Ingredients: Watercolour paints, blank canvas (buy 4 for £4.50 at Wilkinsons), paintbrushes, pencil

The Big Sell: Sometimes you can paint how you feel rather than what you see…

Strategy:        My first born happened to be a particularly emotionally sensitive child. The ‘terrible twos’ lasted from about 14 months to about four and a half. I can honestly say he was born with an ‘artistic temperament’ – his incredibly supportive teachers would come to the classroom door and be very sympathetic as they discussed trying to help him to manage his feelings of agony and ecstasy. I spent the first couple of years learning how to read his rollercoaster moods and offer activities that would help him to vent and work through the tougher times. It became obvious that play dough was a great calmer and very soon conversations would flow about translating how he felt into an image or shape. By the time he was nearly five he was probably one of the most emotionally literate people I know.

I started showing him works by Jackson Pollock, Kandinsky, Matisse (who he also studied at school) and explaining to him how adults often find it much harder to show how they feel than children, but these artists had used the paint to try and show their feelings. People could look into their paintings and instead of seeing something they could recognise they could just see how it made them feel.

It led to discussions about ‘mistakes’ – I told him “Do you want to know what most people are scared of? Mistakes! And it stops them from even trying in case they fail. For some people the scariest thing is a blank canvas because they are too afraid to start in case they get it wrong.”

One day I gave him a blank canvas and said he could make anything as long as he took it seriously as it was a special space. He wanted to make “an abstract painting” like those I’d shown him. Within 30 minutes he sketched out shapes and started filling them in with colour (“This is the heart, so it is red. The hope is at the top looking up and it is yellow. But it has black around it because sadness can always come after a happy moment. But the sadness is good because then you know what happiness is.”) All the conversations we had had over the last six years were contained in this painting. He worked more freely and without self-consciousness than I ever could. He said it was called Feeling and wrote it across the top.

I told him “Only the artist can say when the painting is finished, and when it is, they just know”. He loved this and said I was allowed to help him paint in the blocks of colour, but insisted I stop when he told me to.

The Verdict: He kept going back to look at his canvas when it was drying and said “Mummy I’m going to be famous one day and my paintings will be hung in museums.” I know this may sound terribly precocious, but I’d always rather hear a child describe themselves as something special rather than nothing special. I think we are so afraid of youth today – of the strength and vociferousness of their instincts. I think we worry we must curb their passions in case they expect or ask too much of their lives, rather than sharing their self-belief and so belittling them. Their leisure time can be so prescribed, controlled, sanitised, sold as ready entertainment. I see children who cannot operate without a set structure unless they veer into chaos. And at the most extreme end of the scale, as we have seen in Britain with rioting recently, if you cut away all the roots of creative choice, the pathway can lead to destruction.

When I was pregnant I started writing a book to my unborn son and I said that my greatest hope for him was to have the gift of imagination, as the best resource to see him through life. And in order to grow imagination the right conditions need to be provided – of space for boredom, mistakes, mess, reflection, exploration, investigation and of being able to express your feelings without fear or shame. It has sometimes been hard living with a little person who feels life so acutely but if I hadn’t tried sharing abstract art with him, I never would had known how he would understand it so naturally, without fear and preconception, be able to use it as a tool by which to communicate how he felt with others, without resorting to tantrum or tears, but with pride.

Catchphrase: At the end he said, “I’m not scared of making mistakes Mummy. Because if you make a mistake you can always turn it into something beautiful”

Left wanting more?

  • Absolute must is the book ‘Beautiful Oops’ by Barney Saltzberg, published by Workman. This book is for all ages and literally shows how a mistake can be the best thing ever.
  • We now play ‘Oops!’ at home – one person makes a ‘mistake’ (jabbing a hole in a piece of paper, folding over a corner, creating a scribble) and the next person has to turn it into something beautiful. The best game for growing creative thinkers.
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