A few years ago, I had the privilege of visiting the Norman Rockwell gallery in Arlington, Vermont. In the back of the gallery there was a display of personal photographs. One that spoke volumes to me showed the artist reading in a favorite chair, while his son sketched at an easel behind him. I wondered what it was like to grow up in that kind of environment – first sitting at the feet one of America’s most beloved illustrators, then experimenting with his tools.
Seeing a picture like that often makes us wonder if creative tendencies are somehow genetically predisposed, like an overstuffed paint box handed down from one generation to the next. For some artists this is true. Norman Rockwell, Tasha Tudor, Lois Lenski, Marguerite de Angeli, and Beatrix Potter all had creative ancestors in their family tree. But more importantly, they all had an insatiable desire to draw. “I think I’ve always wanted to be an artist,” said Rockwell. “I certainly can’t remember ever wanting to be anything else. Not that I awoke one morning with the full-blown idea swimming around in my head. It was gradual. I drew, then I found I liked to draw, and finally, after I had got to know something of myself and the people and things around me, I found that I didn’t want to do anything but draw.” My Adventures as an Artist by Norman Rockwell (page 37. Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers, New York 1960)
I know just how Rockwell felt. I love to draw and paint. As a child, I had no formal training and remember little of grade-school art classes. At home, however, I was allowed to work with all kinds of mediums: pencil, colored pencil, pastel, watercolors, acrylics, and even oil paints. I unconsciously explored the elements of art: color, value, line, shape, form, texture, and space. My calling to be an artist was fostered by my mother, who saw promise in my abilities and provided a creative home environment in which my talent could flourish.
Even with all this emphasis on creativity, I never made the connection that my life experiences were worth recording. I mostly drew out of my imagination and was discouraged from copying other people’s work. My mother wanted me to be original. The irony is that when I attended commercial art school, all we did was copy. We copied out of magazines and catalogs for advertising class. We copied from photographs and National Geographic for watercolor class. We studied other artists’ work. The only class where we drew from life was “figure drawing.” Needless to say, that was my favorite class (because it was real). But it wasn’t until I began looking for a way to teach my own children to draw and write that I realized what I had missed.
One day, I desperately searched the writing section of our library, looking for the key that would unlock my son’s creativity. Eric is an auditory learner, and when he was younger it was hard for him to get the thoughts out of his head and onto the page. He could talk much faster than he could write. This was never a problem for my daughter Claire, a visual learner who could write fluently from an early age. She saw punctuation and picked up on writing style as she read. This visual learning style gives Claire an edge that others would call a “gift.” Visual learners make the best editors because they “see” the mistakes. But Eric loved to tell stories. He talked all the time. What could I do to inspire him?
As I browsed the shelves, certain titles jumped out at me like “Writing from Your Heart” and “Recording Your Life Stories.” Most of these books were written for adults, and as I read them, I began to see that the writing approach I was exposed to as a child (with an emphasis on imaginary writing and grammar) was not the main writing approach that most writers recommended. These writers wrote from their life experiences. They learned to tap into their own writing voice of inborn rhythms, vocabulary choices, and ideas. Many of them kept journals, and that idea really excited my son and gave him a reason to write.
When my son narrated his first journal entry to me, it was two pages long. This kid had a lot to say! Eventually he moved from narrating his stories to typing them on the computer. As I saw how this method made writers out of all of my children regardless of their ages (3-15 at the time) or learning styles, I was led to write The Gift of Family Writing, a life story approach to writing for the whole family.
In the book Any child can Write, (Bantam Books, New York:1990) author Harvey Whiner says, “A better synonym for creative writing is ‘autobiography.’ Those countless moments in an individual’s life, brief, intense stretches of time, stud a child’s day and glitter in the mind like diamonds long after the moments pass. By recalling those moments of experience through language―specific, exact, sharply drawn―the young writer can practice the skills of writing.” Does this approach to creative writing make sense to you? It can be so freeing to realize that your children don’t have to dream up situations to write about unless they want to. They can write creatively about their life experiences as they happen!
