At Home & Living
Eight Ways to Nurture a Young Artist
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”
– Pablo Picasso
My son was 3 years old. We were eating at a café in Lake City, now closed, which had a giant reproduction of George Seurat’s famous impressionist painting, “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” on the back wall. Seurat is known for applying his paint in tiny dots. I told Nathan that this was called pointillism. He went home and tried it with his fingers and with the tip of a brush.
I exposed my children to the visual arts in small doses – in books, galleries, museums, wherever we saw it in daily life. I was the neighborhood mom who loaded watered-down paint in squirt guns and let the kids paint the fence, and told them to paint the outside of our backyard tree house however they wanted to. I still work with children and my mantra is: “It’s art; it can be any way you want it to be.”
In talking with three women who run Seattle art schools for children, I’ve also learned more about the importance of teaching techniques and concepts such as color theory, composition and perspective, so that young artists have more ways to express themselves as they get older. “We feel that both skill development and exploration of personal style are important,” says Lassie Webster, owner of Roaring Mouse Creative Arts Studio, and a longtime consultant to school districts on the creative arts.
At Early Masters Art School, Shelley Thomas first introduces her 7- to 12-year-old students to the works of a particular artist or the style of an earlier period, and then has them use that as a springboard for their own works. “It gives them the parameters, and they take it and make it their own,” she says. Valerie Durbin uses a similar approach at her Art of Ages Studio. “We talk about being inspired by the artists, rather than imitative,” she says.
Here are some of our tips for helping your child enjoy and create art.
- Find art all around. In the early years especially, sparks for creativity “begin with all the things that engage the senses,” Webster says. “Going to a museum, watching a building being built, walking on the beach, going to the zoo, all of these things can inspire creative expression.” You can point out bits of art at street fairs, in restaurants or stores, on buildings, in the bus tunnel and at bus stops; it’s not something precious that is only housed in museums and galleries.
- Find art in special places. On the other hand, you can expand a child’s horizons by going to places where art is showcased. “When children are little, the three-dimensional things, like Alexander Calder (mobiles and large bright sculptures) are best,” Durbin says. “As they’re a bit older, go to lunch and visit one gallery. Go at the child’s own speed, so they’re not bored.” Art museums can be great for children 7 and older; Durbin recommends the smaller spaces such as the Wing Luke Museum, the new Chihuly Garden and Glass or the Seattle Asian Art Museum, as well as neighborhood art walks. The Frye Art Museum is a small, free museum that is actively working to attract children. Thomas also recommends family nights at Seattle Art Museum and other venues. All three art teachers are enthusiastic about the variety of art books now available to children. “Always ask them what they think about the art they’re looking at,” Durbin adds.
- Give them an art space at home. If you have room, it’s great to have a specific area where kids can do art and make a mess. Webster recommends stocking it with found items, glue and cardboard that children can put together any way they want to, along with inexpensive watercolor and tempura paints. “A big obstacle in art making is a tendency to make art too precious,” she says, recommending the simple supplies of paper, pencils and crayons. Thomas suggests decorating the space with rotating art postcards or pictures for inspiration. As children get older, she advises giving them good quality supplies and teaching them how to treat them with respect so that they “see themselves as an artist.”
- Do art with your children. Sit down and draw with your children, Thomas recommends. If they’ve learned a technique in an art class, let them teach you. “Talk with them while they’re drawing, or doing other art,” Durbin suggests. “Keep comments to a minimum. Don’t give too much generalized praise, like ‘that’s great.’ Comment more specifically, like, ‘I love how you mixed the red and yellow.’ At the end ask them, ‘Are you proud?’” Let children walk away from the artwork when they’re finished, rather than pressing them to perfect it our way, Webster adds.
- Give kids more information. Thomas has found that children are endlessly curious and are empowered when they are “armed with knowledge usually reserved for adults.” At her Early Masters Art School, she sends students home with “what we learned today” sheets that are touch points for dinner conversations and a chance for them to teach their parents. Durbin discovered that the more fun stories she shares about the artists, the more her students are engaged. At age 6 or 7, kids want to know more about composition and color theory, and she gives them the information a little at a time.
- Help them learn techniques. “When children are younger than 7, just let them play (with art),” Thomas advises. As they’re older, she shows them how earlier artists made their works and how to use the brush or mix the colors to create the same effects. “Imitating is not something parents should be afraid of; it’s a good thing,” she says of the age-old practice of artists copying earlier works, mastering the techniques and then creating their own artworks. “A blank canvas is less intimidating if they have an idea of where to go.” Children of all ages benefit from skills training, Webster adds. “Learning how to hold a brush or pencil, how to care for tools, how to cut and paste, how to shape and pinch clay together – these are all foundational skills that will ultimately free kids to do more with their ideas.”
