I could have been an artist.
Adults like to put kids into neat and tidy packages. Can you draw that hand? If so, you are an artist. If not, you aren’t. Art doesn’t really come in tidy packages, and there are tons of ways to be an artist. I would argue that every child is born with the abilities to create art, and enjoy the process. But adults like labels, and if you don’t fit into one of those labels, you can’t be it.
I didn’t fit into a tidy package when I was a child. Consequently, I didn’t get any encouragement to become an artist.
So I didn’t become one.
I know you don’t know me, or who I am. I’ve been around for a while (meaning I’m old). My kids are long grown, and have kids of their own. One of my sons is a talented artist, and in him I see glimpses of what I could have become, had my own interests and talents been encouraged when I was young. Or if I had just been given the freedom to develop what I had, and build my own confidence in my abilities.
In this article, I want to tell you a bit of my story. I want to tell you a bit about myself, and a bit about how I fostered my children’s interest in art. Perhaps you can use it to help your own children grow into their creative potential. At the end of this article, I will also lay out a few of the things I wish my own parents and teachers had done for me to help me as a budding artist.
Every child has the ability to enjoy art
I can recall being a small boy, well before I started school, sitting outside wondering how a patch of pansies grew so wonderfully in a tire garden in the backyard of my 1940’s backyard in Northwest Iowa. So many colors, I thought. A veritable panacea of blue, red, yellow, green and shades without names. Where did they come from? Are they infinitely different? Does one flower depend on the others in the bed? Where do they go when the snow falls? Why do they hide at night? Do they die before the onslaught of winter’s frigged bite? If I were to remove one of the pretty little pansies would the others left behind mourn the loss?
These are the thoughts of an artist. But would an adult agree, if I could not reproduce these colors and shapes on a canvas?
I was an insecure child randomly placed in school without access to enduring artistic expression.
I remember being a small boy of 6 sitting in the front row of his first ‘art’ class, where all the students were directed to draw and color each one’s version of a woodpecker. It was to have a red head, feathers, a tail, wings, a beak, feet, and be found standing proudly on a branch. My drawing was divine – perfect in every way – a beak, feet, a red head and subjectively everything a woodpecker was to contain.
Initially, all the students gathered around my creation with sighs and approval. What a pretty bird, said the instructor. Boys and girls scurry around glancing at all the other attempts, some bird-like multicolored somewhat feathered with missing parts, wrong colors and often distorted.
I firmly stood to gain the greatest classroom approval, until I discovered that there was competition for the leading role as best in class – another 6 year old boy several chairs to the right also in the front of the class.
Bewildered and despondent as my classmates filed away to admire the other boy’s bird, I felt rejected as possibly placing only second. Over this simple thing, I fell into a peculiar sadness and depression.
The second boy’s bird simply did not measure up to mine for sure. The second boy’s offering was stark, stick-like, and garish in color and crude in structure. So why did the second gain approval and the mine find rejection? Why did the second boy receive so much more attention with what was obviously an inferior example of a well-known and approved version of ‘woodpeckerness’?
Is a youngster subject to the whims of public critique, a victim of diminished acceptance, and if so, will he or she carry this confusing emotional reaction to what had originally been conceived as brilliant into a future labeled as simply not creative?
The ignored artistic child as an adult
I recall a young adult helping me remodel a small house in the mid 1970’s. Unfamiliar with hammers and nails bending over, he told me that he had a very hard time with the task because he wasn’t creative. “Creative” was simply not in his wheelhouse, or to say simply that he was not built in a way to allow him to do anything he had otherwise not already seen. He heard of or had been directed to do things, not create things. My response though naïve was to suggest to him that he had to be ‘creative’.
“It is the way we are all put together.”
Needless to say, he ignored such comments for a decade finding in the early 1980’s that he was indeed a very fine jeweler, metal smith and woodworker defying his own prejudgment the decade prior.
What is Childhood Creativity?
