Constructive Art Feedback From Parents

revised and reprinted from Art Steps News, 2004

Six Verbal Ways to Encourage Your Aspiring Artist


What parents say to a child has more impact than anything said by a teacher or even a peer.  The words you choose will affect your child’s confidence, mood, and whole approach to art, either encouraging, or discouraging a child who is working hard.  These six tips are ideal for Art Steps families, but can apply to a wide range of situations.  With the right kind of constructive encouragement, a young art student can thrive.

1. Keep compliments specific.

Try to avoid leaving your input to general comments like, “Looks great, honey!” When a child hears such a general comment, his or her thought process might be, “maybe it looks great, but I got a lot of help.” Or “She’s just saying that.”  Instead, add why you think it looks great.  Just one quick comment such as, “Your lines look very neat” “The dog’s paws look very three-dimensional” or “I like the smoothness of the shadows on the table.” can make all the difference.  Incredibly, when specifics are discussed in this way, it becomes an instant self-esteem booster.  A child is more likely to think, “She likes the smoothness of the shadows on the table, and I like the shading on the apple, too.”

2. Be careful of becoming dismissive of your child’s work.

Parents of Art Steps students can tend to get used to seeing amazing art coming home every few weeks.  Making realistic art is hard work!  Celebrate with your child!

3. Be realistic in your comments.

Remember that this is practice work. Your child will fail and succeed in little and big ways in his or her journey toward mastery, and not every picture he or she brings home is going to be his or her favorite.  Again, keeping those comments specific really can help.

4. Don’t criticize.

If you think the quality of the work is not quite up to par, there may be good reasons.  Instead, ask your child about how he or she is enjoying class.  It is normal to go through a little slump every once in a while.

5. Provide guidance through rough spots.

If you child comes home frustrated or unhappy with a picture, listen to why, and try to take his or her concerns seriously.  Then remind him or her or all the successes so far.  Even take out your child’s portfolio of previous work to keep things in perspective.  Help your child keep faith that with their best effort, after a couple of pictures he or she will feel that sense of pride and progress again.  Take the first opportunity to let the teacher know, as well, so that she can help guide your child in the most constructive direction.

6. Keep in close contact with your child’s instructor on a regular basis.

Although teachers may seem busy sometimes, they are always happy to discuss a student’s work, progress, and upcoming projects before and after class.  Teachers can provide insight into the little – and big – lessons and challenges your child is facing. You will know what to discuss with your child when you know details about where he or she is aiming.

Keep up those positive comments and actions, and instruction at Art Steps, and in all kinds of classes can work even better than ever.  With plenty of encouragement, children can do anything!


6 Ways To Connect Art & Academics


Accentuate Art’s Calming Effect

Understanding that the calming effect of realistic, representational drawing can help settle the nervous system is key for parents who want to encourage their kids. Art classes help students practice what it feels like to calm down.  You can help by remembering to be calm and encouraging to them both before and after art class, and by creating a safe, relaxing environment to draw at home.


Connect Art Time with Homework Time

If your child finishes homework early, allow drawing time.  Some children like to take art breaks between homework assignments.  By incorporating art into homework time, you’ll encourage practice while making art a sort of reward, reminding your kiddo that while drawing is not screen time, it is a fun and engaging part of the day.  Of course, there is a benefit to using more areas of the brain.  Where possible, provide your child with plenty of art supplies so that drawing-related homework can be a truly rewarding experience.


Allow for Focus

Taylor Gee, a long-time former art student diagnosed with A.D.D., first developed the ability to focus in art class during junior high.  Six months later, she found herself focusing one subject at school, then in another, until she became proficient in all subjects and excelled by the end of high school.  She credits classes with her transformation.  I have heard this sort of account more than once.  In The Brain That Changes Itself, Norman Doige points to research that links the repetitive acts of tracing and drawing lines slowly, to significant repair of the brain. Choose classes that allow slow, meditative concentration, preferably through representational drawing.  To help students focus, be sure that at home, there are no distractions, so art students can practice in peace.



