Art therapists use visual art media to help people who may struggle to communicate verbally or to express their feelings.
People who have been referred to an art therapist do not need to have experience of, or be good at art, it is simply used as a medium for confronting difficult emotions and to help with awareness and self-development.
Art therapists work with people of all ages and backgrounds in a variety of settings including:
- the NHS and private healthcare;
- special and mainstream education;
- drug and alcohol services;
- social services;
- stroke and head injury units;
- palliative care and hospices.
They must ensure they provide a safe and secure environment for their clients and will usually have distinct ways of working with clients in each environment.
Therapy may be carried out in group or one-to-one settings and art therapists may work closely with other healthcare professionals.
A registered art therapist or art psychotherapist (these titles can be interchangeable), will have undertaken approved training at postgraduate level, and be registered with the Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC), a legal requirement in order to practise in the UK.
Activities vary depending on the client and the working environment but can include:
- taking referred patients, including self-referrals and referrals from other professionals such as teachers, psychologists, occupational therapists and psychiatrists;
- making referrals to other professionals;
- assessing the needs of the client by listening and providing guidance;
- working creatively with various client groups in a therapeutic setting;
- working in a group or one-to-one setting, often as part of a multidisciplinary team of professionals;
- enabling clients to explore their art work and the process of its production;
- assessing and understanding the feelings or temperament of others;
- constructively challenging the behaviour and attitude of clients;
- planning, designing and facilitating a schedule of activities with individuals and groups;
- attending meetings and case conferences to share ideas, expertise and good practice;
- keeping up to date with administration: making phone calls; writing reports and case notes; and drafting letters to other professionals;
- maintaining art therapy space and materials;
- receiving support and discussing ideas in individual supervision;
- exploring opportunities for work where it may not currently exist;
- presenting a case to other professionals on reasons for employing an art therapist;
- keeping up to date with continuing professional development (CPD) by attending seminars, lectures, and workshops.
- Jobs in the National Health Service (NHS) are usually covered by the Agenda for Change (AfC) Pay Rates consisting of nine pay bands.
- Typical salaries for NHS art therapist entry level posts (band 6) range from £25,783 to £34,530.
- Salaries for NHS art therapists with some experience range from £30,764 to £40,558 (band 7).
- NHS principal art therapist posts (band 8a) are generally £39,239 to £47,088.
Salary levels outside the NHS can vary depending on the employer and whether working part time and/or self-employed.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
Hours worked will depend on the employer. Within the NHS the work is mainly nine to five, but with private practice the hours can be more varied to fit around both the client and practitioner and could involve 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 art therapists combine art therapy with other types of related work.
What to expect
- 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.
- 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, some jobs are not 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 be some travel to residential courses, seminars and workshops, as continuing professional development (CPD) is an essential element of continued registration with the HCPC.
To practise as an art therapist you must be registered with the HCPC. In order to register, you must successfully complete an HCPC approved postgraduate qualification in art therapy or art psychotherapy. See the HCPC website for a list of approved courses.
All UK approved courses lead to professional qualification and eligibility to apply for registration with the HCPC and membership of the British Association of Art Therapists (BAAT).
Most candidates for the postgraduate qualification will have a first degree in fine art, visual arts or art and design. While these subjects are usually preferred for entry to the courses, the following degree subjects may also be considered as relevant by course providers:
- occupational therapy;
- social work.
Contact institutions directly to find out what other subjects they will accept.
All course providers will require you to have substantial 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. Contact individual course providers for exact entry requirements.
Full-time postgraduate courses usually take two years with part-time courses lasting three years. As part of the training, students themselves undertake personal therapy and a clinical placement.
Consider attending open evenings and taster days, e.g. the BAAT's 'Introduction to the Profession of Art Therapy', to find out more about the profession. The BAAT also runs a one-week 'Art Therapy Foundation Course' for those thinking of a career in art therapy.
Foundation courses in art therapy are also run by a small number of colleges and universities.
Students normally fund themselves, although it may be possible to get some help from charities or grant making trusts. It may also be possible in some instances to gain funding from your employer if you are employed by the NHS.
You will need to show:
- a real 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 problems or their pain, and gain their trust;
- the ability to work effectively with individuals and in groups;
- strong oral and written communication skills;
- creativity and imagination;
- a mature outlook on life and experience of dealing with people and their problems;
- 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.
Substantial relevant work experience (either paid or voluntary) is usually needed for entry on to a training course. This can include working with clients or service users in settings such as:
- mental health;
- youth work or social services.
Previous experience of working on community arts projects is also useful.
If you still need to secure this, 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. Bear in mind, however, that art therapy is practised in a confidential setting and opportunities to work shadow may not always be possible.
Competition for posts is keen. Many art therapists generate their own work through networking, making speculative applications, writing business proposals and giving presentations to potential employers.
Key employers include:
- the NHS;
- children, adolescent, adult and older aged services;
- social services;
- education services;
- community centres;
- the prison service;
- school support centres (special and mainstream);
- drug and alcohol dependency treatment units;
- the private health sector;
- hospices and other therapeutic centres;
- mental health projects;
- individual private referrals for private practice work.
Availability of jobs often depends on organisations gaining funding for particular projects.
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.
Competition for jobs is strong and one of the challenges for the art therapist is to find vacancies that are not being advertised. It is therefore essential to have good communication, networking and business skills to create work opportunities.
Look for job vacancies at:
- BAAT Appointments Memorandum - British Association of Art Therapists (BAAT) monthly bulletin available to trainee and full members.
- Guardian Jobs
- Local Government Jobs and the job pages of local government websites.
- NHS Jobs and the websites of individual NHS trusts (see NHS Authorities and Trusts for a list).
- NHS Scotland Recruitment
- National and regional press.
Recruitment agencies rarely handle vacancies.
Once qualified, art therapists must register with the HCPC in order to practise in the UK.
Continuing professional development (CPD) is an essential part of continuing registration and art therapists must keep their professional knowledge and skills up to date.
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.
Additional relevant CPD activities include:
- attending conferences, workshops and lectures;
- involvement in other art-based activities;
- writing for journals and presenting research and papers at conferences.
It is also possible to undertake research at PhD level.
Registered art therapists must also undergo regular clinical supervision from a recognised supervisor.
Some art therapists also choose to develop skills relevant to self-employment, for example networking, presentation and business planning.
Courses on setting up in private practice are also available.
Although there is no standard career path within the profession, experienced practitioners may go on to a management role, leading a team of therapists or managing a therapy unit.
Others may want to take on supervisory duties either in a clinical or managerial role. Courses are run by the BAAT to help with this.
Some may also want to go into training roles alongside their 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 work roles such as community artist, teacher or professional artist.
Some arts therapists opt to combine private practice with public sector work.
Many therapists progress by developing expertise in areas such as:
- children with learning difficulties;
- forensic medicine;
- autistic spectrum disorder;
- head and stroke injuries;
- palliative care.
It is possible to 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.
Some art therapists go on to undertake research in their area of expertise.