Is it possible to assume that everyone of us is indeed creative by nature and that art or the expression of what may conventionally be considered creative is a gift we all share and if so do we not owe a great bit of attention to be given to each young child we encounter. Regardless of where or when that encounter occurs it is intended to loosen this skill and form habits the produce creative satisfaction of young and old?
Is creativity in fact a fundamental criterion of being human? And if so, is not everything a human may do in one’s lifetime garner the possibility of becoming artful?
A Creative Brain – does it exist?
A little brain structural science – Human brains are no longer a mysterious mass of pinkish folded fatty tissue which somehow guides our every movement, every thought and every emotion. It is known clearly that not only is each healthy human brain functionally identical in structure. It also is designed to adapt infinitely and differentiate in detail.
The mass of neural connections evolve from its basic cellular informants to direct every growth move we make of decades. And from a purest biomechanical view, will each human do whatever he or she wants to do simply by thinking they not only can do, but virtually may do anything they wish by choice alone?
Where does Creativity exist in the brain of children?
An intentionally over-simplified fundamental regime of a brain generally consists of three components. Functionally the brain maintains a visual cortex, the grandmother of our brain. Riding upon the ‘ancient brain’ is identified as the lower brain or as the limbic system. This structure is the primordial reactive brain of our ancient progenitors.
These tissues mount the brain stem to enjoin signaling the spinal column enervating the entirety of the human structure, causing one to walk, talk, cry, smile, eat, sleep and make life a thing of wonderment. Information created in this anteriority, pass abstractions we will relate as ‘information’ to the front part of the brain where judgment and overt action generally is stimulated.
Know that the visual cortex occupies nearly 70% of the total volume of the human brain. It is important in the abstract to realize how much real estate the visual cortex occupies. Visual sense is human beings’ most powerful source of information – our eyes are mounted frontwards with excellent peripheral perception.
The human head is in a position which provides for axial motion about the shoulders and when combined with the sense of focal vision out front, gives each of us nearly 360 degrees of visual freedom. This freedom of motion liberates our senses to nearly all of our surroundings at a glance.
Is children’s art intuitive or do adults routinely append claim to it as being artful?
Complicating this fundamental structure we find the brain organized in two distinct hemispheres connected by a clever group of tissues known as the corpus callosum.
This neural structure is a thick band of nerve fibers dividing the cerebral cortex lobes up front into ‘left and right’. It connects the left and right sides of the brain allowing for communication between both hemispheres.
The corpus callosum transfers motor, sensory, and cognitive information between the brain hemispheres and influences such things as logic, decision analysis, esthetic favoring and judgment. Its influence on each human is often signaled to the outside world in something akin to ‘handedness’.
One depends on the use of either a left and/or a right, whether one’s appetite is influenced on how something tastes or how it looks, on whether a person is dominated by rational thinking processes or given over to so-called intuitive reactions.
This simplified view of the brain goes so far as to predict a person’s likelihood of employment as a graphic artist, a musician, a teacher, president or becoming a mechanical engineer.
Children as makers of the future
When children are flooded with inventive artwork, they have better chance of understanding their own interest in becoming a ‘maker’.
A major appendage to the human brain is the pair of eyes situated front and center effectively measuring light intensity, chromatic discretion, photonic dispersal and directional ambiguity combined to electrochemically interface with the visual anterior cortical mass to form patterns that the frontal lobe of the pre-frontal cortex will eventually be trained to recognize was truck, blue, mother, breakfast and dangerous carnivore.
By virtual of these exceptionally complex inputs from the eye directly to the visual memory center, sight perception rationally portends need for an enormous amount of ‘workspace’ to process near real time, these massive amounts of ‘data’, ergo the predominant role of the visual cortex in all human processes.
Has children’s creativity been institutionalized or is it a fundamental reaction to curiosity?
Creativity is neurologically a reaction to curiosity – things that somehow look, smell, and taste or feel different. Something in front of a 5 year old boy stimulates a reaction to an uncomfortable or threatening environmental shift as will something in front of a 30 year old soon-to-be craftsman assumes a role as a pre-conditioned response causing him to believe he is incapable of creative thinking.
