Online Art Therapy and the Shared Gaze on the Image – Reflections and Technical Tools

Nicky Roland – 5th June 2020

During the Covid-19 pandemic art therapists, like many other therapists, have been required to adapt their modality to the online context. There may be clear indications of what we miss or lose in meeting our clients virtually, but there is also creative potential. In this article I will explore the shared gaze in online art therapy. The shared gaze refers to the way that therapist and client view the image making process and the final image together. In a group context, this becomes a communal gaze of all participants seeing each other’s art making process and final image. In online art therapy I have found technological tools to help recreate some aspects of the studio environment, including the ways in which we share and view the art images together. I will offer some technical tools which I find help the art making and the viewing of the art together stay central to the process. My understanding is that art making in the sessions this benefits both client and the therapist therapists, in being embodied, soothing, connected, relaxed and in the present moment.The group is in a private practice context for self-referring adults whose needs include: a desire to learn about, and experience, art therapy and mindfulness, wishes for relief of anxiety, depression and physical health needs. This need to work online came out of sudden and unexpected restrictions during the time of ‘lockdown’ in the UK. This way of working was developed in a reactive way, adapting to these conditions. Offering art therapy groups online, and use of technology in this way, is in its infancy and will likely to continue to evolve in the coming months and years.

The physical setting of the art therapy process is part of the containment of the therapeutic relationship. Art therapists take great care to tend to their physical environment before sessions, such as, laying out materials in an inviting way and considering the position of chairs. In online art therapy, the containment includes the physical space that the client and the therapist inhabit and how we make ‘space’ in the ‘virtual’ context, for the art. For Joy Schaverien, image making in art therapy is conceived of as a ‘framed experience’ (See The Revealing Image). The symbol of frames can be applied to online art therapy where we have multiple frames, including our computer screens which frame the client’s and therapist’s physical space, and is the frame in which the art making, and art image, is viewed by the therapist.

There are some losses in the online art making process, and some interesting new aspects. The therapist cannot witness the art making process in the same way as when we are physically together. She may miss the tactile, sensual qualities of being physically closer to the art making physical process, or miss being able to see the 3d parts of an image and subtleties of colour from her perspective on her screen. The client at times may be out of the frame of our screen, when they move away from their camera, or their art materials or part of their images are out of the therapist’s view. Equally, some elements of the process may feel more in focus, enabling a new kind of intimacy. One mindfulness teacher colleague enjoys noticing the subtleties of the sounds of their voice directly in her headphones. When we watch and listen to the client’s art making on our screen we may feel intimate and close with their process, viewing in detail brush strokes and listening to their mark making. Are there times when we might actually observe with more intensity when on zoom? Is our focus more or less attentive when we are watching art making as if on a video? Personally, there have times when I have felt very absorbed in a client’s art making via a screen, a different quality of attending then in a physical space.

My aim in online art therapy is that the art making and viewing, just as in the physical space of the art therapy studio, is central to the process. When I began offering groups online, there were aspects that felt clunky and restrictive. Gradually, I found a few technical solutions to help the process. When the participants make art I suggest they angle their cameras so that their art making is visible. Prior to the group session I have met with each person individually to discuss the requirements that can help this process. The way I work I am keen to focus visually on their art making process, even if it means sometimes the view of their face and parts of their body might be obscured. In one-to-one art therapy one technical solution is for the client to access the zoom session from two devices, such as  a lap top and an ipad (or have two cameras attached to one device) and this way one camera or device can be focused on their face and upper body and the other camera/device on their image making. In a group the context is different as there is designated art making time which is a silent, making space, so it seems appropriate to have their camera’s angeled on their art making process during this time.

The online art therapy and mindfulness group has several components: Teaching on an aspect of mindfulness practice; a guided mindfulness meditation; art making time; group reflection and, finally, discussion about home practice (which is art making and mindfulness meditations practiced between sessions). The art making time is normally a forty minutes duration, following which, the group participants are invited to hold up their images to their camera, as a way to share together what had been made. This group was previously offered face-to-face at the London Art Therapy Centre. When I started the group I observed that it was tricky for them to see each other’s image at the same time as holding up their own image (and trying to get angles right). To resolve this I encouraged participants to hold up their image their cameras, at which point I use the ‘print screen’ function on my PC to take an image with everyone’s art images close to their camera (without their faces). I then open this photo (of all the participants images together) on my computer and use the ‘share screen function’ to share my screen with them (see Technical Tips below). Together we then have a shared pause. A time to linger in the communal viewing of the art images together. In the studio setting we would be sitting in a circle and there would be a shared moment of response to the images laid out in front of every individual. This technique of screen share, in my opinion, helps keep the art central to the process. The art is the main frame and image on our screen, with people’s faces smaller (and less emphasized). This lingering shared-gaze includes a variety of responses such as awe, curiosity, delight and intrigue. In the online group in the same way, we can rest in this shared response.

