This is a continuously updated post about therapeutic art group prompts and art/craft activities for expressive-therapies oriented groups. To my knowledge, these are new ideas not otherwise published or included in manuals. These are appropriate for art groups in all sorts of contexts- from therapeutic groups to artists’ meetups and “paint and sip” style get-togethers. Adapt the prompt and your supplies to the skill level and developmental level of your participants- the nice thing about art prompts is that they are easy to scale to your audience!
NOTE: While art and other creative activities are often a part of my professional work, I am not an Art Therapist. The phrase “Art Therapist,” though not a trademarked term, generally refers to someone who has completed an art-therapy specific graduate-level training, rather than a more traditional clinically-focused psychology program.
Because art and creativity are inherently part of every individual and often part of the process that grows trust in an alliance between therapist and client, all therapists will engage art on some level and many competently and helpfully engage individuals through the process of creating and/or interpreting art. For clarity, generally “art therapy” is a term used to describe this type of therapy when done by “art therapists,” When more-traditionally trained therapists, counselors, and psychologists use art and art-creating activities as part of treatment it is referred to as “expressive arts therapy.”
1. Prompt: Losing Control
Fluid Acrylic is acrylic paint formulated to more viscous than water while maintaining a high level of pigment. Dropping fluid acrylic onto wet paper creates chaotic designs. The nearly-uncontrollable flow can be an exercise in letting go –using this media, it becomes quickly obvious that the more ones tries to interfere with the process of the paint, the more muddled the art becomes. The effects of the fluid acrylic as it spreads across the page merging or sometimes chasing other colors is mesmerizing.
This can be a variation on one of D.W. Winnicott’s- the infamous researcher and therapists of parents and children- favorite ways to therapeutically play with children: Drawing a squiggle or abstract image, he’d invite the child to imagine what they saw in the image, and add details (ears, mouth, feet, etc).
Be sure to provide enough paper for multiple paintings for each person. Plan to leave the paintings overnight to dry- fluid acrylic will remain wet and “drippy” for many hours after painting. If clothing or textiles are stained, rinse and then keep the stain wet until the item can be machine washed.
- fluid acrylic paint
- low tooth (i.e. smooth, not textured) watercolor paper (or non-porous Yupo Paper for even more dramatic results)
- drop cloths to protect surfaces
- vials and droppers – fluid acrylic comes in easy to spill containers, but these vials or
- glue syringes are great for limiting spills.
NOTE: Fluid acrylic can be messy. This activity is best for small groups with members that are able to both psychologically and physically manage working with a difficult to control media.
2. PROMPT: My Galaxy
Questions to help participants navigate the prompt:
What moves in orbit within the galaxies you inhabit?
What are the significant constellations of your solar system?
3. PROMPT: Redacted: Exploring Our Edits
“Redact: (verb) to hide or remove parts of a text before publication or distribution.”
Prompt: Where have you edited yourself this week? What has had to be removed/edited/concealed before bringing yourself into this world? Who gets to edit?
Participants are given printed literature (old books, magazines for collaging, even old letters, and encouraged to “edit”)
letters, magazines, previously made (or thrifted) art, etc for “creative editing”
Books + Magic Markers (for backout poetry)
4. PROMPT: Retelling My Story
All of us have been handed a story by our culture, family, and education. Self-discovery is often a process of finding out where this story actually has overwritten elements of our lived identity or narrative. In this prompt, participants each chooses a discarded library book and are encouraged to consider the power they have to change how a narrative is engaged. Participants may edit the content (via blackout poetry) or the pages themselves.
Xacto Knives or Box Knives (age and context-appropriate – for at-risk groups, participates can be encouraged to experiment with artistic- and experiential- tearing)
Magic Markers (new and/or with plenty of ink!)
5. PROMPT: “what I actually mean when I say I’m doing ok”
This can feel like a BIG question, but to structure the prompt for participants I start the meeting by showing the examples of artist Mari Andrew’s work, who breaks questions like this down into pie charts, graphs, mind maps, or illustrated figures with well-labeled parts.
Standard Art Supplies
6. PROMPT: Kintsugi “Golden Repair”
Kintsugi (or Kintsukuroi, which means “golden repair”) is the Japanese art of fixing broken pottery with precious metals, creating reconstructed pieces with seams of gold.
In our group, each participant picked a thrifted piece of pottery, went outside and broke it into pieces, and then repaired their piece with gold epoxy (see recipe below).
Make your own super-hard, super fast-set gold glue by combining Quick Set Epoxy with Gold Mica Powder. The Quick Set Epoxy sets very quick- which is great for rebuilding but be sure to mix very small batches (no more than 1 Tablespoon at a time) or you’ll find- as we did- your glue set on your mixing surface before it can be transferred to the broken pottery.
It was fun to see how individuals translated this prompt- some participants rebuilt their pot, others used pieces from other pottery to repair where theirs was too broken, and one person even built a lotus flower from a piece which had been broken beyond repair.
Quick Set Epoxy
Finger Cots (epoxy on skin can be an irritant, these finger cots can be an easy way to prevent that, although you should definitely brace yourself for the inevitable snickering as these are, functionally, finger-condoms.)
Wood Craft Sticks or Tooth Picks
Gold Mica Powder
Plastic Plates for Glue Mixing
Gloves for handling broken pottery
7. PROMPT: Bob Ross Paint Along
For the last Group meeting of the year last year, we decided to host a Paint Along with Bob Ross night. This prompt was intended to be more playful than expressive- as well as a low-barrier invitation to our art group for people who struggle with the fear of a blank page/canvas.
We simply found a full-length Bob Ross video online (Netflix has dozens!), screenshotted the list of required supplies that displays in the first few seconds of a show, and purchased small, prepped canvases and supplies.
I was intentional, as the leader, to invite participants to follow along or not follow along, and to either paint the scene, paint the scene the way they envisioned the scene, or to not paint the scene at all.
Bob Ross Video (Netflix or Youtube)
Canvases (we sized down to 8×10 and 9×12 canvases to fit our 1.5 hour meeting length)
Paint (Bob uses oil, but we used acrylic, I just took the episode’s color list to an art supply store and purchased the acrylic equivalent to the colors listed)
Supplies (A few decent brushes, big foam brushes for backgrounds, and palette knives, which Bob loves and we found thin rulers to substitute well for)
8. PROMPT: Repurposed
Remember when you were a kid and all you needed was an oversized box to imagine you were flying into space or lounging behind a mansion? This prompt invites us to consider what beauty we can imagine from what is discarded.
Obviously, appropriate only for groups and workspaces that can safely handle knives and box cutters. My result from this art group meetup was this whale shaped pinata, which I made extra-extra sturdy so I could use it as a whimsical shipping box for my niece’s birthday present: