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Spare Me “This Is How You Draw”

Can you dictate to a child how to do art?

Yeah you read that correctly. The words “dictate”, “child”, “art” falling into the same sentence. A little scary? Yes. Does it happen? Yes.

The answer is yes, you can. I’ve seen it happen over and over again: well-meaning parents as docents or classroom volunteers for art lessons at the public elementary school where both my kids (3rd grader girl and kindergarten boy) attend putting in their two-cents about how to do a particular paint brushstroke, or erasing pencil marks on their kid’s abstract lines because they aren’t straight enough or drawn at the “wrong” place on the sheet.

The last couple of times I saw this happen were last year in my daughter’s 2nd grade classroom – doing their rendition of Van Gogh’s Starry Night with color charcoal – and a couple of months ago in my son’s kindergarten classroom full of 26 innocent little faces, showing a range of impatience, wonder, excitement and boredom that morning.  A lesson on worm’s perspective on giant sequoia trees, these 5- and 6-year-olds were taught how to draw lines and water-paint showing the near and far points of these tall beauties from the ground’s perspective. Although never a docent giving an actual lesson, I have volunteered in both my kids’ classrooms numerous times to contribute the much-needed help that 2 parent docents need in guiding 25+ students per class, and, because I enjoy art and I like seeing my kids trying their hands at various mediums at the few opportunities provided by the Hands on Art program contracted by the school district.

But it matters not the age of the students receiving the lesson, and it certainly matters not what the lesson entails. One common thing that occurs is that a few parents (myself included although I try to be conscious of it and  tailor my language around the kids) will tell the kids exactly how to draw, when to draw it, what color paint to use, and all kinds of nitty-gritty detailed instructions that defeat the purpose of how to produce art; a very personal and self-directed form of expression.

Sometimes I catch myself giving similar direction: too-much, too exacting type of instructions tot he kids. When I do, I try and edit myself the next time in order to show the students that their choice in their art is what matters. So instead of saying, “No, no, you have to draw the lines this way. Follow the sample, ok?” I might say, “What do you think about drawing a line this way, or that…what do you think? Would that work for your tree still or not?”  Instead of criticizing with “No, you can’t use that brown color for the sky background. You have to use blue for daytime or the orange for sunset,” I might say, “Huh, that purple is a very interesting choice for the sky. I think I have seen the sky that color once last November.”

I self-edit in what I say to my kids and their 6- and 9-year-old peers because to me, art is art and it’s great because it can and should be free-flowing, with the artist choosing everything in their conception and final expression because that choices and the representation of the choices reflect who the artist is. Don’t we want the kids to like art, to embrace it, to look forward to it when they – and us adults too – are already constantly bogged down with homework, electronic gadgets, whatever social issues happening at the playground and  academic pressure? Don’t we wish that art and its vast array of different media, styles and tools serve as an avenue to aid young people’s expression?

How will they do so if we tell them, every step of the way, how to produce their art?

A sweet 6-year-old brunette looked at me for a second when her mom, a fellow parent volunteer that day during the art lesson in my son’s classroom, gently scolded her that she shouldn’t have brushed on the yellow paint, and too much at that, on the sequoia trunks on her page. I had to “fess up” right away and take the blame off the little girl by telling her mom that I’m the one who suggested that she could start using the yellow paint if she wanted to, to add the lighter tone onto the tree trunks as if the sunlight is hitting them from that direction. “Oh no no, we are not there yet, and this is simply too much yellow. Sweetheart, go ahead and use your brown paint and do over the yellow parts now.” I didn’t apologize as I felt there was no need to – what’s to feel sorry about letting her know going half a step ahead of instruction is okay and that the amount of yellow she chose is okay too? What’s wrong with “too much” yellow on her tree trunks if that’s what she wanted?

The little girl and I knowingly exchanged a look of small chagrin and a downward turn of one lip corner, telepathically saying to another, “Oh well. We tried.”

One of the coolest things about Hands on Art program is that it really does inspire some students to take their art expression farther, perhaps at home or at an extracurricular art studio where they can explore and hone their interest in various media.  I don’t want to curb the possibility behind inducing this interest, this inspiration, by telling the youngsters they can’t or shouldn’t do art a particular way. Sure they should listen to the adult docent during instruction time; sure, it’s a good idea to look at some samples and get an idea.

But at the end of the lesson, if you want green skies behind stumpy sequoias with yellow trunks, so be it, and good for you!

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