Truth in a Cliché?
That modern art looks like something even a child could make is, by now, an old cliché. Typically used dismissively, its implied contempt denies qualities found in children's art (qualities typically lost by many adults). What those qualities are and the artists and collectors who appreciate them is our focus.
Copying Reality vs. Subjective Perception: Paint What You/I See
How do we judge "good" art? For many of us, good art equates to skill in copying an objective reality. For example, this focus on "skill" was so ingrained in me that, despite progress at an esteemed art college, I enrolled in yet another and more rigorous classical-realist academy to gain techniques of precision drawing and rendering. Oddly, I wanted to ensure that I could do what I did not want to do. I didn't want to copy external things or become an academic "realist" painter. But I did want assurance that any decision to paint "my vision" wasn't an excuse for deficiency or skill-avoidance. “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist" (Picasso). Picasso, himself, had been a child prodigy trained in such an art academy.
In contrast, young children's approach to making art goes contrary to an established adult view that good artwork must mirror some objectively real person or thing -- as they appear in life. Young children may focus on real people and things, but they tend to depict how they subjectively see them: a person is larger than a tree if that person is more important than the tree. Young children also typically show their own selective focus and originality in their choices of colours and marks, especially before formal training sets in. Using tools available, they seem to know what they want to show and get absorbed into the process of depicting how things appear to them, without worrying too much about how it will look to others. They don't seem to fret about "skill" or techniques until later years.
What is Artistic Skill?
Picasso, like many of his generation, was trained and highly skilled in the classical-realist or "academy" manner of accurate copying and rendering, and he remained an exceptional draughtsman his entire career. Like others in the avant-garde, hIs mastery of established academic techniques may have propelled his wider interests in art exploration.This led such artists to experiment with new ways of applying their skills and even to t a major re-conceptualization of what "skill" meant in creating a modern painting. The innovations of Modernist painters presented new ways of combining painterly skills with a strongly personal vision, and it revolutionized how art was seen and made in modern times. This new outlook included the championing of "primitivism" (art outside formalistic art training) . Children's art was respected as an expression of a percept in a way unfettered by conventional teachings of how things "should" look. "It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a life time to paint like a child" (Picasso).
For skilled artists like Picasso, learning and displaying technical skill is the easier part of becoming an artist. The harder part is learning to paint with the freedom of intent, commitment, and full participation of a child immersed in their activity . This process can and did lead in unexpected and unconventional directions.
Unsurprisingly, many art critics of the time responded negatively to these ""modern" artworks as childish. It takes courage to show authentic art that shifts from tradition, whatever the historical period. Critics of his time described Paul Klee's work as "mad, infantile smearings" and Monet's as done "with the childish hand of a schoolboy who was painting for the first time".
Yet, Ruskin, one of the greatest art critics before modern painting hit the scene, declared that "the technical power of painting depends on our recovery of what may be called the innocence of the eye.... a sort of childish perception of these flat stains of colour... without consciousness of what they signify". I came upon this quote in a beautifully illustrated book I own by Jonathan Fineberg, The Innocent Eye: Children's Art and the Modern Artist (1997, p.9). It contains many more examples than I provide in this column.
Painting Like a Child
Early in the 20th C, when they were trading paintings, Picasso chose "Marguerite" (at left) by Matisse, explaining that he did so because it showed a key change of style influenced by children's drawings. “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up”, Picasso said. Matisse evidently agreed when he titled a retrospective of his paintings "Looking at Life with the Eyes of a Child". He thought artists must have this ability to express themselves in an original, personal way.
Few, if any, adults can really paint like children. That's because they are not children in their experience or expectations. And because most adult artists have acquired knowledge of materials and skills in drawing, design, colour, and composition. Even artists without formal art-school training, like Van Gogh, go through dedicated self-directed training. Most well-known modern artists can in fact, paint "realistically" if they choose. But they choose otherwise.
Do you think it's a no-brainer to paint like a child? Try it. If you demean child art, you might be ashamed to try. If you do try, you'll realize something you've lost: You cannot un-know what you know! Still, what you may discover in this exercise is that you can keep with you an attitude and willingness to play, explore, and make things as you see and regard them.