Provide Regular Attendance

Nothing helps prepare a student to be at their best like a clearcut routine and the reliable presence of trustworthy adults.  Attending a well-managed class at a regular time helps children manage their week, overall. Kind teachers can become a touchstone mentor for a child’s overall wellbeing.  These days, kids’ schedules are increasingly hectic.  We have heard countless times from kids and parents alike that a relaxing art class once a week helps ground and center students enough to provide mental and emotional energy for their week.

Have Kids Draw Before Bed

A good night’s sleep is key for success.  Of course, we know that a bedtime routine helps kids to settle, and putting pencil to paper in a cozy spot before reading a book provides some some screen-free time, helping kids process their day, while winding down to rest.


Stay Positive!

Art is a child’s sanctuary.  When you view their work, speak about specific qualities you notice in their art, without judgment. Since grades don’t apply to art, focusing on a drawing provides the ultimate opportunity to feel immersed in a task without worrying about pleasing someone else. That ability to delve deeply into a project can transfer into the classroom, which, of course, leads to more permanent and meaningful learning experiences overall.  Let your child know you are pleased with their effort, and are glad they are enjoying the ride.


If you have your child in any form of the arts, bravo!  You are providing the balance and joy necessary to a productive and – most importantly – happy student.

Have a wonderful school year!


Today, as Thanksgiving approaches, I am struck with gratitude to all of those associated with our art studios, who make the world a better place through repeated acts of kindness and generosity of spirit. Our students, their parents, their teachers, and so many others warm my heart now, as they do every single day. Here’s how:

You came through for Bright Artists: This month, over 100 families were able to participate in the Bright Artists fundraiser, placing 201 orders, which raised a record-breaking $3,651.00 in profit, 100% of which goes directly to providing high quality school outreach art classes for children who could normally never study fine art.  This program means so much to each child who gets the chance to participate. The improvement over last year’s totals has made it possible for an additional 24 children in need to become Bright Artists! And, as we I write this, a dozen more art studios in Los Angeles, San Diego, along the country’s west coast in California and Washington State have been kind enough to also start Bright Artists fundraisers of their own!  Wow.

Art Steps parents are amazing: There is nothing quite like witnessing parents take the time, week in and week out, to feed their children’s spirit through an artistic outlet.  Week in and week out, they carve out time during busy lives, get into the car, often packing up little ones in tow, and make their way from far and wide, into our studios. Moms, dads, grandmas, grandpas and other loved ones take the time to walk in and check with teachers, spend time scheduling on the phone, and provide support at home, buy art supplies and more. Watching a child proudly bring a finished artwork to that supportive, encouraging adult warms my heart, every time.

Art Steps teachers rock: I am humbled to work with such an impressive group of kind, considerate, knowledgeable, passionate, dedicated individuals. At least once a week I come across teachers on their breaks, and almost inevitably, they are wrapt in conversation about one student or another; their progress, marveling how much they’ve grown, meeting a particular need at a rough time, appreciating their unique personalities, or brainstorming to maximize inspiration. If they’re not talking about a kid, they’re almost always sharing an art book, discussing a show, or getting together to exhibit.  Our teachers really, truly care about both kids and art, support each other phenomenally, and have my deep and ongoing respect.

Our teachers rocked their first session at the nonprofit: So that Bright Artists can have the highest quality of art instruction, Art Steps sends our highly trained teachers into schools to run the program.  Moy, Taylor, Dekota and our new Bright Artists Program Director, Allie, poured their hearts into teaching the first session of the school year, which wrapped up with their students becoming Bright Artists, indeed. I am immensely grateful for their hard work, enthusiasm, dedication, and heart.

All our staff forms an amazing team: Truly, you couldn’t ask for a more supportive set of individuals.  From our office staff, Debi and Ashley, to our accountant Pam, to our teacher’s aides who are also former students: Mia and Katelynn, to our extended network of partners in providing everything needed to keep our doors open and running smoothly, we are blessed to be surrounded with extremely hard-working, optimistic, cooperative folks, who feed our spirits by making each day fun. Thank you.

