I Promise, Art Therapy Research Isn’t Scary

I hated research! Yes, it is true. As a graduate student in my Creative Arts Therapy program, I decided to take on the challenge of completing an academic thesis. Spending untold hours attempting to find art therapy studies to support my project proved futile. I attempted keyword after keyword searches and found almost nothing related to art therapy research. The lack of art therapy research at that time was profound. Though I completed my thesis, I felt that it was weak and was extremely unhappy with it. I hated research and vowed never to do it again.

Then came my dissertation. Once again, it was difficult finding research related to art therapy, and I was forced to change my direction because it was not approved due to a lack of supportive research. My frustration over the lack of art therapy research drove me to the brink; however, I completed my study, The Impact of Coping Strategies, Negative Life Events, and Health Locus of Control for Persons Living with the Pain of Osteoarthritis (Elkis-Abuhoff, 2003), and received my degree. When the bound dissertation came to my door, I opened it to make sure there were words inside, and then put it on my shelf, unread. I hated research.

However, about 15 years ago, that all changed. I became a professor at Hofstra University, and my job description included having to do research– yikes! After a momentary panic, I told myself I could do it, I can be part of bringing art therapy forward, and I was lucky to find some amazing people with which to develop a research team. Today I consider myself a researcher, and I sit as a principal investigator (PI) on several art therapy research projects. In fact, my research partner and I were just honored by receiving the 2019 Best Paper award from Art Therapy: Journal of the America Art Therapy Association for our published article, Medical Art Therapy Research Moves Forward: A Review of Clay Manipulation with Parkinson’s Disease (Elkis-Abuhoff & Gaydos, 2018). My research journey was filled with frustrations, but your path does not need to be that way. Here is some information that will help make research manageable, exciting, and rewarding.

Research is the lifeline of the art therapy profession. This is what brings the profession forward, helps others learn about and respect art therapy, adds to how we support and treat our clients/patients, and how art therapy jobs are created. “One challenge that the field of art therapy faces is the lack of robust research about the profession” (Gussak & Rosal, 2016, p.607). Lynn Kapitan (2016) explains, “The successful outcome of the search is a kernel of value with transformational power: more effective practices grounded on more precise knowledge, deeper understanding of the impact of events or experiences on people’s lives, or new facts and awareness that build a case for art therapy” (p. xvii).

 How do you write a research paper that can be published and be part of bringing the art therapy profession forward? First, take a deep breath, and then consider what you are passionate about. Research can be an exciting adventure, as long as you are fascinated by the topic. Think about bringing together pieces of the puzzle to reveal the picture that tells a story or gives an outcome. It is a methodical process, not dissimilar to an art therapist in clinical practice, where every step brings the client forward until you are able to bring the pieces together and watch the client’s progress. Kapitan (2016) uses the metaphor of the contemporary hunter and gatherer, with the search being knowledge.

Which approach or methodology should you choose? Do you like to work with numbers– a quantitative approach? Words, a qualitative approach? Reflect on, and respond to, artwork– an arts-based research approach? Maybe a mix of numbers and words, or a mixed methods approach? The method you choose needs to be the best lens to tell the story. 

When it comes to developing a research project, Leedy (1997, in Kapitan, 2016) presents 8 specific characteristics that are consistent in the development of a research project. They are:

  1. Research originates with a problem or question.
  2. Research requires a clear articulation of a goal or purpose.
  3. Research follows a specific plan or procedure.
  4. Research is organized around a principal problem that usually is divided into manageable sub-problems.
  5. Research is guided by the specific research problem, question, or hypothesis.
  6. Research accepts certain assumptions.
  7. Research requires the collection and interpretation of data to resolve the problem.
  8. Research is cyclical or, more exactly, is approached as a spiral of investigation (p.xviii)

Consider these characteristic guidelines that will guide you through your research experience, and before you know it, you will have completed a successful art therapy research project.

If your research project includes using human subjects, before you can collect data, you must have your proposal approved by an Institutional Review Board (IRB), to assure your project is ethically sound and protects subjects. The IRB is a committee whose responsibility is to assure that research including human participants, is safe for those involved. IRBs are always found in universities and hospitals. Unfortunately, not all facilities will have a committee. So, it could be a good option to collaborate with someone connected to a university or hospital and have them approve the research. Once you receive approval from the IRB, you are ready to start collecting data! This is the fun and exciting part of the project.

Once your data is collected, it is time to put all the pieces together and find the outcome of your project. If your project is quantitative, you will score your assessments and run your statistics. For those who have a qualitative approach, it’s time to evaluate interviews, responses, and discussions, looking for trends and consistencies. With arts-based research, the researcher will be creating artwork in response to the information and artwork collected. Finally, those with mixed methods will become involved in both statistics for their assessments, (quantitative) and evaluating their “words” or art response to look for trends and consistency (qualitative).

Once all the data has been evaluated, and you have your outcomes, it is time to write up your results, discuss your outcomes, and complete your project with a solid conclusion. You will have completed your art therapy research project, and it will be time to share your outcomes with the larger community and submit to an academic journal for publication.

We look forward to learning from you. 


Elkis-Abuhoff, D., and Gaydos, M. (2018). Medical Art Therapy Research Moves Forward: A Review of Clay Manipulation with Parkinson’s Disease. Art Therapy: Journal of the America Art Therapy Association, 35:2, 68-76, DOI: 10.1080/07421656.2018.1483162

Gussak, D., and Rosal, M. L. (2016). The Wiley Handbook of Art Therapy. London: Wiley Blackwell.

Kapitan, L. (2016). Introduction to art therapy research. New York: Routledge.

Written by:

Deborah Elkis-Abuhoff, PhD, ATR-BC, ATCS, LCAT
Director, ATCB Board of Directors