Making Art Like a Child

October 19, 2016

A couple of weekends ago, my nine-year-old daughter Jillian made her first attempt at a purely abstract painting.  She had an absolutely delightful time – making plump white blobs by squeezing paint directly out of tubes, using thick wet brushes to make juicy strokes across the canvas, and skittering small brushes to make slashing red lines.  She was much more expressive and experimental than I would be even today.  When she declared she was finished, I asked her what she thought about the experience.  “It was easy.  You don’t have to stress about anything,” she said as she bounced around the room.  It made me think about my own work in a new way.

For all the world, I wish I could get that “can-do” spirit back as an adult.  Kids truly are some of the best artists.  They may not always be the most consistent artists, but they embody the essence of creativity that we as adults usually seem to find a way of burying under self-criticism and doubt.  Jillian’s painting experience reminded me of a quote from Edgar Degas:

“Painting is easy when you don’t know how, but very difficult when you do.” – Edgar Degas

In my opinion, Degas sums up the feeling I get quite often when trying to create new work.  How many times have you – as an artist- started a new series of work but then gotten stuck much sooner than you imagined you might?  The first few works are so easy. Things are going great.  The art is practically making itself.  You can’t make them fast enough, but then you hit a brick wall…  Maybe you’ve over-analyzed the process, you’ve created too many rules, you’ve allowed doubt to enter the picture.  It’s times like these that we need to step into our inner child and get back into the game.


I think that the biggest difference between our child-artist self and our adult-artist self is the audience.  Kids make art for themselves – and maybe their parents.  A kid making art for their own satisfaction is always going to love it.  They made it.  It’s awesome!  Most parents – most good parents anyway – will greet nearly any kid-made project with warm, glowing acceptance whether it is incredible or looks like a train-wreck.  If it’s good enough, it might even make it onto the refrigerator!  As adults, we get bogged down with thoughts like – “Who will want this?  Who will buy this?  Will other people like it?”  By getting stuck in the people-pleasing rut, we end up trying to make something that we think will appeal to everyone, which is usually the most boring, generic art you could imagine.  The best example I can think of this is the musical Cats – my sincerest apologies if you are a fan.  Cats checks all kinds of boxes of things people like – T.S. Eliot? Check!  Music? Check! Dancing? Check! Anthropomorphic Cats?  Check!  The end result, while quite popular, is a terrible mess that goes absolutely nowhere.  Make the art you want to make without worrying about who it’s for and you will start to make truly original, fulfilling work.

Another one of the big differences between our child-artist self and our adult-artist counterpart is that the adult version gets concerned about the cost and supply of materials.  I don’t know of too many kid-artists that have to spend their own money on art supplies.  As a result, they usually don’t care what it costs.  They will use a whole tube of paint on one painting if you let them.  By the same token, they will also have little regard for the quality of materials.  Give them a cardboard box and some crayons, and they will make something spectacular.  As adults, we tend to worry about which materials are the best, and will quite often spend a small fortune to get the finest paint, canvas, paper, etc.

While I certainly advocate getting the best you can afford, sometimes the added pressure of, “Oh my, this piece of paper I’m drawing on costs fifteen dollars,” can go a long way toward lowering your self-confidence and raising doubt.  I suggest that you “play” cheap.  Use inexpensive art materials for experimentation and studies, and then later – if you desire – transfer the creative energy of those quicker, low-pressure artworks into finished works with higher quality materials.  Franz Kline, famous for his large black-and-white abstract paintings, would often do quick gestural studies in phone books (literally hundreds of pages to explore).  He would learn from these studies and transpose them to much larger works using only the finest of frugal art materials – house paint.  Jackson Pollock would use automotive enamel for his large works.  While the longevity of these works of art is currently being questioned by the museums and institutions that now hold them, you cannot deny that it appears that the artists were unbound in their creative expression.  Don’t let the costs of your materials become an impediment to your progress.

Another big difference between the child-artist and the adult-artist is that the work of the child-artist has a certain degree of impermanence to it.  I have two children who love to make art, and I often – painful as it seems – have to cull their collection.  Sometimes their art will magically… disappear.  I will keep the good drawings that show positive progress, while letting the others go.  Now before you question my motives and say, “How dare you throw away their precious artwork?!?” – I remind you that these kids make a TON of art.  I love them and each precious little scribble they make, but I can’t possibly keep it all.

If we are embracing our inner-child artist, we are making a ton of art as well – and (honestly) not every work of art is a keeper.  It is OK to throw some of it away. If you look at one of your own works of art you’ve had for a while, and it reminds you of your progress in a happy and positive way, it’s likely a keeper.  If you look back at piece with regret (those hands were too small, that background is hideous, why did I think I would single-handedly revive Cubism, etc.) then it is best to let that piece go.  I recently destroyed an entire body of work that I made in a quite uncertain time in my life, and I couldn’t be happier knowing that these paintings no longer exist.  I do, however, sometimes worry that a troll may have secretly crept into the dumpster by night and now has these paintings of hot pink army tanks lining the walls of his cave.  Freeing yourself from the regret of some of your earlier mistakes and artistic risks is a positive thing. It is okay to let some of your work go.  It’s okay to admit that not every work of art you’ve made is a masterpiece.

Hopefully, these tips will help you get back into the spirit of making art without angst and self-doubt.


  •             Don’t worry about your audience.  Make art you enjoy.
  •             Don’t let the cost of your materials be an impediment to your progress.
  •             Don’t be afraid of releasing some of your older work.  Keep the good.  Throw out the bad.

Pablo Picasso embodies the child-like wonder of creation more than any other artist I can think of.  He is quite well remembered for this quote:

“It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”