Play Therapy – Layering in Therapeutic Artwork

Layering in Therapeutic Artwork

Art can be used in play therapy to express what children are unable to put into words.  Sometimes a child may add layer upon layer to a piece of art, both within a single picture and in consecutive pictures. Why do they need to express themselves in such a way?

Why layer within a single picture when the end result does not show the different stages and the initial picture often bears little or no
resemblance to the final one?   Whatever the layers of images represent, a client would not use so much energy in covering and re-covering unless it had significance. Charlie, aged 6, longed for a mother who was often busy with work.  He painted a large, strong green figure and then covered it with mixed colour paint, Sellotape, a glue-drizzled and scribbled page, and dirty paint water. He folded the two sides in to the middle and pressed down with his palms. Multiple layers covered up the strong green figure.  Was he was putting barriers up between him and the green figure and any negative feelings? Or was he adding multiple layers in order to protect and keep safe the green figure?

At another session Charlie painted five consecutive paintings in quick succession. The first three were of individual coloured figures; the fourth one was larger and green. The final painting had several red figures and a large yellow sun. Charlie did not discuss these images; maybe he was unravelling his feelings about his family, with a final picture of all of them together.  In the final three paintings a layer of water gave the paintings a dream-like appearance which could represent a conflict between what he wants that person to be and what they are really like.  Or maybe each image represents an aspect of his Self as he tries to make sense of who he is, in his quest for wholeness?

By paying close attention to the potential reasons behind layering, a therapist can judge the progress the client is making in therapy; hazy and incoherent artwork may represent confusion that requires time to reorganize.  Artwork which develops a story may indicate that the client is beginning to make sense of difficulties.  If the client is able to verbalise an early trauma this may indicate that this memory is now in the conscious awareness and can be worked on through more creative play.
Based on a paper by Kirsty Campion
– PTUK Registered Play Therapist