Can children talk about art?

(Spoiler: Yes…with the right encouragement!)

I'm an advocate for children being engaged in art. All art forms are valuable — whether music, theater, filmmaking, poetry, dance, and all the rest.

In this essay, I'm focusing on two-dimensional art, such as painting, drawing, and collaging.

You are probably aware of classes through your local recreation centers and art centers. There are many, many online classes available too. For example, I teach through My lessons are private, one-on-one lessons taught through a platform similar to Zoom. I teach children 9 and above. But, as a policy, I think it is better for kids to be in art classes with other kids.

In my group classes (before Covid), I always left enough time at the end of class for us to have a critique. Maybe surprisingly, even budding artists as young as three or four, can explain to you their thinking behind their art.

Elementary school student art lined up for our critique.

I advise the young students that, in the critique, we will be kind. We can ask questions about the work or make comments on it. And, we will go around so each child who wants to participate, can participate. Some kids are too shy or uncertain to talk about their work. Some kids don't feel comfortable bringing their piece up to the front where we gather for our critique. All levels of comfort and confidence are embraced.

Usually though, I'm utterly knocked-over at the discussion these young artists have with each other during the critique. It shows their problem solving methods of how to work out where they "messed up." They discuss how they invented a work around when the marker they wanted to use was suddenly dry. They often narrate a complex storyline for their work.

A student creating a self-portrait out of torn paper. We had been studying ancient mosaics. This was a fascinating critique because the students were encouraged to create the jewelry or other adornment they might have worn in ancient Egypt. A lot of the critique was on the adornment choices. This class was taught at Brickton Art Center, Park Ridge, IL.

We usually start the critique with "tell me about your work." As an art teacher and artist, I much prefer these open-ended types of questions, rather than "what is it?" or, "is that a dog?" It can be crushing — even to me now — if I think I've drawn a fairly good horse, let's say, and someone says "that doesn't look anything like a cat." It's not a cat… it was supposed to be a horse. From there, the whole discussion is just hurt feelings and people not wanting to do art. :/

One of my students at the Cleveland Botanical Garden. We had been outside in the garden observing the shapes and relative sizes of trees.

The magic really comes when the kids ask each other questions like, "why did you put two suns in the sky?" or "why is all the food blue?" The answers may be, "well this is a different galaxy than ours." Or, "blue is my favorite color." The actual critique part is generally very kind and empathetic. Sometimes it melts my heart that kids can be so sweet to each other.

If you are going to do a critique of your own, after the child has described their work, start by modeling some appropriate comments like, "That's a beautiful color red you used. Why did you pick red?" Or "I love that you have the giraffe driving the car! Why did you think of a giraffe?"

4 painted canvases sitting on chairs showing a tropical scene with water puddle in front. Two of the paintings are nearly identical.

Student paintings from a class at the Cleveland Botanical Garden.

A Surprise in an Adult Critique

This work was from a group of adults I had for a class at the Cleveland Botanical Garden. All the students had the same reference photo and followed my demo. There was a tremendous variety in the paintings. Except that I was sort of 'freaked out' by two paintings done by two women on opposite ends of the room. I commented that these paintings were almost identical. The two women — again sitting at opposite ends of the room — rolled their eyes and said, "We're not surprised; we're identical twins!"

Kids love to watch me paint. They seem to gravitate towards me. I was painting in a park and these two youngsters came by to see what I was doing and to talk about art. Typically, I bring enough supplies so I can have them join in if they want.

Kids love to watch me paint. They seem to gravitate towards me. I was painting in a park and these two youngsters came by to see what I was doing and to talk about art. Typically, I bring enough supplies so I can have them join in if they want.

Here are a few tips on doing art with kids or adults:

  1. Use coloring books or coloring pages if you want to. Sometimes we just can't draw what we want to color.

  2. Resist the temptation to draw or make marks on their paper. It is so deflating to have someone else draw on your paper. I remember an artist friend of mine. She and I were in a drawing class about 20 years ago. She was probably 70 years old at the time. Our instructor, a very gifted artist teaching at the St. Louis Art Museum, came over to draw on her page to show her exactly how the curve of the figure should be. As he reached his piece of charcoal to her paper, she grabbed his wrist mid-air and said, "I'm sure you were going to ask me before you drew on my paper, right?" All the students laughed. The instructor then asked, and my friend gave permission. It was a lesson I'll never forget.

  3. Let them work with whatever tools they want. If they like crayons, great. Markers, fine. Pencils, colored pencils, paint, pastels, watercolor pencils, etc. It's all good. There is an important tactile feedback about your tool and the mark it makes.

  4. Try to not hurry them with their art. Art should be fun. It may be hard, but it still should be fun. If it takes them forever to draw a tree, the reality is they are probably enjoying the solitude of working on their art, or thinking about trees, or the story they are telling, or even solving other problems on their minds. Art is a healthy escape. Don't rush it.

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