Last but never least, our students are the BEST. With faith in themselves and a love of art brewing in their hearts, our students, bit by bit, seek to develop an amazing skill.  And they succeed.  Their smiles, or better, looks of tounge-out concentration, indicate that they are experiencing focus, and are living 100% in the present moment.   Every time a child has persevered through a challenge, the world has become a little brighter.  Former students have returned to volunteer, have sent postcards, and have just stopped by to say hi. I see them on social media, getting design and fine art degrees, illustrating books, and generally leading happy lives.  Our teens’ painting skills are incredible, and when they stick around through high school and even into their college years and beyond, I am touched and struck with gratitude, that perhaps we have touched upon something in them, just as they have touched our hearts, each day.

We are so, so lucky to get to do this beautiful sort of work. We know that we are putting something truly good into the world. Thank you for being a part of it all.  Wishing you an abundant Thanksgiving, full of love.

Slow Down and Draw

Achieving a calm, centered state of mind from time to time is essential to our health as human beings.  In today’s increasingly digital and internet-centric world, our smart phones, tablets and Apple Watches trouble us with all sorts of notifications, reminders and messages, regarding all matters, large and small, at all hours of the day and night.  As adults, once we settle in to rest for the day, a single text can jar us out of that state of tranquility.  There are days we may never really settle down at all, falling asleep with phones in our palms, following a long day of checking in dozens, even hundreds, of times. If your child is not plugged in yet, he or she will be.  Every year, more devices will find their way into their hands. This is the world they are born into.

Many of us as adults, are learning that now, more than ever, it is essential to slow down, unplug, and take time out for ourselves, perhaps through the practices of yoga, walking, and meditation.  How do our kids decompress?  How do we help them establish habits that keep them firmly grounded in analog experiences, noticing and living, fully present, in the real world?

When we were our children’s age, we may have been connected to televisions, radios, and for the youngest among us, cell phones that were primarily that: just phones.  However, there were often times that nothing was on TV, and we would simply head out to the back yard to commiserate with a book, a sketchpad, or the sounds around us: the birds, the wind, a distant airplane diminishing into silence.  That was my experience. Now that I live in an age where every moment feels as though it somehow belongs to technology, I can appreciate that to have been alone with my thoughts for long stretches of time as a child was great blessing.

Today, my sons’ favorite entertainment can be accessed 24/7.  They can spend hours listening to their favorite You Tuber. Although we’ve dropped cable, Netflix always becons.  The kids each have a laptop for web-based homework, and, since we’ve chucked the landline, there are cell phones for emergencies. The family iPad has somehow become Game Central for the kids as well, and, courtesy of kind relatives, they possess a Wii video game system, as well as countless handheld devices where electronic games are available to them. As soon as one screen is turned off, it’s little surprise that another one somehow turns up in their hands. While all these devices provide wonderful experiences in some way, unplugging certainly has its value.

To proactively give kids screen-free time, and I find that it helps when they have something positive to focus on, so art and music are a godsend.  When it’s time to practice, they may lament the end of game time a bit, but they quickly look forward to playing their favorite song, or putting pencil to paper.  This creative time provides a whole different experience, slowing them down, forcing them to exist in the real world for a while, creating rather than consuming, and working at their own, natural pace.

A few years ago, Art Steps families surveyed stated that the overwhelming reason their kids continue coming to classes was the wonderful feeling of peace and serenity achieved through the weekly practice of slow, steady focus. Why is does art class work so well as a type of meditation for kids?

Professor Ken Robinson, in his famous Ted Talk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?“, compares aesthetic experiences to  anesthetic ones. An “anesthetic” – or numb – state of mind is one which is so over-saturated by stimuli, like loud, overlapping noises, a bombardment of images, dry, utilitarian presentation of information, or the unruly juxtaposition of too many disparate concepts – that the mind begins to shut down, taking in only what it needs to, and blocking most of the moment’s experience out.  This inhibits critical thinking. A child taking too much in, (like when my son picks up the iPad to play a game smack in the middle of a movie) may not even be able to hear himself think, much less finish a thought, or listen carefully and attentively to someone else.  The child may look okay, but if they are overstimulated, something in them shuts down.

