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Multiethnic Group of People Socail Networking at Cafe

Art therapists gain artistic competence by personally working with art materials such as clay, collage, found materials, paint, charcoal, markers, etc. Yet, many are still oblivious or choose to ignore the usage of digital technology to create art. It is no longer innovative to use an app to externalize and process one’s creativity, feelings, thoughts, and relationships: it is characteristic and routine among digital natives. Despite the high prevalence of digital media use to tell one’s story, art therapists are slow in educating themselves about the various digital art media that are commonly accessed and utilized.

Cultural competence in psychotherapy has been the topic of countless articles since D.W. Sue et al. (1982) published a model of multicultural counseling competence (MCC). The model describes competencies in three domains: awareness (of beliefs and attitudes), knowledge (i.e. cultural values of specific cultural groups, cultural and linguistic characteristics, sociopolitical influences on clients, etc.), and skills (i.e. assessment, diagnosis, intervention, supervision, training, etc).  These three components are easily translatable to the cultural competence an art therapist should possess with art materials and media. An art therapist needs to familiarize oneself with various art materials and the media’s varying cultural significance.

Below describes the process of my own cultural competence development in art materials and media:

Awareness: Awareness of art therapist’s and client’s cultural worldview of art materials and media

– As a little girl, I never liked to use markers because the sound it made as I drew was highly irritating to me. Knowing my aversion to markers, my partner in third grade decided to torture me by scraping his marker on a piece of fresh matte paper until I screamed in pain. In my early training days, I didn’t even realize that I was suggesting crayons and colored pencils over markers to my young clients. In order to overcome my resistance to markers, I had to acknowledge and become fully aware how my bias was affecting my own behavior and client in the session. I, then, decided to truly examine each art material I used with my clients and reflect on my personal view of the materials. In regards to digital media, I realized that I was very comfortable using digital technology to create art and just as fluent in digital art making as the digital natives. But I also recognized that for some, digital art making may look foreign and “feel” inauthentic. The systematic attitude towards digital media among art therapists are still lukewarm and in some cases misunderstood. I believe that art therapists have a ethical responsibility in this digital age to examine and explore their own attitudes towards various art materials, including digital art media in order to develop cultural competency.

Knowledge: Knowledge of art practices in different cultures and worldviews regarding art materials and media

– What does it mean to paint your thoughts and feelings? I once had a client who thought painting was “so bourgeois”. She said, “I really don’t have time for this kind of high class activity.” Another client mentioned how it was “a bit childish” and “too messy”. While painting could be considered high art for some, it could be viewed as crafty and immature for others. These are all clinically and culturally relevant information we gather as art therapists. As art therapists, we also educate ourselves about the cultural differences our clients may have in the use of certain colors and images. In regards to the use of digital media, however, we are living among generations (regardless of culture) that view using digital apps as an integral part of their daily lives. Using digital tools to author one’s thoughts, feelings and creativity is becoming culturally universal, yet many art therapists lack the knowledge in understanding digital art making and insist on using only traditional materials. Cultural competency emphasizes the significance of establishing collaborative relationships between the counselor and the client. As I work with teenagers and young adults, I constantly make note of what kinds of applications are being accessed by whom and why. I also research popular art making apps to rate them in terms of usability, privacy, features, capability, etc. to assess their creative and therapeutic value.

Skills: Skills of utilizing various artistic practices, techniques, and media in art therapy.

– Just as a skilled counselor utilizes the interventions that are client based and serve clients needs (Chung & Bemak, 2002), an art therapist must update oneself with various art making tools and practices to meet the individual needs of the client. For that reason, art therapists cannot dismiss digital art making as it is being utilized by a vast and diverse population. Art therapists must be willing to educate themselves on digital art practices to connect and collaborate with clients. For this, I update myself with not only apps that simulate traditional media such as painting and drawing, but also with multimedia and interactive art making apps. Just because I educate myself about the various digital creative media does not mean I introduce them to my clients. However, if I don’t possess the skills and knowledge on the various digital art making processes, how would I know whether they are relevant or irrelevant, appropriate or inappropriate to my clients?

The digital revolution has changed the way we connect, create, express and collaborate and it is changing the way we create art. Digital culture is here and we are living in it whether we realize it or not. Art therapists can use the MCC model to evaluate and expand our artistic practices in art therapy to connect with our clients in this new cultural landscape.


Sue, D. W., Bernier, J. E., Durran, A., Feinberg, L., Pedersen, P., Smith, E. J., & Vasquez-Nuttall, E. (1982). Position paper: Crosscultural counseling competencies. The Counseling Psychologist, 19, 45–52.

Chung, R., C-Y & Bemak, F. (2002). The relationship of culture and empathy in cross-cultural counseling. Journal of Counseling and Development, 80 (2), 154-160.