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Learn how to become an art therapist

woman therapist holds clipboard and asks patient to paint

Art therapy is the fusion of artistic expression and psychological theory. It is a mental health profession that utilizes the creative process in combination with psychological principles to help patients improve their health and wellness. Art therapists are highly trained professionals who are well-versed in the science and practice of how art therapy can improve cognitive functions, foster emotional resilience and increase self-esteem, to name only a few of its possible benefits.  

“Art therapists are master’s level clinicians with extensive knowledge in clinical mental health counseling and psychotherapy techniques. They are not creative coaches, they actually have in-depth knowledge about how to treat mental health diagnoses using art therapy interventions,” wrote Lara Rutledge, president of the Colorado Art Therapy Association.  

What is art therapy?

Art therapy is facilitated by a professional art therapist to help support a client’s mental health treatment goals. It can be used to help clients of nearly every age with just about any mental health challenge.

The American Art Therapy Association (AATA) states that “Art therapy engages the mind, body and spirit in ways that are distinct from verbal articulation alone.” Within the context of a psychotherapeutic relationship, the client and art therapist can engage in new modes of communication and understanding through the unique kinesthetic, sensory, perceptual and symbolic opportunities that art-making initiates.

Art therapy defined (by an art therapist)

“As a medical art therapist and expressive arts therapist in a pediatric hospital setting, my definition of art therapy is as follows,” Rutledge said. “Art therapy is a clinical tool that integrates creative techniques to facilitate resilience, coping skills, healing, growth and personal development. Art therapy provides a means for helping children reduce stress from the hospital setting and to cope with chronic illness.”

“Art therapy is a clinical tool that integrates creative techniques to facilitate resilience, coping skills, healing, growth and personal development. Art therapy provides a means for helping children reduce stress from the hospital setting and to cope with chronic illness.”

Studies show that art therapy can be an effective treatment for mental health challenges such as depression, existentialism and anxiety as well as a palliative care intervention in medical settings. Participants of the study reported feeling a variety of positive emotional, sensory, cognitive, and spiritual experiences.

“Art gives children a way to release stress, anxiety and to engage in regulating techniques with art materials that promote a feeling of wholeness and wellbeing,” Rutledge said. “Art provides a way for children to express (verbally or nonverbally) their medical issues, trauma and even medical procedures, so that they can develop ways to cope with these challenges and develop self-esteem, connection and support.”

6 steps to becoming an art therapist

Earn a bachelor’s degree.

group of college graduates holding diplomas

A master’s degree is the entry-level degree for the art therapy profession. This requires getting a bachelor’s degree first. Although some schools do offer art therapy bachelor’s degrees, they are not the only option. Most master’s programs in counseling or art therapy specifically, require that students complete a certain amount of coursework in both art and psychology during their baccalaureate education. Majoring in psychology with a minor in art or vice versa is a common route that many people take.

Graduate from a master’s or doctoral art therapy program.

female therapist sits serenely on sofa

The American Art Therapy Association (AATA) encourages prospective art therapists to choose a graduate program that is either approved by the AATA or accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP). Graduating from one of these programs ensures that you will be prepared for certification from the with the Art Therapy Credentials Board (ATCB). Either a master’s or doctoral degree are acceptable paths to licensure for states that do require art therapist licenses. Students must also complete at least 100 hours of a supervised practicum and 600 hours of a supervised art therapy clinical internship as part of their degree program.

Complete post-graduate supervised experience(s).

art therapist with client who is painting

In order to qualify for the Registered Art Therapist (ATR) designation—which may be required to qualify for some state licenses—you must also complete at least 1000 hours of supervised client contact hours (and sometimes more).

Apply to become a Registered Art Therapist (ATR).

man filling out paperwork with laptop open

Once you’ve completed your education and post-graduate contact hours, you can apply to be an ATR through the ATCB. The application also requires submitting several letters of reference.

Apply for licensure in your state (if applicable).

hand holding pen filling out form

There are 11 states which have state-level art therapist licenses and five additional states license art therapists under another professional license. If you live in one of these states, you will need to apply for a license. Having the ATR credential (or possessing the qualifications to become one) is usually required for licensure.

