Human beings have been making marks since the Stone Age and probably before. (Drawing in the dirt with a stick is a very impermanent art form.) Enduring rock paintings and rock carvings, however, give us evidence of the importance-and timelessness-of the visual representation of ideas. The ancient rock artist may have been recording an incident, teaching a lesson, practicing a religious ritual or simply amusing himself. Perhaps he portentously intended to tell a story for generations to come. In any event, humans continue to find fulfillment in being able to communicate in pictures.

The language of visual expression can be honed in childhood purely for personal enjoyment, but also to solve practical problems, to communicate more efficiently, and possibly to lead to a career field. Most children are "drawn" to using crayon, paint, pencil, chalk and/or markers, and need no encouragement whatsoever. Others may find satisfaction with the right motivation and support.


Just because your child doesn't go for a pencil doesn't mean there aren't other ways to draw. I recall the recharged interest I had for drawing when our Brownie Day Camp counselors beckoned us to choose a piece of charcoal from the fire pit for drawing a nature sketch. So much smoother and richer than a pencil! Drawing with a stick in the dirt is different from drawing in wet sand at the beach. Painting on a wall of plowed snow is unbelievably different from painting on paper. Drawing and painting can provide experiences in observing differences. In fact, observing and testing out differences among art media is something that professional artists continually explore. To sidestep an adventure in finger painting with her mashed potatoes or channeling Jackson Pollack with a juice box, offer your child some interesting alternatives. Finger paint with shaving cream on a bare table top: Don't like how it turned out? Swipe it clean with your hand and start over. Corn starch and water can be combined in a plastic tray for a younger child who might not be able to resist tasting it as she works her fingers through it. Preschool teachers often vary the texture of tempera (washable) paint to capture the interest of hesitant painters; try rock salt, sawdust, liquid soap, white glue or sand for different effects. Some children (and adults) are put off by the messiness of paint but may enjoy other media that don't require special clothing and clean up. An easy substitute for water color is colored chalk. The artist wets the piece of chalk in a shallow bowl of water so it can glide across the paper.


Take advantage of an interest in how things move to help a child discover the mechanics of creating marks on paper. A ballpoint pen relies on the movement of the ball in the point. As the ball is rolled on the paper, ink from inside the shaft is transferred to the outside of the pen. A roll-on deodorant bottle can be reused as a paint pen in the same way. A pen or pencil can be used to stipple, which means making dots of various shades and sizes to create a three-dimensional effect on the paper. Some comic artists use this dotting technique. A crayon, with its wrapper removed, can be stroked on its side across the paper to quickly fill in a large area. This technique is fun to use for rubbing an object that is under the paper, such as a leaf. The texture of the leaf's veins and outline will appear as the crayon is dragged repeatedly across the paper.


A child who doesn't yet know the pleasure of making art might be convinced to do it for someone else's sake. Love can be the motivation behind a drawing or painting. Many famous works of art are known as the gift of King So-and-So to his beloved Queen Such-and-Such. Lovestruck artists have used gifts of their artwork in the pursuit of romantic conquest. In Rembrandt's time, artists regularly "gifted" their patrons (who supported them financially) with their works. This was intended to elevate the significance of the exchange from that of a mere purchase. The work of a child's hand can similarly bestow the receiver with warm feelings, which in turn, promote the mutually beneficial relationship. A proud parent can display the latest scribble at the office. Children's framed artwork makes a lovely gift for an adoring aunt, uncle or grandparent. A faraway friend can enjoy a handmade card in remembrance of a birthday or just to say, "Hi." A child's drawing says, "I was thinking of you." For the recipient, it can become a cherished symbol of a loving bond.


Does your child have something to make art about? The best subject for any artist to tackle is the one for which he has a passion. Georgia O'Keeffe was fascinated with the soft contours found in nature-from flower petals to desert canyons. Edward Hopper used urban landscapes with lonely looking people to explore his preoccupation with the social distancing he came to accept in himself.

A child's subjects will be much simpler. Drawing is a way to focus closely on what interests or intrigues him. His first drawings are typically of himself: a face (which, several drawings later, sprouts legs), then his beloved parents, then other family members and pets. Soon his drawings will represent the many possibilities of subjects to explore in more detail. A rainbow. A spider. A pony. A dream house with a chimney and carefully drawn patterns on the curtains. A space station with compartments for eating, sleeping, recreation, and scientific work. Drawing these things gives him a chance to immerse himself in the thoughts and emotions his chosen subject provokes.

Visual Problem Solving

"Let me work it out on paper" is what someone will say if she is naturally a visual problem solver. If drawing is not his automatic response, a child could be taught how to use this method for such problems as redesigning a room to accommodate a new piece of furniture. Start with a rough sketch of what will go where, then do what home decorators do: measure the space and the objects from a bird's-eye view and work out the floor plan. If you are rearranging posters, a mirror and shelving on a wall, make an "elevation drawing," which just means the perspective of someone standing in front of it. Blueprints and maps are good examples of using visual communication to work out a problem. My niece used carefully drawn shapes, measured to scale, to convince her parents to let her rearrange the furniture in her bedroom because they told her it wouldn't work. Why go to all the trouble of pushing heavy furniture, they argued, when it might not fit back in the new way? The 9-year-old's precisely cut and taped down papers fit perfectly. And then, to everyone's relief, so did the room. And then, to no one's surprise, she grew up to be an architect.


One final reason for a child to be encouraged to draw and or paint is that, like reading and writing, art allows us to enter a world of infinite possibilities. One can "visit" other cultures to learn about and be inspired by their art. The tradition of Islamic art is to use geometric designs rather than to depict living things. The patterns are easy for young children to duplicate, yet can be intricately combined by master artists. The geometric influence is seen in the mudcloth prints of the Fulani, Dogon, Bambara and other West African cultural groups. Mudcloth designs, applied with a stick, tell stories and proverbs through pictograph symbols. Simply add some tempera paint to mud to get the feel of this medium. Handwoven cotton is the traditional fabric, but an old sheet will do for children's art. Mudcloth designs are easily replicated by children, who may be inspired to invent their own picture symbols to tell their own stories.

And tell their own stories, they shall.