Color Your Feelings: Art Therapy Interventions

In my last post, I discussed symbolism and meaning of colors in art therapy.  Today I would like to share a related art therapy intervention.  The basic intervention is to have the client choose colors that represent their feelings and then color an abstract picture.  This can be a great intervention for children or adults, can be done with any media, and can be tailored to the particular situation, client, or need.

As a way to increase awareness of emotions, try this directive:  "List as many emotions as you can think of (or "list all the emotions that you feel in a week") and then assign a color to each emotions.  Fill in the shape provided to represent how much you feel each emotion."  I usually provide an outline to color in, such as a human figure, a heart, or a circle.  As a variation, a client can cover the whole page or paint a whole canvas, but that amount of empty space can be overwhelming for many.  I then use the completed art piece to discuss with the client what triggers certain emotions and whether the client would like to change the amount of any emotions.  This intervention can be done near the beginning of therapy as an assessment and then done later to evaluate changes.  In doing Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavior Therapy, I often use this intervention to introduce the "Affect Regulation" component of treatment.

As a way to express emotions in the hear-and-now:  "Color a picture, without using symbols or words, to show how you are feeling right now.  Choose different colors to represent the emotions you are feeling."  Generally, I will provide the client with a pre-printed circle or trace a circle on a paper to provide some sense of containment.  This is a great intervention to use when a client is feeling upset and struggling with how to express this.  It is also very calming to use with children when they become angry or escalated.

To help link emotions to bodily sensations: "List the emotions that you feel most often and then assign a color to each emotion.  Take a minute to think about each emotion, imagine the last time you felt it, and think about how you feel that emotion in your body.  Color on the outline of the body where you feel each emotion."  Often it can be helpful for people to have an increased awareness of how they actually experience emotions in their body, instead of thinking of emotions and thoughts as somehow disconnected from our bodies.  Children may need to be given examples (e.g., "Some people feel their stomach hurt when they are worried."), but I have found that many children are able to do this without too much prompting. 

For an additional activity with children, I will sometimes read the Dr. Seuss book My Many Colored Days.  This story talks about having different feelings on different days (and some days that are all mixed-up!) and uses different colors and animals to symbolize the feelings.  We then talk about what these different feelings are and whether the child agrees with the color that is given or would use a different color.

I hope that you are able to give these interventions a try, either for yourself or with clients.  If anyone has other suggestions for color and feeling interventions, I would love to hear about them.

Carolyn Mehlomakulu, LMFT, ATR is a psychotherapist in Austin, Texas who works with children, adolescents, and families.  For more information about individual therapy, child counseling, family therapy, and art therapy services, please visit 

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