An aesthetic experience, however, encourages the mind to take in as much as possible, though calm, unhurried beauty.  Inputs are minimized, and the mind can focus, because it wants to.  Music, if any, is lyrical and soft, voices are calm and pleasant, images are pleasing, no one is hurried, people feel safe, and one concept is introduced at a time. In art class, a caring teacher asks a student to do one, tiny task at a time. If a single task proves to be a little too much, that task is broken in half, until it is digestible.  The student is not worried. He or she learns to look deeply, freely and thoroughly at something, and begin to see the beauty in shapes, lines and color .The beauty of the world opens up – for the first time, in ever deeper ways over time.

The student opens up, too.  I have known many kids over the years who had been diagnosed with ADD, and found that art class was the one place they could calm down and follow along. At least every year,  I happen to come across a student who lets me know that following their first experience of deep focus in art class, they were able to focus in one subject in school, then another, until they graduated high school with success.

Why not provide such an experience at home? Find a quiet place to work, free of distractions, play soft music, and have your child sketch for just 10-20 minutes a day. Choose a consistent time. Things which we make into a routine are most likely to get done. Your child will feel calmer and more centered, and besides, practice is essential to mastery.

Even if a child does not strive to become a career artist, the internal ability to savor the world around us, to be fully present during our precious moments on this earth, is the perhaps greatest gift a parent can provide.

Wishing you and your family an absolutely beautiful 2016.



The Beautiful Advantage of Classical Skills

Besides the joyous satisfaction of painting for its own sake, high school students who love to draw may seek to develop a college-ready portfolio, earn an A, or just make stand-out work for a school art class. For a teen to develop an excellence in any competitive field, whether academics, sports, or the arts, rigorous private study can really pay off.  High school art classes typically offer instruction from more of a design perspective, emphasizing composition, mark-making, pattern, and other components of both fine art and design, which are wonderful tools to use, though they may or may not help a student hone the craft of classical realism. Those young artists skilled enough to pull off that illusion of 3-D realism through accurate line, tone and color, become masterful interpreters of the lessons in their public school classes, using classical techniques to bring the curriculum to life with increasingly powerful work. Just as traditional private music lessons become a strength for a member of the high school band, studying the discipline of realistic rendering can lend an edge to any teen art student.

Screenshot 2015-08-22 06.10.26

A recent study by Americans for the Arts showed that in 2013, students who took four years of arts and music classes scored 59% higher on the SAT’s than kids who took half a semester or less. Clearly, more arts instruction has advantages beyond the craft itself.  We art teachers often wonder if, in addition to helping organize the mind, this effect is partially because of the nature of the arts; classes at our studios are both relaxing and invigorating, becoming totally immersive.  Students who attend regularly are able to draw upon the sense of balance, alertness, and peace we achieve when fully focused on rendering from observation. We suspect that being able to draw on this sense of well-being must lend to better coping skills – even during test-taking time, elsewhere in that student’s day.

Screenshot 2015-08-22 06.15.05Did you know that since the year 2000, all California schools have been mandated by law to provide music, drama, dance and visual art instruction to every pupil on an annual basis?  According to a report by the California Alliance for Arts Education, “The quality and frequency of arts education in California public schools is highly inconsistent due to competing priorities and limited discretionary funding. As a result, arts participation varies greatly across the state, within districts and schools, and even within classrooms.”   The result is a patchwork of art offerings. We have heard widely varying reports from students, parents, and even some teachers over the years, of the quality of art classes available.  While some programs seem truly excellent, others are taught by teachers pulled last-minute from other departments, such as gym.  After school classes provide a consistent opportunity for real artistic growth, year after year.

Screenshot 2015-08-22 06.23.51Some don’t offer AP Visual Art for college credit. After school programs can often help a student receive credit, if you ask.  If your high schooler is lucky enough to be taking this class through school, outside lessons provide extra work time, as well as another set of instructive eyes on a project. At Art Steps studios, students who explain their course objectives with their instructor can receive individualized guidance, as needed, in concert with portfolio prep.  Art Steps can also offer a customized portfolio review, and guidance from an art school graduate on choices one can make, moving forward through the college admissions process.

