Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Approaching Art at Home

This post is not a detailed how-to post... I'd have to write a book and better qualified people than I have already done that several times over. But I will provide you with information about helpful materials for each area of visual art and point you in the direction of our favourite resources for art ideas.

Art Ideas and Skills

There are so many different books out there about children and art and how to do it, it's a bit overwhelming.

I have three books that I find indispensable for giving us ideas about materials and different techniques we may want to explore: Usborne's Art Ideas, Art Projects, and Art Skills. These books are also available in one complete volume, which may be all you ever need to have a satisfying art-at-home experience. These books are a wonderful starting point for exploring the different media out there, especially in drawing and painting. And they aren't just for "littles". Teens (and parents) will find lots of great ideas and inspiration in these books as well. There are other Usborne books on drawing and papercraft that are worth looking at as well.

If you and your child want to duplicate the project suggested, you can. Or you can used the idea to branch off into your own project, using the book as a resource to help sort out technique and materials rather than a "how to". What I find works for us is I start to use materials as suggested in the book myself and see if my child is inspired to join in with his own ideas.

Children who tend to perfectionism may find it discouraging if their product doesn't match what they see in a book (and will often brush off the whole "age and experience" rationale). If you have one of those kids, keep the books to yourself and simply provide the materials and model the techniques in your own work and let your child decide where to take it. The now out-of-print Doing Art Together by Muriel Silberstein-Storfer might provide you with some ideas about how to approach this with your child (look for it at the library or on AbeBooks).

For older students (or for yourself), DK has a wonderful book titled The DK Art School: An Introduction to Art Techniques. This hefty volume is a great place to begin to explore different materials and techniques available to artists.

Learning How to Draw

Drawing really does form the foundation for so many art forms, so it deserves a special nod in terms of books. In addition to the many "how to" books out there, there are a number of classic books that have stood the test of time in terms of helping people "learn to see".

Drawing with Children: A creative method for adult beginners, too by Mona Brookes
Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards
The Natural Way to Draw by Kimon Nicolaides

These aren't books for children to use but for you, as the adult in a child's life, to use to support and encourage your child's drawing... and your own! Especially your own. Also, only offer this if your child is ready and willing to go there. Many children like to draw what they draw without formalizing the process. Tailor the experience to your child (rather than feeling you have to follow the advice of a book).

The Importance of Paper

In the days of the old computer printers, when paper had those perforated strips down the sides with all those holes so the paper could feed through, I knew many parents who would bring home this paper for their children to draw on. Often, it would have things printed on the other side and although I admired the parents' frugality and "reuse" sensibility, I wondered about the message the children were receiving about their art.

Using "already used" paper may be emotionally interpreted as an unspoken evaluation of a child's art. That is, "your art is not all that important so this partly-used paper will do for you."

It's a tricky area because kids can go through an awful lot of paper in a very short time. So, what do we do?

Our family buys recycled (post-consumer) bond paper for our printer and I always put aside one ream of it for my son's everyday drawing needs. It's not nearly as expensive as true art paper but it's a nice, crisp, and clean paper that holds graphite, crayon and marker equally well.

I buy pads of special drawing and painting paper, explaining the cost difference to my child and that these are for projects he considers "special" or where he needs a larger size of paper. I wasn't as concerned about that when he was younger. I had pads of newsprint for his art easel for most of the big drawing projects he wanted to do and pulled out the art paper from time to time just for fun. As he gets older, we do talk about conservation and making sure the paper size and type is appropriate for the project (i.e. we don't use big sheets of bristol board to make something tiny to cut out and we don't use watercolour paper to draw on unless we plan to use watercolour material on it as well). And I do try to make sure he has the kind of paper he needs to do all sorts of different projects.

I truly believe that something as seemingly inconsequential as the type of paper we provide speaks oodles to our children in terms of how we value their art and their creativity.

