I am the daughter of a man who made his living as a commercial artist. He calls himself “a hack”, but everyone else thinks of him as “the Artist”. They always told me I was just like him. He said so, too. In fact what he said was, “ You’re just like me. You draw okay but you’re not creative.” This confused me for a long time. I have spent most of my life since then trying to figure out what it means to be an artist and what it means to be creative.
After many years of art making on my own and with children, I have dispelled many of my own misconceptions. Maybe you share some of them.
A common misconception is that art is about how well you do or don’t draw. This is not true. I wasted a lot of time worrying about whether I drew well enough to be considered a real artist. I didn’t think there was anything I could do about becoming more creative. I believed creativity was a talent, a gift some people had and others didn’t. Drawing was something I thought I might at least learn to get better at.
The truth is: creativity is a gift given to all children. They only need to know that it belongs to them. They do not even need to be taught how to draw, because this is not really what art is about. So don’t worry about it, okay? What they need, and what we adults also need, is freedom from fear. We fear making a mistake, we fear revealing ourselves in an awkward way that will be misunderstood.
So the first rule is: we don’t make mistakes in art, we only make.
If it seems to be a mistake then we see what we can make of it. Sometimes we have to make a few ugly drawings before we learn what we like. Mistakes mean you’re trying something new. We need to silence the voice of the critic when we are making. The critic’s turn comes later. The critic literally lives in a different part of our brain than the artist.
Sometimes, I have students draw the face of the critic on a piece of newsprint and crumple it up and throw it away. Sometimes we need to do it more than once. We need to find that quiet place within ourselves that allows us to see clearly. The heart of art lives in that quiet place.
Drawing can help us get to that quiet place and when we get there, amazingly enough, our drawings begin to improve. Learn how to look again more closely, whether at the outer world or inner visions.
Drawing is the most marvelous tool for understanding the visual world. Drawing allows us to create a visual world from an inner fantasy. Drawing is the bones. It is the skeleton. It is our first graphic language and it is universal.
Children all over the world go through virtually the same basic stages of development in drawing, using the same archetypal forms. No one teaches us this language. We are born with it. Somehow, we forget. We become dissatisfied or discouraged, particularly in our culture where the images we see most often are the slick perfection of advertisements. Drawing is not art, it is a tool of art.
Because drawing is so basic, it is a good place to begin facing fears. There are some classic drawing exercises that help us really see the world around us in specific and individual ways. Here are a few:
• Use line to show emotion Fold a sheet of plain paper into eight sections. Label each section with emotion words: angry, happy, peaceful, powerful, sad, afraid, loving. Allow one section to be any emotion you choose. Make pencils marks to represent each feeling. You may make any kind of marks in any way you want, fast, slow, broken, flowing, thick and thin. There is only one don’t: don’t use symbols or pictures. No rainbows, hearts, smiling faces, etc. Share your drawings, looking for patterns of commonalty in our visual language. Look for equivalent lines in nature and notice your emotional response to what you are seeing.
• Draw by touch Place an interestingly shaped three-dimensional object like a shell or a seed pod into a brown paper lunch bag. Invite students to draw the object without looking at it. Feel its contours and textures and try to use lines to reproduce them. Afterwards, students can compare their drawings with their object or you can collect the bags and hold up an object and see who recognizes it as the one they drew.
• Contour drawing This drawing is done very slowly, without looking at the paper while it is being done. A contour is any edge. Your eye slowly traces all the contours of the person or object you’re looking at. Your pencil follows your eye with a single line which may cross back over itself many times as your eye travels over all the inner and outer edges of the form. This exercise trains your eye and hand to work together. It will help you focus your attention. It may be a crazy looking drawing but its the quality of looking that we’re after.
• Gesture drawings This drawing is about loosening up and capturing movement. Make several quick sketches of a moving model. Use loose, scribbly lines. Show how wind moves, or water. Draw someone dancing or jumping rope.
• Use Finding Lines Encourage students to make many light sketchy lines when doing a drawing based on observation. Don’t erase these lines too soon. They are finding lines that will help you find the line you want. When you find it, go over it with a darker pencil or pen line. The finding lines are a record of your looking and looking again until you begin to see. They are an interesting part of your drawing. They are not mistakes.
If you look at a blank piece of paper and don’t know what to do, you are not alone. We need richness of experience to untie the gift of creativity. Exercises which open the senses to experience are the sparks you need. Make a sound map of the school yard. Compare the sounds of the playground with the sounds of the garden. Draw lines that suggest the sounds. Sing them. Look for connections. Follow the wind, dancing the movement of a kite. Paint to music. Shape clay while listening to poetry. See things in new ways. Describe an object in detail to your friend who cannot see what you are holding. Challenge them to draw what you describe. See things from a different point of view. Draw the spaces between things instead of the things themselves. Draw the shapes of the clouds and the animals they are turning into. Take a ride on your partner’s pencil and see where it takes you.
We only need to give children the confidence to express themselves through art in their own way. There are tricks of the trade when it comes to using art materials but these can easily be learned. The important thing is to banish fear and enrich experience. In the absence of fear and the richness of experience, children will begin to create the kind of art that comes from the heart.