Although we love that our students seem to benefit academically from creating a strong body of artwork, the primary reason we teach drawing and painting is not, however, as a springboard for academic success.  We teach to pass along our love of painting to the next generation.  We love the rigor of striving for excellence, and we never get too old, or too good, to improve.

87-year-old Michelangelo had engraved on his own tombstone,”ancora imparo”, which means “I am still learning”.  Here’s to a school year where students of all ages have the chance to slow down and immerse themselves in a beautiful discipline, stepping toward mastery, toward the greatness within them all.Screenshot 2015-08-22 06.14.01

My Dreams for Teens

Today my elder son, Sam, turns 11 years old, and I’m feeling, more than ever, how very quickly our babies transition to their teenage years.  So many of our Art Steps kids have also transformed into teens, then, adults, before I know what’s hit me. And these teens have such changing needs. While my son still enjoys quite a bit of childhood innocence, adolescence is sure to become a turbulent time for him soon in one way or another, as it was for most of us.  For artists, creative experiences at this time can prove crucial in setting life’s direction. This is when self-consciousness collides with the need for experimentation, and confidence comes in waves, often hand-in-hand with measurable accomplishments.

Many of our teens have grown up with Art Steps, and while I hope that many will use their classical skills in a wide variety of applications, trying their hand in programs far and wide to stretch their potential, I am thrilled that so many stay with us and work toward mastering their craft through our amazing classical painting program.  I also feel a special responsibility toward our teens, as I remember how my artistic surroundings shaped my identity in my own youth, and want to provide them a well-rounded experience, in addition to ever more useful weekly classes.WC

Advanced Teen Curriculum:   With consultation from college admissions counselors, art teachers, professional artists, and counselors specializing in portfolio prep (see below), this individualized program takes a step beyond rendering to develop creativity, heightened classical skills, conceptual drawing skills, and critical thinking.  

Teen Only Classes: Professional artists in their own rite, all with fine art degrees, our head teachers have a deep understanding of what’s next for older artists from teens through adults.  Thanks to their amazing responses to teens’ needs over the years, special age 13 and up classes also provide the opportunity for sensitive listening to teens goals, fears, hopes, and expectations, in order for us to truly encourage and bring out the best of where creativity meets skill.

Teen Summer Workshops: Also, this year, we have expanded our summer camp experience to include (at teens’ request) individualized, uninterrupted painting time, illustration classes, perspective lessons, and more sophisticated cartooning/anime design time.

Portfolio Review: As the Director of Orange County studios, I am excited to announce that I also personally now conduct portfolio reviews for our students, to advise students and help their teachers work with them toward their artistic goals, including building a portfolio for art or to help with academic college admission. Contact Lyndsey to set up an appointment.

In fact, if you or your teen is now building an art portfolio for school, and you’d like the best possible resources at your fingertips, I also strongly recommend the services of Lorainne Serra’s company, Chiaro Design, which works directly with teens to focus intensively on creating an outstanding, competitive portfolio, with the goals of admission into the college of their choice, as well as maximizing personal artistic expression.  See her website at 

4f9b9825-d813-46d2-930b-b400a6539f9cWhat’s to come: Still, I feel that for teens, we at Art Steps have only just begun.  Teenagers have such a strong internal creative world, and tapping into that is crucial to those who seek artistic fulfillment.  In the months and years to come we intend to hold annual art exhibits based around a theme, where students curate, critique and hang their own shows, as that experience can transform the way students feel their work is seen.  We will be providing an online database of teen-friendly art resources including college-related summer programs, exhibits, contests, camps, and more.  In a year or two, I also hope to add museum field trips to our list of artistic offerings.

