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Encouraging the Heart of the Young Artist

Posted on Sunday, May 6, 2012 in Art, Thoughts on Education

I sit in the Sunday School class, in a chair much too small for me, but perfectly suited to the five 3- year olds also at the table.

Crayons in fists, with a coloring sheet in front of each child, their hands hover, uncertain.

Another teacher has just instructed them to draw the boat that Jesus slept in during the savage storm at sea.  I’m just the volunteer for the week, so I watch, wondering what they’ll do with these instructions.

“I can’t draw a boat. Can you draw me a boat?” One frustrated girl asks her regular teacher.

“Sure, I’ll draw you a boat.”  He draws a boat on her picture, and she’s done.  She lays her crayon down.

Requests spring up like popcorn around the table until almost all of the boats are drawn by the teacher.

Only the girl beside me is silent, hard at work with her chubby, broken blue crayon.

“You’re a great artist.” I tell her.

“What’s a artist?” she asks, startled for a moment by this new name.

“An artist is someone who paints or draws,” I offer my simplified definition.

“Then I’m an artist,” she declares and returns to her art.

“I’m an artist,” the boy beside her says and picks up his blunt, peeled orange crayon and a magnificent array of dots appear across his page. “Rain!” he almost shouts.

“I’m an artist too,” announces the next child, a girl with serious eyes and freckles. Then she looks around skeptically, “And so are the other kids at this table, but not that one or that one,” she points to the the two adults in the room.

“Oh, they are artists too,” I nod my head, “God is an artist.  He painted the sky and the trees and the animals, and we’re made like God, so we’re all artists.”

My own three-year old daughter chimes in, “I paint.  I’m an artist too!”

Crayons dip, drag, and dance, led by little artists.

I remember the joy of creating as a child.  The magic of combining words to make stories, the first line I ever spoke on stage, and yes, crayons let loose on paper.

Other memories play in my head, intertwined with the good, adults dropping critical words on my hopeful creations like stones dropping on glass.  As the words replay, I understand why it took me until my thirties to find again that freedom and confidence in making art that I first had as a young child.

I’m now on a mission to encourage and sustain the artist hearts of children.  It’s been a learning process over the last 11 years to find out what that means for my own kids and more recently, other kids, when I taught at our co-op.

Here are some guidelines to consider when talking to kids about their art:

It starts with you.

“I can’t draw,” you apologize as you push the paper back over to your four-year old when he asks you to draw a car. You just effectively planted the seed in your child that some people can draw and some people can’t. Maybe he falls into the category of “can’t”.

First of all, the car you draw is going to seem like a Picasso painting to your little boy, even your stick figures will impress him. If you want to instill an “I can do anything” attitude then model one!

“Well, I don’t draw very much honey, but I’ll try.”  And then draw the car.  (This is much harder for me to do when it comes to singing or fixing toilets, I need this reminder for myself all the time).

If still seems hard to think of saying those words “I can draw”, go ahead and check out the book Ish by Peter Reynolds.  When you read it with your child you’ll find out you can at least draw a car-ish.


“What is it?”

When your child approaches you with his masterpiece, don’t start with “What is it?” or “That’s a great ______”. Your child is absolutely sure that his squiggles and dots look as much like a horse chasing a lion to you as they did to him when he drew it.  As soon as you ask, “What is it?” that confidence is shattered, and the seed of doubt is planted.  It’s the same thing if you name his picture, and get it wrong.

Instead say, “Tell me about you picture.” It works with toddlers all the up through the ages, and you’ll most likely hear details you never would have heard with those other questions and statements.  You’ll get a window right into the heart of the child, because art is a window. And you’ll see the glow of pride at his accomplishments brighten as he talks about his work.

Coloring inside the lines is over-rated.

Coloring inside the lines is a skill that has gotten way too much attention!  Everyone can eventually learn how to color inside the lines, but will a child learn how to draw (or paint or write) the world as he sees it (different from every other child in the world).

Set aside those coloring books, and give your child a blank sketchbook.  My mom gave my now 11 year old a blank sketchbook when she was 2 and we’ve never looked back.  We still watch the video of her delightfully making her marks all over the page and telling us the details about the pictures.  Also try tools other than crayons.  For the last three years crayons have been out of vogue in our house, the youngest only wants pencils.  Every child is different.