Writers and artists have a sixth sense – a way of seeing life that others often miss. The skill of observation is finely honed by recording everyday moments. So how can you establish a creative home environment? Here are a few suggestions.
1. Read living books. No matter what teaching approach you use, reading is probably the most important element in fostering a creative home environment. Everything your child needs to learn about writing well can be found in the pages of other people’s work. Writing styles, sentence structure, and vocabulary choices all go into a child’s creative hopper and mull around, waiting to be utilized later in his own writing later. Read magazine articles and editorials also. Your children will learn how to write for publication by reading expository writing.
2. Teach your children to record their life stories as they happen. Don’t wait until a child is nine or ten to introduce creative writing. Transcribe your child’s oral accounts, no matter what his age, until he is able to write it or type it himself. Teach him to value his personal experience and to write and draw from life!
3. Regularly read the biographical information to your child about the author and illustrator of the book you are reading. Note how the illustrator chose to depict a certain scene and what phrases or sentences he based his drawings upon. If your story is a classic, get several versions of the same story and see how differently the illustrators portrayed it.
4. Encourage your child to illustrate the characters or a scene in a story that you are reading to them. Norman Rockwell did this as a boy.
5. Set up a figure drawing class right in your own living room. Pose for each other during family reading time. Tasha Tudor did this with her children. She says her girls posed out of sheer vanity, but the boys had to be bribed with chocolates. Even Norman Rockwell attended figure drawing classes while painting The Saturday Evening Post covers.
6. Read the biographies and autobiographies of authors illustrators. Some of our favorites are: Beatrix Potter’s Art by Anne Stevenson Hobbs, Drawn from New England: Tasha Tudor by Bethany Tudor, Journey Into Childhood by Louis Lenski, Butter at the Old Price – by Marguerite de Angeli, My Adventures as an Illustrator by Norman Rockwell (You must edit out a few chapters, but it is definitely worth reading to the family), and The Treasury of the Great Children’s Book Illustrators by Susan E. Meyer.
7. Visit the museums and galleries of your favorite illustrators. A few years ago, my daughter Elizabeth and I visited Norman Rockwell’s gallery and participated in a garden tour at Tasha Tudor’s farm in Vermont. It was a once in a lifetime experience and one that I hope my budding artist will treasure all her life.
8. Collect your favorite writers’ and illustrators’ works for the purpose of study and reference. Beatrix Potter’s father collected over thirty of Randolph Caldecott’s illustrations. Beatrix idolized his work and admits that she tried to copy it in vain.
9. Provide sketchbooks, journals, and art supplies. Like many other artists, Tasha Tudor’s drawing skill was directly attributed to the fact that she daily drew in sketchbooks since the age of ten.
10. At some point take art classes or get professional input. Most self taught artists receive professional training at some point in their lives. A good teacher can make a difference in the quality of your work. When your child is older encourage him take a few art classes or seek out a Christian artist who is willing to critique his work.
God created every child with the ability to write or draw. These abilities are given as a basic human necessity for self expression – rather than “gifts” for the chosen few as we have been led to believe. They come from the heart of a creative God who loves remembering and recording, and has given every human being the ability to do the same.
Jill Novak and her husband Robert have been married for 33 years and are the parents of five children. Together her family has founded Remembrance Press, publishers of The Pebbly Brook Farm Series, Becoming God’s Naturalist, The Gift of Family Writing, and The Girlhood Home Companion Magazine. Jill is a frequent speaker and contributor to the homeschool community and a Titus 2 encourager to the younger women in her life, especially her own daughters. For unique writing, drawing and mentoring resources visit www.remembrancepress.com or Hopeful Farm, the Novak’s ministry for families with children with special needs at www.hopefulfarmfoundation.org.