From top to bottom: Painting alongside my children – finger painting with my three-year old; observing my seven year old start some abstract art (which I joined in with towards the end); the resulting finished painting.

Ingredients: A range of paints – finger paints, acrylics, watercolours, oils (and linseed oil), mark-making tools, and materials to paint on – wood, canvas, cartridge paper, collage paper.

The Big Sell: Let’s paint beside each other and see what we can make together.

Strategy: It occurred to me early on as a mum and an artist there was a big gap between mine and my child’s expectations of a painting. I expected them to sit quietly and to concentrate on forming a well composed painting with narrative and clear bright colours. They expected to swish some paint around a space (which included paper but also included the table, chairs, floor, their hands and feet) until a muddy blend plastered the area and they could run off half-decorated and leave me to clear up!

I wondered whether my boys would ever come to enjoy the tranquillity and focus of painting in the way that I did and what the steps were to this taking place. The answer was … yes they would, and here are some of the steps along that journey to my now seven-year old, who received mainly painting materials for his seventh birthday and loves abstract art more than any other style of painting.

  1. From 2 – 3 years onwards, make painting fun. Do it outside in the sun and paint on rolls of old wallpaper to make train tracks down the garden path. Paint hands and feet, toys, leaves, stones, feathers – anything that makes a print. Be well prepared with a bowl of warm water and wipes at the ready to clean them up and hang a washing line and pegs against a space wall if you are lacking in drying space.
  2. Introduce dialogue into their work from the word go. Once their paintings are dry (an hour or two later) reintroduce them to your child and using a fat marker pen show them what images you have seen in their paintings – turn a splodge into a face, a splash into a fish, a stripe into a stick man.
  3. Once your child starts to understand and enjoy ‘painting with mummy/daddy/carer’, try some tandem-finger painting. Pick the subject of their favourite book (such as The Hungry Caterpillar above) and show them how you can recreate the images using sharp shapes and clear bright colours with your hands, if you clean them in between with a wipe or bowl of water.
  4. Now turn to DIY toy-making. As they grow in confidence building images from shapes and colours, make their favourite cartoon character by giving them a basic outline to paint in, add finishing touches with black marker once dry, cut out and cover in sticky-back plastic so they can carry it around with them, attached to buggy.
  5. Alongside figurative art work, introduce elements of abstract art play – arrange patterned collage cut outs alongside swishes of paint and discuss what looks pleasing to their eye. Don’t be afraid to show them famous works of art to inspire them – any age can appreciate Matisse, Pollock, Picasso. Talk to them about the colours of their feelings and dreams and ask them to show you.
  6. As your child’s confidence and knowledge of painting grows, support them with increasingly interesting materials – by the age of five my eldest son was painting on wood and papier mache, and quickly progressed to canvas at six. Gather interesting mark-making tools – run down pens, bamboo scratching sticks, an old comb – and try using ink and wax to explore ways to build light and dark in images. By this age, they will appreciate a visit to child-friendly art galleries or sculpture parks. Explain that new materials are precious things to be considered and explored, parts of the rites of passage of becoming a skilled artist.
  7. Exhibit your child’s art work – not just with a magnet on the fridge – but by providing them with their own gallery space. If you can’t attach any permanent fixtures to a wall, just use a cork board covered in white or black fabric and lean it in a temporary space. Invite the child to be a curator of this exhibition and talk visitors through their paintings, rather than speaking for them.

Accompany this arts play with a culture of carrying sketchbooks on any long car or train journey, ready to play ‘Oops!’ – one person makes a ‘mistake’ (jabs a hole in the paper, creates a fold, line or squiggle) and the other has to turn it into something beautiful, before you swap turns.

The verdict: I’m aware that I may be making this arts development sound too serious and prescriptive, but that is possibly a response to the type of person my eldest son has become – a serious young man who craves authenticity and a ‘grown up’ approach. Other children may prefer to pursue a more freeform route, continuing to explore mess and mayhem indefinitely.

However, I don’t think there is any danger in exposing children to established artwork from a young age, nor from introducing this idea of dialogue and the closeness that comes from ‘drawing alongside’ a parent with their own style and artistic choices. And it goes without saying, NEVER describe yourself as ‘hopeless’ at art, no matter how lacking in confidence you are – to them you are wonderful and any poor self-esteem you display will only provide them with the weapons to be ashamed of their own efforts.

Differences between you and them as unique artists are a great gift to emphasize, as you journey towards a shared understanding of art as key to expression and freedom.

Catchphrase: I love painting beside you! It shows me what the world looks like to you.

Left wanting more?

  • Does anyone else remember the fantastic retro-joy of watching Bob Ross paint a laidback landscape?! Type his name into Youtube and enjoy watching him at work with your child!