Kids are cropping up everywhere in my life these days. My friends have kids. My sister has kids. And recently, a psychic to the stars grabbed me and my wife at a party and told us we were having a child soon. We aren't, but my wife is a writer and the star of her most recent novel is a girl under 10.
With all these kids around, I see well-meaning parents trying to give their kids every advantage they possibly can. The runway feels short and the competition is fierce at every stage. My age was in the double digits when Mary Boone asked me to join her stable of artists, but here are some things that in hindsight were critical to my success. My ideas could be relevant to anyone raising a kid that loves making art, but if your kid is a budding math talent, skip to the last tip.
Buy the right art supplies. No crappy plastic-bristled watercolor brushes, weak, low-pigment density cheapie watercolor paint or off-brand too-waxy crayons. From the youngest age, I was attuned to the vibrancy and good smell of my paint, to crayons that had good covering-power, and to fresh markers full of moist ink. I was entranced by how my squirrel-hair brushes sopped up lots of water and could be loaded to the max with watercolor paint. Best of all, I wasn't limited to 8.5" x 11" sheets of white paper. Instead, my parents kept me flush with luxuriously large-scale super-smooth drawing paper. Nothing was expensive or professional grade, but my supplies were thoughtfully selected by my parents.
Cool it on the praise. Your kids don't need your praise/criticism about their work when they're young (and probably ever) so much as they need your attentiveness and warmth. My parents enjoyed it that I was a prolific kid, and though they didn't praise the quality of my work, they showed an interest and would listen when I described what was happening in my drawings. My mother still has a pile of crayon drawings I made around age three where my scribbles were intense but not identifiable as figures of any sort. On the backs of the drawings she penciled notes about what I said about the scribbles - apparently I was drawing detailed figures with a special interest in fingers and toes.
Keep good (creative) company. When I was very young, a neighbor who was an artist stopped by and casually painted along with me. It was very enjoyable for me. But again, there was no praise or clingy, needy attention from him, and no suggestions or "learning moments." I think he was around to hang out with my parents and just felt like joining me. You don't have to make friends with the annoying neighbor down the hall. If you're in New York, you can visit museums and galleries like FLAG Art Foundation, which has hosted events where kids get to color amidst cutting-edge contemporary art exhibits.
Location, location, location. I was lucky to have a ping pong table in our basement under a bright overhead light. My parents let me spread out my supplies on it and I had large-scale drawings going that they didn't disturb or even seem to notice unless specifically asked. And they left me completely, blissfully alone. I was never told when or whether to go to the basement to draw. It was pure freedom and always a pleasure.
Don't kill the fun. My parents once signed me up for an after-school art program when I was in second or third grade. After the first class, I was in tears because the teacher was a bossy killjoy. My parents calmly let me off the hook and I never had to go again. My best elementary school art teachers were a joy because they enabled me to go hog wild even if I was diverging from the goals of the assignments. There's plenty of time later to learn about perspective, figure drawing and color theory.
Formal training for teenagers is important. Sometime around age 12, I lost the effortless, fantastic art making you see so often in little kids. It's that moment when kids' drawings go from being adorable to being tacky or overwrought. It was time for formal instruction, and at my request, my parents took me to evening drawing and painting classes meant for adults at a local art institute.
Exploration enriches. As a teen I was never encouraged to think about being an artist when I grew up. As a result, I was given the opportunity to pursue wide-ranging interests. After deciding not to go to a music conservatory because it would feel too limiting, I studied violin, took a number of liberal arts courses and planned to major in biochemistry at U.C. Berkeley (as a preparation for med school, a road not taken). It wasn't until my senior year in college that I switched my focus to painting and applied to M.F.A. programs. My parents freaked out for about a decade. But, my other interests often surface in my current paintings and on my podcast queue.
Art matters, even for budding [insert career here]. I would give different advice if I were thinking about how to launch the next Einstein. Succeeding in math and science often requires early and specialized attention. Even so, I would still encourage exposing your child to art, art making and artists. As a kid who was just as enamored with the fun puzzles that were part of math class as I was with my reams of paper, I see how art and being around people with artistic bents helped me develop creative thinking and flexibility that paid off when I was in those advanced math and science classes in college.
Hopefully this tale of my experiences has been helpful as you wonder what to do with your little Warhol. And know that along the way, there may be some cabinets defaced with crayons or car leather pencil sketches that don't erase completely. Count to ten. Take deep breaths. One day your child may remember how understanding you were and just how much that meant on their way to art stardom.
Thanks, Mom and Dad.