Consider getting board certified.

male art therapist discusses art project with boy and his mother

Getting certified by the ATCB as a Board Certified Registered Art Therapist (ATR-BC) is the highest credential you can earn in the field. ATRs can earn this designation by passing an examination. In order to maintain this designation, you must annually renew your ATR credential and recertify every five years, either through continuing education credits or by retaking the ATCB exam.

Educational requirements for art therapists

As with other mental health professions, becoming an art therapist begins with a rigorous education. Art therapists must be educated in both psychology and art. The AATA states that a master’s degree is necessary for entry-level practice in art therapy.

“To be an art therapist really does require a master’s level education to know how different art processes do different things for different kinds of needs,” said Stephanie Leftwich-Needham, art therapist and president of the Evergreen Art Therapy Association, the Washington branch of the AATA.

Art therapy degree requirements

However, getting a master’s degree in art therapy requires that you have a bachelor’s degree first. Graduate-level art therapy programs don’t usually require applicants to have any specific undergraduate major. Instead, they typically require a certain number of credits in studio art (drawing, painting, pottery etc.) and general psychology. In addition, many graduate programs require a portfolio of artwork as part of their application, which typically must include pieces of several different mediums.

Some schools offer undergraduate degrees in art therapy which can give you an excellent foundation for later studies, but they aren’t necessary to satisfy these prerequisites. 

“Many art therapists hold bachelor’s degrees in psychology, art and/or minor or major in both. They may have art-specific degrees such as a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) or a bachelor’s in art education,” Rutledge said. “Additional degrees in social work, education, human growth and development, nonprofits, or community organizing all could provide integral educational opportunities that align with the skills acquired in graduate school.”

Choosing a master’s art therapy program

Once you’ve completed your baccalaureate education, you’ll want to choose a master’s program in art therapy. The program you choose should be either approved by the AATA or accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP).

The difference between approval and accreditation is slight and only exists because the approval process is currently transitioning to an accreditation process. Graduating from either an approved or accredited program will ensure that you are eligible for the Registered Art Therapist (ATR) credential offered by the Art Therapy Credentials Board (ATCB).

Although every program is going to have their own curriculum and course titles, you can generally expect an art therapy program to include coursework in the following content areas:

  • Psychopathology
  • Psychological and art therapy assessments
  • Human growth and development
  • Counseling/psychological theories
  • Research
  • Professional orientation, ethical and legal Issues
  • Multicultural and social issues
  • History and theory of art therapy
  • Materials and techniques of practice in art therapy
  • Creativity studies and studio art
  • Application of art therapy with people in different treatment settings
  • Group art therapy
  • Culminating thesis or project
  • Practicum and/or internship

There are numerous doctoral programs in art therapy as well. Most people who choose to pursue a doctoral degree in art therapy work in academia or conduct research.

Registered Art Therapist (ATR) credential

Art therapists have the option (or requirement, depending on their state’s licensing laws) to earn several credentials through the ATCB.

Their two main credentials are a Registered Art Therapist (ATR) and a Board-Certified Registered Art Therapist (ATR-BC). The ATR is typically required for licensure in states that have art therapist licenses. The ATR-BC credential is even more advanced and is the highest credential you can earn in the field once becoming an ATR. 

To become an ATR, an art therapist must have the following qualifications:

  1. Graduate from a qualifying master’s program in art therapy (which must include a practicum/internship of at least 700 hours)
  2. A minimum of 1000 post-education, direct client contact hours using art therapy (or 1500 in some cases)
  3. Three professional references

If an ATR wants to become board certified—and only existing ATRs are eligible for board certification—they must pass an exam administered by the ATCB which demonstrates their expertise. Passing this exam will earn you the ATR-CB credential and make you a stand-out candidate in the field

Getting licensed in art therapy

Eleven states require art therapists to possess a state-level license in order to practice. An additional five states include art therapy under another mental health professional license. Most states require applicants to hold the ATR credential (or have the qualifications to earn it) to be eligible for a license. Check out AATA’s state advocacy page to find out what the licensing laws are in your state. 

If you live in a state that does not currently require art therapists to be licensed, you should still consider pursuing the ATR credential to boost your credibility and make it easy to obtain a state license should you ever relocate. Some mental health professionals may advertise that they offer art therapy in these places without receiving an education in art therapy specifically. Therefore, having the ATR designation could separate you from your peers and demonstrate your expertise in art therapy that other mental health practitioners simply do not have. 

