There’s An App For That

Arts and Health

The integrative, reparative and restorative powers of the arts
by Cathy Malchiodi

Art Therapy: There’s an App for That

My app can tell you why you like the color blue…
Published on February 29, 2012 by Cathy Malchiodi, PhD, LPCC, LPAT in Arts and Health


PicassoHead computer drawing


I have fully fallen into creative love with my iPad recently. I should be finishing a book, starting another and finishing endless paperwork, but my hands are wandering away from the desktop computer to drawing and painting apps like ArtRage, DrawingPad and SpinArt. As someone who studied at a school of fine arts and devoted long hours learning to use pencil, charcoal and Conte crayon to draw from life (aka a live model), I am surprised at what I am experiencing via a virtual studio of touch technology. While some of my art therapy colleagues categorize digital art making as part of Satan’s plan to destroy self-expression, I am grateful that digital technology is providing new options for my clients’ creative work and therapy.

I first started to explore what I called “computer art therapy” almost two decades ago with the now Stone Age software called MacDraw. Honestly, it wasn’t that much fun, but it was an intriguing novelty at a time when home computers were just finally in reach of consumers, agencies andeducation. Creative expression was generally limited to making some rudimentary line drawings or morphing a photo of yourself or your cat into various colorful psychodelic iterations. Unless you wanted to use your computer as a form strength training, portability from place to place was not feasible.

Fastforward to 2012 and I can pop my iPad into my handbag and take it to the clinic for a client to use instead of paint or paper. My art therapy colleagues who work in hospitals have dozens of iPads and assorted digital cameras and flip cams for use at bedside with young patients. While there is little research on the effectiveness of touch technology and art making apps with client populations, without a doubt Gen Z is expecting it as part of art therapy and as a 21st century language for self-expression.

There is even an app for art therapy—well, sort of, depending on how you define art therapy. “Computer Art Therapy” is an app developed by theAAA Lab (stands for Artificial IntelligenceApplied Statistics, Art Therapy) at Korea University in Seoul. The project is led by Professor Seong-in Kim at Korea University and a team of colleagues and students who are interested applying technology to art therapy and measuring graphic aspects of drawings. By Western standards, analyzing artwork is not technically “art therapy” which is generally defined as a process-oriented approach. But most art therapists are interested inunderstanding the content of their clients’ images; some practitioners help clients explore the meaning of their art expressions while others continue to search for ways to evaluate various characteristics of artwork for mental illness, cognitive and developmental disorders, and personalitytraits. Korean art therapists tend to fall into the latter category and appreciate art therapy as a way to interpret drawings in order to derive symbolic content. Here is what the AAA Lab has to say about its project:

“The reason why [the] utility of evaluation and transparency of an image falls under suspicion is because that there is [a] lack of reliabilty and consistency between the evaluations from Art Therapists and [a] lack of validity in the result of evaluations. We developed a C_CREATES (Computer_Color Related Art Therapy Evaluation System) as one way to solve reliability and validity problems caused by [the] personal or subjective experiences of Art Therapists.”


Computer Art Therapy App Homepage

In order to learn more, I decided to become a “subject” in Professor Kim’s project via the Computer Art Therapy app; you can do the same by visiting their website ordownloading their free app and signing up as a “member.” First, you will be asked to answer a series of questions about your color choices (favorite color, least favorite color, “happy” color and colors that represent yourself, your mother and father) and some basic demographics. You then complete a drawing of your choice [using your choice of virtual crayon, paint brush or felt marker) and submit it to the website for analysis (the analysis takes about 5 minutes, so go make another drawing on your iPad while you are waiting for your results).


When the analysis was complete, I was provided with several charts that listed the colors in my drawing and the percentages of each color I used. This was followed by an interpretation of my color usage, presumably based on the colors I used. Here are some highlights of the app’s analysis:

White: You are likely to be an honest character with strategic mind.
Blue: You are considered to be intuitive and self-conscious (as to the latter, only in a bathing suit).
You are likely to be a sympathetic person with advanced communication competence (say, those are good attributes in a therapist and a blogger).
You seem to have a talent for sales (I guess I missed my true calling in life).

I am not sure why, but I did not get much more information than that, even though I used many colors in my drawing and some more than blue or white. I did do quite a bit of virtual “erasing” and layering of colors in my iPad drawing; that is my personal painting style and sensory preference for art making when using traditional materials. I also wondered how the meanings of various colors were derived and if they were based on Korean culture or some universal model selected by the researchers.

I am and always will be a skeptic when it comes to analysis of drawings. I don’t believe that reparation and recovery are to be found in third party interpretations of artworks; the compelling power of art therapy is in the process and in the relationship with a skilled therapist. But I do agree that technology has a much better chance at objectively tabulating characteristics such as color, line, and composition in drawings than most humans. That is what makes this app intriguing, despite its limitations.

© 2012 Cathy Malchiodi


Malchiodi, C., & Johnson, E. R. (2012, in press). Digital art therapy with children in hospitals. In C. Malchiodi (Ed.), Art Therapy and Health Care. New York: Guilford Press.

Malchiodi, C. (1999). Computer art therapy: A virtual studio of possibilities. London: Jessica Kingsley.

**If you are a member of LinkedIn, consider participating in the Digital Art Therapy group, part of the Art Therapy Alliance and join the discussion!