Children and Art

Every child is an artist. 

PicassoWe’ve all heard that, read that, seen that, and most people probably believe it. Most people probably also believe that Pablo Picasso uttered these words, along with the caveat that “the problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Whether he did or did not say these words, and whether he spoke the phrase in English, Spanish, French, or some other language is actually unknown.

In case you’re curious — as I was — the quote came from an article published in Time magazine in October 1976, a few years after Picasso’s death in 1973. But no source was provided for the quotation.

To be honest, I’ve never fully agreed with this quote, and I say that from personal experience. Even as a child, I never saw myself as an artist. You could give me crayons and paints and all I could do was make a horrible mess, creating art that I was ashamed to put my name on. I couldn’t draw. I had no illusions or pretentions about my childish attempts. They were awful, especially in comparison to those made by my artistically-inclined friends, but at least I had my music to fall back on.

Yes, as a pianist, I was a child prodigy, so what I lacked in visual art, I made up for with musical performances. I had other talents, too. I wrote. I danced. I sang. But when it came to art, I was hopeless. No, Picasso, I was never an artist as a child.

Still, the idea of children having inherent abilities in art is a long-standing one. If Picasso uttered or wrote those famous words attributed to him, he most likely got the idea from an earlier writer, an art critic named Carleton Noyes. In 1907, Noyes published “The Gate of Appreciation” which included these ideas about children and art:

“The child is the first artist. Out of the material around him he creates a world of his own. The prototypes of the forms which he devises exist in life, but it is the thing which he himself makes that interests him, not its original in nature. His play is his expression.”

But Noyes went on to explain that artistic instinct was usually lost as the child grew older. As he put it, “Imagination surrenders to the intellect; emotion gives place to knowledge.”

Throughout the years, many others have shared similar thoughts and feelings. In 1951, art professor Dr. Agnes Snyder of Adelphi College said in a speech that “All children are artists and will remain so if they are not ‘tricked or forced into the acceptance of adult standards’ “, and in a 1969 interview, John Lennon said that “Every child is an artist until he’s told he’s not an artist”.

Going back to my personal experience, let me re-state my position. As a child, I was notvisual artist. I was, however, a highly imaginative child who loved making things. I couldn’t draw, but that never stopped me from making up stories, creating imaginary worlds, and even composing little songs of my own to play and sing.

The only area, actually, in which I was lacking was visual art. I was, to tell the truth, a very clumsy child, and my family was horrified when my Kindergarten teacher commented that I had “problems using scissors.” How shameful! How embarrassing. I was a failure. Of course, considering the fact that I was forced to switch to my right hand instead of using my naturally-dominant left hand, I think I did fairly well with those scissors.

To this day, I still don’t do well with scissors, and as anyone reading this blog knows, I’m not crafty — largely because of the frustrations I’ve experienced throughout life with implements such as scissors, rulers, compasses, and other drawing tools. Little wonder I’m often impatient and exasperated with art projects.

I suppose the true wonder is that I have managed to become an artist of sorts, that I now have learned the basics of drawing and painting. My experience goes counter to the claims of Picasso and those others. I was never a visual artist as a child, but I found a way to become one. It hasn’t been easy.

As a child, though, I was forgiven my lack of artistic talent, and while nobody ever really got over that awful report about my problems with scissors, it was mostly overlooked because I could play the piano. I was playing in recitals at age 4. In Kindergarten, though I was dangerous with scissors in my hand, I was the star of an assembly when I performed “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” — even though I was actually sick that day, was excused from class, but was brought to school and carried onto the stage so that I could perform my piece. The teacher had never before had a 5-year-old student who could actually play real music on the piano. So, yes, my lack of visual art ability was overlooked.

When I sat down and began composing this post, I didn’t intend it to be all about me and my childhood. All of that just sort of came out along the way, stirring up a lot of still troublesome feelings.

But enough of that! Why am I writing this post?

