Saturday, February 12, 2011

Inspiring Art

Sometimes we need more than art supplies to nurture and inspire our creative selves.

Here are a few ideas.

Life inspires art.

If you've never read any of Emily Carr's books, I encourage you to do so. The Book of Small is lovely, filled with vignettes of Carr's childhood growing up in Victoria. In the book, you can see how observant Carr was, how she paid attention to the minutiae of then-small town life. In Klee Wyck, Carr tells stories of her time among the First Nations communities along the West Coast. She spent time there painting their villages, totem poles, and forests.

She drew her inspiration from life. From real things. Although her art is representational (rather than realism), it represents things she could reach out and touch, examine from all sides, contemplate fully.

It's great to draw from life--either by bringing things into your home for your kids to draw (if they choose) or by going out in nature with sketchbooks and drawing materials in hand.

When Marty Layne's children were young, she would borrow stuffed birds and animals from the local museum for her children to draw (back in the days it was free to do so). The specimens were often in a glass case, set up to look true to life, and she would just have them in the house for the children to draw if they chose to. Or she and the children would bring in objects from outside or select everyday objects from around the house. One of her sons now makes his living as a visual artist. There's more about how Marty supported her children's creative development at her blog.

We have an art and nature backpack by the door. It contains equipment for observing nature: binoculars, hand-held microscope, specimen jars, plastic bags, magnifying glasses. It also contains a sketchbook, pencils and sharpener, and coloured pencils. There are no "have tos" or "shoulds" about this backpack and it's my responsibility to grab if I want to bring it along. It contains things that we might want when we are out enjoying the world.

And it's not just about "drawing from life"--being alive and living an interesting life can inspire us to reflect our lives/thoughts/feelings creatively. Many times, the most satisfying art we can make is an expression of what is within.

Art inspires art.

There's nothing like walking through an art gallery or exhibition to get my artistic longing in full gear. Seeing how others represent things or use different media gets my own brain to start sparking ideas about what I want to do, to create, to make.

Years ago, I worked at an alternate school in Vancouver. There were eight girls (ages 8 to 13) in the school who loved art and we formed an art group. Once a week, we would go on an art-related field trip. We went to galleries or on "art walks", visited artists' studios, and participated in community projects (such as the mosaic "creek" in a park close to Commercial Drive).

We hired various artists to come into the learning centre and be our mentors. We worked on a sculptural painting together where we all contributed a piece of our own that could be displayed as part of a whole or on its own. The group was self-directed as we all contributed our ideas and operated on a consensus basis. And, most importantly, we had a whole lot of fun.

As a family, we enjoy visiting exhibits and galleries. I was surprised when we went to San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art and my 8-year-old son wanted to take his time looking at the walls and walls (and rooms and rooms) of Eadweard Muybridge photography. Muybridge spent a lot of time studying animal "locomotion", capturing on film a series of images that could be replayed like a mini-movie. His work was the precursor of the "movie".

My son has an interest in photography and animation, so he was fascinated by the many many images on display and took his time in looking at them and absorbing them. The time he spent that day at the gallery spurred many different projects involving photography, stop-animation, and the creation of flip books that I could never have anticipated.

When visiting a gallery, it's important to have lots of time available in case your child wants to take her time with something. And going through a gallery may take less time than you think, especially if your child is not captivated by what they see there. Kids tend to be honest critics and will just walk by art that doesn't interest them. It's good to be flexible about it as nothing will turn a kid off galleries faster than being made to look at each item displayed. If it's an exhibition that *you* really want to see, it may be a good idea to make plans to go once by yourself so you can have your own experience with it.

And you know your children. If your kids are likely to balk at going to look at art, don't do it. If they are too young to appreciate either the art or the gallery experience, there are many other ways to enjoy art by doing it themselves or using some of the resources listed below. There's nothing wrong with simply waiting until it will be of interest to them.

Inspiring Resources

You don't need any resources to do art. Creativity is a human endeavor. We are compelled to create. However, you know your own kids and your own home learning style. You may find some of these materials helpful to "strew" around your home or to introduce to your children.


"Interactive educational software for children ages 7-12. Featuring a blend of animated movies and interactive activities that teach the principles of art, and provide the tools for creative self expression."

If you asked me a couple of years ago about art software, I would have sneered. But I have to tell you, this software, Creativity Express, is phenomenal.

My son spent hours going through it and doing the various activities on his own initiative. He learned so much about the principles of art, including colour theory and art techniques, within the context of artists' work--and he loved it!

Books about Art and Artists

There are any number of wonderful books about art and artists that are available. A stroll through the local library stacks will reveal any number of compelling options. This is just a sampling of some that my family has liked the best.

Mike Venezia has a terrific series titled Getting to Know the World's Greatest Artists. There are many, many books in it and public libraries usually have a varied selection in their collections. Each book provides a brief history of an artist's life, with lots of cartoons and samples of the artist's work. Entertaining, informative, and often funny.

Usborne has a number of fantastic books about art that are worth exploring. Lucky for us, we have our own lovely Usborne distributor on South Vancouver Island. A few of the books that our family has enjoyed are The Usborne Art Treasury and The Usborne Introduction to Art. There many others listed on this page.

The other books we really like are in the Art Fraud Detective series. These are "spot the difference" books that are puzzle books as well as art history books. They are well done and have provided hours of puzzling entertainment at our house.

Of course, you can also access the many art books intended for older audiences. My favourite art book publisher is Taschen, although there are many other fine publishers out there. If there is an artist you enjoy, leave some art books laying around the house and see what happens.

Videos about Art and Artists

There are a number of these types of videos available, all the way from cinematic features to IMAX films to art history programs to TV biographies. Here are a few that we've watched and enjoyed:

Devine Entertainment has a few titles in a series about the lives of artists. These are intended for family viewing and are quite well done. You can buy them from Fire the Imagination (Canadian site).

Sister Wendy: The Complete Collection. People either seem to love her or hate her. We find her amusing and endearing, with her sweet little lisp and her benign preoccupation with people's "bits". You can likely find the series at the library, so you can try her out and see if she's a fit for your family.

Games about Art

Go Fish for Art

I'm sure there are more based-on-art games out there, but we've so enjoyed these variations on "Go Fish" by Bird Cage Press. We picked ours up at various art galleries and museums (including both the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Greater Victoria Art Gallery).

Not only has my son learned a lot about different artists and their works, but I have, too! He's already identified several of his favourite artists and their important contributions... stuff I had no clue about when I was his age. And the games are just fun.


Blue Balliet has written three (so far) novels for kids 8+ that involve the works of major artists. The stories all focus on a group of three children who live in Chicago and are involved with different mysteries related to the works of Johannes Vermeer (painter), Frank Lloyd Wright (architect), and Alexander Calder (sculptor).

They are well-written books and introduce art and artists without bashing one over the head. And the mysteries are kind of good, too (buy some pentominoes to go along with the books... you'll see why.)

Art Prints

You can create an art gallery in your own home!

Hang framed and unframed art prints of your favourite artists' works around the house. You can buy them in different sizes and you may even want to buy some books of art postcards as a cheap yet wonderful way to explore art (these look great on the fridge). You can find art prints in all kinds of places, for various prices... just keep your eyes open when in art stores, framing shops, bookstores, or galleries. Old art calendars also provide decent sized prints at a low cost (if you keep them).

The above is just a toe-dip into the vast number of possibilities that may inspire an interest in art. Feel free to add to this list of ideas as I'm sure you'll have some I've forgotten or not thought of!