How the Creative Process Works

If we want children to use painting as a tool for self-expression and self-discovery, we don't need to teach them technique. On the contrary: we need to unteach it. The less technique children have, the more they use their intuition. Technique overrides intuition. As adults we should clear out unnecessary baggage for children's freedom of creation to unfold. When painting they must be allowed to follow the dictates of their intuition. Free from rules, they can learn to paint images from deep inside and express what is unique about themselves.

When at times a special technique is needed, technique spontaneously develops. Children invent or reinvent it. Their skill develops out of the intricate demands of their feelings, not from aesthetic concepts. Whatever they paint is done with their whole being and carries the stamp of authenticity and the beauty of their innocence.

The way each child perceives and senses the world is unique. While the body and mind constantly grow, perceptions also change. If children paint naturally, we can actually document the evolution of their perceptions of the world. Their visual expressions of the sensations of the human body, for instance, change constantly, if they are not asked to copy models or respect proportions. For instance, the image of a person's head evolves spontaneously from very big (much bigger than the torso) to relatively small (close to standard proportion) within a few years. Every part of the body image goes through an evolution. Fingers, for instance, are first felt as long lines coming out of a circle. After a couple of years these five lines retract in length slowly to create fingers. Children must be encouraged to be spontaneous and to forget about the outcome by spontaneously expressing these differences and changes, which, in fact, they are not aware of.

Children's sense of the material world and of the space around it also changes. They perceive space in a special way. First, not knowing the relationship between ground and object, very young children often paint objects and people floating in space. Then the ground appears just as a brown line or leaves of grass, but later fills with dirt and grass. The sky often starts as a blue line and also expands slowly. If children are left free to paint intuitively, a fascinating process happens: the two lines - the one from the sky and the one from the earth - gradually move toward each other, slowly filling the gap between them. After a few months of spontaneous process, the space is finally conquered. This final moment - when paint covers the entire space - is a very special moment. Watching that unique milestone always touches me greatly, because the children have reached within themselves to a brand-new place; in it there is no return. It is a time of initiation for children, a precious stage in which space is inwardly conquered. This powerful event cannot take place if they are taught perspective and are depicting space in their paintings through rules and techniques. Children never regress in their evolution. They keep moving ahead.

A friend of mine has a ten-year-old boy. One day my friend was discussing with his son, just back from a painting class, how his drawing had three-dimensional qualities. The father was marveling at it. The son, a stern look on his face, didn't seem to think there was anything exciting about having struggled two hours for a little bit of perspective while painting a wooden chair he didn't care about. He seemed impatient to move on to other things, saying, in effect, I have worked hard enough, I deserve to play now. After that class he never wanted to paint again. Having not touched his true creativity, how could he want to go back to it? Learning technique often alienates the child and presents creativity as work without much reward.

Perspective can be discovered spontaneously; children left to themselves come upon it bit by bit when the time is ripe. Painting in perspective becomes part of a natural instinct instead of a mental discipline; the resulting paintings breathe aliveness instead of the stiffness of those trying to do it right. Trying to paint right often ends with a painting that looks like a scientific study. It's fascinating to watch the evolution of children's paintings. Look at a table, for instance. When young children paint a table, they paint its legs hanging in the air. Then, within a few months to a couple of years, the table legs slowly lower, until one day they are set firmly on the ground. This also proves why children don't need technique if they are allowed to paint what they feel. We must let children experience their world and create intuitively from their natural perceptions if they are to enter the magic of creativity. If we force children to paint with "normal" proportions and with perspective, they miss an immense opportunity. They repress their intuition and grow up without much creativity.

Don't worry about the rendering of children's paintings. The creative process is a process of exploration, and it stays with them wherever they go. That process has an internal intelligence that guides them as they grow.

More on: Crafts for Kids

From Kids Play: Igniting Children's Creativity by Michele Cassou. Copyright © 2004 by Michele Casso. Used by arrangement with Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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