I’m writing it because I feel it’s important. Children — whether they are young artists or not — need to know about line and color, about imagination, about what we feel when we look at paintings, or when we create paintings of our own. Music, dance, and literature are all important to a child’s development, but let’s not push art aside or look upon it as an afterthought to a child’s education.

Recently fellow blogger, Melody Daggerhart from Bad Cat Ink expressed a few thoughts about her childhood art experiences. She spoke of art and music teachers who taught the ideas of dancing with colors.

“I was probably in first grade or so the first time a teacher gave us crayons and put on some music of various moods, telling us to draw what we felt.”

— Melody Daggerhart —

I loved this. How I wish I’d had art and music teachers who understood how inter-connected all forms of art truly are! All art — visual, musical, narrative — comes from the imagination, from the heart, from the soul.

After reading Melody’s comments, I knew I wanted to share art with our grandchildren not only through our drawing and painting times, but through music, too. I want to reach out and find ways to use art in narrative, as well. I want our grandchildren to know and appreciate art in ways I never had a chance to experience.

And, as I’ve put this post together, I’m seeing again the importance of connecting the dots and understanding art in all its different guises.

So, I’ve been browsing a bit, looking for ideas on how we can give young children a greater understanding of all art. I’ve found a few good tips.

  • Let the child experience the art (or music, or story, or dance) before you offer any comments, directions, or information. Art is a personal experience. We shouldn’t try to immediately jump in with our personal thoughts.
  • Ask open-ended questions. What’s going on in this painting, this story, this song? What makes you say that? What else do you think? Give your children the chance to share their experiences with you.
  • Remember that their opinions are as valid as yours. No one is “right” or “wrong” when it comes to art in any form. What I see in a painting is real to me. In the same way, what a child sees or hears or feels is real to him or her.
  • Allow children to express their feelings. Arts can be happy; arts can be sad. Arts can even be scary at times. If you don’t believe me, listen to Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor sometime when you’re alone in a dark room on a stormy night. I put a recording of this on each year for Halloween night and it scares the bejeebers out of trick-or-treaters. All of these feelings are part of who we are. Let your children talk about their feelings.
  • Find new ways to experience works of art. If you’re listening to music, let your children draw what they “see”. If you’re looking at a painting, turn it into a game of “I Spy”, or try to imitate the poses of people in the painting. Make up stories, write poems, and learn a little about the world of the author, artist, composer, or choreographer.
  • Bring arts into other areas. If your children are studying space, introduce them to The Planets by Gustav Holst, and of course, show them The Starry Night by Van Gogh. And how about Moonlight by Winslow Homer? Less well-known but equally beautiful. As for literature there are many space-related classics. And don’t overlook films. Use different resources to spark your children’s imaginations.
  • Go places, do things, provide opportunities for your children. Visit art museums, see a live production of a  Shakespeare play, take them to symphony performances.

Art is not something we look at, something we hear, or something we read. Art is imagination in action, and imagination is life. Art is a personal experience, and please, be sure the children you love have opportunities to make the arts come alive for them.

