If you’ve ever seen Mark Rothko’s paintings and thought “a child could do this,” you’ve paid him a compliment. Rothko greatly admired children’s art, praising the freshness, authenticity, and emotional intensity of their creations. He worked as an art teacher for over 20 years and was a thought leader in the field of children’s art education.
In 1934, he published an essay on the topic, which he hoped to follow up with a book. Though he never completed the project, he left behind 49 sheets of notes, known as The Scribble Book, which detailed his progressive pedagogy – and from which we’ve taken five lessons that Rothko wanted all art teachers to know.
Lesson 1: Show your students that art is a universal form of expression, as elemental as speaking or singing
Everyone can make art, even those without innate talent or professional training. Art is an essential part of the human experience. And just as kids can quickly pick up stories or songs, they can easily turn their observations and imaginings into art. Taking away a child’s access to artmaking could be as harmful as stunting their ability to learn language.
Art is all about expression – transforming one’s emotions into visual experiences that everyone can understand. And kids do this naturally. Children have ideas, often fine ones, and they express them vividly and beautifully, so that they make us feel what they feel. Hence their efforts are intrinsically works of art.
Lesson 2: Beware of suppressing a child’s creativity with academic training
A child’s expressiveness is fragile. When art teachers assign projects with strict parameters or emphasize technical perfection, this natural creativity can quickly turn to conformity. The fact that one usually begins with drawing is already academic. We start with color.
Follow a simple teaching method. When children enter the art room, all of their working materials – from brushes to clay – should be already set up, ready for them to select and employ in free-form creations. No assignments needed.
Unconscious of any difficulties, they chop their way and surmount obstacles that might turn an adult grey, and presto! Soon their ideas become visible in a clearly intelligent form. With this flexibility, the students develop their own unique artistic styles, from the detail-oriented to the wildly expressive. The ability to channel one’s interior world into art is much more valuable than the mastery of academic techniques. There is no such thing as good painting about nothing.
Lesson 3: Stage exhibitions of your students’ works to encourage their self-confidence
An art teacher’s premier responsibility is to inspire children’s self-confidence. Teachers should organize public exhibitions of students’ works across the town. Bring the students’ works along with them and exhibited them next to their own.
These exhibitions give students a newfound excitement about their work, while educating the public about the potential of children’s art. It is significant that dozens of artists view exhibitions of student works, and are amazed and stirred by it. Critics will see that fine art only requires emotional intensity to be successful.
Lesson 4: Introduce art history with modern art (not the Old Masters)
When teaching young students about art history, where do you start? Modernism.
With 20th-century art, children can learn from works that are similar to their own, whether through the paintings of Henri Matisse, Milton Avery, or Pablo Picasso. These iconic artists sought pure, personal forms of visual expression, free from the technical standards of the past. Modern art has not been obscured by style and tradition as that of the Old Masters. It is therefore particularly useful to us to serve as an interpreter to establish the relationship between the child and the stream of art.
But while exposure to modern art can help boost children’s confidence and creativity, it shouldn’t interfere with the development of a unique style. Students must be discouraged from mimicking museum works as well as other artists’ painting practice. Very often the work of the children is simply a primitive rendition of the creative ends of the artist teacher. Therefore it has the appearance of child art, but loses the basic creative outlet for the child himself.
Lesson 5: Work to cultivate creative thinkers, not professional artist
In addition to fanning students’ creative instincts, great art teachers can help students become more self-aware, empathetic, and collaborative – and this generates better citizens in the long run. Teacher should hardly care whether their students would go on to pursue careers in the arts. Instead, they should focus on cultivating in their students a deep appreciation for artistic expression.
Most of the children will probably lose their imaginativeness and vivacity as they mature. But a few will not. And it is hoped that in their cases, the experience of eight years in an art classroom will not be forgotten and they will continue to find the same beauty about them. As to the others, it is hoped, that their experience will help them to revive their own early artistic pleasures in the work of others.
[F.O. – adapted from Sarah Gottesman,
How to Teach Art to Kids, According to Mark Rothko
Italian translation here]
Mark Rothko, Untitled (1964)