“Damage can be done if you expose people to art materials and directives they may not be ready for, and that you’re not capable of holding the proper space for,” Leftwich-Needham said. “To know who you’re going to ask to do something and who you would not ask to do something are important considerations that an art therapist will make.”

What does an art therapist do?

Art therapists apply psychological principles and techniques to help understand and mitigate the mental health challenges of their clients. What separates them from other mental health professionals is their unique utilization of the art-making process to achieve certain results. Although an art therapist’s job duties are going to vary depending on where and who they work with, they will generally:

  • Consult with patients to identify their mental health concerns and goals
  • Develop individualized therapy sessions for clients involving art-making
  • Observe and analyze the client’s art-making process and results as insight into their thoughts and feelings
  • Foster a positive relationship with the client by supporting their artistic vision and, if needed, participating in art-making alongside them
  • Collaborate with other health care and/or mental health professionals to address a client’s needs and goals
  • Document client progress and amend treatment plans as needed

No two art therapy sessions are going to look exactly alike. What the therapist plans for a session is going to depend on the unique mental health needs of the client and other factors such as the client’s age, ability, interests and more. Furthermore, making art isn’t the only thing a client should expect from an art therapy session—art therapy is a therapy in and of itself, which means there is usually a combination of discussion and art-making, perhaps even simultaneously.

Leftwich-Needham said that in art therapy, it is as much about the process as it is about the product.

“Something that an art therapist is always doing while the creation is happening is looking at the process and how somebody is creating.” She may ask the client questions about their process or make observations if it’s someone she is more familiar with about thematic trends she notices in their art.

“The meaning is always the client’s. The process is also the client’s, and a lot of times, I’ll ask, ‘What did it feel like to create that?’ But, if I noticed, oh, there was some big pause there, or you seem to struggle there, or I noticed a shift in your body there—those things I will bring to their awareness and then we can talk about it. The process is always worth exploring.”

Where do art therapists work?

“Any place you would find a therapist, you could find an art therapist,” Leftwich-Needham said.

Indeed, just about any mental health setting could employ art therapists. “An art therapist may work within a hospital, hospice, school, community center, nonprofit, private practice, small group practice or art museum, just to name a few,” Rutledge said.

Where you work and for whom may also affect the populations you are working with, which may have different mental health conditions. For example, art therapists in hospitals may work with critically ill patients for whom art therapy could relieve some of their symptoms and/or help cope with the emotional turmoil caused by their illness. An art therapist in a school works primarily with children and/or adolescents who may have developmental delays, are experiencing trauma or have some other need for mental health school counseling

Should I become an art therapist?

If you’re intrigued by the idea of working in a mental health field that prioritizes art as a means of healing, becoming an art therapist could be a great fit for you. Keep in mind that you’ll have to commit to at least a master’s level education if you choose to take that leap.

Although art therapists tend to be creative in their nature, being a skilled artist is not a requisite for becoming an art therapist. You should be prepared to take a lot of studio art classes throughout your education—and through them, you may improve your skills—but that does not mean you must possess extraordinary artistic talent. In fact, some clients may feel more comfortable sharing their own art with someone who has a skill level closer to their own.

Perhaps more important than having artistic skills would be flexibility and adaptability. Designing art therapy sessions for clients is key, but the client may not want to engage with a given art directive or you may need to change as you go. Reading a situation and adapting to the needs of the client in a given moment are much more important skills. 

Art therapy jobs outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not track data for art therapists specifically, but we can get an idea of the profession’s job outlook if we consider the state of other, similar mental health professions. For example, the employment of substance abuse counselors, behavioral disorder and mental health counselors as a group is expected to grow 18.4% through 2032, much faster than the average across all occupations.

There are several reasons for this. For one, the demand for mental health care overall has increased substantially since the COVID-19 pandemic. Second, the BLS states that demand for these workers is expected to increase as states continue to offer treatment and counseling services in lieu of jail time for people with addictions and other mental health concerns.

Median annual art therapist salary

How much does an art therapist make? The BLS does not track salary data specifically for art therapists but does include them under their “Therapists, all other” group which has a median annual wage of $60,800. Keeping in mind that there are many states which do not have data for this group, the top-paying states are Virginia, Washington, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Hawaii of those that do.