31 Comments

  1. Great post, Judith! Children simply need to feel that anything ‘arty’, be it writing, drawing, making things, playing instruments and dancing, is just as important as the subjects pushed more by the education system. My education system pushed me into science which turned out to be totally the wrong direction for me. The arts were not rated at my school. It took me until my mid 30s to come back to my childhood love of drawing and painting, making things, and later on writing. I was an artist but didn’t know it. And that’s not putting ‘artists’ on a pedestal, it’s simple accepting and embracing your own self. Thank you for sharing! Will share further on twitter.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Lynne. It seems your experience was somewhat similar to mine. Although you were pushed more into a academic subject where I was pushed into music. That gave me a little bit of “art” in my life, but it came at the exclusion of so many other things. Visual arts were never seen as being of much importance during my school years, except, of course, for those very gifted artists who were naturally talented. They were encouraged; the rest of us were ignored. During high school, I spent virtually all of my time with music. I had passes exempting me from different classes so that I could help with music appreciation classes, boys’ glee club, and other music-related activities. I was seen as “a musician” and that was that. In fact, Last year I attended our 50th high school class reunion. And the question I was asked most often? “Do you still play the piano?” I heard that over and over from classmates. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. I get upset when I see how little attention art receives in many of the area schools. Our local elementary school seems to be an exception, and I was thrilled when 8-year-old Madox started telling me about “negative space” recently. In so many schools, art just isn’t important. It’s not even a year-round class. Students in the middle schools here have art for only 1 semester. So sometimes I get upset and I get off on a crusade to share the arts with children. 🙂 Thanks for being on my side!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. When you say, ‘How I wish I’d had art and music teachers who understood how inter-connected all forms of art truly are! All art — visual, musical, narrative — comes from the imagination, from the heart, from the soul.’ This is SO TRUE and it is why it can be so natural to practice more than one art form – for me it’s writing and painting. But I love music and dance too. I ended up engaging in none of these at secondary school. Primary was better, and that’s a wonderful thing ( I smiled when I read Max is talking about negative space :>)), just a shame it seems discouraged later when children have to choose more ‘serious, practical’ subjects, pushed by either parents or teachers.

        On the subject of piano – I learned to play and had lessons with a private teacher that got me entering competitions for a spell. I simply wasn’t talented enough for piano playing, I found it excruciating to read the music, but my grandma had a degree in music and played piano for the silent movies. I felt I was letting her down (a little) and my teacher down (a lot) when i packed it in. The teacher actually asked me what I was going to do instead as I seemed the quiet type and wasn’t doing any extra school activities like the other girls she taught. I came away feeling so inadequate and it haunted me for years! But I carried on playing just for pleasure for a few years and played songs out of my grandma’s old song books. That was far more enjoyable. So I can relate just a little to your having been pressured to be a musician, Judith.

        Well that’s probably enough, but yes, I’m firmly on your side!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks for sharing your personal experiences. Creativity is such an expansive thing, just as you’ve pointed out. It’s natural for us to find expression through various art forms. So often, though, others try to “guide us” by inadvertently limiting us to one avenue of expression. I’m grateful for my musical education, of course, but I wish I’d been encouraged in visual arts, too. Maybe what our schools need are “creativity classes” — not focusing on single subjects like art or music, but giving students opportunities to explore many different pathways to personal expression.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I put that quote to the test a lot of times. When I’m out drawing in plein air sometimes a school group comes through and I step back for the kids to walk down the path. If they stop and show an interest in what I’m drawing I ask the kids who likes to draw. Most of them raise their hands. Once I asked a teacher why so many like to draw when they’re young but not as they get older and she told me society gives them a fear of failure. If it’s their schools or their parents, I don’t know. The main thing about drawing is, if you have enough dexterity to play a musical instrument you have enough dexterity to draw. People think drawing is a “gift” but it requires practice the same as playing music. I’m glad to see you’re exploring this quote because I’m not sure of the reason for it, but I think it might be true. In my own life, I was a failure from birth, so maybe that’s why I don’t fear failure. Also the adults didn’t show any interest in me, so I always liked to draw to amuse myself, even though I had to walk a mile to my grandmother’s house to get a pencil and paper because I was not allowed to have pencils and paper from the desk at home. It could be that an abnormal childhood causes people to become artists. I’m just guessing here.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your story! I think you might be on to something about the “abnormal” childhood experiences leading toward art, but then again, it’s a little like the conundrum of the chicken or the egg. Do we love the arts because we experienced abnormal childhoods? Or were our childhoods abnormal because of our love for the arts? I was part of a very fun classical music chatroom group back in the early days of AOL and chatrooms. We had a weekly game about classical music trivia, and the quick wits and hilarious puns from group members had us all laughing all night long. Here the question posed was “Are we all smart because we listen to classical music? Or do we listen to classical music because we’re smart?” I don’t think we can separate cause and effect here, and that’s more reason why we should encourage arts in the community and make sure children have opportunities to explore all forms of art. I’m glad your grandmother gave you a chance to play with pencils and paper.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. True.. Its a karmic circle.. Cause and effect over lap. My parents moved me (and brothers) to another school when I was in grade 4. I never got settled there. I was a moody student. Only worked when I liked my environment. In the previous school till grade 3 I topped in my school. From grade 4 onwards I gave a damn and only studied when I liked a teacher :)! So my art-side.. And how at home I was always painting.. Doing strange assemblage stuff.. and creative writing.. No one knew about in school.. A little studying would provide me average grades and that’s what I did till my O levels.. In A levels school changed and I liked this school and worked hard for my art major and did well in that but I only became interested.. Almost obsessed.. Abt knowledge.. And working towards it when I was in art school.. For my under grad.. Over here in lahore Pakistan I was studying in private schools and so was privileged (not because we were rich but because my mother was teaching here and it was free :)! For us) but over all the visual art tradectory for children in my part of the world… In public schools is limited. Now as a lecturer in the college I studied from we have done hands on projects with students across the city..there’s so much I want to say here ❤️ this post is truly valued.. Thank you again for sharing

