Eco-Human Theory and Practice
ISSN 2713 – 184x
Eco Art Therapy
Ecological Education
The "Green" Arts


« Back


Hampe Ruth

Prof.Dr.phil.habil.em. at the faculty of inclusive education at the Catholic University of Applied Sciences in Freiburg. Licensed child and adolescent psychotherapist (KJP), trained in guided affective imaginative psychotherapy (KIP), licensed art therapist (DGKT), chairperson of the German section of IGKGT and on the board of DGKT (Germany).



Creative design processes follow random or theme-based forms of access. In many cases, the beginning of meaning lies in the random placement of a figure, which is then moved and changed by intuitive action. In the context of art therapy, this design sequence can be documented during the process and later explored in the phase of making sense and organizing the experience. Digital documentation and the creation of cartoon-like short films can support integration and delve more deeply into the metamorphoses of the work. Moments of dialogue between clients and therapists play an essential role. Connection to nature can be activated in the creative process for instance in the creation of a face by laying different natural materials in an alternating interplay. Digital photography can be used to record the process of change in the construction of images with natural materials and enable an interactive process in the development and decay of the visual form.

Keywords: animation, digital documentation, mentalization, nature, natural materials, process-oriented design


The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.“ 

(Albert Einstein,1953)


Creative design is always linked to the process of making and follows one’s own intuition and inspiration as well as the challenges presented by the materials being used. In addition to experiencing natural materials, it also enables a person to perceive themselves anew in the way they create their image. This process-oriented design is not directly linked to the product that is created. Pausing and recognizing this can lead to a special significance for participants and can be captured using digital media, so that afterwards the participants can explore possible meanings in more depth. In the following article, this process is viewed from different perspectives, such as using digital storytelling and further explored through the discussion of practical examples.


Processes of change and creative design

Transformation during the design process can be traced in art, for example, through the filmic documentation of the creation of an artwork. Artists such as William Kentridge, Andy Goldsworthy, Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock and Gerhard Richter have already worked in front of the camera, documenting playful, spontaneous sequences of action in their creative processes. The changes that occurred while making the work are not immediately visible or perceivable in the finished aesthetic object. The possibility of witnessing this moving transformation conveys a liveliness and a tension arc starting from the mostly empty initial space to the resulting work of art.

It is known from the physiology of visual perception that we usually perceive moving objects before static ones. The neuronal stimulus is primarily triggered by movement, which can be overridden by emotionally charged scenes. In this context, eye movement also has a special function in that objects are scanned with the eyes. This has a feedback effect on the processing of experiences, i.e. on whether the eye movement slows down as in deep sleep in contrast to REM sleep or is in the state of a dynamic scanning back and forth perception. In the procedure of EMDR therapy [20], specifically targeted eye movement is used as a therapeutic method to support the stabilization and processing of experiences. This bilateral stimulation of the brain can be used to help people calm down, process and integrate experiences. This combination of perception and movement also supports the creative process. For example, in expressive painting, the artist works with proximity and distance to the painted picture by painting directly standing in front of the wall and then stepping back to take colors from a table placed away from the artwork, thus perceiving the image from a distance. In moving forward and backward, a form of processing takes place in which the painted image, in its process-related change, is experienced as an inner-psychic resonance.

An ongoing process of change also takes place in dialogical processes of image making, such as in dialogical or interactive painting [9], the squiggle game [22], the progressive mirror image [16, 5], and the laying games, among others. These processes mostly take place without phases of documentation, but the image itself serves as a witness to the process and is saved as a memory trail. By integrating photographic documentation by using digital recording, the changing process can be examined independently, meaning that the initial image can remain as a visual or tactile stimulus for ongoing creation. This means that the image and the creator are engaged in a constant dialogic process of change where both inform the other's ongoing development. Incompleteness and change are the main features of this process; change and transformation occur in the participant/client, therapist and the art object. In this triad, resources can be activated in the continuous modification of the dialogical process. Stuck things are transformed into a dissolving and creating process, whereby verbalization only follows after the image has been completed. Each new, final change is documented photographically and is thereby also appreciated. The change is integrated into a playful flow, similar to a rhythmic cycle, where one is the creator and the other the viewer, the observer. This supports empathic participation with regard to what is emerging in the aesthetic object. The dialogical element of the creative process also stimulates empathic understanding [2] and contribute to a respectful perception of nature. The creative process stimulates resonance relationships with elementary natural phenomena, as they can also be revealed on a small scale - for example, the client can participate in natural growth processes in their perception of the unfolding of a leaf. Such an experience may stimulate the perception of the vital force in nature and resonate with inner-psychic processes. The movement of nature, in the process of becoming, maturing and decaying, is immediately understandable as analogous to one's own life phases. Change is inherent in all these natural forms and thus creates a vivid counterpart to personal experience.