Artistic children need to discover authenticity and credible techniques. Why is it necessary to dig a few inches below the surface when dealing with artistically inclined children?
One of several favorite stories relates a 19th century painter father to a soon-to-be recognized creative artist/photographer in Paris. The man’s name became a benchmark in the emergence of the ‘spy camera’ derived from the camera obscura of the early to mid 1800’s. He was credited with saying, ‘I paint with light’, Andre Kertesz, a child artist in Paris. He shared early morning walks with his father, a minor painter of note from that late 19th century period.
They walked the deserted streets of Paris as the sun was rising. Andre’s father instructed his son (a youngster being guided to enter the world as a colorist, impressionist or pointillist painter joining ranks with the great Paris artistes). Father Kertesz instructed his son as they walk to close his eyes tightly, but for a brief instant, when he would open them, then quickly close. His purpose over that brief moment was to recall everything he’d seen in his ever so slight sight as he blinked into his ‘perception’.
What might a parent’s role be when subtly training an artistic child?
“What did you see”, asked Andre’s father, as they continued the morning’s hike about town – store windows, piles of trash, vacant streetcars and trolleys, an occasional carriage passing, shadows moving across a boulevard. Kertesz was learning to see at a completely differing level from that of the ordinary Parisian walking about that morning.
What did I do with my artistic children as a weekend father?
When my children were in their early years, I continuously engaged in multidisciplinary activities requiring, eyes, ears, hands and feet, mouths and brains. We’d simply explore our world. And as evening approached I’d build inventive stories, always involving a little boy or two engaging a simile of our days adventure, weaving the color and context of our conversations, perceptions and our understandings as these might pertain to how they might implement a simple form into their world of play-based personal growth and internal satisfaction, giving them basic rules, suggesting quietly those inherent limitations involved and addressing the boundaries that convention proscribes.
My thought remained – know what is expected of you by others. Learn to meet and exceed these so that rule breaking will offer new and constructive concepts without offending the standards. And those cases where the ‘standards of practice’ are annihilated, close the argument with one’s personalized rendition demonstrating knowledge and skill which drives one’s uniqueness in expression and esthetic anticipation of one’s own personal comprehension of the objects’ internal beauty.
Invent games artistic children can easily access and share with parents and friends
We played a game I borrowed from a 1970’s movie – TEGWAR, the exceptional game without any rules (adding my own subtext to ‘without any rules’ appending to this formula as that ‘thing’ which is internally inconsistent as I imposed the exceptions no lying, cheating or stealing to our game). Everything else was on the table. We had no TV nor did we have a telephone. We papered the walls with butcher paper and drew cityscapes and alien unworldly environments.
We peopled the walls with crayons, pens and paint. We made movies of us walking about our town. We rerecorded records ever increasing their playback speeds. We built unique flying machines. We made stories with photographs each had made and pasted them to what passed for books.
Everything had a reason for being regardless of how quirky or obscure it might have seemed. And we laughed at our silliness as we cleaned up our ‘mess’ and planned for another dream. If there had been a trick, it was that I attempted to treat my boys as adults without making it known that they were children.
Bedtime storytelling always brought forward a rendition of the daily foray into our combined imagination. A short story with animated heroes overcoming all the obstacles of the previous day’s adventure – a period where we could teach each other the lessons we’d learned over the past 24 hours – stories always told in such a manner to exquisitely refresh one’s visual memory, adding novelty, adding colorful context, vivid reflections and character identity which linked the day’s activities with those images we planted just prior to sleep – subtle lessons from father to sons – vivid visual characterizations for yesterday’s perceptions.
A great deal of research exists regarding how our perception orders memory. If as example I have three items I would like to present to a person, where two of the three topics may be perceived in a somewhat negative sensation, depending upon what I choose to leave behind I would always finish my examples with a positive remark.
