Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Please let your child make art.

You know those baskets of colourful pencils that children are offered for every activity time? The sort you can pick up cheaply in every supermarket? They look like a bucket of dreams waiting to happen. Children grab them by the handful, and dig through them like they are raiding treasure troves.
And truly they are buckets of dreams, and nothing more, because you need to dream pretty darn hard to make them work at all.
Have you ever used one of them?
Did you think: it's a wonder what a child's imagination can do, I can't draw a THING with this?
I'll tell you what. This is because those pencils are actually rubbish. Those are fake pencils. Okay?
The reason children take handfuls and dig through them with so much energy is because they are trying to find one that works. They know to go for the shortest nubbins at the bottom of the box and leave the longest ones which no one else could get anything out neither.
They are foraging, with great determination.
Imagine what that determination could do.

When a child makes art, it's not a case of playing pretend. It's not like playing at being a brain surgeon with a spoon and a pudding. It's not like playing mother with a plastic doll. They are not playing at being an artist. THEY ARE ACTULLY MAKING ART. Even if all they are given is fakes and toys that scratch faint lines, penny brushes with splayed hairs, grey sugar paper because “they just waste it anyway”, maybe a bowl of confetti because “it's colourful and fun”. What would you say if someone gave you a bowl of confetti and a bit of glue and say "go on, make some art"? - Well, amazingly children are generally good-natured and trusting enough to try. But even the most loving parent and even the children themselves may look at the result and find it hard to see if, in fact, somehow, art has happened. Even if it goes straight on the fridge and you can tell what it is and everything... is it art? Well it's... it's nice! It's promising, maybe. Anyway, we can talk again in a few years' time, right? Who knows what they'll be into. If they keep trying this hard, maybe one day they will be artists, and then...
But - who cares if they may be artists one day? What's the point in telling them they may be artists one day if they work hard? What's that got to do with anything? Is this whole confetti business some sort of test of how hard they will try? Are we trying to trick them into law school or something?
It simply doesn't matter what they will be one day.
Art is not just for artists. It's for humans.
Art is not a privilege, it is a way of thinking with your hands, so you can see, and so the world can see, too. You don't need a license to make marks. You just need something that makes marks.

Try drawing on sugar paper with a chap wax crayon. The sort that costs £1 for a bucket of 36. I'll wait.
How does this make you feel? Does it make you wonder why you are trying so hard to blunt a stick of wax, by any chance? Are you looking around to check if anyone is watching so you can throw the paper away before someone sees it? - Too late, I'm watching! Yes you're right, that looks rubbish! Yes you're allowed to stop now, phew. I just wanted you to know - I've been trying it myself, just to demonstrate, and mine looked rubbish too. It's okay. Honestly. No I won't show you. I threw it away already.
Go and get some better stuff.
You don't need to spend much, some supermarkets and stationers sell decent ones for cheap - if they cost a few quid for a small set of basic colours, they are probably good, but try them out yourself and see if you enjoy them before you give them to a child. The joy of making pictures is not just a matter of imagination, it's a matter of physical enjoyment first, the joy of a gesture that you make leaving a visible trace.
Give them things that leave marks. You don't need to buy them whole sets of expensive tubes of paint, or huge loads of anything. Every good piece of art material is a joy, and a treasure, and by good I mean anything that readily creates or receives a mark, which may include beetroot juice or a particularly well-charred stick, and the lovely white rounded cards that are used to package tights. Do real artists paint with their breakfast tea sometimes? Of course they do, if it's nice and strong!
Some good art materials command respect: you must wear clothes that may get dirty, and handle them carefully. A bottle of red ink could spoil a whole carpet.
You may be surprised how much respect your child can show for a powerful substance like that. Children enjoy being careful if there is a good reason, and using something that requires your supervision is very exciting and memorable. They like to see you deal with important substances, you know.

Real art materials often need some care – brushes need to be washed and stored carefully. Children can do this, too, as they can look after pets and precious toys.

So: you can give them a load of rubbish that doesn't make a mess because it doesn't actually leave any traces at all - or you can let them make art.
A pack of cheap, but real brushes costs little. A box of decent watercolours or dry gouache costs more – get one with less colours. Get just one colour, even, but one that makes a mark. Get to know that colour. Ask that colour what it can do, and you will be surprised.
By all means and of course: check if it's toxic first, and explain to your child that putting paint in their mouth is generally a bad idea. But if they can learn to deal with boiling water, and learn to deal with cleaning products, they can learn to deal with art materials. And you'll be there to help them with the messier ones, and find ones that are safe enough as long as the area is covered against smears and splashes.
And also – you may well find that as soon as they are actually making real marks rather than playing pretend at being artists, children won't be anywhere near as messy because they won't have to make up in energy and imagination for what the material denies them in actual experience.
They will WANT to make something beautiful, rather than just have the experience of jolly noisy play-time with colourful sticks.