Sensual and symbolic experience when working with natural materials

Design processes are subject to sensory modalities, which are affected by the materials used. The inclusion of natural materials or creating images in nature can go hand in hand with a special sensory stimulation including auditory (hearing), gustatory (tasting), kinesthetic (feeling and touching), olfactory (smelling) and visual (seeing) as an exteroception. It can be the experience of silence or the cracking, rustling of branches or leaves, the activation of taste experience in the smell of grasses, herbs, flowers, fruits, the visual perception of their colorful design and the tactile experience of their surface structure. In addition, other sensory modalities are included as interoception in the design process, such as the vestibular (sense of balance), proprioceptive (depth sensitivity) and also tactile (surface sensitivity), through which a holistic stimulation of physical experience is possible. With every movement of the body there is a so-called incorporation of the image, in that it becomes part of the inner experience. This process goes hand in hand with biographical traces of memory and inner images [12], which are activated in the natural environment and can create new possibilities for experiencing nature. Natural materials in their organic or inorganic substance offer different levels of resistance when working with them, for example, stone, metal and wood mostly evoke a stronger process in contrast to soil, sand, clay and wax or liquid materials. In addition, objects can be designed that, like recycled objects, can undergo an aesthetic transformation. In this case, the process concerns editing, re-arranging, deconstruction and reconstruction of references to nature.

If natural materials are used to create mandalas outdoors, if small-scale arrangements such as flower arrangements or if natural elements are integrated into an artistic context, then nature is always used as a reference and a changed approach to the creative process is stimulated. Tension forms between cliché-determined, sign-like images and symbolic or proto-symbolic forms of implementation [8, pp. 202f.], as far as the inner-psychological response is concerned. Nevertheless, using natural materials conveys an experience of perception that can enable meaning to be conveyed. In the social interaction and integration of natural materials, a relationship to nature and its phenomena can be established. In the art-therapeutic process, mirroring and staging of actions leads to changed processes of perception. What has already been exemplified by artists working with natural materials can, depending on the client, provide examples for work in the art therapy setting.

For instance, the artist Andy Goldsworthy [17] works exclusively with natural materials and incorporates their transience into his creative process. He uses materials that he finds on site, such as stones, petals, wood or ice. He works without artificially designed tools, using leafs and branches, thorns, sticks or grass fibers to hold materials together; he sprinkles petals directly into a river or dissolves powdered colored rocks in the flow of water. He documents the process of transformation through the forces of nature, for instance the processes of melting and dissolving, using photography to track these changes. He plays with the hidden mysticism of the landscape, making the experience of nature a work of art. This also applies to other Land Art artists such as Richard Long or James Turrel, who leave traces of artistic images made mostly with natural materials in specific locations [13]. Wolfgang Laib [21] works with the beauty of pollen, for example, by arranging color fields with pollen collected from dandelions, hazelnuts or pines in renowned museums. He also creates artistic arrangements using milk, beeswax, marble, rice and sealing wax. His work is about another dimension of perception, about contemplation as well as time and transience. All of these artistic works with natural materials activate a deep experience of nature as well as of space and time. The familiar becomes strange, special and unique in the transformation of what already exists in nature and its respectful reception by the artist. This artistic activity differs from purpose-orientated creative design by working with the aspect of beauty already present.