Therapists, All Other

National data

Median Salary: $60,800

Projected job growth: 12.2%

10th Percentile: $37,990

25th Percentile: $47,340

75th Percentile: $82,760

90th Percentile: $111,800

Projected job growth: 12.2%

State data

State Median Salary Bottom 10% Top 10%
Alabama $59,070 $40,270 $63,440
Alaska $52,220 $32,130 $98,140
Arizona $65,130 $51,920 $126,370
Arkansas $58,860 $39,450 $83,860
Colorado $81,140 $56,840 $92,990
Connecticut $60,630 $39,140 $104,110
Delaware $74,810 $64,180 $78,670
District of Columbia $81,400 $40,420 $131,250
Florida $49,530 $35,450 $124,800
Georgia $55,120 $33,940 $100,670
Hawaii N/A N/A N/A
Idaho $23,500 $22,680 $38,810
Illinois $49,560 $38,480 $83,770
Indiana $57,590 $39,280 $80,230
Iowa $48,080 $39,360 $70,050
Kansas $47,690 $38,250 $65,790
Louisiana N/A N/A N/A
Maryland $49,690 $33,340 $106,100
Massachusetts $53,690 $41,940 $104,670
Michigan $55,150 $33,280 $81,520
Minnesota $49,010 $36,200 $82,030
Missouri $51,570 $36,750 $90,120
Nebraska $61,040 $40,760 $114,520
Nevada $93,600 $47,930 $101,030
New Mexico $59,640 $50,510 $75,330
New York $59,490 $33,700 $121,040
North Dakota $83,550 $57,300 $120,730
Ohio $67,570 $40,850 $136,870
Oklahoma $56,830 $52,530 $60,800
Oregon $150,800 $65,860 $154,810
Pennsylvania $44,250 $38,970 $64,050
Rhode Island $64,420 $34,840 $110,350
South Carolina $75,030 $30,640 $81,570
South Dakota $83,640 $50,260 $130,190
Tennessee $47,950 $35,800 $84,070
Texas $67,910 $46,040 $87,110
Utah $59,500 $49,630 $79,120
Virginia $63,380 $44,500 $120,640
Washington $84,030 $62,220 $106,140
West Virginia $50,800 $38,620 $91,780
Wisconsin $59,230 $48,130 $102,010

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2022 median salary; projected job growth through 2032. Actual salaries vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.

Here are the median annual art therapist salaries in the highest-paying cities and metro areas.

Metro Area Median Annual Salary
Raleigh, NC $99,460
Las Vegas-Henderson-Paradise, NV $93,600
Denver-Aurora-Lakewood, CO $92,990
Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV $92,300
Cincinnati, OH-KY-IN $84,670
Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA $84,030
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA $81,190
Louisville/Jefferson County, KY-IN $79,060
New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA $79,010
Salt Lake City, UT $74,440

And you can compare median annual salaries on a national level for careers related to art therapy.

Career Median Annual Salary
Therapists, All Other $60,800
Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors $49,710
Recreational Therapists $51,330
Educational, Guidance, and Career Counselors and Advisors $60,140

Your average art therapist salary can depend on a combination of many factors such as your location, employer, experience and credentials.

Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

Is art therapy in demand?

Demand for mental health care has risen substantially since the COVID-19 pandemic. Art therapists are no exception—in AATA’s 2022 annual impact report, almost half (47%) of the art therapists they surveyed said they’ve had to turn clients away more often than before the pandemic.

Is art therapy only for individuals or can it be done in groups?

Art therapy, like many other types of mental health therapy, can absolutely be conducted in group settings in addition to individuals.

Can art therapy be done online?

Yes, many art therapists offer their services virtually. In fact, according to AATA’s 2022 annual impact report, 73% of art therapists that responded to their COVID-19 survey said they offer telehealth services. Many art therapists may have chosen to return to in-person services only, but art therapy can be conducted virtually.

Choosing an art therapy school and getting started

Becoming an art therapist can be a rewarding and fulfilling career choice that can make a positive impact on people’s lives. Researching various art therapy programs is your first step in pursuing the profession, and ultimately choosing one that fits your needs and goals.

Published: March 13, 2023


Written and reported by:

Kendall Upton

Staff Writer

lara rutledge

With professional insight from:

Lara Rutledge, LPCC, ATR-P

President of the Colorado Art Therapy Association

stephanie leftwich needham

Stephanie Leftwich-Needham, MS, LMHC, ATR-BC

President of the Evergreen Art Therapy Association