When my five-year-old daughters joyously engrossed themselves in creating another ‘Pollock, Rothko or Monet’ Painting; perhaps the least intelligent comment I could make, was; “What is it?” It’s obvious to them what it is!
Art comes naturally to children — so naturally that it’s easy to overlook its importance, especially for the child! When you’re raising curiously, creative, little people, art can really ‘rock’ for them, buoying their confidence! When kids are encouraged to freely express imagination in art, they develop a sense of innovation, an invaluable resource in their adult lives.
Art teaches children how to interpret, criticise, and use visual information, and how to make choices based on it. It provides children with an alternative way to express their ideas, feelings and solutions.
Watching children passionately creating art is enormously rewarding for parents who can appreciate the skills developing. I’ve photographed a large number of children painting and observed my own daughters’ efforts – the process is at least as impressive as the results. Whenever I see a young child facing a blank canvas, they don’t seem to experience the same doubts that assail an adult. They know what they are going to paint and once they feel they’ve finished, they put down their tools with conviction. They are done! They don’t need approval! A delightful and intriguing narrative will usually follow explaining the inspiration for the piece: “And that’s a door where the hedgehog goes through to see the whales and the sky has all strawberries in it and that looks like a tree but it’s really a picture of a tree that the hedgehog drew…” I always encourage a child to sign their piece.
Child art is a pure form of Impressionism – they see with a clarity of vision that adults struggle to find, or to be comfortable with. Great artists understand this relationship instinctively. My good friend Sir Toss Woollaston once said to me; “I’m trying to paint with the simplicity of vision I had when I was five years old.” Picasso, too, was aiming for a child-like purity of expression: “Every child is an artist, the problem is staying an artist when you grow up… It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”
It’s true this youthful confidence can be hard to maintain. As a parent you can tangibly praise your child’s artwork by having it professionally framed, and hung in your home. This statement of pride and value for their work will make their heart glow.
In my work I also see the value of framing photographs of your children. A portrait that has artistic integrity and authenticity, tells an instantaneous story about your child’s unique personality. A portrait that oozes ‘art’ is often commented on by friends and family, bolstering the child’s confidence immeasurably. I remember revisiting a long-time client/family when their young son took me by the hand to proudly show me a beautifully presented portrait of himself and his brother. “That’s me!” he said. It happened to be the very first of my award-winning pictures. I knew the image intimately, however he had not connected me to the picture. “Does Tom do this often? I asked his mum. “Yes,” she said, “he does that to everyone who comes to the house. He loves that picture!”
A passion for art is something I’ve seen in my own daughters. I have a vivid memory of taking them to the Auckland Art Gallery when they were around five years old. As they entered the Julian Robertson rooms, both ran screaming across the room, as hysterical as teenage girls who had spotted their pop idol, fingers pointed at a picture they had seen in books; ‘Its a Picasso!’. Meanwhile, every security guard on site stood frozen, unsure how to handle the ‘situation. The adults in the crowded room stood back amused.
When our daughters make these connections it lights up their minds — and ours. On a recent trip to Europe we visited Giverny, out side of Paris, where Monet painted his famous water lily paintings. I wasn’t sure they fully realised where we were; however, weeks later in the Impressionist Rooms at London’s National Gallery, one of my daughters discovered a huge Monet Water-Lilies painting and stood in front of it transfixed, posed just like Degas’ ‘little ballerina’. I realised then that she had made the connection — intoxicated by the painting.
I always love it when I meet a child that has a passion for, and an interest in, art. That childhood passion is sometimes replaced by other things in the teenage years. However once an appreciation is installed and interest in the conversation art creates, both as a piece, and the culture in which it was created, that love lasts a lifetime. I love this passion for its own sake, but the benefits of art aren’t only experiential or esoteric. There is an increasingly persuasive body of academic research showing why art and creativity are an essential part of a well-rounded childhood.
One of my friends, Sir Ken Robinson, is a world-renowned visionary in education. He says there’s a perception that art isn’t relevant in schools, with a focus on getting kids through tests to make them economically competitive as soon as possible. Ken’s view on that attitude? “Toxic,” he has told reporters. “Companies need people who can think differently and adapt and be creative… It starts with imagination. It’s the most extraordinary set of powers that we take for granted; the ability to bring into the mind the things that aren’t present.”
If that’s not convincing enough, here are five compelling reasons why encouraging art expression, especially in children, can be immeasurably valuable:
Art develops motor skills in young children as they use a paintbrush, crayon or pencil to translate their visions onto paper.
Art can make your children happier. Kids experience ‘flow’ while creating art — a feeling of absorption, control, and a satisfying level of challenge. Flow build improved happiness, focus and self-esteem.
Art improves problem-solving skills. A major Guggenheim Foundation study found art education helped students think more flexibly, to be more persistent and more adaptive as they solved problems.
Art boosts achievement. High school students who studied art had higher maths and verbal scores, according to the American Academy for the Arts.
Art helps scientific innovation. Nobel Prize-winning scientists are more than twice as likely as other scientists to have an artistic or craft hobby, according to a Michigan State University paper. Researchers speculate art helps scientists think more creatively.
Beyond all these measurable benefits, there are the immeasurable. As I write this I am working with a fabulous family in the states, who’s son Charlie, who I’ve worked with for over 8 years, has Asperger’s. His favourite activity in the world is painting. He’s capturing his thoughts and feelings on canvas (a weather storm; we’ve been in the basement due to tornado’s!). Meanwhile I’m capturing ‘the artist’ at work on camera, creating another version of his work of art. Charles ‘studio’ space has become a beautiful tapestry of colour! I’m privileged to capture his curiosity and confident sense of purposeful vision– another ‘Rothko, Pollock or Woollaston’. Gorgeous impressionistic art comes naturally to Charlie.
Curiosity is the secret of great creative people’ — that’s a ‘secret’ children already know, when they paint or explore art in all mediums. What a joy to ensure they never forget it.
Words and pictures: Mahlon Burch, mahlon.com Mahlon is a photographer/artist based in Auckland with his family. His client families ask him to follow them around the world.