In art therapy practice there are special forms of communication that involve dialogical interaction between therapist and client. Photographing the artwork during the process of creation can provide a conclusion to the work, allow it to be appreciated indirectly and to be understood during its different phases of dialogic change. If Werner Hoffmann [10] assumes that beauty is a line, this also includes reference to the elementary forms of beauty in nature. For example, the curved line shape can be found in the form of a snake's movement or in the river as it meanders. The beach sand rippled by the sea or the dune crest shaped by the wind in the desert landscape also reveals the spiral lines that can be seen in archaeological formations and in various forms of art. It refers to the rhythmic as a principle of life, and to the cyclical change that occurs in nature. This natural rhythm also determines the creative process and its resonating effect on physiological and psychological experience. Correspondingly, harmonious proportions in nature (cf. Doczi, 2005), such as growth patterns according to the golden ratio and also in spiral structure formation, can stimulate a positive resonance effect in the psyche. The following practical examples, in which the application is not client-specific but depends on motivational aspects and existing resources, will refer to this effect.


Practical examples

The process of creating can take place both inside and outside, depending on the possibilities and limitations of the circumstances of the therapy. Natural materials are familiar to clients and can be selected, compiled and used in a playful manner. One possible application is the "laying picture, in which, design such as a face (Figures 1a-c), a mandala, or a plant pillow, can arise by placing single elements in dialogical alternation, one at a time and one after the other. With the laying of natural materials, narrative stories can be developed associatively in the process of alternating addition and change (Figures 2a – d). This is a scenic interaction practice in a two-person or group situation, in which it is not the end result that is decisive, but the mutual interaction during the process. This creates a playful component that is familiar from childhood and activates resources of the common game. As Johan Huizinga (2004) notes, the origins of culture are to be found in the game. Collages with corresponding images of people and culture (Figure 3) can also provide easy access to narrative exchange in the process of creating without the need for artistic skills. For people with disabilities, this scenic interaction practice is well suited to finding symbolic expression, and it can be used to enrich or process what is experienced in narrative expression.




Figures 1a – c. Faces made of natural materials together with people with disabilities and students (photos from a course run by Ruth Hampe)





Figures 2a – d. Laying game with natural materials, student work (photos from a course run by Ruth Hampe)


Figure 3. Laying picture with laminated felt-based collage elements, student work (photos from a course run by Ruth Hampe)

The situation is different with materials such as sand, clay and soil, which provide a haptic and tactile experience when manipulated. When using dry sand - for example in a frame - play on the surface with exposure of the ground can occur using the fingers, one hand or both hands. Each finished picture brings an element of challenge for the next maker to engage in the continuing process. The dry sand can mobilize intuitive, playful action, without claiming to be a completed picture. Changes in the sand game can be made with the hands and fingers, which triggers a dynamic haptic stimulation (Figures 4a – d). Process-based interactive design can easily lead to the experience of flow, as emphasized by Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi [3, 4]. The experience is different with clay, which can activate other proprioceptive sensory modalities in the process of molding and kneading. The changing additions of form elements can result in a scenic narrative (Figsures 5a – c), which can be captured on film in its individual phases so that it can be discussed again later. The co-creation of the accompanying person provides a supportive function in the enrichment of the design process and can activate resources and encourage the continuity of the process.





Figures 4a – d. Sand play alternating between two persons on a white surface, student work (photos from a course run by Ruth Hampe)




Figures 5a – c. Inclusive narrative clay work together with people with disabilities and students (photos from a course run by Ruth Hampe)

To understand art processes in nature, it is also possible to work with charcoal drawing. William Kentridge [18] uses his charcoal drawings to create animated films. The trace of the previous charcoal drawing that has been partially wiped away remains partly visible and overlaid on the new image. These designs on paper, captured as they change over time in photographs, create a narrative sequence. This process may allow the maker to sense the resilience of natural processes and perceive this as a resource. The charcoal drawing becomes a matrix of an inner perspective, which follows a spontaneous design flow (Figures 6a – c).




Figures 6a – c. Change processes related to forms of growth in nature by wiping away and overpainting charcoal drawings on paper, student work (photos from a course of Ruth Hampe)

A similar process-oriented artwork can be achieved using chalk on the blackboard. A basic picture can be developed by wiping away the dry chalk and drawing over it, producing a layered image that can be traced through photographic documentation. This work on the blackboard can take away the need for perfection in a picture and can mobilize the creative process. Moreover, it requires one to draw while standing up, creating the possibility of taking distance to allow another view of the image to appear (Figures 7a – f).







