist may provide or suggest specific art supplies for their expressive potential depending on the client’s therapeutic goals. In art therapy, there’s no right or wrong way to use materials or to make something. If the directive is to draw a tree, whatever the client does in response is accepted and explored within the therapeutic relationship.

b. In an art class, art materials are viewed as tools to be used in a specific way to accomplish the task. They are manipulated to achieve certain effects. There are sometimes “right” and “wrong” ways to do things or to use art supplies. There may be rules. Often there is a focus on the principles and elements of design. Students are taught different ways to draw a tree, and there is a specific expected outcome.


a. In art therapy, the artwork is viewed as an extension or reflection of some part of the client. It can act as a mirror, reflecting the client’s thoughts or feelings about something. The emphasis is on what the artwork communicates for or about its creator, not necessarily on how it looks or whether it turns out as expected. The therapist and the client focus on the process and experience of making the artwork. The process can be just as important as the finished artwork. The client decides what the artwork means to them.

b. In an art class, the focus is usually on the product. The goal is to make a specific piece of artwork. Every part of the class builds towards creating that finished product. Often the goal is to make something visually appealing, beautiful, or interesting. Students may wish to display their creations or frame them. This is not to say that artwork created in art therapy cannot be beautiful, aesthetically pleasing, or pride-worthy. It just means that this is not the goal or the expectation during an art therapy session, while it often is the goal during an art class.

The main point is that art therapy is a form of therapy, and an art class is not. This doesn’t mean that an art class can’t be helpful or even therapeutic. However, a specially trained therapist must be present and there must be some kind of formal agreement to engage in a therapeutic relationship in order for something to be considered therapy. Art therapy and art classes can both be beneficial. Here are some ideas about the potential benefits of taking an art class, versus the potential benefits of attending an art therapy session.


1. You can learn new skills, building a sense of mastery and competency. This can boost self esteem.

2. You can build and develop technical abilities that can be used for visual self expression.

3. You may have the opportunity for social interaction, and may be able to build peer relationships with other students in the class.

4. You may learn about yourself indirectly through the process.


1. You will have a safe place to express whatever is on your mind.

2. You may experience catharsis through self expression. You will be encouraged to express your feelings, and you may use art materials for this process. Art-making can be an excellent way to unload or release emotions.

3. You will be part of the therapeutic relationship which is a unique relationship. The therapist will function as a witness to your art making process. The therapist can validate your experiences and emotions, reflect your emotions back to you, and observe the whole process with curiosity and compassion.

4. The art therapy session provides an opportunity for intentional self reflection and discovery. You may feel empowered as you get to know yourself better and discover how your inner strengths can help you to face challenges and overcome obstacles.

Written by Rubi Garyfalakis, Art Therapist at Art as Therapy on March 14, 2017.


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