After the art making time we move to group reflection time. Participants are invited to speak about what they have directly experience in the guided meditation that has been offered, their experience during the art making process, and share any associations and responses to their own and other’s images. In the studio environment the art is in front of us and there is a communal gazing at the images. A considerable amount of eye contact is on the images, as well as looking at each other. Participants and therapist enter into the individual’s experience of the image with a communal gaze, accompanied by listening and words, and together meaning emerges. I am exploring a technical solution to help recreate this process. At the start of group reflection I have my screen shared. Then, as the first person begins to speak about their art, I zoom onto their art image. I find this is helpful rather than the person needing to get the angles right and hold their image up to the screen at the same time. (see Technical Tips below). What everyone can see on their screens is the participants image who is speaking (via screen share) and the group’s faces are small pictures to the side of the screen. So the focus is mainly on the seeing of the image, and the hearing of the words, and merely a small side panel with everyone’s faces. At time’s I zoom in and out of the individual’s image, in response to what they are saying. At times I switch back to seeing the groups’ faces in the gallery view.  And there may be times to switch to ‘speaker view’ so every one can see this speaker who may wish to hold up their image, such as when the quality of the screen shot was not adequate. When one participant has finished speaking about their image, sensitively, after a pause, I zoom back out so we can see the collection of all individuals image’s again, then zoom in to the next person’ who speaks image.

This use of technical features can help recreate aspects of the group studio environment. For some this will be seen as a usual aid, other therapists might be uncertain about this technology or find the use of the technology a challenge. To manipulate these controls at the same time, as being fully present to the entirety of the process, the therapist needs computer savvy and confidence with technology. This is adds new dimensions into therapeutic relationships. In the same way, this virtual form is adding many other new dimensions to the relationship.

There are further questions to be considered in this use of technology. The therapist has control of some of the visual functions on this screen, ideally she is seen as attuned and sensitive to the process. Alternatively, could at times this be seen as controlling or challenging in some ways? All these responses are aspects of the online therapy relationship to be further considered.
A couple of months into ‘lockdown’ in the UK I demonstrated the way I was working with groups online at a clinical meeting at the London Art Therapy Centre. This meeting included clinicians making art. During the reflection time I zoomed into my colleague’s art image as people spoke about it. One participant commented that the process felt attuned and responsive. This is the aim; to use technology in a way that facilitates the process and helps recreate what we feel is beneficial in the studio environment. For some therapists and clients there are challenges with this technology, and further reviews and adaptations may be required. There are of course some limitations. We are continuing to find ways to use this technology in the way that best supports our client; this will continue to evolve during this Covid-19 pandemic and beyond.

Technical tips

The following tips are for use with a PC:

• Control-Print Screen: press together to print screen
• The image should be automatically saved to a ‘screen shot ‘ folder, have this folder pre opened on your computer (before the session) so it’s easy to access during the session
• If I am scrolling between images in the session I find it quickest and easiest to use the arrows on my keyboard (rather than the mouse)
• When I am zooming in and out of images I like to press ‘control’ and use the wheel on my mouse. Another option is to use the track pad on your lap top and drag in and out with a finger and thumb.
• Clients receive technical advice regarding the sessions in a document and in their initial meeting before the groups start. Technical advice includes using a laptop/computer if possible which helps angle the camera better than on a phone, and sitting at a desk.

Extra technical tips for Mac users (Thank you Adam Levene, Art Therapist for providing these)

Print screen on a Mac: hold these 3 buttons down and a target symbol comes up. Click and drag over the area you want to take screen shot of and let go. It takes a photo which appears on your desktop.

Confidentiality and Security

It is not the focus of this blog to discuss issues of confidentiality and security, but therapists clearly need to consider these issues in online working, including privacy issues on zoom and confidentiality sharing images. See the latest BAAT advice on the BAAT website.

Access to Technology

Not everyone will have access to the technology required to access art therapy on Zoom. Some media attention in the UK has been given to the socio-economic context during coronovirus, such as, not all children have access to technology to enable them to access their school curriculum online. In the same vein, Art Therapists can be part of the process of conceive of, and applying, creative solutions to help ensure everyone who wishes to can access online sessions.


Thank you to art therapist’s Joss James and Joan Woddis for their expertise and assistance in developing this integration of art therapy and mindfulness. Thank you to mindfulness teachers: Martin Alywald, Rosie Dores, and Margaret Kerr for their supervision and support with my mindfulness teaching. Thank you to all the team at London Art Therapy Centre for their pioneering work in art therapy and development of a fantastic art therapy studio space.

Image permsissions

The Images at the top of the page were taken during  two workshops, one at Still Space Studio, Brighton, before the pandemic, and one during the pandemic on Zoom run at the London Art Therapy Centre. Thank you to all the participants for giving permission for your image to be included here.

Click here for more information about the Online Art Therapy and Mindfulness Group

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