- Follow a child’s lead. “If a child is expressing interest, then pursue it,” Webster advises. “If it wanes, then let it go. Sometimes kids do need a little push to stick with something, but if you find yourself as a parent invested in your kid succeeding in a particular area, you might want to step back and see if it’s your interest or your child’s.” Thomas has found that students are ready to move on to acrylics or oils or more advanced methods when they say so. “Expose them to everything, but if they want to do one thing – like the pottery wheel week after week – let them do what they want.”
- Honor your child’s work. One of the saddest things I remember as a co-op preschool parent is having a young mother visit my house, with lots of my kids’ art displayed and some of it framed. “My mother never saved or showed off anything I ever made,” she said with tears in her eyes. The art teachers all display their students’ works in their own galleries – and they let the kids choose what they are most proud of to display. “We stand back and look at our art displayed on the wall at the end of the session,” Thomas says. Her greatest joy is to hear students say, “I love it!”
If You Go...
Local Places to Explore Art
Art galleries in the Puget Sound area (kids can get small doses of art in their areas of interest; most are free) – are listed by city at www.artguidenw.com/artcity.htm.
Monthly Neighborhood Art Walks in the Puget Sound area – listed at www.artguidenw.com/artevents/htm.
Art Museums Accessible for Kids (Check websites for free days.)
Bellevue Art Museum: Exhibits change often, so it’s new every time and a manageable size for kids to explore without being overwhelmed. 510 Bellevue Way N.E., Bellevue; 425-519-0770; www.bellevuearts.org.
Chihuly Garden and Glass: The new exhibit space is bright, colorful and kid-friendly, although expensive. Seattle Center, 305 Harrison St., Seattle; 206-753-4940; www.chihulygardenandglass.com.
Frye Art Museum: Because this museum is free, you can explore as much as you want at one time, and there’s monthly “storytelling in the galleries” for preschoolers. 704 Terry Ave., Seattle; 206-622-9250; www.fryemuseum.org.
Museum of Glass, Tacoma: This museum is a kid-pleaser with its open hot shop, hands-on art activities, kids’ drawings that are made into glass designs and family days. 1801 Dock St., Tacoma; 866-468-7386; www.museumofglass.org.
Seattle Art Museum: The downtown museum covers works from Europe, Asia, Africa and America all in one place, with a free Chase Open Art Studio and family events. 1300 First Ave., Seattle. Also check out the free outdoor Olympic Sculpture Park on the waterfront; 206-654-3100; www.seattleartmuseum.org.
Seattle Asian Art Museum: This smaller museum in Volunteer Park features the works of various Asian countries in a lovely setting. 1400 E. Prospect St., Seattle; 206-654-3100; www.seattleartmuseum/org/visit/visitSAAM.asp.
Tacoma Art Museum: This bright, modern space features an eclectic collection of art in a wide variety of mediums and an open art studio for all ages. 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma; 253-272-4258; www.tacomaartmuseum.org.
Children’s Museums with Art Studios
The Children’s Museum, Seattle: Center House/Armory at Seattle Center, 305 Harrison St., Seattle; 206-441-1768; www.thechildrensmuseum.org.
Children’s Museum of Tacoma: 1501 Pacific Ave., Tacoma; 253-627-6031; www.playtacoma.org.
Imagine Children’s Museum: 1502 Wall St., Everett; 425-258-1006; www.imaginecm.org.
Kids Discovery Museum (KiDiMu): 301 Ravine Lane, Bainbridge Island; 206-855-4650; www.kidimu.org.
KidsQuest Children’s Museum: 4091 Factoria Mall S.E., Bellevue; 425-637-8100; www.kidsquestmuseum.org.
Recommended Resources for Parents
Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Artists series (including volumes on Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol and Leonardo Da Vinci), by Mike Venezia.
TinkerLab: Make, Experiment and Explore with Kids – www.tinkerlab.com.
Hands On: As We Grow: Hands on kids activities for hands on moms – www.handsonaswegrow.com.
PaintCutPaste: Nurturing the creative spirit – www.paintcutpaste.com.
Pink and Green Mama: Create, Play, Explore – www.pinkandgreenmama.blogspot.com.
Art in Action (online art curriculum and teacher resources) – www.artinaction.org.