When words “fail”, “get in the way” or “are not enough”… sometimes you can “picture it” and the picture indeed “paints a thousand words.”

As art therapists, we would sometimes ask our clients, “What is the feeling like? Does it have a colour? A shape? Can you show me?”. No two pictures have ever been the same. Each and every individual is so unique in expression. A simple line or symbol can often tell a story and be a form of release from inner tension or confusion.

There are a few misconceptions about art therapy (also called art psychotherapy) that we would like to mention here.

  • It is not just for children. We have worked with kids as young as 4 years old and seniors in their 90s and everyone in between. The important thing is that you have an open mind and not let judgemental thoughts get in the way of letting yourself just be…be messy, be free.
  • The therapist cannot read the drawings. The goal is for the therapist to support the client in creating something personal and meaningful to him/her. The therapist will work together with the client and in the process gain some insight into his or her life.
  • It is not only for people who suffer from severe trauma or mental health problems. While art therapy has proved effective as a treatment for both trauma and mental health problems, it has also proved effective for those who perhaps are going through a life transition and would like to gain some personal insights.
  • It is not just for those who can draw. Being artistic is not at all a requirement or determinant to whether you will benefit from art therapy. In fact, sometimes, art is not made at a session. The session is client-led; therefore, the decision of making art is up to the client. However, on occasions, we would suggest a visual expression when we sense it is helpful.

The representation not only facilitates communication but allows the person creating the piece of art to access parts of him/herself that are not so easily accessible otherwise. As psychotherapists, we call this the sub-conscious or even the unconscious. And soon, what is drawn on the page, looks back at us – both the client and the therapist – and brings us into a deeper space, a sacred space ready to be gently and reverently explored and seen.

This 3-way relationship, between client, therapist and the artwork is what is considered to be the key feature of art therapy.
Clients often experience this approach as less threatening as it provides an indirect platform for discussion rather than addressing emotional problems in a straightforward fashion. One client explained that her artwork “shielded” her from her pain.

Art therapy is a professional method of treatment that draws both on the principles of psychotherapy as well as the creative experience of the client to gain insight and to achieve growth, healing and integration. Engaging in art therapy helps the client get “unstuck” by releasing what they need to release and to understand and make meaning of what they seek to understand.


Art therapy has proved effective as a treatment for

  • Individuals going through a life transition or seeking deeper self-awareness and insight
  • Individuals trying to manage anxiety, stress, depression, and anger
  • Individuals trying to cope with grief and loss (e.g. illness, divorce, employment)
  • Adult and child survivors of trauma and abuse
  • Individuals suffering from various addictions
  • Children with emotional, developmental and/or behavioural problems
  • Couples going through a difficult period or facing a breakdown in relating to each other
  • Patients and families in Palliative care and/or with chronic illness
  • Eating disorder, issues with body image, addiction, psychosomatic illness
  • Mental health problems (e.g. depression, schizophrenia, psychosis)

Art therapy may, by itself, prompt change as a primary therapeutic approach. Art Therapy can also complement as well as provide stability and continuity within other treatments.


An art therapy session will typically begin with you and your art therapist getting to know each other and building a relationship, a foundation. This foundation is important in order for you to feel comfortable with your therapist and for insight and change to happen. We would usually recommend weekly sessions as a start but as time passes, the relationship will inform us on the regularity.


Joanna Tan, BA, MA.(ArtTh), AATR, is an award-winning artist and a pioneer in the field of art therapy in Singapore. Her work includes private practice, training and directing several community programmes. As a qualified and registered art psychotherapist, she works with individuals and groups to strengthen identity, increase self-awareness, explore life direction, cope with change, anxiety and depression and other mental illnesses and build healthy relationships. She also conducts professional training and supervision and retreats for specific purposes.

Joanna is committed to engaging with the whole person, their specific concerns as well as their strengths and capacity. She works to develop a robust sense of self and productive relationships in both brief and long-term therapy.

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Joanna Tan BA, MA, AThR, is a pioneer in the field of art therapy in Singapore. She is an artist and a registered art therapist in private practice.

