Art Therapist

The Job and What's Involved

Art therapists help clients to change and grow on a personal level using art materials in a therapeutic relationship. Some people find it difficult to express themselves in words. Art therapists encourage them to find other ways to express difficult thoughts and feelings, using art materials like paint, paper and clay.

Art therapists work with people of all ages and from all backgrounds. Clients may:

  • Be frightened or confused.
  • Have lost touch with their feelings and be unable to talk about what is troubling them.
  • Have mental health problems, behavioural problems and/or learning disabilities.
  • Need help in dealing with traumatic life events, such as bereavement, illness or family break-up.

Some clients appear to have no identifiable problems, but want to use art therapy to understand their thoughts and feelings and to explore ways of living a more creative and fulfilling life.

Art therapists are not art teachers. They do not teach clients to produce artwork that looks attractive or 'artistic', and their clients do not need any skill in art. Instead, art therapists create a safe environment where their clients may feel secure enough to experiment with art materials and techniques to express themselves. As clients learn to communicate their feelings, they can work through their emotions and move on in a more positive way.

Art therapists may work with their clients on a one-to-one basis or in small groups. In an art therapy group, it is very important for clients to use their artwork to communicate with each other as well as with the therapist. This is done through talking and sharing the artwork that is created in the group.

Art therapists work closely with other professionals, including psychologists, doctors, psychotherapists, nurses, teachers and social workers. They may also work closely with a client's family or carers, helping them to understand their client's problems. This is particularly the case where clients are children or the elderly.

Art therapists also have administration to do, including keeping client records.

Art therapists working full time for the NHS work 37.5 hours a week, Monday to Friday. Many work part time. Therapists working in private practice work more variable hours, which can include evenings or weekends. A number of art therapists work for more than one employer. Some combine art therapy with other work, such as teaching, psychotherapy or working as an artist.

Art therapists work in hospitals, clinics, prisons, day centres, community centres and care homes. They may work in a specially equipped art studio, or in a room that has art equipment. The surroundings should be warm, light and comfortable.

They may have to travel to several different locations, so a driving licence can be essential.

The starting salary for newly-qualified art therapists working full time in the National Health Service (NHS) may be between £22,886 and £27,622 a year. Art therapists within the NHS who work in and around London receive an additional allowance.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

The number of art therapists in the UK has increased over the past few years and The British Association of Art Therapists (BAAT) now has around 1,600 members. However, entry is still competitive. Employers include:

  • The NHS (the largest employer).
  • Private hospitals and organisations, such as hospices.
  • HM Prison Service.
  • Local authority education and social services departments.
  • Charities and mental health projects.
  • Some art therapists have their own private practices.

Vacancies may be advertised by the BAAT, including on their website. They may also be advertised in local and national newspapers and on NHS jobs websites - (for England and Wales).

Education and Training

Art therapists must have an approved postgraduate qualification in art therapy. Entry to the postgraduate courses is normally with a degree in art and design.

Applicants for training also need at least one year's full-time paid or voluntary experience of working in health, education or social care (or the part-time equivalent).

Entrants to training have their backgrounds checked to make sure that they are acceptable to work with children and vulnerable adults.

It is possible to attend part-time evening introduction or foundation art therapy courses run by universities and by the BAAT. They can be helpful for people who intend applying for an approved postgraduate art therapy course but do not guarantee acceptance onto such a course.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Academic requirements and age limits vary greatly from course to course and one should check with the individual course provider before applying.

Masters level postgraduate courses in art therapy are offered by:

- Goldsmith's College (University of London)
- Leeds Metropolitan University
- University of Derby
- University of Hertfordshire
- Queen Margaret University College, Edinburgh
- Queen's University, Belfast
- Roehampton University

Courses last two years full time or three years part time and combine theory and practical work. They include study of human development, psychodynamics and humanist psychotherapy, the psychopathology of art, insight into current art therapeutic practices with a range of client groups, and basic research skills. Students' personal art practise also forms a large part of the course.

Student art therapists must undergo personal therapy throughout the whole duration of their course. They must also complete 120 days' clinical placement.

On completing their training, art therapists are eligible for full membership of the BAAT. They must register with the Health Professions Council before starting to practise.

Art therapists have to do Continuing Professional Development (CPD) to develop their skills and to maintain their registration. This can include attending short courses, meetings, workshops and seminars organised by the BAAT and by universities.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

An art therapist should:

  • Be a skilled artist and have an interest in all forms of art.
  • Have keeping client records, including listening and speaking.
  • Have good observational skills.
  • Be able to understand body language.
  • Be a creative thinker.
  • Have a flexible and imaginative approach.
  • Be independent and self-reliant.
  • Be a skilled motivator.
  • Have the maturity to help clients with strong and painful thoughts and feelings.
  • Be able to develop trusting therapeutic relationships with clients.
  • Have patience and tact.
  • Work well in a team.
  • Have a high level of self-awareness.
  • Be active in seeking out employment opportunities.
  • Have good business skills if self-employed.

Your Long Term Prospects

Promotion within the NHS can be to specialist, head of services, head of profession and consultant art therapy posts.

Some art therapists specialise within areas such as adult mental health, children with learning difficulties or palliative care (helping to relieve pain).

It is possible for UK-trained art therapists to practise in some overseas countries.

Get Further Information

The British Association of Art Therapists (BAAT),
24-27 White Lion Street, London N1 9PD
Tel: 020 7686 4216

Health Professions Council (HPC), Park House,
184 Kennington Park Road, London SE11 4BU
Tel: 020 7582 0866

Working in the NHS:

England: NHS Careers, PO Box 2311,
Bristol BS2 2ZX
Tel: 0845 606 0655

Scotland: NHS Scotland
Tel: 0845 601 4647

Wales: NHS Wales Careers
Tel: 01443 233 472. Website:

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