Art as Therapy: Color your way to tranquil bliss

Frankly, it is not advisable to take something as universal truth just because the très chic French women are doing it or because the press has picked up the story. But in regards to art as therapy, or as reported by The Telegraph, “French women have taken en masse to colouring book,” New York University (NYU) Art Therapy Director Ikuko Acosta is a believer.

Let’s set aside art as therapy for a moment and explain why coloring books are making news.

As reported, French women have taken up coloring, an activity that has long been associated with (and even reserved for) young children, as a mean to de-stress. Bear in mind, these women are not only vocalizing about the therapeutic benefits of coloring, they have also taken to using social media, such as forming groups on Facebook, to share their works as and even where to buy new coloring books and best crayons.

Art as Therapy was published in GenTwenty Sept. 26, 2014

The controversy is two-folds. First, is the idea — coloring for grown-ups — truly effective or a successful marketing move? After all, by adding words like “anti-stress” or “art therapy” on the cover of these coloring books, publishers have boosted sales tremendously. Second, does art therapy really work? What is art therapy?

Art therapy, can coloring bring happiness? (image credit:

To answer my question, I visited Ikuko Acosta, Ph.D at her office at the NYU Department of Art and Art Professions. With over thirty years in the filed of art therapy, Acosta has witnessed the field developed. Citing the Licensed Creative Arts Therapist (LCAT) by the New York State Education Department, and Board Certified and Registered Art Therapist (ATR-BC) by the Art Therapy Credentials Board as giant milestones, Acosta said these credentials have given her profession an unprecedented level of legitimacy.

Ikuko Acosta (image credit: Ikuko Acosta/NYU)

“Compared to when I first started,” Acosta added, “art therapy is now accepted and recognized by the medical communities and insurance companies as a part of clinical practice.”

Acosta came to the U.S. in 1962 as a college student, majoring in fine arts and minoring in psychology at Rutgers University. When she graduated, the profession “art therapy” did not exist and she became an elementary school teacher instead. When she heard about NYU’s art therapy program, she immediately applied and became one of the forerunners of this profession.

When I think of art therapy, I confessed to Acosta, I think of going into a session, drawing what I have in mind and having my therapist tell me what is wrong with me. But that is not true.

Acosta explained that art therapists are not physicians, but individuals (often practicing artists) who understand that visual therapy is more genuinely connected to the psyche than verbal therapy.

“For example, if I am depressed,” Acosta explained, “I can use the word over and over again. But in art, you might feel ‘depressed,’ but how you express that [emotion] in texture, color or light is different each time. Even a similar drawing is never identical. Visual language allows endless variations.”

Acosta described her style of art therapy as non-directive, allowing patients to choose their own art materials and themes. She promotes free artistic expression and encourages patients to create their own artistic style. Referring herself as a third agent, she said she is the facilitator who helps her patients interact with their art-making experience. “I don’t interfere. My job is to provide a safe place where they can create.”

An Acosta-session may look something like this: the art therapist sits quietly with her patient, observing what medium her patient chooses to work with, depicted subject, texture, lines and even her patient’s mood when creating the artwork.

Don’t get it wrong. Acosta is not just sitting there watching or thinking about what’s for dinner.

For example, if patient A exhibits great intensity – contorted facial expression, violent strokes – when painting his father in a family portrait, Acosta will make a note of that. However, she will not ask him why he is angry, because she would have interrupted the free flow of patient A’s creative process. Arguing that an art therapist is not supposed to short-change the creative experience by assessing a patient’s statement of mind, she said an art therapist simply observes and shares her patient’s art making process.

Art therapy is not so much about what type of expression is right and what type of expression is wrong, but simply expression. It is about freeing your mind so that you can release whatever emotions you have suppressed inside. To Acosta, art therapy in combination with traditional psychotherapy touches another part of a person’s psyche.

While Acosta refrained from commenting on the effectiveness of coloring-books-for-grown-ups, she said she believes whole-heartedly the effect of art as therapeutic. Her favorite museum in the city is the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But even more importantly, she stresses the importance of finding art in our daily lives.

“Museums are good, but it’s the little things,” she said. “For example, a piece of beautifully dyed textile, good designs…”

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