What I wish for most, for all my teens and for teen artists everywhere, is that they take personal joy in the art-making process, and, so often, the company we keep matters most. Teens will have a great time going out and visiting art museums, painting independently, and including their friends in these experiences, as what artists often need most is a community to share the give-and-take that’s essential to any creative process.  It’s an honor to be a part of that community for so many.  Look online for places and ways to connect with creative people.  Whether teens or adults, a creative community feeds our souls.  Even if it’s just sketching in the park with a friend, have fun out there, both in and out of class!  I look forward to the years to come, watching my teen artists, like my own soon-to-be teenage boy, grow, live fully, and shine.

Sam and Mom
Sam and me

Entering Contests 101

How can entering art contests help a child’s creativity?

Think back to a situation where you worked to compete. Remember the thrill of the chase? How about when you outshined the competition?  Did it drive you to pursue excellence?  While we believe that a non-competitive environment is essential to learning skills, a little pressure to use those skills can bring lessons into focus.

Here’s how art contests can help light that creative fire.  (Keep reading for tips to gain a competitive edge.)

Parents’ Support Always Helps

Presenting your child with contest opportunities shows that you believe in your child enough to put in some effort together. You also communicate your confidence in your child when you make the effort to drive him or her to art class or attend an art-related event. When we are sure that Mom or Dad stands behind us, we can conquer the world.

We Remember That Winning Isn’t Everything

Of course we don’t win every time.  However, the act of applying to the contest meant that the artist did significant work.  Sometimes it’s better not to place, as the satisfaction of creating a finished work becomes its own reward.  At times like this, the pride of accomplishment stands out most in the artist’s memory of the experience.

Still, Winning Feels AMAZING!

Of course!  Kids are naturally immature, and that’s okay. Go ahead and provide a genuine ego boost now and then.  Kids want to know: am I really good at this?  That pat on the back can motivate a deeper commitment to study. Whether it’s first place or not, the rush of learning that artwork placed somewhere of note in the competition can make that kid or teen’s entire year.

Every Artist Needs to Exhibit

Just like musicians, dancers and actors, artists need an audience now and then to appreciate their work.  Contests can provide the artist an opportunity to know that there have been eyes on that hard-earned artwork.

It Encourages Independent Work at Home

Serious art students MUST create artwork without the help of a teacher from time to time.   Spending time doing any kind of practice will present opportunities to get stuck. The student who is committed to finishing a piece will either push themselves to solve the visual problem through original ideas or by recollecting lessons. If results still do not satisfy, he or she is likely to consult a teacher for help next time art class rolls along. Either way, creative progress is made in an environment of artistic commitment.

It Develops Creativity

When a specific, real, and tangible goal is in play, creative problem-solving begins. As any artist will tell you, having no boundaries or structure can be surprisingly stifling! Contests can give your child the limits within which to create.  We must first have a box in order to start thinking outside of it.

Kids Can Apply What’s Learned in Class

Sketching at home is important, but pencil sketching is different from creating finished work. In art class, students are guided in how to polish artwork until it shines. Contests provide helpful goals!  Certain habits (see the list below), once practiced independently, can then become internalized.

Figuring Out What Wins = Figuring Out What Works

Why try to win? An artist truly wants to communicate.  Contests provide opportunities to ask one’s self, does this really say what I want it to say? Does it present my message in a pleasing or effective manner? How can I get closer to delivering my message in a way that satisfies and connects with a viewer?

Wins Look Great on College Applications

Contest wins add up, and can bulk up college applications. In some cases, job applications can benefit from this, as well.  Wins not only show that the student is capable, but that he or she is actively engaged with participation in the art world.

Click here to Contact Art Steps for a current list of art contests for kids.

Want an edge? Before they get started, go over these guidelines together:

Choose a Meaningful Contest

Be sure your child really wants to do this! Perhaps the Wildlife Conservancy contest means more to your child than the Elk’s Club competition. As with all things, the more your child cares, the better.  And be sure your child wants to compete. Ultimately, this is their journey, not yours.

Make Artwork Brightly Colored & Entirely Filled In

This is what kids do in art class. Over and over, we’ve seen this win contests far and wide.  Inevitably, first-place art seems to share this common trait.

