Most parenting advice goes to the wind, but the best stays with you, coming back to help for years to come. One of my go-to gems from the early days was that raising children is an incremental process of letting go.
I remember trying desperately to "let go" by setting up a carefully managed painting activity… and realising with chagrin the amount of facilitation (and clearing up) required to hold my toddler’s interest for only 10 minutes. Not to mention the double whammy of having to find a conspicuous yet non-cluttering location for the output.
You may have deduced I need no help with the ‘taking control’ end of the spectrum. Post-match analysis (at 19:01, with routine child tucked in her bed, vin rouge tucked in my hand), revealed that different tactics and a new mind set were required.
Salvation came in the guise of a local activity group Crafty Kids run by the spectacularly capable Sally and Kate. Every session we were greeted with a run-through of several wholesome 'projects'. We then took our (mostly) enthusiastic toddlers round the corresponding workstations to cut, stick, model and paint the array of take-home arts and crafts. That particular enclave of Bristol is densely populated with a wonderful combo of alpha females and yoghurt-weaving academics… standards of behaviour and output were pretty high, and I smiled through gritted teeth as Izzi (bedecked in hand-knitted tights over reusable cloth nappy) worked her way round. To add insult to injury (comparison with my efforts at home was painful) the session was rounded off with juice, biscuits, homemade cake, a story and a singsong. The other great (possibly best) thing was that it wasn't in my house. Izzi and I trotted along happily for a year, stockpiling an arson of models, pictures and puppets. Then, in characteristic flouting of The Masterplan, her little brother wasn't the least bit interested in any of the activities. Disaster. He just wanted to eat the biscuits, scream, and go home. Luckily some genius always provided a tub of dry porridge oats and wooden spoons (or other pointless activity that Izzi and I had smugly glided past), which Leon was very happy to stir and flick. I failed to see the art in that, and now regret the period immediately before this discovery, which I completely wasted trying to cajole (force) him to paint, glue, and decorate. At least by then I was too tired from washing nappies and blending organic vegetable compote to care about impressing the other parents (who were also too tired to notice his protests).
Confession: 11 years on, I am as guilty as the next person of giving Third Child felt tips and a colouring pad. I praise him for his symmetry, and his expertise at staying within the lines, quietly complimenting myself on the preserved remains of my once bohemian parenting. But even as he chomps through page after page of superheroes, his flair will not be squished: rainbow Spiderman, letters and weapons added alongside... little reminders that (while his fine motor control and pen grip are excellently served by colouring in), he should have blank paper.
O blank page, whose bare expanse can choke the most enthusiastic starts! Without acclimatising a child to a blank page, and different mark-making tools, I think a window silently closes, giving way to a teen who "is rubbish at drawing", who just colours in someone else's dream...
So, with credit to Sally and Kate, and drawing on my immense catalogue of mistakes:
Top 10 Tips to get children (of all ages) in an artistic groove...
1. Boredom is your ally. There's a reason why 19th century children did intricate cross stitch samplers… they were no more capable than ours, there just wasn't much else to do, and their parents did it alongside them. Leave the screens off, and (without making it sound like a punishment) offer a choice between chores, homework, or art. If there are several children around, you just need one to pick up the brush, and the rest are very likely to follow.
2. Use good quality materials, and go large. Go into an art and craft shop without a list - they often have old stock in a bargain bin. Printer paper is fine, but a big sketchpad or roll of drawing paper is more liberating, and the colours will stick better to the rougher surface. There’s not much more depressing than a sorry container of blunt pencils and dry felt tips. Try some soft coloured pencils, chalks or oil pastels - great for a bit of after-school Expressionism. Ask your child for a picture of something unstructured like the sky, a sunset, the sea, or an emotion. Remember it doesn't have to look like anything. And don’t forget the scissors (some kids love to cut their work up, or obliterate it with marker pens. Think of it as Rock ‘n Roll, as you watch the only decent picture of the day being methodically destroyed).
3. Cheap easy thrills - a pot of tapwater and big brush make great dark marks outside on sunny concrete. Paint a face with squiggly hair and no eyes, and see if they can resist putting them in. Then ask for a body. Use twigs and leaves to turn an apple into a funny faced character. Make potato prints together. Channel their inner Banksy with chalks - a pot of giant coloured chalks from a toyshop is great for drawing on outside walls... Or use the chalks to draw some numbered stepping stones on the ground, with a decent jump between each one, and ask them to put sea monsters, larva and swamps around the stepping stones:
4. Lead by example - have a go yourself. Really. Don't be down on your own work, or hung up on the end result. Get engrossed, and enjoy the process – if you really go for it, some you will like, some will be hideous… either way, talk openly about what you'd like to improve about your picture next time. Ask what they think of yours, accept their feedback, and put any you don’t love straight into the recycling bin with a smile... you are teaching them more with your behaviour towards your art than with your output itself. You may find that your skill level has been suspended at whatever age you stopped drawing, so without prejudice you can just pick it up from there and carry on. It's never too late, for you or them. OK, so another confession: you are my hidden agenda.
5. Channel their inner Luvvie: Ask them to sign their work; take photos of it; make a moderate fuss. Invite them to try a simple picture editor - some judicious cropping or digital colour adjustment can give new life to a patchy original. Instagram is great for this. Lots of artists cut their pictures up and only keep the best section. Post it on social media or email to an enthusiastic relative. Look at their work in a mirror, or upside down to see it with fresh eyes. Chat about it. Don't judge the output, find something good to say, or if it really is a hideous eyesore, ask them what they like about it, or what they were trying to produce. Remember, there is no ‘bad’ art, even if some is more popular than others. I still remember my primary school teacher Mrs Summers saying (on seeing my rather stubby picture of a person)
“Gail, look at my neck. Look how it is between my head and my shoulders”.
6-year-old Eureka moment! A whole term of expensive life-drawing classes in a nutshell. Be honest though, and remind them of the value of practice. You wouldn’t expect to play a piano or dismantle a car engine without learning. Be sensitive about comparison, and teach siblings to be thoughtful when critiquing each others' work.
6. Go on expeditions...have a look at www.facebook.com/groups/urbansketchers for inspiration, and take pencil/felt pen/biro to a café. Sketch the outlines of an urban view in a line drawing. Then take photos of the view, go home and scan some copies of your line drawing. Experiment on the copies, adding colour with paint or pencil, or just go for it and add colour to your original. This is a great thing to do on holiday, here’s one I prepared earier…
8. Get a roll of cheap paper (eg Ikea), and tape it to completely cover the tabletop. This is great before food with visitors, or for kids' parties, and is a lovely introduction to group work. They can turn it into a tablecloth with personalised places, or plan something more collective, such as a seascape or garden view. Oil pastels, felt pens, or pencils are great for this as they don't smudge like chalks.
9. Show them art, and discuss it - in galleries, print, or on the internet. Surf for artists and techniques on Wikipedia, Instagram, and Youtube. Try doing a picture in the style of one you like. Look at how an artist’s style evolves through their life (Monet and Van Gogh are good for this), and about establishment rejection (Jack Vettriano is a good example).
10. For an older child, is there a place you could let them do a mural? Use diluted water-based emulsion house paint (not gloss!). With your support and help planning, they could cut stencils, or paint directly onto the wall.… this could take a whole week!
... and if all else fails, get a big bowl, some porridge oats, and a wooden spoon.