Figures 7a – f. Change processes related to forms of growth in nature by wiping away and painting over chalk drawings on the blackboard, student work (photos from a course run by Ruth Hampe)

Digital photographic documentation corresponds to «digital storytelling» [14, 15, 19], which is understood as a form social practice using the support of technical media such as the camera and the computer. Individual images are put together like an animated film, for example using the program MovieMaker, and are thus transformed into a digital story. The animation can be saved as a video on the computer and a mobile phone. Digital storytelling enables multimedia editing with spoken word, text and music inserts, as well as special image transitions and color changes or focus adjustments. This application of digital media is often used in educational and cultural fields, but it can also be implemented in the art-therapeutic field, as has already been shown in art-therapeutic work in psychiatric care, with people with disabilities, and in therapy with children and adolescents as well as adults. Working with the digital medium is particularly challenging, and capturing single design phases using digital photography can lead to positive perception of self-efficacy and self-esteem. It can be used in two-person and group settings and requires the technical support of the accompanying therapist in the implementation of a digital narrative storytelling sequence. When Aaron Antonovsky [1] speaks of understanding, manageability and meaningfulness in relation to the sense of coherence, this can also be applied to the creative process with digital storytelling. This can lead to an imaginary transformation of one's own life themes and experiences and mobilize a change of perspective and new interpretations in a playful process.

The medium of image sequencing in the creation of digital films creates a perception of movement that can activate multilayered sensory modalities in the visual processing of what has been experienced. It requires eye movement in the visual perception of the image sequences, which can cause a different form of processing of what has been experienced, similar to changing the gaze using EMDR. The use of the digital medium depends on the situation, and the participation of clients is always tied to their self-determined influence on the process as director of the storytelling process. Experiencing and documenting nature in this way differs from other cultural examples, such as those that can be seen on television or in film. What is experienced is anchored in digital processing and at the same time becomes a medium for psychological stabilization, similar to presenting oneself in a social group.

In line with this, the photographic image can also be used to present oneself in an imaginary space, and one's own portrait can be integrated with natural phenomena. The relationship to self-portrait has been explored in modern art in terms of deformation the body or as a form of self-awareness [8, pp. 257ff]. The exploration of the self in relation to natural phenomena, for example, in designing with natural materials or in experiencing natural processes, can provoke a discussion and nature can be perceived as a reference to one's own self in the sequence of the images presented via the digital medium. At the same time, this process-like design is connected to a realization of what has been experienced in the digital editing stage, by receiving it again and discussing it associatively. In that regard, the images go through different phases of discussion and are subject to enrichment and processing in the sensual-symbolic experience.



Process-oriented creative processes allow a person to experience themselves and nature in a multi-layered way and are affected by situational circumstances, personal and the particular moment in time as well as the materials used. They enable interaction in the therapeutic pair or in groups, during which photographic documentation of the process becomes significant in enhancing the dialogical element of the constantly changing form. This applies both to the pause after creating each phase of the design and the compilation of images into a digital story, similar to an animated film. The stimulation of an empathic connection between therapist and client is expressed in the artistic process. The activation of sensory modalities through the use of natural materials, as well as in the exploration of self-representation in relation to nature, can mobilize changes in the relationship to oneself, others and the natural world. The phenomenon of nature, in inorganic and organic materials, on the micro and macro level, and in self-experience, is an effective therapeutic component in terms of its activation of sensory perception. In this context, it is not the duration of the interaction that is decisive, but rather the inner attitude to the experience of the process. Artists working in nature and with natural materials can inspire therapists to incorporate access to nature in art therapy. This work is possible with all age groups and can include people with disabilities. What is special about working with natural phenomena and natural materials is that they are accessible to everyone in their diversity of perception and biographical anchoring and can therefore form a fundamental constant in the creative process.



  1. Antonovsky, A. (1997). Salutogenese. Zur Entmystifizierung der Gesundheit. Tübingen: DGVT.

  2. Bauer, J. (2004). Warum ich fühle, was du fühlst. München: Heyne.

  3. Csíkszentmihályi, M. (2000). Das Flow-Erlebnis. Jenseits von Angst und Langeweile im Tun aufgehen (8. Auflage). Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta.

  4. Csíkszentmihályi, M. (2014). Flow und Kreativität. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta.

  5. Damman, G. (2012). Wirkfaktoren des Progressiven Therapeutischen Spiegelbilds im Lichte neuer psychodynamischer Prozesstheorien. In G. Damman & T. Meng (Hrsg.), Spiegelprozesse in der Psychotherapie und Kunsttherapie (S. 69–85). Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

  6. Doczi, G. (2005). Die Macht der Grenzen. Harmonische Proportionen in Natur, Kunst und Architektur (6. Auflage). Stuttgart: Engel & Co.

