A career as an art therapist may be for you if you're creative and enjoy helping people express their emotions through art

Art therapists use visual art media to help people who may struggle to communicate verbally to express their feelings and confront difficult emotional issues.

People who are referred to an art therapist don't need to have experience of, or be good at art; it's simply used as a medium to enable them to communicate and to help with awareness and self-development.

Therapy may be carried out in group or one-to-one settings and you may work closely with other healthcare professionals in a multidisciplinary team.

Art therapists may also be known as art psychotherapists.

Responsibilities

As an art therapist, you'll need to:

  • assess the needs of the client by listening and providing guidance;
  • work creatively with various client groups in a therapeutic setting, ensuring a safe and secure environment;
  • enable clients to explore their artwork and the process they used to create it;
  • assess and understand the feelings or temperament of others;
  • constructively challenge the behaviour and attitude of your clients;
  • attend meetings and case conferences to share ideas, expertise and good practice;
  • keep up to date with administration tasks;
  • maintain art therapy space and materials;
  • receive support and discuss ideas in individual supervision;
  • explore opportunities for work where it may not currently exist;
  • present a case to other professionals on reasons for employing an art therapist;
  • keep up to date with developments in the profession by attending seminars, lectures, and workshops.

Salary

  • Starting salaries for art therapists in the NHS (band 6) are between £26,302 and £35,225.
  • Experienced NHS art therapists can earn £31,383 to £41,373 (band 7).
  • NHS principal art therapists (band 8a) earn salaries of £40,028 to £48,034.

Jobs in the National Health Service (NHS) are usually covered by the Agenda for Change (AfC) Pay Rates consisting of nine pay bands. Salary levels outside the NHS can vary depending on the employer and whether you work part time or are self-employed.

Income data from Health Careers. Figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Within the NHS the work is mainly 9am to 5pm, but in different settings and private practice the hours can be more varied to fit around the client and could involve some weekends and evenings.

Opportunities exist for part-time and portfolio working, e.g. some art therapists may divide their working time between the NHS, private practice and teaching, and many combine art therapy with other types of related work.

What to expect

  • Jobs are available in most parts of the UK as key employers include social services, local authorities and the NHS. Art therapists in private practice may take referrals from these organisations. However, not all jobs are advertised and art therapists may need to generate their own work through a range of activities, including networking.
  • Travel within a working day is frequent. Some art therapists work for several employers and may travel between them during the week. There may also be some travel to residential courses, seminars and workshops.
  • Career breaks are possible but it is vital to keep up to date with developments in the profession through attending courses and maintaining established networks.

Qualifications

To practise as an art therapist you must be registered with the Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC). In order to register, you must successfully complete an HCPC approved postgraduate qualification in art therapy or art psychotherapy. All UK approved courses lead to a professional qualification and eligibility to apply for registration with the HCPC and membership of the British Association of Art Therapists (BAAT).

Search for postgraduate courses in art therapy.

Most candidates for postgraduate qualification will have a first degree in fine art, visual arts or art and design. The following degree subjects may also be considered as relevant by course providers:

  • education;
  • nursing;
  • occupational therapy;
  • psychology;
  • social work.

All course providers will require you to have experience of artistic practice and may ask to see a portfolio of artwork.

A relevant HND may sometimes be considered for entry, if you have substantial clinical work experience. Foundation courses in art therapy are also run by a small number of colleges and universities.

Full-time postgraduate courses usually take two years with part-time courses lasting three years. As part of the training, you'll undertake personal therapy and a clinical placement.

Skills

You will need to show:

  • an interest in, and commitment to, the visual arts;
  • excellent observation and listening skills;
  • the ability to facilitate learning and encourage participation;
  • the capacity to empathise with people who may have difficulties in communicating either their feelings or their pain, and gain their trust;
  • the ability to work effectively with individuals and in groups;
  • creativity and imagination;
  • an understanding of client confidentiality and how to deal with sensitive issues;
  • flexibility, sensitivity, emotional stability and an ability to recognise your own strengths and weaknesses.

Work experience

You'll need to have at least a year's relevant work experience (either paid or voluntary) for entry on to a training course. This can include working with people in a variety of settings such as health, education or youth work. Previous experience of working on community arts projects is also useful.

Consider approaching the art therapy departments of NHS trusts, prisons and special hospitals, special needs schools and hospices to see if they provide work experience or work shadowing opportunities. Be aware, however, that art therapy is practised in a confidential setting and so work shadowing may not always be possible.

Employers

Competition for jobs is strong. Many art therapists generate their own work through networking, making speculative applications, writing business proposals and giving presentations to potential employers. Find out more about self-employment.

Part-time posts are common with many art therapists working for more than one organisation at a time, e.g. the NHS and a private practice. Availability of jobs often depends on organisations gaining funding for particular projects.

Key employers include:

  • charities;
  • children, adolescent, adult services;
  • community centres;
  • drug and alcohol dependency treatment units;
  • education services;
  • hospices and other therapeutic centres;
  • mental health projects;
  • the NHS and the private health sector;
  • the prison service;
  • private practice work;
  • school support centres (special and mainstream);
  • social services.

Look for job vacancies at:

Recruitment agencies rarely handle vacancies.

Professional development

Continuing professional development (CPD) is an essential part of continuing registration with the HCPC and you must keep your professional knowledge and skills up to date. Registered art therapists must also undergo regular clinical supervision from a recognised supervisor.

Membership of the BAAT is useful for career development and networking opportunities and they offer a number of relevant CPD opportunities, including a range of psychotherapeutic training and related courses. Courses on setting up in private practice are also available.

It is also possible to undertake research at PhD level in a specialised area.

Career prospects

Although there is no standard career path within the profession, with experience you may move into a management role, leading a team of therapists or managing a therapy unit. You may also want to go into training roles alongside your usual therapy work and run short courses for other art therapists.

There are opportunities to combine work with different client groups and organisations, as well as combining art therapy with other roles such as community artist, teacher or professional artist.

Many therapists progress by developing expertise in areas such as:

  • autistic spectrum;
  • children with learning difficulties;
  • forensic medicine;
  • palliative care;
  • stroke and head injuries.

You can also join regional groups of therapists, which focus on the needs of art therapy in a particular field, and exchange ideas and methods of working through peer review. It is usual to get as broad a portfolio of work experience as possible before deciding to specialise.