Le Picador (1890), Pablo Picasso
Le Picador (1890), Pablo Picasso

When it comes to producing art, little children are truly masters of the moment. Unlike older children and adults, toddlers and under-fives work impulsively with no thought about creating a finished product. Hadi, my four-year-old grandson draws passionately when the moment seizes him, usually early in the morning when he wakes up. Weaned on contemporary baby literature and fairy tale classics, he has a fertile imagination. Currently in the grip of a superhero craze, his imagery is based on his fascination for Batman aka Bruce Wayne and Gotham City. Understanding that art is a language his parents have provided him with art supplies, and a table in a workspace for ‘messy art’, where he creates at will. A tally of his drawings over the last six months reveals how rapidly children can move from utter formlessness to legibility and marked definition of object and person if they have talent and are suitably motivated.

Child art, like most child behaviour, is direct and uncensored. Young children do not critique their work. Enjoying the spontaneous application of paint and unrestrained creation of lines and shapes on paper, they paint freely and with pleasure, relishing the freedom of choice, thought and feeling. Visual images communicate emotions and complexities that words cannot and this ability to speak non-verbally is particularly important for children. A child’s art should be viewed slowly and with quiet interest before making any comments because pictures sometimes communicate sad or angry feelings that are not “pretty” at all.

In his book The Elements of Drawing, John Ruskin encouraged artists to try to recover what he called the “innocence of the eye”, to represent nature with the freshness and vitality of a child, or of a blind person whose sight has suddenly been restored. “A child sees everything in a state of newness,” reiterated Charles Pierre Baudelaire in The Painter of Modern Life, “genius is nothing more nor less than childhood regained at will.” In 1904 Paul Cézanne told Émile Bernard: “I would like to be a child.”

Visual images in spontaneous, directly-rendered child art communicate emotions and complexities that words cannot. This ability to speak non-verbally is particularly important for children

The idea of childhood as a domain of innocence and freedom was an 18th century development, associated with Rousseau and Locke, who both wrote treatises on education (before that children were considered mini-adults). But it was the craze for primitive art in the first decades of the 20th century that prompted artists to look at children’s art seriously.

Portrait Of Marguerite (1906-07), Henri Matisse
Portrait Of Marguerite (1906-07), Henri Matisse

Many of the century’s greatest artists — Wassily Kandinsky, Tyra Klee, Henri Émile Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró and Jean Dubuffet — had sizeable collections of artwork by children. They studied and imitated the spontaneous and willful distortions of children’s pictures as though, like dreams, they offered a royal road to the unconscious.

Picasso — history’s most recognised child art prodigy — finished the ‘Le Picador’ painting of a man riding a horse in a bullfight at age nine. But he felt that his father, a professor of drawing, had prematurely pushed him into an academic style and he sought to regain the youthful exuberance that was sacrificed.

In 1956, during a tour of an exhibition of children’s art, Picasso told art critic Herbert Read: “When I was the age of these children, I could draw like Raphael. It took me many years to learn how to draw like these children.” There are several photographs of Picasso observing his four children drawing, an expression of rapt attention on his face, and sometimes he indulged in collaborative doodles. “It’s surprising,” he said, “the things that come from their hands — they often teach me something.”

In 1907, Picasso also traded a picture with his rival Matisse. The latter’s highly graphic portrait, ‘Marguerite’ (1906-7), was influenced by his observations of his six- and seven-year-old sons’ drawings, and Picasso was, his biographer John Richardson remembers him saying, “very curious to see how Matisse had exploited his children’s instinctive vision.” Picasso also acknowledged how Matisse’s portrait inspired the central figures in his primitivist masterpiece ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ (The Young Ladies of Avignon) 1907.

Children’s art is many things to many people. To a parent, art is a display of their child’s imagination. To an educator, it’s a teaching tool. To a psychologist, art is a way to understand a child’s mind. To a grandparent, it’s a way to feel connected. To a librarian, it’s a way to enhance book knowledge. To a child, art is a way to have fun, make decisions and express choices. Once you acknowledge that art is a language, the importance of respecting a child’s artwork becomes obvious.

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 5th, 2018