  7. Einstein, A. (1953). Mein Weltbild. Zürich: Europa Verlag.

  8. Hampe, R. (1999). Metamorphosen des Bildlichen. Bremen: Universitätsbuchhandlung.

  9. Hanus, O. (2014). Farbinteraktion. Die Gruppendynamik und das soziale Bild. Aachen: Shaker Media.

  10. Hoffmann, W. (2014). Die Schönheit der Linie. München: Beck.

  11. Huizinga, J. (2004). Homo Ludens: Vom Ursprung der Kultur im Spiel. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt.

  12. Hüther, G. (2004). Die Macht der inneren Bilder. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

  13. Lailach, M. (2007). Land art. Köln: Taschen.

  14. Matthews-DeNatale, G. (2008). Storytelling. Tips and ressources. Boston: Simmons College.

  15. Meadows, D. (2003). Digital storytelling: Research-based practice in new media. Visual Communication, (2)2, 189–193.

  16. Peciccia, M. & Benedetti, G. (1994). Das progressive therapeutische Spielbild. In G. Schottenloher (Hrsg.), Wenn Worte fehlen, sprechen Bilder (S. 91–94.). München: Kösel.

  17. Riedelsheimer, T. (2001). Rivers and tides – Andy Goldsworthy working with time [DVD]. Berlin: Absolut Medien. Co-Produktion MetropolisFilm- und Fernsehproduktion GmbH und Skyline Productions.

  18. Rosenthal, M. (Hrsg.). (2010). William Kentridge. Fünf Themen. Ostfildern: Hatje.

  19. Sadik, A. (2008). Digital Storytelling. A meaningful technology-integrated approach for engaged student learning. Education Tech Research Development, 56(4), 487–506.

  20. Shapiro, F. (2007). EMDR in Aktion. Die Behandlung traumatisierter Menschen. Paderborn: Junfermann.

  21. Sorace, M.A. (2009). »Die Intensität kann so stark sein, dass es keine Trennung gibt«. Zum Verhältnis von Kunst und Meditation bei Wolfgang Laib. Meditation. Zeitschrift für christliche Spiritualität und Lebensgestaltung, 35(1), 30–34.

  22. Winnicott, D.W. (1973). Vom Spiel zur Kreativität. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta.


Referece for citations

Hampe, R. (2020). Process-oriented approach to the study of creative arts in human interaction with nature. Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice, 1(2). [open access internet journal]. – URL: (d/m/y)

DOI: 10.24412/2713-184X-2020-2-48-56

About the journal

In accordance with the Law of the Russian Federation on the Mass Media, the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Communications (Roskomnadzor) on September 22, 2020, the web-based publication - The peer-reviewed scientific online journal "Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice" was registered (registration number El No. FS77-79134).

“Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice” is the international multidisciplinary Journal focused on building an eco-human paradigm, disseminating eco-human knowledge and technology based on the alliance of ecology, humanities and the arts. Our journal aims to be a vibrant forum of theories and practices aimed at harmonizing the relations of mankind and the natural world in the interests of sustainable development, the creation of Eco-Humanity as a new community of human beings and more-than-human world. The human being is an ecological being, not separate from the world. The Ecopoiesis journal is based on that premise and aims to develop a body of theory and practice within that framework.

The Journal promotes dialogue and cooperation between ecologists, philosophers, doctors, educators, psychologists, artists, musicians, designers, social activists, business representatives in the name of eco-human values, human health and well-being, in close connection with concern for the environment. The Journal supports the development and implementation of new environmentally-friendly concepts, technologies and practices in the various fields of health and public life, education and social work.

One of the priority tasks of the Journal is to demonstrate and support the significant role of the arts in their alliance with ecology and the humanities for the restoration and development of constructive relations with nature, raising environmental awareness and promoting nature-friendly lifestyles.

The Journal publishes articles describing new eco-human concepts and practices, technologies and applied research data at the intersection of humanities, ecology and the arts, as well as interviews and conference reports related to the emerging eco-human field. It encourages artwork, music and other creative products related to eco-human practices and the new global community of Eco-Humanity.