Encouraging the Young Artist

Recently, a reader asked how I motivate my kids to create so much art.  The question left me chuckling because there are times, of which I am not proud, when I wish they would create just a little less art.  It’s not that I begrudge them their artistic sides.  It is just that two out of my three children become a cross between Dr. Frankenstein and a whirling dervish when they create.  I spend a lot of time wading through haphazard piles of paper with a few rejected scribbles scrawled on them and open, dried up tubes of paint.  I also sharpen a lot of colored pencils.

The truth is that I am not so sure I have consciously done much of anything to encourage their inner Picassos.  In fact, I sometimes worry that my sighs directed at the art area might be a bit discouraging.  Somehow, though, despite their anal-retentive mother, they still manage to produce massive amounts of art.  So something must be working.  With that, having now actually put some thought into what has gone into creating a welcoming environment for artistic endeavors in our home, here are a few of the things that have worked:

  • We have a dedicated art space.  Though they are not limited to creating art in the art area, having a special space (despite our relatively small home) offers a sense that their creations are important.  The art area is neither too messy nor too clean.  Years of trial and error have taught me that a messy art area keeps them away because there is little space to create.  Conversely, they shy away from a perfectly clean and organized art area because it does not feel welcoming.  Moderation is the key.  Leave a cup with some colored pencils on the art table when you are vacuuming up all those shards of paper covering the floor and don’t worry about a paint-stained table.
  • We offer a variety of real art supplies.  Once I noticed that my kids had all stopped using crayons, we invested in some nicer art supplies.  Some art supplies really can make art more difficult.  Markers that catch on the paper or bleed, for example, can cause frustration for young perfectionists.  Scissors that don’t cut easily are discouraging.  As they become even more prolific, nicer paper inspires more beautiful pieces.  We also stock up on canvases when they go on sale at our local art store.  Finally, any time we are asked what the kids might like for gifts, we suggest the art supplies that they use up more quickly: nice paper, paints, markers, colored pencils, tape, glue, etc.
  • We display their art in a variety of ways.  Some of it hangs nicely in the art room.  I mount some of it onto foam boards and hang it in the hallway.  We have wires with clips (from Ikea) that line two of the beams in the dining room, from which their art hangs.  I change that art out when I remember.  We also use their art to make greeting cards (I am pretty sure they are not even aware that they could go to the store and buy a card to send someone).  I take pictures of art that they plan to give away or that we toss for space purposes.
  • We sign them up for classes with a teacher who gives them loads of freedom to create what they want, how they want.  I will be honest here.  I am not an art saint.  There was a time when they came home from such classes with pieces that did not impress me (Tell me you do this too).  Initially, I would feel annoyed.  Then I realized that I was only annoyed because we had paid money for the class and I was expecting framable pieces to come home.  Once I gave up that expectation, I recognized that my petit Fridas were internalizing the process while in class and then coming home and allowing their creativity to explode in the safety of their precious art area.  I do not regret one cent spent on our beloved art teacher.
  • We, the parents, do a lot of art ourselves.  Some of it comes naturally.  I knit and crochet regularly.  Okay, constantly.  I also try and step outside of my own artistic comfort zone and draw with the kids.  Recently, I have begun painting for the first time since elementary school.  My husband, who does not consider himself an artist, though I think he is quite good at drawing, sits for long periods of time coloring pre-printed pages (really, glorified coloring books found online) with or without the kids.  They watch us working hard to stretch our artistic selves.
  • We look at a lot of art from a variety of sources: art museums, books, art fairs.  We point out objects that might not be immediately obvious works of art: landscapes, furniture, beautiful pieces of clothing.
  • We offer age-appropriate constructive criticism catered to each child’s personality.  This one is controversial.  Initially, when they were very young, we followed the popular idea of simply pointing out elements of their art to them without judgement.  “Oh, look, you made the sky such a vibrant color of blue!” They hated this.  When I really thought about it, I agreed. If I showed somebody a sweater I’d just knitted and they responded, “My, what a bright red that is,” I would most certainly take that as the beholder’s inability to come up with anything nice to say about the sweater.  Instead, I started focussing on how hard they’d worked.  “I absolutely love this picture.  I can tell you worked really hard on it.”  When they didn’t work hard on it and it wasn’t all that impressive (because of the lack of effort), I would say something like, “Did you have fun working on that?”  My thought was that I wanted them to enjoy art as a fun activity but I also wanted them to be able to distinguish between a few quick scrawls on a piece of paper and an item into which they put actual consideration.   As they have gotten a little older, I have offered more feedback, my reasoning being that if they are still bringing the pieces to me, they want to know what I think. On the haphazard pieces they bring to me for viewing, I might say something like,  “It looked like you were having fun making that.   Would you like some tips to help make it more polished?”   I’ll admit that sometimes, they give me THE look when I do this.  You know THE look.  But nine times out of ten, they also return to the art table to thoughtfully work harder on the piece.  If they work hard on the piece in the first place but, say, the dog looks more like a horse, I might respond, “You have really put your heart into this.  I can totally feel the warmth of the sun there and that water looks so inviting.  May I offer a suggestion to make the dog look a little more dog-like?”  I confess that each time I offer constructive criticism, I worry about breaking their sweet little artistic spirits.  Nonetheless, they now come to me and ask things like, “Mamma, do you think the fingers are in proportion?”
  • Finally, the number one thing we offer our kids to nurture their creative spirits is time!  While I have never sat them down for a specific art lesson at a specific time, they have lots and lots of free time to create.  The eldest and youngest most appreciate time in the morning for art.  I usually awake to them standing at the art table making something.  My son prefers to create at night.  He often stays awake later than us and we find piles of art under our door in the morning. They all sprinkle time for art throughout the day.  If we have to be somewhere, I let them throw whatever they are creating and the supplies (within reason) into a bag to complete in the car.  This makes for a consistent stream of messes in both the house and the car, but it’s worth it.  They have all really found their own artistic niches and enjoy creating — despite my sighs and eye rolls at the art area floor.
Having said all of this, if you find that your kids show absolutely no interest in art, my guess is that they, well, have no interest in art.  Or perhaps they have no interest in the sorts of art to which they have been exposed.  I did not consider myself to be an artist until I started knitting as an adult.  Luckily, in this day and age of instant information, they can surely explore a variety of artistic pursuits to determine if art is important to them.

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