Include Light, Medium and Dark

The majority of children’s work tends to be flat or pattern-based.  Using “Three tones” shows sophistication and makes an artwork stand out!

Neatness Counts

Clean up erasure marks and the edges of pictures.  The judges want to know that contestants care. Leave a mess only if you mean it.

Be Original!

Don’t go with the crowd! What’s the funniest, quirkiest, or most touching idea you have? Use THAT, and exaggerate it! You will stand out! And stand out work wins!

Read Contest Rules

Can participants have help from an adult? What media or dimensions are required? Not knowing can cost an opportunity to win, or, worse, make an artist feel undeserving if they do take home a prize. Do not submit art class work if that was not the original intention of the contest! Generally, we have found that kids glean the most satisfaction from submitting original artwork, crafted independently, at home.

Set Aside Time to Focus

Uninterrupted time, free from stress, siblings’ disruptions, or parents’ judgments, will allow your child the opportunity to succeed.  Provide adequate work space, materials and light, and play soft, preferably instrumental music.  Be sure your child understands how much total time they’ll have.

Praise Your Child’s Work

And show it off, no matter what you think it looks like, if it’s a genuine effort.  It’s the love of creating that counts!

Have Fun!

Don’t take things too seriously!  Is your child an Art Steps student? Let us know when you get a win and also let us know if you even applied.  We are most proud of our students who give themselves enough credit to put themselves out there.  Judges don’t know everything, but we have seen many young artists blossom by fortifying their weekly instruction with regular contest participation. Happy creating!

A Few of Our Favorite Things

When I was five, my mother gave me a old-fashioned tackle box, lovingly stocked full of brand new art supplies: different types of pencils, index cards, markers, watercolors, erasers, glitter, even stickers and stamps. Our annual Christmas audio tape (it was 1979!) records little me exclaiming, after a speechless moment, “ooooohhhhh… I WANNA  DWAW!” For the rest of that Christmas morning, I had no interest in opening gifts.  I kept repeating, “But I just wanna dwaw! I wanna dwaw SO BAD!”

Most artists remember receiving THAT gift… the art supplies that filled them with such utter, magical joy.  Sometimes we feel like the only thing more beautiful than a masterfully executed art piece is a fresh bunch of brushes and a blank canvas. Our hearts race and our pulse quickens at the sight of a clean rainbow-hued set of gleaming, new pastels, pencils or paints.

A few of the best artists we know, the Art Steps teachers, have shared memories of their favorite childhood surprises:

Some of Valerie's original oil pastels
Some of Miss Valerie’s original oil pastels

“Miss” Valerie describes her favorite gift, “…a set of oil pastels mailed to me by my Grandpa. They came from Germany .. and they had a white plastic case…

“I didn’t use them right away — I wasn’t exactly sure about them — I didn’t know how they were different from crayons. I didn’t have art class to teach me. I just loved them all together… how they looked, the unusual design of the art on the case … so very foreign … and especially that pristine rainbow of little color sticks lined up in two rows. I loved that I couldn’t read anything — it was all in German….I have managed to keep some of them since the 80s….you can tell from the photo, I hardly used them though … my love for them was all about aesthetics and possibility…”

Lora says, “My favorite art supply as a kid was a fashion drawing kit. It came with stencils of figures in different poses and texture cards. It had some examples as well. I drew so many models because I could trace the figure, which was hard to draw at that age, but then my creativity could come out designing different outfits filled with different colors and patterns. I could draw hairstyles and accessories, creating different women with different stories and lives.

Aaron explains that when his parents invested in an artist’s drawing table, it signaled to him that they were ready to take him seriously as an artist. Gemma’s favorite art tradition was receiving those all-in-one art sets. “One year it was acrylic paints, brushes, and an easel,” she says. From then on “my family always gave me a new one every year. I was always excited when I got a new art supply to add to my collection.”

Lindsey, who grew up taking classes at our studio, recalls her 16th birthday. “For me, it more that my mom designated an area in our guest room where I was allowed to paint. She bought an easel and canvases that I got to put it in there. I was so excited.  Just being able to go into there and shut the door and play my own music without being interrupted, and to kind of have that be my own little area to get into ‘the zone’ was the best part of it. It was my first little studio.”

