“Two years ago I was painting the lighthouse at Owls Head. A little girl came up to me asking a lot of questions and said that she loved to make art,” a reader recently wrote. “Last summer M— and her family visited my studio. They bought two of my paintings. I asked M— if she would like to paint with me next year. She said yes. For her birthday I made her a little pochade box for when we go out to paint this summer.
“Can you give me some advice about encouraging art practice and preparation for painting outside? She is a wonderful and precocious little nine-year-old who I think will do great things in her life.”
You’ve already done a lot to encourage her, my friend!
I don’t teach young children, and I think those who do are a unique blessing. Recently I tried to teach some kids how to measure. “See how this box is about two-thirds as wide as it is tall,” I started, only to realize that they were too young to have grasped fractions.
However, I have raised a few kids. A nine-year-old isn’t really old enough to manage abstract concepts. She will have a mind fizzing with ideas. Let her creativity lead.
Almost all kids love to draw and paint. Most kids, however, give it up around adolescence. This is a time of great changes in the brain. Until we know why kids do this, we can’t really figure out how to prevent it. But encouragement and modeling must fit in there somewhere. Ours is an anti-art culture in many ways, and kids pick up on the idea that art is a “waste of time.”
I have always kept a stack of bound sketchbooks in the corner of my studio so my kids could grab a new one when they wanted. A sketchbook and plain old #2 pencil legitimize drawing in a way that copier paper never can. Encourage her to draw every day.
The easiest route for you would be to give her a canvas and set her up a palette using your own paints. If her parents want her to have her own supplies, I’d suggest a small starter set of a heavier-body watercolor like Pelikan opaque or Yarka St. Petersburg, with one decent synthetic brush and a watercolor cold-press field notebook. Or, if she prefers to draw, have her start with a Prismacolor Nu-Pastel kit and a Canson Mi-Teintes Spiral Pad. (She should be wearing latex gloves when using pastels.)
Note that these are all professional-quality artist supplies that a kid can manage. Most professionals couldn’t do much with kiddie paints, but we expect that kids can. And while these supplies are expensive, the entire kit can be purchased for the price of one pair of toddler Uggs.
I’d avoid acrylics because she will have a hard time keeping the paint open outdoors. Likewise, I’d avoid colored pencils because they encourage coloring inside the lines. I hate that.
After that, just try to let her have fun. No big lessons. If she has a question, answer it. But whatever she comes up with, I’m sure you will love it—and she will, too!