Art therapy is "the use of art as an adjunctive therapy in the treatment of neurological, mental, or behavioral disorders." A professional art therapist has training at the master's degree level, which include theories of art therapy, counseling, and psychotherapy; ethics and standards of practice; assessment and evaluation; individual, group, and family techniques; human and creative development; multicultural issues; research methods; and practicum experiences in clinical, community, and/or other settings."
Besides graduate-level training in psychotherapy and the specific uses of art therapy, an art therapist, typically through an undergraduate studio arts program, must be proficient in a variety of artistic techniques (e.g., drawing, painting, sculpture, and other media) in order to guide a patient in the technique. In many cases, as with children or with adults who have had little exposure to fine arts, the therapist must be able to teach basic technique.
Teaching in a therapeutic context, however, often differs from the manner in which an art instructor in a conventional educational institution would guide the student. In conventional education, there may be grading on proficiency, and substantial constructive criticism.
For a patient lacking both skills and confidence, the art therapist must be sensitive to the needs of the patient, building confidence even if the actual technique is at the level of a coloring book. Art therapy techniques can be helpful with traumatized patients, especially children that may lack the verbal skills to articulate a traumatic memory.
Confidence building depends on the needs of the patient. Occasionally, the therapist may have a client who has substantial skill and training in visual arts. Returning to past proficiency levels can strengthen the patient. Such a patient may actively welcome constructive criticism, so the therapist must be prepared to give it in a supportive but substantive manner.
Art therapy can improve manual dexterity and be part of physical rehabilitation or occupational therapy. Art and occupational therapists may work, as a team, with clients who had a prior proficiency, but now might need to adapt to sensory or motor control damage.