The youngest artist-in-the-making I ever met was six years old. Carson Rutter arrived at my office carrying a folder of his work in one hand and holding his mother’s hand with the other. Drawings of cowboys dominated his portfolio. I asked him to tell me about them. With a critical eye, he told me how he had improved since those drawings were made and that their inspiration was The Magnificent Seven. Six other art teachers later evaluated Carson’s work as that of a middle-school student.
“Where are these pictures you pick from?” — Sandra Kay
“In my head. I pick which one I would like to see as a drawing.” — Carson Rutter
When I asked this six-year-old when he had started to draw, he answered, “I was very young. I think four or five. No, I must have been three [his mother nodded her confirmation]. I wasn’t as good as now. I got better.” Asked why he needed to draw so much (20–50 drawings a week), Carson responded, “Because I love it. I just love it!”
The rest of the interview went as follows: “How do you choose what to draw?” “Oh, I pick which picture would look good as a drawing.” “What do you mean? Where are these pictures you pick from?” “In my head. I pick which one I would like to see as a drawing.” “Are there many to choose from?” “Oh, yes!”
This child exemplified many behavioral characteristics identified in the research on the artistically gifted. For instance, such students tend to begin development before entering school and display high levels of self-motivation and self-directedness. Subject themes, such as cowboys, may emerge from extended concentration, which reflects a child’s ability to work at an artistic problem longer and to explore many possible solutions to it.
Drawing appeals to young gifted children because it is an accessible way for them to express themselves and record observations in detail. It also gives them intense joy. Sustained practice hones an inborn talent, and a child may progress so fast as to seem to skip certain developmental stages. Artistically gifted children produce large amounts of work; in fact, they may have more ideas than time to realize them. Their visual fluency may equal that of professional artists.
However, high technical proficiency is not sufficient for artistic development. Artistic ability also requires motivation, perceptual acuity, imagination, and aesthetic intelligence. Expert art educators can evaluate samples for these abilities and for the complexity of a child’s schemata. Imagination, although an active ingredient, appears to be idiosyncratic. Gifted children use random improvisation like doodling to explore shapes, patterns, and lines, and they seem aware of the spaces between lines and the subtle effects of a line’s quality.
On the other hand, creative children are sometimes extremely cautious when confronting new problems; they may exhibit behaviors antithetical to those associated with creativity to protect themselves from ridicule or embarrassment. Their highly focused problem-defining skills can also lead them to limit the subject matters they take up and the materials they use. Carson’s drawing medium, subject matter, inspiration, and working conditions were acutely specific.
Aesthetic preferences appear to evolve from self-directed challenges. A child’s strong sense of what is elegant, beautiful, or “correct” is similar to an expert artist’s. Research on identifying artistically gifted children for music or dance programs suggests that children who meet the creativity criteria could easily be taught the skill criteria, but that children whose skill criteria qualify them for such programs have difficulty developing their creativity.
Aptitude in the visual arts follows the same pattern. A good art program provides problems that foster critical and creative thinking skills as the participants’ technical skills advance. Like general education, art education in elementary schools may not be prepared to address the needs of artistically talented children.
Parents should keep accurate records of their children’s work to nurture their artistic development. Unfinished explorations reveal as much to the trained eye as finished work. I often suggest that parents purchase a rotating date stamp to track the chronology of their children’s work and to teach the young artists to stamp each piece, place it in a portfolio, and select one or two favorites to display in a frame. If your child builds sculptures or other three-dimensional structures, instant or digital photographs may be the best records. Keeping such records also develops organizational and critical thinking skills.
Another strategy is to keep a journal of events, comments, or behaviors that strike you as unusual or meaningful, as well as anecdotes about your child’s artistic development. For example, you might discuss your child’s display choices and record the reasons or comments. Keeping records of contests entered, exhibits, and other achievements can be useful later on, too.
Most important, savor the joy of art together. The value of showing sincere appreciation of a child’s efforts is immeasurable. Artists need feedback from their audience. Focused, detailed comments will inform your child how well his or her ideas have been communicated.