Types of Paper

Buying art paper, if you are not experienced, can be very confusing. And, to be honest, this is often why I go to the pads of paper, which are also easier to handle and store. Most pads of paper indicate the type of paper, the weight, the media best used with it, and even the content. (I consider them Art Paper for Dummies). Pads tend to be more expensive, though, and you can likely stay within budget better if you buy paper as separate sheets that can be cut to a smaller size.

Many types of art paper are made with cotton instead of wood pulp and this is why it costs more. Paper that is made with wood pulp is treated to be "acid free" or "archival" (which means your paper won't yellow and decay over time like those paperback novels from your youth). Art paper, due to its composition and thickness, also interacts differently with the materials we use and creates a more pleasing product. It is important to use a drawing paper for graphite and inks, a slightly textured paper for chalks and pastels, a heavier paper for print-making and painting, and a watercolour paper for watercolour painting.

When you are looking for construction paper, try to find some with a bite to it... we usually want construction paper to be able to fold and stand and be firm, while retaining its colour (unlike most construction paper available for kids). You can find pads of coloured art paper at the art store that are sometimes good. Scrapbook stores also tend to have archival quality paper that is a good weight and has good longevity in terms of colour retention. Mercurius supplies some wonderfully coloured paper (and has great tissue paper as well) in different weights depending on your art needs.

If you go to a proper art store during a week day, you may find a staff member who would be willing to walk you through your choices and who may point out their favourite papers. Or, like me, you could just find a pad of paper to go along with your medium of choice until you feel comfortable enough to pull your own paper off the shelves.

More about art paper here.

Art Materials

These are the art materials that are fun to explore at some point or another in a child's artistic development. They certainly don't need to be provided all at once, but can be purchased over the years as your child's interest dictates. As with so many other things, tailor your offerings to your particular child and let go of your expectations about how they will choose to use things.

And, as one of my kind commenters mentioned, you don't need all this fancy stuff in order to create art and over-focussing on materials could, potentially, overwhelm or shut-down process. If this might be the case in your home, bring in a few lovely materials at a time for your children to explore and leave things (process, product) wide open.

Note: Brand recommendations reflect only my personal preferences and may not be suitable for your family. There are many alternatives out there so you will be able to find products that you like after a little poking around. Places to find art supplies are listed in this post: Finding Materials, Creating Space.

Safety Announcement

Look for "Conforms to ASTM D-4236" or the Certified Product (CP) or Approved Product (AP) seal of the Arts and Creative Materials Institute as these statements indicate that the materials have been approved by a toxicologist.

Although these products are considered safe and "non-toxic", caution still needs to be exercised and there are no guarantees. There are still many things we don't yet know about the relationship of certain chemicals to the development of disease in humans. Also, kids are not predictable in their use of materials. If you are suspicious or concerned about a material but choose to use it anyway, you may want to supervise your children to make sure that their use of it doesn't slip into the realm of "unusual" or "unsafe".

I prefer to purchase materials made in Europe for European markets as their safety standards are often more stringent than North American standards. You'll see my bias in my brand suggestions. Everyone needs to sort out their own comfort level with this sort of thing, so please feel free to do what works best for you and your kids.

A great book to consider reviewing is Michael McCann's Health Hazards Manual for Artists, 6th Edition. He's also written the now out-of-print Artist Beware, which has a chapter devoted to children and art materials. Both of these books may be available at your local library.

General Supplies

Every developing artist requires a few basis supplies to round out his studio experience. When choosing these supplies, think about the age of your child. Your child may still require blunt ended scissors and plastic rulers and that's okay!