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’m so happy to hear that you’re working on “hands on” projects with students across the city. It seems to be a mix here. I’ve met a few very dedicated art teachers who are doing all they can to promote art in the classroom and in the community, yet there are others who seem to have an “I don’t really care” attitude. The art clubs I belong to sponsor various student art shows each year, and from that I’ve seen that some teachers can be truly inspiring. Others, sadly, not so much. And students pick up on teachers’ attitudes. I want to help every child learn that art — in all forms — can be exciting and that we can gain personal satisfaction from exploring art, music, dance, and creative writing. These should be fundamentals in any educational program, in my opinion. Unfortunately when budgets are cut, the arts are the first classes to go. 😦

        Liked by 2 people

      3. Sorry for the delayed response Judith. ❤️ So true. I remember art classes being comprised for revision and what not.. I didn’t know that this problem prevailed everywhere.. Its a mix here too.. But the ignorance is more than the attention

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I have enjoyed your post very much, and I agree with most of what you state. I too feel that children, uninhibited as they seem to be, can benefit from guidance to allow them to fully use their untainted imagination and abilities. I remember seeing great works of abstract art in my daughter’s watercolour paintings when she was only four years old. Reference Picasso, well Picasso always spoke of himself. Since he was a prodigy and painted as good as an adult artist before he was seven years old, even better than his father, an art professor, he felt that he was made to paint in the classical manner as a child and later as an adult, when he did his work his way, he felt he was free to paint as a child would. I don’t think he meant to say this about children in general. Picasso was too self-centered for that. Loved your blog.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for visiting, for sharing your thoughts, and for the kind words regarding my little art blog. I enjoyed reading your comments about Picasso. I’m familiar with his works, but I’ve never read much about his life. Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for the mention! What a surprise. LoL … Wow, this is so interesting to see the comparisons of how art and music were handled in childhood for various people. In my case, I am an only child, and I moved around a lot … a LOT … over my lifetime. (23 addresses, I think?) Plus, I came from a background of extremes, which I won’t get into here. But I’d definitely say that because of all this my childhood also fell into the “abnormal” category. A lot of time spent by myself, being the new kid, reading, writing, drawing, and swimming in music. My mother had a small interest in art, but never did much with it, so I can’t really say she inspired me toward it. My first “art” influence was definitely my babysitter in my earliest years, but it was music, music, music. Always had the stereo on and used to sit down at her piano with me to sing and play songs. So, that was my first memory of any kind of “art” form in my life. In school, that turned into chorus, drama, and instrument lessons. And I mentioned already how even my early teachers would do art lessons combined with music lessons to encourage expression. But on my own, in my bedroom, I was a voracious reader and was always drawing or coloring, even making books for my stuffed animals to “read.” 🙂 So, all of this was the core of who I was up through college. I entered a BA in Fine Arts program, but quit after one year because I compared myself to other artists and felt I wasn’t good enough to do what I wanted to do, which was illustrate novels. But then my English professor pulled me aside and said I had a good command of the English language, why didn’t I consider an English major, instead? So, I did. Because I realized writing books was just as much of an instinctive thing for me as art and music were. (And languages, too.)