The brain certainly hears everything I’ve said, but will focus on the last thing it hears – and with that emphasizes the emotional content of that ‘last’ phrase. When care is taken, fundamental programming at a very low conscious level can assist in raising a youngster’s and attention when confronted in a near future practicably reinforcing his or her level of curiosity in general knowing that he or she is ‘good’ at whatever they’re doing – a form of passive induction.
The web provides unlimited access to advice to the creative obsession in child rearing. Virtually all have some value. The driving factor from my limited point of view is to provide an environment which is safe, sane and reasonably sound in structure, consistency and security. Allow for and/or ‘demand’ curiosity. Ask questions. Give measured answers.
Avoid leaving a conversation with a downer. Offer praise without going over the top. Share the work with other adults in the presence of your children. Stimulate visual exercises. Engage in elaborate, often fantastic conversation. Challenge perceptions with questions regarding alternate realities. And most importantly to all this and everything else one finds on the World of Knowledge on the web is to laugh out loud and share the joy you are creating with those who you hold close as you all smear paint, bend nails, or sing the Sun into existence. It all works.
Generally what to do –
- Consider providing an unique personalized living space
- Surround the child with color, strong graphical designs and contemporary adolescent artwork (of her own making perhaps)
- Make available, easy and frequent access to easy reading books, contemporary music and exciting juvenile art materials
- Gradually introduce increasingly complex age appropriate media
- Evolve personal parental techniques unique to the specific interests of the sensitive ‘moody’ child
- Develop a series of opportunities outside the home to investigate community artistic events, shows and museums
- Engage other parents with similar considerations to combine efforts in raising the interest of their ‘related’ children sharing personal play regardless of intent of play.
- Identify neighbors and classmates who share sensibilities, esthetic interests, and temperament
- Allow for a modicum of freedom to speak when in the presence of adults
- Provide liberty to make measured decisions (those inconsequential to the child’s health and safety)
- Budget activity to include special time to work with mother and father making pleasing objects which may be useful in the home, kitchen or outside in the back yard.
- Endlessly consider acknowledging value of the efforts of the artistic child as he or she grows her artistic sensibility
Fun and easy exercises to engage a child artist
- Set a table in the garage having covered the floor with plastic, garbage bags or suitable cover – get five large throwaway brushes to draw all the colors of the rainbow using only red, yellow, blue, black and white pigments. Make squares, circles and triangles naming the color you create.
- Fold a large piece of paper of white or light brown craft paper into any shape whatsoever. Remove corners with a scissors – open the folds placing it on the floor and drizzle various paint colors gradually over the paper surface. Neatly and carefully refold paper carefully pressing it this way and that. Open and discover the random patterns dry and put aside
- Fold a piece of paper that will hold an object (like a small truck or airplane) one inch off the floor.
- Using a large graphic pencil, attach a string one to two feet in length and draw a circle using the string as a ‘center point’ to draw the circle. Once complete return the string to the edge of the penciled circle and draw a series of arcs which cross the original circle center, intersecting the original arc swinging the pencil across the surface of the initial circle. Continue about the original circle repeating the swinging arc by placing it’s start point on the intersection of the circle and the first arc, continuing about the circle to evolve a beautiful compass rose.
- Discover the lost art of finger painting by getting dirty
- Make colorful edible art in the kitchen using gingerbread, cookie dough and pastas
- Acquire a vast supply of empty corrugated paper boxes and build a city
- Decorate a three foot long string with cutout animals from a trip to a zoo and hang about bushes in the backyard
- Paint your sisters toes when Mummy is out for her walk
Help is out there
The web is also full of how-to-do-its. How can I help my child become the artist I know is hiding beneath that clever smile peeking out from all those scratching, multicolored felt-tipped pen scrawls on her bedroom wall?
For those looking for such links, please check the following below:
About the Author
Richard Michael is a father and now grandfather. He is immensely proud of his children and loves his dog. He loves writing, photography, and airplanes.
Rick Mickelson is a new contributor to Mom Advice Line. A father and now grandfather, Rick shares his perspective with the M.A.L. community in support of other parents and grandparents (and caregivers) who need that experience to help them through the tough parenting times. He can be reached through the Contact Us page.