Ruler: clear plastic (for younger children) or an18 inch stainless steel ruler (with cork backing) for older children
Scissors: quality scissors for children (Fiskars), blunt ended when appropriate; larger-size quality scissors for parents and older children
Glue: glue sticks are great; have several on hand
Tape: magic tape, two-sided tape, book tape
Pencils: HB for the beginning artist
White Eraser: cleans up graphite better than coloured erasers; find one without PVC for younger children
Pencil Crayons: Younger children - Stockmar or Lyra pencils (even older children will love these); Prismacolour "Scholar" Pencils for the older artist (lovely pigments, easy to blend)
Wax Crayons: Stockmar beeswax crayons (blocks, sticks)
Markers: Both thin and thick line markers of different colours (including black)
Sketchbook: coil back using good quality art paper
Paper: newsprint, white bond, bristol board (pads)
Art Apron or Lab Coat or an old shirt of dad's
Exacto Knife and Cutting Mat: optional--for parental use until child is old enough to handle the sharp blades safely

Drawing and Illustration

As a child develops her appetite for drawing, then some of these additional drawing supplies will come in handy:

Kneaded eraser
Artist quality markers (Staedtler)
Drawing Pens (Pilot)
Drawing Pencils: In a variety of hardness 2H (hard), HB, 2B, 4B, 6B (soft) (Derwent)
Blending Stumps (so you don't have to use your finger)
Watercolour Pencils (Caran D'Ache)
Pastel Pencils: less messy than pastel crayons
Art Sticks (Prismacolor)
Drawing Paper: different textures
Drawing Board and Masking Tape: mobile work surface, protects and secures drawing

I'm not a big fan of the chunky oil pastel and I find that chalk pastels generate a lot of dust. I enjoy using a good quality pencil pastel or a product like the Prismacolor Art Stix and that may work for your house, too. If your child gets into pastels, then that would be the time to invest in an artist-quality oil or chalk pastel set.


These are basic, high quality painting supplies. As children become more advanced in their art, they will be able to explore the local art store themselves for more sophisticated (and not as safe) watercolour, acrylic, oil and gouache offerings.

Watercolour Crayons: Caran D'Ache make a wonderful, soft watercolour crayon. People often use them for face paints - don't! They aren't intended for prolonged contact with our skin. There are European companies that make skin-appropriate crayons for facepainting that are safe for children (Kryolan, Lyra)
Watercolour Pencils
Stockmar Watercolour Paints (liquid form)
Natural Sponges
Watercolour Painting Board (not necessary but helpful)

Liquid Tempera Paint (Chromatemp) - I prefer this to powdered or blocked tempera because the colour on the finished product is so bright and satisfying. It also has a nice viscosity (that is, it isn't runny). Plus, there is no messy mixing required. Tip: add a dash of liquid dish soap to the paint to make clean up easier.

Acrylic Paint: When children are ready to paint on canvas, a student grade acrylic paint is a good choice. Liquitex makes a lovely series called Basics that is easy to use right out of the tube (you don't have to add an acrylic medium to extend them). NOTE: Do not dispose of excess acrylic paint down your drain. It's not good for either the environment or your plumbing. Use a paper towel or disposable rag to clean the excess off your palette, brushes, and palette knife before washing these items. Acrylic paint is a plastic and is only water soluble while in its liquid state.

Things to paint on: Appropriate weight and absorbency paper, pre-stretched canvas, paint boards (available for all types of paint media), pieces of wood, etc. -- as long as it works with the type of paint you are using.

Brushes: When buying paintbrushes, ensure that the type you buy works for the medium you have on hand. Different paints require different brushes. Quality is always important (to avoid losing bristles in a work) and check to see if the paint on the handles is lead-free, especially for younger children. If you're not sure which brushes to select, ask for help at your local art store. Clean your brushes immediately after use in cool water, using a bit of dishsoap if necessary. Do not soak your brushes or you will ruin them.

Palettes and Jars: A glass palette for acrylic paints; glass jars or special palettes for watercolour and tempera.

Palette Knives: For working with acrylic paints.

Butcher or Masking Tape: To mask the edges of your paper and secure it to a board during painting process.


A child can make a sculpture from just about anything. And, until your child gets into welding or stone masonry, there really isn't much you need in terms of "special" material or supplies. Here are some ideas about media that works well for sculpture.

Wooden blocks: Not a permanent work but the process is the same (Kapla blocks are great for this)

Large sheets of cardboard: Can use an appliance box or buy the large sheet from Opus

Cardboard boxes, tubes, and flat pieces

Paper: For paper-folding or Origami; also, you can make cool sculpture out of strips and pieces of construction paper.