Looking at Children's Art
Family fridges are covered in it. We're not talking about child prodigies but about how ordinary young children (about age 4 and well before age 10) tend visually to depict what's important to them in what they see and think. By age 10, with education and culture supporting established traditions, many children become highly self-critical in trying to make things look more objective or conventionally "real". That's what classical art academies train: paint what is out there. But younger children typically take an opposite direction that relies upon a subjective percept or concept of what is seen, or taken in, from out there. So profoundly has this appreciation affected modern art, that artists began looking seriously at children's art.
Artists Collect Child Art
Children's art has been of interest to educators and psychologists for at least two centuries. Its formal aspects ( whether the figure has arms, etc.) have been used as indicators of intellectual development, and its content (depictions of family, a burning house, etc.) and expressive aspects (thin or thickly dark marks,,size relationships, etc.) suggest ways art might be clinically useful as a nonverbal communication tool. But the people who first championed the aesthetic value of children's art were artists, themselves.
Artists discovered the aesthetic inventiveness of child art while reflecting upon their own creative process. From their writings and public statements, we know that 20th century artists were looking for something to enliven art that had become too repetitious and academically predictable. They explored qualities of children's art and applied their discoveries to their own work. Many renowned artists became avid collectors of children's art.. Painters like Kandinsky had large collections of children's artwork, an interest shared by Klee, Picasso, Matisse, Miró, Dubuffet, and others. Some artists, like Keith Haring and Basquiat, explicitly collaborated with children in producing artworks. Others incorporated actual drawings/paintings by children into their own work, including later-day artists like Francisco Clemente, Julian Schnabel, and Jasper Johns.
These artists each had their own ways of working. But they all appreciated and adapted qualities of children's art for their own process and output. If there is a common thread across their very different adult works, it is the rendering of subjective experience using each artist's own expressive technique.
How Children's Art Influenced Contemporary Art
Looking at how children's art influenced famous artists helps us to recognize some generative roots of contemporary painting. Below is an example of children's art from the collection of Paul Klee beside a painting of his showing a similar influence. Many more such examples are in The Innocent Eye, mentioned earlier.
The connections shown between the art of children and of established artists validates the "even-a-child-could-do-it" cliché in the title -- but not in a pejorative sense! Instead, children's art is valued as a glimpse into the creative process and desired product of modern art.
Different motivations likely lead each artist to seek out children's art, and its influences upon their produced work also differed. But some distinctive features of children's art may be recognized across them.
Features of Child Art
Some commonalities are found in young children's artwork, although children, like adults, express themselves as different individuals. Here is my list of some basic features seen in children's art (before age 8-9 without art training):
Scribbling: the earliest marks generally made in childhood
Simplicity: a few marks stand for aspects being represented
Selectivity: part of an object may be sufficient to represent it
Subjective Viewpoint: how the scene looks to them (not necessarily 'objectively' realistic)
Placement of Objects and Details: according to importance they hold for the child
Expressive Use of Colour: often vibrant and primary colours are preferred
Schematic figures: by about age five a typical way of symbolizing a human or animal is often established and repeated by an individual child, who varies this with differences in details
Perspective: usually frontal or direct profile view. little or no modelling or rendering of form or 3D space
Composition: objects tend to float all over until about age five when a bottom baseline is used to organize objects
The "Child Within" is No Guarantee of Good Art
Much has been said about connecting with a child-like approach to producing original works. Let's be clear, though. Taste and discernment differ in us all. Not all child-like work is artistically good. Nor could a child typically produce a work by Klee or Matisse. The works of many modern artists are produced by a sophisticated eye and hand merged with the vitality and appreciation of a child-like artistic process. Linked with that process is another critical ingredient: the artist's discernment: a quality that tends to improve with practice and experience.
Being inspired by children's art can lead in diverse directions. Such inspiration need not be nostalgic nor impose "innocence" as an ideal. Instead, appreciating the qualities of children's art has helped broaden and sharpen diverse artistic perspectives on how to conceptualize and convey reality as we see it. Children's art may serve as a truth-test for painting what is most important to us in a way that expresses our personal experience of it. Whatever we value in children's art (if we value it) will be transformed by our adult experience, sensitivity and discernment into a new and original artwork with, if we're lucky, the vitality of children's art.