How to talk about art

There are two different kinds of art chats you'll usually have with your kids... talking about their art, and talking about other people's art. Let's start with...

Talking about their art

Talking about art with kids can be tricky. A comment intended to be a compliment could be misunderstood, and may unintentionally hurt your little artist’s feelings.

I’ve found that asking questions is one of the safest way to go. The more general the better…

“Tell me more about what’s happening here.”

“What made you think to draw/paint/sculpt this?”

“How were you feeling when you created this art?”

When you make observations, make them about the effort, not the results…

“I saw that you really looked carefully at what you were drawing. You observed every detail!”

“I noticed how you mixed your colors to get just the right hue!”

“I can tell you put a lot of thought into this.”

Talking about other people’s art

When you’re looking through books or touring the art museum, the key is curiosity.

“I wonder what this is about?”

“Do you think this artist lived a long time ago?”

“Isn’t it interesting that he painted the woman’s face green?”

Beginning a dialogue with leading questions will do just that… lead. Lead to some answers, but probably more questions, which is good. It will also lead to your kids to think about the art, and come to their own conclusions. There is no right or wrong in art appreciation… just differences. Every painting has someone who loves it and someone who hates it. This makes art appreciation, and learning how to put your observations and opinions into words, a really valuable exercise for kids. It’s the beginning of learning how to express their likes and dislikes in a way that honors the value in the work, even if they don’t particularly care for it.

This is where you can lead the way. First you listen, and then you help them re-phrase. I never like to come out and say what I think first, I save my opinions for the very end (if I even share them at all). I don’t want my interpretations or opinions to get in the way of their thoughts, so I simply listen.

If I hear: “This art is boring. These people don’t even look happy.” I’ll try to get to what’s at the core of their statement. First, I validate what they said, highlight one interesting thing about the painting (hopefully in the form of a question I’m genuinely curious about), and re-phrase their comment. So I might respond with:

“You’re right, they don’t look very happy. When this painting was made, there weren’t any cameras, so artists painted pictures to document what people and places looked like. I wonder how long they had to sit still while someone painted their picture? Probably a long time! Do you think it would be hard to hold a smile for that long while your picture was painted? Maybe that's why they look so serious... It sounds like you’d prefer to look at art that’s more dynamic… let’s see if we can find something like that!”

Or, you can encourage them to express their opinions in a constructive way, and to explain why. Ask them to consider what the artist was trying to accomplish and see if they can find one thing they could compliment about the art.

“I like how this painting looks so realistic, and the lights and shadows are interesting, but the dark colors seem really dull and I like brighter colors better.”

It’s okay if they don’t like a certain artist, or style of art. It would actually be really unusual for someone to like everything. Just be sure to examine the reasons, and let the conversation lead you to interesting insights about why.

As you wander through museums and browse art history books, you can take this information – and as the amazing tour guide you are – find the art that will interest them now! (Then return to all the other stuff later... maybe.)

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