Drinking Straws and Thread: My brother once made me a giant, intricate star out of straws and thread

Bass Wood: Light and easy to use. Can buy in strips, planks or blocks.

Wire: You can buy wire for sculpting purposes. You can also use pipe cleaners or waxed strings

Paper Mache: With balloons, chicken wire, newsprint and glue/water/flour, you can do all sorts of cool things.

Modeling Clay or Beeswax: We prefer the beeswax at our house because it smells great and feels better on our fingers, although, we must admit, it's not as good for stop-motion animation (limbs fall off).

Homemade Play Dough: This is a great substitution for modeling clay (and you can use unsweetened Kool-Aid crystals to colour it). You can use all sorts of tools (like rollers, extruders, garlic presses, etc.) to play with it at home.

A note about polymer clays (Fimo, Sculpey): These "clays" are really soft plastics and contain polyvinyl chloride and liquid plasticizers. Children who use them may be exposed to substances such as phthalates esters, which are known endocrine disruptors. In 2009, California put a ban on phthalates in toys for children under the age of three and, as a result, some of these clays are being reformulated. Fortunately, in the meantime, there are alternatives such as Stockmar Beeswax or Baker's Clay.


Printmaking is so fun and so easy to do with children. You can carve shapes into potatoes halves (or firm sponges), dip them in a high quality tempera paint, and go to it, stamping them all over a large sheet of paper. You can use smooth styrofoam to carve images into, use a brayer (or rubber roller) to cover the surface (without getting into the cuts) and then apply it to paper. Or, with the older learner, you can get a bit more complicated, using brayers and trays and lino blocks and cutting tools and special inks. Or, when you get really brave, you can explore screen printing, etching, intaglio, and lithography in a studio space that contains all the tools and equipment you'll need.


In the age of digital photography, it's so easy to support a child's interest in photography. Simply buy them a camera and let them use it. Let them have access to the computer so they can edit and refine their photos and, when they have chosen their favourites, help them create (and print) an album of their work.

Photography used to be so much more, though, than just taking photos. There is an art to developing photos and most of us don't have access to dark rooms anymore.

Enter light sensitive paper: Sunprints. You can create photograms by arranging materials to suit your sense of aesthetics and then placing them directly on the paper. You can make a photogram in a real darkroom and develop the result just like regular black and white photographs. Sunprints paper allows you do the same thing but using the great outdoors as your darkroom. The website shows you how it works.


Go to a studio: clay is one art material I would not recommend using at home (unless you are a ceramic artist and already have a studio set up). Here's why.

Silica Dust. When unfired-clay dries, it breaks down very easily. It's important to not use friction when dealing with dried clay, such as sweeping or brushing. This releases the silica in the air where we can breathe it into our lungs, which could lead, eventually, to silicosis. If you do use clay in your home, always wet clean it. Mop the area as part of the post-project clean-up (don't vacuum) and wipe down any surfaces containing clay residue with a wet sponge.

Another reason, however, to use clay in a studio setting is your plumbing. Clay studios have specially formulated drains with "clay traps" built in. Clay is heavy and will settle into your u-bends, trapping other crud with it and causing epic blockage issues.

You also need access to a kiln. And you will want some instruction on how to wedge the clay before using it so you can release trapped air bubbles that may explode in the kiln and wreck everything in it.

Pottery studios also have places to dump the sludge (which will eventually be recycled) and they have mops, etc. on hand for easy and proper wet clean up.

* ** *** ** *

The most important thing about art isn't that you have the right materials lined up. Honest. The above are just ideas if you are looking. There is no "right" or "wrong" when it comes to art materals--just personal preferences.

The most important thing about art is that it's fun and satisfying. Sometimes materials help create feelings of satisfaction and it's often fun to use them. But more often, it's our own attitudes that set the stage for how fun the process is for both our kids and ourselves.

Enjoy art with your children and it will all come out right, regardless of what supplies you have squirreled away in your art cupboard.

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