    With all of that in mind, the curious thing is… very few people in my life encouraged me toward the arts. I had one friend in high school who enjoyed reading my stories. I had one teacher who told me I needed to go to college to become a writer. And then there was the English professor who encouraged me to be a writer. But that was pretty much it. So, even though I can say I grew up surrounded by various arts, it was never really a situation where the adults in my life encouraged it and helped me to progress. It was always me, myself, and I pushing toward something I felt driven to do, toward something I felt I couldn’t live without. I’ve come to realize that’s what it means to be “a creative.” It’s not what I do. It’s who I am. Talent is something we have all in varying degrees, but practice is what develops skills, so I firmly believe all arts can be learned if practiced. But I am linguist-visual and very imaginative, so I have to create or I suffer. Unfortunately, that doesn’t translate well in the business world, so maybe that’s why no one really encouraged me to try to make a career of any of these creative outlets. They loved that I was creative, but it wasn’t a real “job” to encourage anyone in. Or something like that.

    In the end, I tutored in languages, home schooled my own kids emphasizing arts in all aspects of their education, and now I’m finally pursing what I’ve wanted since high school — writing and illustrating stories. This is an excellent post on ways to encourage children to express themselves through arts, and I think it’s something we sorely need that has been too long neglected due to it not being an “academic” education. Arts are therapeutic for mental health, and creativity at its core is all about thinking outside the box to problem solve. And it’s interesting that the buzzwords in future employment include emotional intelligence and creative problem solving, which the arts can help thrive. Anyway, great article, again. 🙂 Lots of juicy thoughts bouncing around in this one and the comments that follow it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So glad you shared your thoughts. It seems you and I have a lot of interests in common LOL. I also tutored in languages (great way to earn extra spending money when I was in high school), plus, as I’ve mentioned in the post, I was very, very involved in the musical classes, clubs, and activities in school. I wrote constantly (I think writing was probably my first love, even more than music). And dancing made its way into my life, too, when I attended a dance class as a guest (I was about 4) with a couple older friends, one of whom went on to become a dancer with the New York City Ballet. As they were going through their motions, I was copying them from the sidelines. The teacher noticed and said “Get that child enrolled in dance today!” I was limber, I was flexible, and I think maybe I had a little rhythm LOL. But those were all considered “fun” things — not something we were supposed to take seriously. Richard, the friend who became the dancer, was always “the weird guy” who got bullied and picked on — actually, he was referred to by a lot of demeaning names, but you get the idea, I’m sure. People did encourage me in art, except for the visual arts since I showed no talent there whatsoever. My piano instructors praised me, but I didn’t want to become a concert pianist. My dance teachers praised me, but I didn’t want to be a dancer, either. Throughout my school years I was praised for my writing abilities, and that was the path I wanted to follow (and ultimately, I did) but while my abilities were praised no one ever encouraged me to seriously think of writing as a career choice. As a result, I puttered around at this and that, got stuck in very non-creative jobs, got bored, wasted a lot of time and energy, and lived a miserable existence until I got back to being who I was. I’ve now retired from novel-writing, although from time to time I think about picking up my pen again. I still play the piano, I’m learning to play the violin, and I satisfy my singing and dancing urges by attending ballets and operas (along with symphony performances, of course.) On Sunday, my oldest grand-daughter is accompanying me to La Boheme. We are both very excited, and I’m happy that I’m able to share the arts with her. We recently attended a ballet performance of Carmina Burana. Earlier I’d introduced her to the work when the KC Symphony performed it. We’re in a classic literature book club together, and we’re also planning trips to nearby art galleries. (She’s a member of the Nelson-Atkins Gallery.) The arts are such a vital, necessary part of life! I love what organizations are doing to involve children — such as the KC Symphony showing popular films (Harry Potter, Star Wars, Back to the Future) with the symphony performing the score. Our grandchildren enjoy those performances. But while there are many examples of organizations working to involve children, the parents still have to make those opportunities available. Above all, they have to encourage their children, share art experiences with them, let them see that arts can be an acceptable career path. Not every artist is a “starving artist” because there are so many avenues where art talent can be applied. Writing skill is also a valuable asset that can be applied in many areas. Creativity needs to be emphasized, not merely praised and pushed aside. Yes, academics are necessary, too, but not all of us are cut out to be STEM students. I like the newer concept of STEAM — which is STEM with the ARTS added. All children have talents, as you’ve pointed out. Those talents, wherever they lie, need to be cultivated and encouraged. If a child is gifted in math and science, that’s awesome! If a child wants to work in information technology, that’s great. Give them the education they need, and let them explore the arts, too. They will benefit. On the other side of that spectrum, if a child is gifted in visual arts, that should be awesome, too. If a child wants to write novels, that ought to be a great objective. Let them pursue those creative interests — and give them a bit of science, math, and technology to round them out. I guess the point is that children should be given opportunities to explore all areas of learning and doing, and we should guide them in the direction they’re meant to go — which is usually easy to see by their interests — not try to force them into “successful career” molds we think they should pursue.

