Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Protecting the Artist Within

Children are natural artists. Pablo Picasso once said, "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up."

Give a child some lovely supplies and space to create, and they will create. Beautiful things. Meaningful things. Beautiful and meaningful, that is, to them.

I suspect that the reason some/most of us shut down our innate artist is because at some point we experience a disconnect between what we create and what others expect of us... or what we expect of ourselves.

As parents, we can help to nurture our young artists by being aware of some of the sensitive areas where this disconnect can occur.


Often, children use art as a a means of expressing how they feel about their world. Because the visual is often the "language" first mastered by a child, in both "reading" and responding (gestures), it makes sense that pictorial communication is a safe and satisfactory way for them to express complex feelings that they cannot yet articulate in language. They can share their both their experiences and perspectives with us through their art work.

Having said that, I strongly caution you not to read too much into your child's pictures. If a child goes through a black period, covering all drawings or paintings in a thick scribble of black, don't assume something terrible is going on. Your child may just be experimenting with what happens. Or he may not yet be happy with how what he has in his head is showing up on the page. Or he may just like black. Or be temporarily fascinated.

If you decide to ask your child, don't ask. Simply observe out loud, without judgement, in the context of the art. "You drew a picture of our cat and then covered it over in black crayon." If your child has something to tell you, this is enough of an opening for her to start sharing about her drawing without further prodding. It may take a minute or two for her to gather her thoughts, so stay quiet and close for a bit until she's had a chance to think about it.

But don't make a big deal of it. Children can sense our concern and will form their own opinions as to what we mean by it. Often, they will internalize it and it may manifest as shame or anxiety. And they may become self-conscious about their art.

It's important to let art be art. If it's more than art, we can trust our children to let us know that when they are ready.

Motor Skills

Children differ in terms of development of fine motor skills and also their personal standards for their own output. For some children, the discrepancy between what they want to create and what they can create is very frustrating and off-putting. They may start to make judgements about themselves, such as "I'm not a good drawer" or "I can't do this". As parents, it's our job to support our kids through these difficult phases... not by denying the problem but by helping kids go around it, just until they are ready to tackle it themselves.

My son was three or four before he decided to do his own representational drawing. Prior to that time, he took great delight in directing his dad and I to draw for him. We would spend hours creating complex scenarios on paper. At one point, I decided to cut out the figures he wanted and he could place them on the paper in the manner most pleasing to him. When he did start to draw, he skipped over the typical childhood drawings (sun, house, tree) and went straight to the complex subject matter that most interested him.

But that period of time when he was directing us was still art. His art. We were tools, he was the master. Just as it's okay to scribe for a young child so his words can be written down without the frustration of dealing with the physical task of writing, it's okay for art to be done the same way. It's authentic. And you are modeling for your child in all sorts of ways: confidence, dealing with mistakes, use of art materials, planning/execution, focus, self-acceptance, and so on.

And when a child starts to feel comfortable drawing for her or himself, it's a wonderful moment that can be supported simply by ensuring that he has what he needs in order to create what he wants, how he wants.

Art Skills

Most "art skills" are simply learning how to use the media available. Much of this comes by experimenting with materials and seeing what they can give us in terms of different results. There are fabulous books that can show those of us at home how to use materials. If you, as a parent, feel you need more information, local art shops often have scheduled demonstrations on how to use materials. Or, if you are really keen, take some art classes yourself through a community centre or a continuing education program. You can then demonstrate your skills by using them in front of your children (who may imitate you or ask you more about it).

But be careful when signing your child up for an art class. Nothing can turn a child off art faster than a judgmental teacher or a lack of flexibility in terms of a finished product.

In terms of "ability", some children are able to "see" the world in such a way that makes it easier to represent it visually. This is often referred to as talent, but my artist friends insist that anyone can learn to see that way. It's a matter of practice and knowing how to "look". (More about that in the book recommendations post.)

And one thing I've noticed about these friends is that they have spent hours and hours practicing drawing and looking because they were passionate about it. Often without formal instruction (or the formal instruction came after they developed their abilities).

At some point, a child may want to learn how to do something specific or may want to hone a skill and a class might be the best option for him. And formal classes can wait until children are old enough to articulate this desire to you. If it comes from within, it will be a more meaningful experience for them.


It's important to not dismiss a child's art with comments like "that's pretty" or "good job". It means nothing and is akin to a mindless pat on the head.

If you do say something like that, follow it up with some observations. "The blue and the yellow really pop when next to each like that. It's like candy for my eyes!" Or "You worked so hard on this... all morning! Let's put it up on the fridge so we can admire it whenever we want."

It's also extremely important that you don't tell your child what they could have done differently. They likely already know that (or don't care) and don't need an amateur art critic telling them how their art could be improved! In fact, I suspect that the reason most adults aren't still artists (as per Picasso above) is because it's been commented right out of us. Children get so much criticism and direction throughout their young lives that if there is a way to minimize the constant negative feedback, they will find it. That might mean dropping art or writing or singing... simply as a way to reduce the barrage against their self-confidence.

So, share your child's excitement. Comment on things you notice about the process or the product that are positive. Display your child's art if they would like that (more on that coming up, too).

And just enjoy all the creativity zooming around. (It might be contagious!).

© 2011 Home Learning Victoria, All Rights Reserved