Analysis of Art Therapy


Art therapy is not just for children but can be applied to adults with brain injury or impairment. However in this paper I would like to discuss the analysis of art produced by children who are troubled with psychological problems stemming from family discord. Dysfunctional families are now more common than abusive ones. Abusive families tend to get the media attention but dysfunctional is harder to quantify for the media and so mainly ignored. When treating children, art therapy can give insights were direct communication is almost impossible. Many child therapists however cannot analyze children’s art from a scientific point of view and so this paper is to give some basic directions to those interested in the mind of a child through art.

alabama landscape


For art therapy to be understood the therapist or teacher needs to have some basic insight into child psychology from past experimental work that gave direction to our modern thought. The first would be Vygotsky’s position of child cognitive development. The first being his stated position on language development. That a child has limited reasoning during the early years as it does not have the language skills to express complex logic. The second is scaffolding, that a child given the basics of an idea or concept can build upon it without further direct instruction through trial and error learning over time. What both these insights tell us is that a young child cannot communicate complex emotional feelings clearly until nearing their teenage developmental stages. (1 Vygotsky 1962) Chomsky in the USA later supported Votgotskys idea when he proposed a language acquisition devise in the brain at birth. (LAD). Chomsky stated that unlike any other animal on the planet humans have language that develops faster than can be explained through everyday learning. That if you take an American baby and give it at birth to a Japanese couple to raise, it will eventually speak only Japanese. The language the brain is exposed to at birth is the one it develops over time. (2 Chomsky 1968)

Later in the 1950’s Piaget (3 Piaget 1973) who had know about Votgosky’s work used many of his ideas to develop his own theory of cognitive stages of development in children. Although he disagreed with Votgoskys stance on language he did devise many useful experiments to show a staged developmental cognition. The one part we are interested in from an art therapy point of view is ego-centrism. Piaget made a paper mache three mountains on a table. (We would refer to a 3D model today). He asked young children to look at the mountains and watch figures moving about such as man, woman, child for example. In front of the child were a series of photographs showing the mountain model from several angles and views? The child was asked to watch the figures and then point to the photo from the figures point of view, where they were placed. Most children under seven always chose the photo that best displayed not the figures point of view but there own. In other words the child could only see the world from its perspective and not other peoples. This was termed ego-centric and lasted until the child was old enough to de-centre through the acquisition of empathy. (Note, cultures such as China have a lack of empathy in their psychology mainly due to a lack of social learning in the family. So many are still ego-centric well into their 20’s.) In the UK Margaret Donaldson went on the redesign Piaget’s original experiment with the policeman and naughty boy model. This was much more culturally acceptable to children unfamiliar with mountains as Swiss children would have been. Donaldson concluded that children in the UK at least, de-centered earlier. This maybe part of the British character of easy international adaptation to environment changes. (4 Donaldson 1978)

The two main child theories above then start our thinking into art analysis by giving us a basic insight into child communication and development. Obviously the theories are more complex and deeper than I have explained here and need to be learned more thoroughly by the therapist. These ideas are merely pointers to interpretation of the uncommunicative child though art.

The How To:

Children are wary of strangers and particularly men. There are two reasons for this, first strangers in a child’s world represent a threat and therefore create an alarm reaction. In babies this may be crying in older children under seven this maybe social learning, parents and teachers giving warnings about talking to strangers in the street. Secondly where children are brought up by unemotional parents they accept strangers more easily than those from caring emotional families. It is their nature to seek a caring bond and attention even if this might be negative such as being punished. (Skinner 1960 – operant conditioning).

With the above in mind in order for the child to be happy and willing to draw for the therapist is can be useful to allow a familiar person to give the instruction such as the primary school teacher that takes the child everyday. If the child is from a dysfunctional family the parents are the last people you need to help. Remember abusive parents often present children to doctors with complaints from a position of care (Muchenhousin disease by proxy). Therefore if the child is troubled and in mental anguish then until you knows otherwise, suspect everyone and use instructors away from the child’s normal carers.

A simple step by step approach to drawing production is the best way.

    1. Have paper, A3, is best with assortment of drawing materials, pencils, crayons and any other suitable markers. Have a table and chair that is comfortable for the child’s age – not to high – the floor is OK for children if suitably dressed.
    1. The adult who is giving instructions should be face to face beside the child. This means at the child’s height and eye level. Adults should kneel or sit where there are at the same height level. This takes away some of the domination structures and allows for a more equal approach to the child.
    1. Ask the child to draw their family in front of their home. The reason this is always a good start as the positioning is very important. Also how the child perceives their living space.
    1. Give the child plenty of time; tell them there is no rush to finish. Most children complete the task in about ten minutes. Some take longer who want to elaborate their drawing with colour and detail.
  1. Thank the child and promise to return their drawing to them later, this is important as the child puts value in their creativity and will want to show significant others in their life such as other siblings or parents.

Analysis Approach

Again a step by step approach is the most effective way to start.