Give Specific Feedback.

The child has just spent forty five minutes working on their drawing and she runs to you and flashes her treasure.  ”That’s really great” and “That’s good, honey” aren’t equal to the effort she’s just expended.

Start with, “Tell me about it.” Really pay attention to the details and comment on the specific aspects of the drawing. You’re not trying to come up with something that sounds good, your looking attentively and telling the truth.  And you don’t have to know art vocabulary to make meaningful comments.

“I really like…”

…the colors you chose, they really make me feel the sunset.”

…the facial expression on the boy, I can tell he loves riding his bike.”

…how you made her legs, she looks like she’s really running.”

…the shading on your trees, I can see the light flooding in and it’s makes the trees pop of the page.”

My 11 year old showed me a sketch yesterday and before she showed it to me she said, “Now I want to hear more than, ‘That’s good.’ I want more feedback, tell me exactly what you like.”

Don’t force a compliment when your child is frustrated.

We deal plenty of frustration around here.  From the artist who has needed to draw perfectly since she was four to the younger brother who doesn’t think he can draw at all compared to his sisters.

When a child says his drawing is awful and you say, “No, it’s great, I love it.”, you’re trying to offer encouragement and build his confidence.  But you’re actually implying that his feelings about his artwork aren’t true.  It’s tempting to think you can talk your child out of being unsatisfied with his art, but I haven’t found that to be the case.

Instead, if you truly do like it, but also want to help your child through the process try, “Well, I like it a lot (generic, I know) but tell me what your unsatisfied with.” Listen to the child and try to narrow down why he/she isn’t happy with it. Ask questions.  ”What do you wish was different?” Sometimes it’s just one detail.

If you feel comfortable, try offering some suggestions.

If your child is early in the drawing process and is stuck on one part of his work, encourage him to continue on with the rest of the picture and come back to the trouble spot at the end.  Often times, the area that seemed “so wrong” doesn’t seem as important once the rest of the work is finished.  In the “I love 2 Bake” picture below, my daughter was very frustrated with the hands, but once she moved on to the arms, apron, and filled in the color, the hands seemed less important and she was pleased with her artwork.

This is not a guaranteed or easy process. There might be a continued period of frustration, in which you have to try your best to remain the calm half.  A younger child may need to take a break and come back to it later. But I’ve found as the kids grow, if we can stay the course and arrive at something the child feels at least mildly happy with, we’ve both succeeded, and the child slowly gains the ability to narrow down what he’s disatisfied with, work on it a bit, and finish successfully.

“Successfully” doesn’t mean the product is beautiful in your eyes, it means your child didn’t give up in the throes of frustration but persevered, and that’s a life skill that will eventually also lead to better artistic skill.

(The area of frustration is one that really needs an entire blog post unto itself).

Focus on the process, not the product.

Because my girls have come quite a long way in their artwork, I’m tempted to get more “product” focused then “process” focused. I forget what their work looked like when they were younger (and so do they) and my expectations for my 7 year old land way over the mark.

As I listened to Peter H. Reynolds a few weeks ago, I realized I needed to start hanging up more of my son’s work, not just the best (in my eyes) of his work.  His enjoyment of the process, and willingness to stay in it and believe he’s an artist is so much more important than the final product.

There’s a chance you’ll need to lower your standards and cheer for your child’s artwork a lot more than you’ve been doing.  Maybe his work doesn’t seem nearly as impressive as that other kid in your co-op, but that doesn’t matter. He has a life of creating ahead of him, if you help sustain his artist heart.

If you haven’t done so, read The Dot with your children then tell them to sign their most recent art work and hang it in a beautiful frame!

Is this an area of struggle for you?  Have you learned any lessons in your own creative life, or in guiding your child?

Bring on the comments

  1. Jimmie says:

    I adore this post. Amazing! Yes! I get so frustrated when women say, “I’m not creative.” Yes, you are! You CAN be, at least. All you have to do is CREATE.

  2. aimee says:

    Thanks so much Jimmie. I’m glad it resonated the way I hoped it would. You also do an outstanding job of encouraging creativity.

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