It's true that investing in art materials will help to create better art, but also don't forget about all the stuff you can just use for free. If you have a pair of scissors and some paper glue, anything colourful in your paper recycling may be a treasure, too: maybe a collage picture waiting to happen. Just one good crayon and a week's worth of paper recycling is better than a whole basket of useless crayons and a whole pack of pristine paper.
And then: don't just hand everything over to your child. Why should they have all the fun and education? Make some art together. And I mean: each make their own piece. If the materials are any good, you probably won't need to help your child to make it look good any more. Of course you can also collaborate on things, that's part of the fun, but the bigger part is respect for artistic expression: you make your thing, they make theirs. You will find that you can teach one another a lot.
But not if all you have is a bucket of fake pencils that just look like a treat!
Asking your child to supply all the dreams to make those faint pencil scrawls work is mean - and you are missing out, too.

This is an essay I wrote some years ago and posted on my old website... I just remembered it and thought it should be on my blog because I still believe in it.


ReadItDaddy said...

A very thought provoking post. I too have fallen into the trap of investing in a bunch of cheap coloured pencils / crayons / paper for C because she tends to rip through an art pad in about 10 seconds flat. It served me right when once she managed to get hold of my expensive and lusciously textured sketchbook, and some of my best sketching pencils and topped my book off for me.

Since then (and because cheap art materials for kids really ARE appalling) I've taken the approach that if I need stuff for home for me, I'll pick up an extra set for her too. I agree that if kids are limited in how they can make marks, produce art, dip into their extraordinary imaginations and knack for spacial awareness, using the entire blank canvas regardless of 'the rules', then it's like slapping a pair of manacles on them before they've even got out of the starting blocks.

Anne-Marie said...

I read the first paragraph and thought "but those pencils are rubbish" so obviously totally agree with you ;-)

I have the artistic talent of something-with-no-artistic-talent but my daughters (especially my 6 year old) have the talent and freedom of small children. We love stockmar crayons and lyra pencils despite the cost, as they last forever. Eldest loves oil pastels.

Oh, and they spend hours with cheap felt tip pens that they always leave the lids off so I don't buy expensive versions of. But a mix of things works for us ;-)

Viviane Schwarz said...

I remember my mother teaching me not to waste art materials... I got told off for pouring out more paint then I needed as much as for spoiling food.

It's very fortunate if you can actually buy extra materials of artist quality! I'm already happy if the stuff makes proper marks at all...

I still have clear memories of every proper art material I was ever given as a child, always with the warning that I must treat them properly - the rotring pen, the sable brush. They changed my life, and gave me confidence and ambition.

Viviane Schwarz said...

Felt tip pens are great! They make a good mark. I think they shouldn't be the only thing, but they beat bad crayons by a mile.

Viviane Schwarz said...

I had a set of Lyra pencils, too. I treasured them until they were worn to stumps, and I still have the tin!

Alexis Deacon said...

My Mum and Dad used to give me proper sketchbooks to draw in when I was really small. I would race through them in a couple of days. My Gran was totally appalled but now she is convinced it is the reason I became an illustrator. Who knows? What I do know is that I still have the sketchbooks. They are full of ham-fisted scribbles of Skeletor and Darth Vader and the like... I love them dearly!

Liza said...

I actually didn't know decent art materials were available for anyone to buy until I left school, and was really frustrated - I thought my unsatisfactory efforts were just due to my lack of ability.

I have always made my art supplies available to my own children - I don't spend a fortune, but colourless wax crayons are definitely off limits!

Robert Ramsden said...

I make a point of letting my son use my materials, making no distinction between what I use and what he uses, I've always thought this was really important, And he's used my dip pen since he was 2 or 3 and if he has a nice pencil in his box, which I like the look and feel of, then it's up for grabs, it's a two way thing! Ferby's are good! I do agree that the enthusiasm, and enjoyment which children naturally express them-self through drawing should be matched by enjoyable materials. They don't have to be expensive, but they should be tested before buying... I like some of crayola's pencils, but they do varying, test them a quick bite will do!

devon dragon said...

i had almost no art materials as a child (because we had almost no money!) so i'd draw on the back of my parents' bank statements, birth certificates, anything i could get my hands on - in biro. i now work as an illustrator and kids' workshop facilitator..

Viviane Schwarz said...

Biro and scrap isn't bad... I mostly had the backs of computer printouts from hospital and felt tip pens. If it leaves a good mark, it's good! I had one teacher in school who banned everything but colour pencils for being "not worthy". That was so annoying!

Viviane Schwarz said...

Biro and scrap isn't bad... I mostly had the backs of computer printouts from hospital and felt tip pens. If it leaves a good mark, it's good! I had one teacher in school who banned everything but colour pencils for being "not worthy". That was so annoying!

devon dragon said...

It's true, and i think i now run kids' art workshops so i (and they) can have nice materials to work with! And yes, teachers can be a bit odd about art - one once told me that she hated children's drawing... very sad for her and the kids in her class :(