Working with adults and children she provides individual sessions for those wishing to address specific issues. She also facilitates art therapy groups, training workshops and retreats for various communities and organizations in the public and private sectors. As a senior art therapist, she conducts training and clinical supervision.


She has presented in various conferences in Australia, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore and is passionate about facilitating the creative process in people in order to achieve a greater sense of personal well-being. She believes that through the process of making artwork, we can experience a greater sense of ourselves and gain a higher level of self awareness and integration.

Joanna attained her Masters in Art Therapy in 2004 from Edith Cowen University in Western Australia after many years of community work with young adults as well as the intellectually disabled and their families. In Australia, she worked therapeutically with teens who had problems with substance abuse; children who have experienced trauma and abuse and adults who suffered from mental illness as well as various emotional and psychological problems.

She returned to Singapore in 2006 when she started Heartspace, her private practice and was appointed Clinical Supervisor for the Masters of Art Therapy programme at Lasalle School of the Arts. In 2006, she also started an art therapy open studio at the parish of St. Mary of the Angels to serve the pastoral needs of the community. 

Joanna currently sits on the ANZATA (Australian New Zealand Art Therapy Assoc) committee which is an established registering body for professional art therapists in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore. She is also an approved play therapy supervisor with PTI (Play Therapy International). 

In addition to Art Therapy, Joanna has received training in Group work, Play therapy, Sand-tray, Creative Arts Therapies, Clinical Supervision and Psycho-Spirituality. 

Since she began painting again as an adult in 2001, Joanna has won 3 Art Awards in Western Australia. Her work has been exhibited in several solo and group exhibitions in WA and in Singapore.

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By Joanna Tan

My journey in art therapy began 8 years ago, but at times I am still amazed at how ‘creating an image’ affects my clients and I especially like to pay attention to their first experiences. When I reflect on why I continue to paint and encourage others to paint, I am reminded of my own first encounter with making ‘art’.

Ten years ago, I finally gave in to what had become a desperate urge to paint. The last time I painted was when I did ‘Art’ as an A-level subject. I had thought I left that behind me for more ‘practical’ and ‘responsible’ concerns so I was surprised that more than 14 years on, the impulse to paint became so great that I could no longer ignore this nagging, inner prompting.



One evening, without much thinking, I set up a ‘still life’ by placing a bowl and utensils on a red satin cloth. I set up the composition as how I would usually set up a place setting for the dinner table at home. While the look seemed casual, it was very important to me that the red background reflected energy, movement and flow. I also wanted to highlight the simplicity of the empty bowl and the shadows that the spotlight created.

Taking a deep breath, I put my paintbrush to the canvas and began. As I painted the different elements of the composition one by one over the weeks, I noticed the movements of my inner emotional responses. As I painted the red background, I was connected to feelings of joy and gratitude. As I painted the bowl, I was led from the painful feelings of loss to a profound sense of acceptance and surrender.

The act of painting seemed to have transformed into an act of meditation. What emerged in the silence was an encounter with the meaning and purpose that grew out of the events of my life at that time. This unexpected encounter made me wonder about the power of ‘image making’ - to ask, to experience and to discover that which is beyond the conscious grasp. When I finished the painting, I experienced a profound realisation that I had found a treasure that was mine yet not mine to keep.

Continuing to heed the inner promptings that had led me to begin painting again, I found myself leaving the comfort and security of the corporate world and flying to Australia to study in a subject field that was then little known in Singapore. At that moment, discovering art therapy was like ‘coming home’ to me, so much so that it did not even matter if I would be able to get a job once I attained my Masters.

Till today, the empty rice bowl holds symbolic meaning for me. Then, I experienced it as the ‘letting go’ of illusionary beliefs and attachments that once defined me. Now, it is a constant reminder for me of the posture I need to have as I live my life as a therapist. It is in emptying myself of judgements and pre-conceptions that I can safely create a space and contain all that my clients ‘pours out’ in the session.

This article was featured in the Singapore Art Gallery Guide, September 2010 issue.

Interview with Joanna Tan about Art Therapy with 93.8 Live

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