      Whew! I really got long-winded here this morning. Thanks again, Melody, for inspiring my “Children and Art” post, and thanks for dropping by to share your thoughts and experiences.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Wow, we do have a lot in common! LoL … I was interested in dance and gymnastics through my teen years, but then that dropped off along with theater and music, so that art, writing, and languages became prominent. But they’re all creative and communicative interests that support one another and other facets of life. Absolutely agree with you that everyone can benefit from exploring these things, and that if there is an interest, it should be encouraged and taken seriously. That’s where I feel most of our avenues failed us as kids. These things were seen as fun, but not necessary or important. And yet to some of us they are the breath of life itself. Anyway, so fun to see kindred spirits like this. ^_^

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Another commonality — gymnastics. LOL. Yes, we definitely have followed a lot of the same pathways in life. I’m very glad we’ve had a chance to get acquainted here in this vast “blogosphere”, as it’s been called.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Wonderful post, Judith! Sounds like you were (and are) an amazing talent, regardless the “art” itself. I guess I’ve never thought of the child as artist as just visual; as you say, they’re so interconnected. We raised our 3 kids around as many types of artistic activity as was natural and available. Now, decades later, with our youngest grandchild (age 6) we have another amazing opportunity, but he’s already a runaway train, not only into the arts but sports and math and of course, dinosaurs, lol! Love your reminders of letting the child experience the art in his or her own way – we love his interpretation of energetic dance, lol! Thank u for the reminders! ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, as a child I thought of “artists” only in terms of visual arts, and that was far removed from my personal experience. I’m glad I did have other creative avenues available to explore. Even then, creativity was so often seen as something very impractical, something that should be pursued more as a hobby than as a profession. I think children need exposure to and opportunities to explore all avenues. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and I’m glad your interest in “the arts” is extending to your grandchildren.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Judith I absolutely loved reading this. Took me back to my memories.. Wildness of art making.. As a child.. And how my grant who was the anti thesis of who I was.. Poised.. Refined.. In her art making.. Truly and deeply encouraged me to do things my own my a d always gave me confidence.. Later on the same happened in my under grad BFA.. My peers class fellows could never understand what I was doing.. But a group of mentors/teachers encouraged me so devotedly.. These Important voices echo through one’s heart and mind.. They make all else matter less.. And you can keep doing what you have come to do.. Later on.. Even if there are no voices left.. You are enough ❤️ Thank you for this insightful and personal.. Read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for visiting my blog and sharing your thoughts. Writing that post brought out a lot of emotions. I’m glad I’m now at a place in my life where I can pursue all my creative interests, and where I can also be instrumental in helping others discover and explore their own creativity.

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