“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” Pablo Picasso
That from the artist who also claimed that it took him four years to learn to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to learn to paint like a child. It’s a perspective that interests me.
About thirty years ago I recall a family picnic on the banks of the River Stour on the Essex-Suffolk border. My 18 month old son (now a professional graphic artist and illustrator) seized his father’s sketchbook and pencil, stared intently at the reeds and bull rushes growing at the water’s edge, then proceeded to draw a series of vertical and near-vertical lines on the paper. It took him seconds. His first representational landscape drawing! The child moved on to other ways of exploring the environment immediately. It was as if the drawing was some kind of instinctive yet fleeting need to capture the 3D world in just two dimensions. He didn’t, as his older siblings might have done, compare it to his father’s sketches or seek anyone’s approval or praise. In fact he was confused by our excitement and delight.
A tiny child will not seek out the ‘right’ colours or consider shapes and ratios. What they do, though, when you think about it, is pure magic. They use their crayons to create the significant people and objects around them at that moment in time. Their art freezes an aspect of the swirl of life and movement and emotion they find themselves in and places it on a flat sheet of paper. How very different that is from our own self-conscious attempts to draw a representational image. We are hung up on how realistic it looks, whether our lines are straight or whether the perspective is right. Most of all, we are worried about how others will judge it. That, I suspect, is the ‘problem’ Picasso was referring to.
“That’s a lovely picture. Would you like to tell me about it?” we were taught to say when I was training to be a teacher. It avoided the problems of, “What a beautiful picture of Mummy! Oh, I see – it’s a green tractor with lots of mud, is it? Right.”
Gradually we ‘help’ the child to fit their depictions to the conventions of art in our world. In medieval times, drawing the mother or self far larger than other people would have been quite acceptable. The convention was ‘important people are shown larger than less significant people’. In our modern world the convention is photographic, so a person shown large is closer in physical space to the artist’s viewpoint than those standing further away.
And what of magic? I would argue that this, too, is something a small child experiences and responds to in a very natural, comfortable way and trying to regain that instinctive connection to the magic inherent in their lives takes many years, once the child has been trained to put it aside.
We allow – even encourage – small children to fill their lives with magic. We tell them of Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, the Easter bunny and read them stories or show them videos of unicorns and dragons, magicians and heroes with fantastic powers.
At some point, though – perhaps around the same time we start insisting that humans should be drawn with bodies, not just a circular head with legs and arms – we begin to teach them what is ‘real’ and what is ‘pretend’. What many of us don’t recognise is that this is just as arbitrary and incomplete a world view as the one we are asking them to leave behind.
Magic has a strong similarity to art. When painting and drawing we encapsulate three dimensions in two. With magic, we bring multiple dimensions into the three that form what current convention sees as our world. (Again, I suspect our ancestors would have viewed it quite differently.)
In the children’s story book I’ve just published, I made sure enough magic was embedded within it to at least allow my 8-12 year old audience to keep wondering. My metaphysician (yes, of course there had to be one!) observes three members of a family who find themselves confronted with a magical ‘coincidence’ as follows:
The lady in the blue dress looked from one to the other of them – the mother, who was slowly shaking her head and muttering, “Extraordinary…”, the boy who was now clutching his cheeks and laughing with amazement and pure delight, and the small child beside her who was still young enough to understand how real magic was and therefore not surprised at all.
I’d love to think that a few children reading The Glassmaker’s Children will recognise the magic my young hero Stellan rediscovers and notice how, by using attention and intention, both he and they can find way of surviving and thriving, despite the setbacks and challenges they encounter.
Small note: I originally set up this blog (back in 2012) as a vehicle for my metaphysical ramblings, and I’d like it to stay that way. For that reason, I’m placing most of my posts about The Glassmaker’s Children on my Open the Box blog. This one, for example, explains the particular challenges my two young characters face as they battle to cope with a narcissistic parent.