When My Parents Made Art with Me

I happened to walk through one of our Figure Drawing and Portraiture Workhsops at Art Steps in Yorba Linda, CA last month when I happened across Manuella Cooper, who had joined her daughters, long-time students Sophia and Amanda, to try her hand at drawing people for the week. I’ve known her for years, and she is the sort of person who usually has a smile on her face, but she seemed to be glowing and content, even more than usual. “Now I know what they mean when they don’t want to leave art class,” she explained. 

We talked about the meditative joy we experience as artists, when we sit down, slow down, and concentrate on rendering the subject matter before us.  She commented that she’s planning to join each week.

Beyond Manuela’s experience in and of itself, it struck me that her daughter Amanda beamed ear-to-ear, grinning as we grownups chatted away.  Have you ever had two things you loved dearly in life, come together?  How did you feel? Whole, content, energized… happy.   This reminded me of the times my parents tried their hands at art.

I vividly remember sitting with my dad, acrylic paints, pencils and brushes spread across his kitchen table, trying to emulate Bob Ross and his ilk through Walter Foster books and memories of what we had seen on TV.  Hunched over our canvas boards, our faces squinched with concentration, my tongue probably poking out the side of my mouth (as was my typical art-making pose until I finally got hell for it from a classmate in the 6thgrade), we puzzled out how to create the illusion of mountains in the distance, rivers that stayed flat as they emerged onto a field, and foreground grasses that seemed like believable in color and in form.  The Eagles and Carpenters played in the next room, and Dinty Moore beef stew bubbled on the stove.  Maybe he wasn’t all that interested in painting, but he clearly found a love for it once he got started.  Maybe part of him was originally just trying to think of a way that he could possibly fill an afternoon with his 9 year old daughter to make weekend visitation time really count. Well, it did. 

Another time, my mom decided to try drawing. She used to paint ceramic figurines in her spare time. Embellishing someone else’s creation held little interest for me, but when she broke out a pencil and put it to paper, I was right there next to her, sketching away.  I read “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” by Betty Edwards  (which I still highly recommend) around Jr. High, and the concepts I shared intrigued her. She decided to give a couple of the exercises in it a whirl, too, and together we discovered several very helpful drawing techniques that astonished us, such as turning an image upside down do draw it accurately, or focusing on an object’s negative shapes.  Watching the joy in her discovery from this quiet act made sitting down to draw on my own into a warm, fuzzy experience.  Over the years since, my mom has picked up watercolors from time to time, and I love seeing her paintings hang on the wall.

My parents were not creative types.   They were an escrow officer and a geologist who both dabbled in computer programming.   Neither drew nor painted but a handful of times, but I’ll always remember them as their own types of artists: certainly untrained, but curious, and not too afraid to give it a try. They created their little masterpieces not out of obligation or even necessarily to encourage me, but because the experience itself was added to their quality of life.  Their examples showed me that sitting down and putting pencil to paper was a worthwhile act. It opened the door for me to fully respect that part of myself, the part that feels the need to create.  I never hesitated to build a life centered around creativity, and around the joy of passing that passion on.

Today, besides directing three fine art studios and co-creating an online art program, I love to draw and paint together with my husband and our sons. All four of us have different vastly differing styles, and we appreciate our differences. I notice that when I paint, my kids want to, as well.  When I draw, they draw. Generally, they sit around and draw their favorite characters, so I draw my favorite characters, too: I sketch their portraits while they happily scribble away.

Some Art Steps parents join their kids in class, which can be an amazing experience, but it’s not the only way to make art together. Whether it’s grabbing printer paper and a pencil to doodle around the dinner table, setting up a pair of easels in the garage, or bringing some sketchbooks on a hike, the best way to bring art to your family is your way.  I hope you will.

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