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Teaching Art to Children

By Dorothy Gauvin

Like all healthy pre-schoolers, my little son was a genius.

Because education experts warned us parents not to teach our kids to read before they entered school, I refrained from doing so. But I used to put rag books in his crib along with the other toys. Nothing could stop him from associating the pictures of animals with the names printed beside them and then recognising the same words when he saw them elsewhere. Sound familiar?

While he cuddled on my lap as we listened to my record collection of classical music, he would tell me about the pictures and stories that came into his mind. When we took the dog for a walk, they'd both stop to inspect every interesting creature we met on the way. But the child tested my knowledge of natural history to its limits, and soon progressed from a magnifying glass to his first microscope. Any child does the same, if encouraged.

And, of course, he drew.

His father had painted a piece of wallboard - 4 feet high by 8 feet long - with green blackboard paint and attached it to the little boy's bedroom wall. Along its bottom edge we nailed a length of curved frame moulding, to hold a supply of multi-coloured chalks and catch their fall-out. (This was one child who, despite his other little-boy devilries, never scribbled on the walls!)

Part of that board was devoted to an on-going and ever-changing panorama of some imagined War, usually complete with sound effects. And there were animals of every kind, natural or fantasy critters. You could almost see the movement of his fishes' fins. His cats stretched elongated necks and waved eloquent tails. I never tried to "correct" these vivid drawings, nor did I give him those dreaded books of pictures to be coloured in, always keeping "within the lines."

Then he started school. One day he came home and showed me how the teacher had instructed the class on the proper way to draw a cat. You know what it was, don't you? A capital letter Q for the body and tail, combined with the letter M for ears. I had to go away in private and weep. And sure enough, those wonderful cats were never seen again on his blackboard.

By now you'll have gathered that I'm saying I think the best line to take on teaching art to children is: Don't! Very young kids can be given big sheets of cheap butcher's paper and pots of washable poster paint, big soft brushes and a place where they can spread out and make a mess without getting scolded. It's neither necessary nor helpful to show them how to draw. Just leave them alone to have fun. It may help you to know this:

Scientists studying the origins of language have reported that elements of drawing and painting by very young children, anywhere in the world, are universally the same. So it seems possible that these early attempts are a preparation for speech rather than the expression of artistic talent, as we parents fondly believe.

Interestingly enough, the same scientists have observed a striking resemblance between children's art and the marks made by certain "gifted" chimpanzees, tamed elephants and even parrots who were provided with art materials.

After they start school, most children quickly accept the prevailing belief that making art is only for those who "have the gift for it" and most give up the dream of doing it professionally. Television reinforces that idea, causing kids to think only the professionals should be seen playing sports, singing or dancing or making art.

As they grow, some children begin to show an aptitude for painting and their parents wonder if they should have private lessons. It seems so natural and right to give your kids every opportunity you can afford. Yet, the experience of a lifetime as an artist has made me doubtful of the benefits. Here's why:

The majority of kids soon lose interest when they discover that real art instruction involves a lot of tedious study and practice they were not prepared for. A child may persevere for some time in an effort to please the parents. Eventually the loss of so much of the "social life" other kids are enjoying will cause the typical child to resent, and then give up, the lessons.

If you, as a parent, can accept this without nagging the child to continue, or making him/her feel guilty about the money you've "wasted," then no harm is done. After all, many people take up art as a hobby in later life and probably do get some benefit from the tuition they had as children; and derive a lot of joy from their hobby.

But if a child is to be an artist, no power on earth can stop him.

He'll know it at an early age (I was seven) and you'll know it because, while his brothers and sisters hop from astronaut to fireman, model to doctor etc, his ambition will remain the same. He'll draw all the time, not just when he's being noticed and encouraged. He'll pore over any art books you give him and he'll fill up his sketchbooks with exercises he's set for himself. He'll hang around anyone who can show him how to improve his art. (As a ten-year-old, I haunted the tobacconist's next to my parents' shop because the owner was an amateur watercolourist who showed me how to paint clouds.)

If you have a child like this, don't make the natural mistake of trying to make it easy for him. He doesn't need it; and you may well give him the wrong impression. The truth is, life as an artist is not easy. Nor is it so glamourous as the media pretends. (When did you ever see a TV interview with an artist that showed him/her scraping down the palette or cleaning brushes?) Neither are we led to think about the long years of trying to achieve acceptance by galleries, to build a personal style and reputation, or to reach that point when price tags and volume of sales can put an end to the "day job."

In Australia, much Government - that is to say, taxpayer-funded - encouragement has recently been focused on artists' groups. This has coincided with the unprecedented rise in unemployment and could be seen as a way of mitigating or even disguising those figures. But it has a very damaging effect, perhaps unforeseen by the well-intentioned people who put these programmes in place.

It causes amateurs, who have never tested themselves on the open market, to believe they are professional artists. And because their art must conform with standards and fashions currently approved by their Government employers, what they all end up producing is Government art. Even worse, that large portion of the public which does not like the art produced this way, and resents being told they are just too ignorant to recognise what is "good for them," becomes disillusioned with artists and art in general.

Yet, even being aware of all the difficulties that lie ahead, there is always one youngster who, among all his fellows, does become an artist. No one really understands why this is so. My own theory is a suspicion that we are the people who never properly "grow up." (No matter how many sunrises I see, I get just as excited each time and marvel at their infinite variety.) A compulsion not to be denied takes over: to "be the eyes for others" so they too can see the wonders inherent in everyday things, the way they did as children.

To depict these things in a memorable way requires training in craftsmanship and the artist-in-bud will never stop until s/he acquires this. So while s/he lives under your roof, don't allow yourself to feel pressured to provide anything beyond interest and encouragement. You see, being an artist is not something a person chooses. It chooses the person. And it may well be better that you don't try to make things easy, but let your child follow his/her own path. In the meantime, let Art be just fun.
About The Author:
Name: Dorothy Gauvin
Dorothy Gauvin is an internationally acclaimed artist who specialises in an epic theme of the Australian pioneers.

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