The theory of art therapy

Moneybags previously tried adult colouring in books. Moneybags journalist Jessica Anne Wood investigates the therapeutic benefits of colouring in.

Sam Dreyer, an avid colourist who is about to publish her first book of mandalas. She reveals that travelling in India is what first brought her attention to colouring.

“I found a mandala colouring book and got myself a set of pencils and just started colouring in, and I was hooked from the beginning. When I came back to South Africa and started looking for more colouring books like this, I found them on Amazon eventually and found out there is a whole world out there of colouring for adults. And over the years I have gotten more and more interested and colouring led to drawing.”

Through her work with Henley Business School, and a joint project with South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), Dreyer raised the topic of the benefits of using colouring for adults in a therapeutic way. She highlighted that there are colouring groups on Facebook where people from all over the world interact.

“There has been a lot of talk about the therapeutic value of colouring in, and there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever, it doesn’t matter what you colour in, if you colour in a mandala or if you colour in a butterfly, that the experience of colouring in is going to be good for you. At the end of colouring in that picture, you are going to feel great, you are going to be amazed at your own creativity,” explains Dreyer.

Internationally trained art therapist Samantha Davis agrees that there are several therapeutic qualities to art. “Art releases endorphins, the feel good hormone which helps people to relax and releases stress as it takes one’s mind off one’s problems.”

While Davis makes use of art as a therapy, she does not make use of colouring in or colouring in books. “I work more non-directive, meaning I provide a therapeutic space filled with various art materials such as paints, clay, crayons, pastels, chalk, ink, charcoal, kokis (marker pens) etc. and clients can choose what materials they want each session to express what they need to at the time. The focus is on the process of art making and not just the product.”

The therapeutic benefits of art

According to Davis, there are a number of therapeutic benefits to doing art. These include providing a person the opportunity to express themselves creatively, as well as allowing a person the freedom to make their own decision and manage the outcomes.

Furthermore, Davis highlights that it can help improve a person’s confidence, as well as improve your imagination and help you to think out-the-box.

In addition to the therapeutic benefits of art, there are also benefits to colouring in specifically. Davis explains: “For some people, working with a specific structure, that is, an existing picture with defined outlines or shapes, can feel easier and safer than creating a picture on blank paper or canvas from scratch. One feels more in control when colouring in pre-defined lines.”

Davis also points out that some people may be more comfortable using crayons, pencils or kokis in a predetermined image, rather than using paint where the colours can run into each.

“Repetition of colouring in the lines can be soothing, calming and comforting and provide a sense of control and containment for anxiety,” notes Davis.

She adds that while some people find colouring in relaxing, others find it meditative, while “some may find it is an escape or a useful stress relief, time out.” It can also help with concentration.

“Adults often find it difficult to play due to responsibilities etc. Adults have found that colouring gives them “permission” to go back to a childlike space and play in a sense. What I mean by play is being in the moment, and being present,” emphasises Davis.

Lastly, there is also a sense of achievement and satisfaction that comes with completing an image that is also aesthetically pleasing.

The difference between art therapy and colouring

This is a distinction that not everyone makes or is possibly even aware of, partly because some adult colouring in books use the words art therapy on their front cover. However, there is a difference.

One of the biggest distinctions is that in art therapy, “there needs to be a qualified and registered art therapist present with the client,” explains Davis.

Art therapy is a two year masters training programme that is only available internationally (i.e. it is not offered in South Africa).

Davis notes: “In art therapy, the aim is to create a safe space to facilitate a process whereby a client is able to learn to start to ‘play on their own’. Play meaning being present, spontaneous and not needing to control/know the outcome. Art Therapy is a process whereby the client can work through issues and concerns. However, one doesn’t need to have any major issues to benefit from art therapy.”

According to Davis, art therapy and the images that are create “became symbolic of the clients internal world and a means of communication between the client and therapist.”

While you may find colouring is a good de-stressor and relaxing, it is not the same as art therapy, which has a much bigger focus on the self and allowing you to represent what you are feeling in a creative way.

Colouring in

“Personally, I feel this new colouring craze highlights how important creativity is for wellbeing. I think that it is an opportunity for people to be creative, who feel that they cannot draw or don’t know where to start and would not usually turn to therapy. People are finding colouring light, fun and portable in that it can be done anywhere at any time.

“I would further encourage people who love to colour, to at some point aim to create their own designs by playing with lines, shapes and patterns and then even to colour them as that may give people even more empowerment and satisfaction from start to finish,” states Davis.

Dreyer believes that in many ways colouring is reflective of what you do in your life. “For example, there are times when you are colouring and you don’t know what colour to put next, what do you do? When things get difficult do you give up, do you take a chance, do you ask somebody else, do you procrastinate? I think from a therapeutic perspective it enables you to maybe see yourself in a different kind of way, see how you deal with challenges. It also gives you the opportunity to be incredibly creative without having to be artistic.”