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Betensky (1987), a phenomenological art therapist, regarded art materials as active partners that challenge the patients' senses, and stimulate both their emotional arousal and their awareness. She saw the art material as becoming a part of the patients' phenomenological field. Materials can enable the patient to maintain, through them, a dynamic, interactive relationship with processes that are otherwise mostly elusive.
Rhyne (1984), a Gestalt art therapist, advocated a permissive approach in the prescription of materials in art therapy. She believed that if provided a wide enough choice of materials and ample time for experimentation, patients would spontaneously choose those materials that suited them best. She believed that art materials should be viewed as sensory stimulants that are most efficient in uncovering non-verbal sensory memories.
The developmental approach to art therapy regarded materials primarily as assessment tools. Kagin (1969) suggested that the sensory properties of the material can evoke age-specific reactions, and, therefore, could aid in evaluating the patient's developmental level.
Psychoanalytic schools of art therapy emphasized that the different media activate different levels of psychological functioning. Some support the ego-organizing capacities of the mind, some tap libidinal levels, and still others have an exploratory quality. Some media challenge a sense of mastery, whereas others provide an opportunity for fun and play. Robbins (1994) pointed out that art media could be used to explore and work through psychological polarities. For example, patients who are naturally attracted to working with hard and resistant materials that require aggressive movements could benefit from a gradual exposure to softer, more pliable media requiring milder manipulations. Robbins (1994) provided another example involving armature wire. This material can be used both to create soft-looking rounded shapes, or spiky, aggressive projections.
Therapists are encouraged to give careful consideration to the specific materials they offer their patients for art therapy. Clinicians should familiarize themselves with the various working techniques and possibilities relevant to the suggested art material so as to minimize unnecessary frustrations and enhance the therapeutic use of the material. Rubin (1978) suggested that materials should be synchronized, in terms of their properties, with the patients' needs and skills. She likened the process of familiarization with the material to being introduced to a new acquaintance. This can be done cautiously or impulsively, by applying familiar exploratory styles or by venturing with daring innovation. The material is regarded as a partner in a dialogue, a partner possessing clear traits and characteristics that require negotiation. It is incorporated into the artist's phenomenological field of the self, and becomes a link between the artist's mind and his or her sensorium.
There are several dimensions on which art material can be classified. Kagin (1969) saw materials as possessing varying degrees of pliability, ranging from fluidity (e.g., liquids) to resistance (e.g., stone). The harder it is to process and manipulate the art material, the more energy is required to produce the desired expressive end. Working with resistant materials can promote awareness concerning the limits of the material, as well as the limits of one's own capacities.
Rubin (1984) differentiated between structured and unstructured materials. She suggested that the less structured the art material is in terms of the expected outcome, the greater the likelihood for projection of intrapsychic processes. Conversely, the clearer the qualities and boundaries of the art material, the greater the likelihood of accomplishing the intended result. Materials that possess clear boundaries can, with proper structured guidance, lead to ego strengthening accomplishments. More fluid materials, such as chalk, clay, or watercolors, can facilitate work that is not dictated by physical boundaries, or confined by them. This category of materials promotes an experientially expanding experience, and can trigger a sense of loss of control. This is a potentially regressive experience that can be enhanced if the material is wet, and if it is manipulated manually, without intermediary tools (Kagin and Lusebrink, 1978).
Lusebrink (1990) classified creative art materials along the fluidity-hardness continuum. When considering two-dimensional work materials, she anchored finger paints at one end of the spectrum, followed by water colors, pastel colors, chalks, markers, and felt pen colors. She placed pencils at the opposite end. When three-dimensional artwork was considered, she classified the materials in ascending order of resistance: water-based clay; oil-based clay; wood; and stone.
Robbins (1994) classified art media as soft, brittle, breakable, hard, or sticky. He also tried to understand the rhythm and movement that the material dictates to the working artist. Not only was he interested in the degree of control that had to be exercised to effectively work with the material, but he also saw importance in synchronizing what he termed "the patient's inner and outer flow." Investment of forceful energies in the art process, such as in stonecutting and chiseling (outer flow), may trigger powerful pre-existing emotions, such as anger or crying (inner flow), that could, in turn, impede the patient's capacity to work with the material and it's structural dictates. If a resistant material, such as stone, triggered rage, it would more likely be attacked than artistically sculpted. Although engraving and carving in wood may require similar rhythm and movement as working with stone, wood's characteristics can better "guide" the patient to the correct method of working with it.
To facilitate the encounter between the patient and the material he or she is working with, the art therapist should be conscious of predictable changes in the state of the material's matter, and of the patient's possible reactions to such changes. Robbins (1994) drew attention to plaster, which emits heat as it hardens. This is a surprising physical change to many novice artists, and can even be startling to some. Plaster hardens quickly, often in the patient's presence. This can be a disheartening experience to unprepared patients, as they discover that the material does not respond any longer to shaping attempts. The consistency of clay can also change over time, and may not be as plastic and malleable as it was during previous sessions.
The patient's ability to take risks and tolerate mistakes related to mishandling of the material's properties is also worth considering in the selection of materials for art therapy. Patients who face the stubbornness and unforgiving nature of their art material may benefit from processing flexibility in decision making and attribution of responsibility in less controllable situations.