    1. Take an overview. What is the initial impression? Is the child’s drawing compatible with their age? Is it immature, undefined, lack of care in production etc? Is it well constructed for their age, showing imagination and the grasp of concepts? (For example does smoke bend out of a chimney or go straight up. This would indicate the concept of wind for example.)
    1. Look at family positioning, does the child put themselves at the centre of the group (perhaps ego-centric) are they slightly apart? Are bothers and sisters placed differently, is one parent further apart that the other. All these can give insight into the family dynamics. Are they in height order? Are they smiling or frowning? Look at body proportions – this can indicate power plays. Finally look for any unusual details in the family that may give rise to questions.
    1. Look at the periphery, how is the home drawn, is there a path, is it accurate? Has the child put things in the windows? Are there additional objects such as a car, bicycle, swing, gate etc.? All these objects may give rise to insight from later questions.
    1. Once you have come to your initial conclusions write them down. Then ask two other non-professional people to look at the drawing and give you their initial impressions. This can lead to seeing something we missed or did not consider. Lay people are not hampered by knowledge. Then re-look at your own initial analysis and decide if you need to revise it slightly. Do not be too influenced by your lay observers they may also have internal perspectives that tend to objectify their ability to see the child’s point of reference.
    1. Take the drawing back to the child and ask simple gentle questions. Tell the child you are very impressed by their effort. Then ask about the objects first, what they mean to the child. The car for instance. This is better as it lets the child de-center from the family to begin with. Look for the significance the child puts in objects and cultural learning.
    1. Ask the child about the family, who is who (even though this may be obvious) let the child explain. In what order does he talk about the family members, does he forget someone, what is the positioning in the picture; ask why someone is further away – or holding hands, etc. Where is he/she in relation to the parents, siblings etc. This may indicate relationship problems or highlights.
  1. Finally, rethink your original notes in line with the child’s self-report. What differed, what was highlighted, what insights did you discover?

Once the process is over then the work of applying theory to the analysis gives you the final overview and insight into your drawing. This should then be presented in a report of three parts. First a paragraph or two on the child’s presenting problems and family situation. Second, the initial analysis of the artwork from your findings and impressions. Third your theoretical insight from a psychological point of reference.

This last part should include your recommendations for educational support, teacher insight and therapeutic intervention of required.

Often once a meeting with the teacher and parents has been convened to discuss the child’s situation then the next steps in support can be agreed upon. Where the parents are the problem, this then is best left to the psychologist as an outsider to meet with them as an authoritarian figure to enable open dialogue.


It takes time and quite a few attempts with children of various ages to build up the skill of art therapy and interpretation. It is not always so obvious what the child is trying to communicate through their art. Also take into account the scientific bias of the participants and analysis. It is easy to project your own ideas of child situations instead of being objective. As any good therapist knows you leave your own ego at the door. Children are vulnerable, easily influenced and directed by skillful manipulators and so abuse goes undetected for many children. Caution should be advised before taking a child’s art impression to a legal standpoint.

Real example.

A child was presented at school as disruptive, violent and attention seeking. His teachers wanted to expel him from the school. He is 8 years old and often attacks teachers by kicking them from behind.

The child drew a picture of his standing between his parents holding his hands up keeping the two apart who are seen shouting at each other. The child in the drawing is crying and angry.

Life was so difficult at home having to play the role of parent to his parents that at school he acted out to compensate for his misery at home. He saw teachers as other parents and so needed to punish them. He needed attention at school even if negative in order to fulfill his need for love.

In a meeting with the mother, she was shocked to see how her son found family life. It was agreed that future arguments between her husband and herself should be conducted out of the child’s hearing or presence. That a calmer atmosphere should be strived for over time.

The child within two weeks had calmed down and started to be more cooperative and although he relapsed from time to time he was much happier in class and cooperative.

This example is straight forward and much more detail came from the drawing than this conclusion, but it gives you the general idea.

In Summery

Art therapy can be informative as part of a wider approach to child psychology and in particularly therapy situations where a child has presenting problems to tackle. Art allows a child to communicate through visual imagery which is cognitively more developed under seven years than verbal skills, reasoning and conceptual thought.

A professional psychologist should always do the analysis and not a counsellor. The reason is more a question of wider knowledge and training that most counselors in schools have. It is also important to be holistic with children and see if other factors such as diet, bullying or trauma might have an influence on his artistic impressions.


1 Vygotsky 1962 – Gross R D (2004) Psychology the Science of Mind and Behaviour4th Ed. Hodder & Stoughton Pgs 498 – 500

2 Chomsky 1969 – Gross R D (2004) Psychology the Science of Mind and Behaviour4th Ed. Hodder & Stoughton Pgs 284 – 286

3 Piaget 1973 – Gross R D (2004) Psychology the Science of Mind and Behaviour4th Ed. Hodder & Stoughton Pgs 491 – 498

4 Donaldson 1978 – Gross R D (2004) Psychology the Science of Mind and Behaviour4th Ed. Hodder & Stoughton Pgs 496

*Note that Vygotsky’s work was conducted in Russia in 1920’s but only translated into English in the 1960’s when it exposed Piaget’s secret influence to his own work.