Life, Seen Through Art: Starting Young

A cherubic young girl lies in the bath, dark hair floating from her head. She is revelling in a moment of tranquil pleasure. In this self-portrait, 11-year-old Georgia Marshall Evangelou said “In other countries people would not have this water, or the time, to do such a thing.”

Nathan Roach, 17, presents a stark photographic image of himself hands stretched out in front, as if to escape the mass of dark images surrounding him, “the many pressures teenagers experience, the feeling of being trapped or suffocated under pressure to succeed, fears of being bullied because of the way we look and dress”.

The work of Emily Daniel,16, shows a girl’s face, the mouth held tight with a collection of safety pins, a strong representation of how young people feel silenced, censored and watched.

These are some of this year’s entrants in the Equality and Human Rights commission’s Young Brits at Art competition. The kids had a lot to say, socially, politically, but they are also young and inexperienced in technique. So why does this work as art?

Art is expression: the process starts with feeling some sort of emotion about some sort of something, and kids in their teens are just emerging into newer, fresher ideas, thoughts, concepts. They are trying to find a home for their new feelings, and so they are thinking deeply and trying to express themselves in ways other than through verbal or physical avenues. They are just emerging into the social sphere on a wider level, and so they have an unadulterated and perhaps unique perspective.

One competition judge said that she reviewed all the works based on the “emotional response” she felt from each work. And since younger artists have likely seen fewer and less varied works of art, they are therefore drawing from a more organic (less pre-defined or concrete) sense of expression. If so, a child’s work may convey a concept much differently than a more seasoned artist would. There’s a lot to learn by unlocking whatever runs rampant in the heads of kiddos.



  1. Hi
    First of all this looks like a very interesting blog.

    I agree that this is an excellent piece of work & it certainly does invoke an emotional response. I’d say judging an artwork on this criteria sounds very reasonable too. The questions are though; How does the artist create this emotional response? Why does the viewer have this emotional response?

    You say “Art is expression: the process starts with feeling some sort of emotion about some sort of something,”
    I agree with this statement & as an artist this is my own starting point.

    I see this as also true for children.
    As an art teacher of children (aged8-11) I think what you have to offer your students are the tools to be able to express themselves visually, precisely in order to be able to express their emotions. This is always a delicate matter because it must be through encouragement, showing techniques,providing inspiration, whilst leaving the space for personal exploration & developement . However, we wouldn’t expect someone to be able to express themselves well through writing or speaking without the basic vocabulary & grammar. The way I see it,use of line , marks, pattern recognition, use of light & dark & so on are just some of the many elements of visual vocabulary necessary for creative self expression.

    “And since younger artists have likely seen fewer and less varied works of art, they are therefore drawing from a more organic (less pre-defined or concrete) sense of expression”.

    It is of course true that younger artists will generally have seen fewer & less varied works of art.But we shouldn’t underestimate the filtering through of many artistic styles into popular culture & the media. What we accept now wasn’t neccessarily accepted when it originated & artists are contiually influenced & influencing each other either intentionally or not.This means that by the time someone is as young as 8 say, they must have been exposed to literally millions of images which will have influenced them without them being in the slightest bit aware of it. All these cultural differences come into play aside from what they could learn from any formal art training. The resulting artwork is going to reflect all this background in what seems a relatively short lifetime.

    In my own experience many children fall back on sterotypes & clichés & the only way to encourage more diversity is to provide as much visual material as possible , & get them to explore the materials. I often find that non-figuarative work is particularly valuable in this regard. It allows them to create basic structures without falling into the trap of the latest cutsy cartoon character.

    Chilren at a certain point feel the need to copy an image & there is a lot to be learnt from this(assuming that the teacher is providing good examples in the first place). The first thing they need to do this is to learn to ask themselves questions.For example “What shape do you see in the bottom left corner?”,”How many times could you fit the dog’s head across the page?” . The children that are labelled as “naturally talented” are already doing this in a way , it’s just not a conscious process. I’d say we can all learn to be creative in our own way (one of my favourite questions is “How many pictures is it possible to invent?” – They usually start by saying 2O or 500 until I finally ellicit the idea of infinity.

    In the end as well as the complexity of each individual both genetically & culturally I guess some of us have more oppportunities than others. Like everything in life.

  2. Sonya, thank you for your thoughtful response! My head was reeling with new considerations as I read through it.

    You said “by the time someone is as young as 8 say, they must have been exposed to literally millions of images which will have influenced them without them being in the slightest bit aware of it.”

    This is very true – and, perhaps children are more impressionable at the younger age than adults. They may even be more like a sponge, soaking up every ounce of expression and physical object they see.

    I think your technique of exposing children to non-figurative work which “allow[s] them to create basic structures without falling into the trap of the latest cutsy cartoon character” is fascinating, particularly because that is what my children resort to. They tend to draw more faces and stick figures of people. I wonder what they would draw if I asked them to draw a concept or a value, like “truth” or “love”. I’m going to try it…!

    I also like the exercise of the dog’s head – teaching early spatial recognition and patterns. Fascinating also when you say that the children who are natually talented are already learning to ask themselves questions. As if they are questioning the world, which is what leads to a keen sense of introspection as well as external engagement.

    Thank you for your comments!

  3. Hello again
    I’ve been thinking about your idea of asking your children to draw a concept or value such as love , truth etc.& I can’t get away from my initial response to this which is that very likely they might draw hearts or friends holding hands (of course with more hearts above the heads!) & it would still end up stereotyped. Admittedly, your children are quite likely more exposed to artwork than some so maybe it wouldn’t happen quite like this. I have this suspicion though, as it’s partly the symbolic stage children go through & it’s been my experience at times.. I think that truth or love are abstract concepts & you still need the visual tools in order to feel you have an idea of where to start in order to express them.
    Of course non-figurative can mean all sorts of things . To be more specific I was meaning more along the lines of giving them an initial starting structure. Here is an example , (although of course you could invent loads of others with the aim to get them to explore concepts of composition): 1) Break up the page into different areas using either curves, straight lines or both . 2)Colour each area with a different colour oil pastel. 3)When finished, draw more lines on top which can intersect those underneath 4)Colour these shapes so that they obscure the ones underneath.5)Take a pair of scissors & using the flat edge draw across the surface to remove areas which could be triangles, circles free forms etc.With something like this they’ll be exploring a lot to do with making basic compositions through use of line, tone & colour. Of course it helps to talk about which colours contrast,how light & dark give impact etc.
    After doing something like this you could then say now see if you can make a picture using this method but that shows love. They might then choose colours that symbolise the concept or they might draw hearts with scissors but it might be a bit more original because of the other elements. I say this because for example years ago when I first asked children to design a card for the school christmas card they came out with the typical father christmas, snowman stuff. So these days I tend to concentrate more on selecting appropriate materials & techniques . I would also rather tend to tell them to base it on winter than christmas as it’s more open & less likely to conjure up the clichés.

    Now I’d better get back to my painting!

  4. Sonya, hi! Your exercise is great. It seems to stem from the idea of ‘context’ in which you are influenced by what you’ve just seen/experienced. I did this experiment with my 4-year old, who was pretty good at translating the idea of ‘concept’ based on a new ‘context’ or paradigm. I’m interested in seeing how older kids would do.

    Here’s a fun educational site hosted by the Cleveland Museum of Art that you might find interesting! (I played it for 20 minutes!)

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