Yves received two “how to draw” books that his mom gave him when he was about 8 years old. “One of the books was on the basics of drawing people and the other one, the basics of drawing simple animation type cartoons. They were my favorite books at the time: less words and more images! They were definitely memorable, especially when they helped me draw a likeness of a family member for the first time!”

Kristie, also a former student, reveals a highly personal connection to drawing and painting: “My mom had a tackle box full of art supplies, from when she used to do art. It was mostly pencil supplies, like kneaded erasers, some blending sticks, Prismacolors, charcoal. I was so happy because I was always looking at my mom and trying to be an artist like her… She gave it to me in 7th grade, right before I started my first art class at school. I felt like the best kid in art class because most of the kids only had the basic colors, but I had this whole variety, even ones from Germany, too. It made me feel special.”

“One particular Christmas stands out in my memory” writes Elizabeth. “I received a beautiful colored pencil set and (the part I was really excited about) and two volumes of an illustrated encyclopedia of mammals. I LOVED animals and drawing them and this was the perfect gift, as I drew from those encyclopedias for years and actually still have them.”

“My parents gave me an easel that doubled as a painting easel and chalkboard,” says Miss Marielle.  “I felt like a true artist, standing at my easel with my artwork displayed for my whole family to see. It was a huge transition from just regular notebook paper and working on our kitchen table. It meant that my parents took my interests seriously. In retrospect, I feel that my parents supported and encouraged me to further my interest and talent at such a young age, which is really everything in the world to a growing artist.”


What treasures. Every artist is different, but we all had something that lit us up.  My tackle box full of art supplies came with the promise that my mom would restock it every birthday and Christmas to come, and sure enough, my childhood was filled with the best possible kind of magic. To this day, every year is still filled with art.  Thanks, Mom.  And thanks to you moms and dads for reading this. I hope you’ve found a little bit of inspiration too.

Happy Holidays!

8 Easy Ways to Support A Young Artist

Raising an artist can be challenging! Over the years, before and after class, my staff and I have had the honor of meeting many highly encouraging parents, grandparents and other adults, some who feel the need for ideas to help encourage their offbeat kiddo, and many who have successfully nurtured some of the most amazing young artists around. According to our resident experts, the most effective ways to support a creative youngster are usually low cost or, most often, totally free. Here is some of the wisdom we’ve collected:

1. Art, In the Bag

79cce37f670082d200efed1b10de057e Throw some markers, pencils and a sketchbook into an eco-friendly shopping bag and pop it into the car. Easy peasy. Now, anywhere you go, your toddler, tween or teen can draw. Restaurants, parks, siblings’ lessons and friends’ houses become opportunities to practice. Seems almost too simple, but over time, these practice opportunities add up to make a BIG difference in skill, which will pay dividends by high school.

2. There’s an App for That

In case you missed the memo: kids love tablets. With more and more fine artists working digitally, electronics have simply become one of many other kinds of media, where even classical, realistic drawing skills can be practiced. Recently, in fact, this year, uber-famous artist David Hockney turned out an entire show printed from work created on an iPad.   Our favorite app, used by everyone from toddlers to professionals, is Brushes, which is free for iPad. It even creates a cool little movie your child can show off to chronicle his or her path towards the finished piece. Many other art apps can be found with a simple search. Where it comes to screen time, I, for one, would rather that my kids spend more time creating content than consuming video games made by someone else.

Tip: During artwork time, tune Pandora to Beethoven. Perfect!

3.  Beyond the Fridge

Art Steps student J.T., with his sister Amanda’s work and his own, proudly displayed near their front door.

When a child’s art is displayed neatly, with care, in a place of honor such as the entryway or living room, she will feel a shot of encouragement with every visitor, especially if people talk about the piece. This doesn’t have to cost much, if anything at all. Use an old frame or two, visit the dollar store, or head to Ikea, where you can get 8×10 frames for $2. Display a few pieces long-term, and rotate an exhibit of newer work in frames or even neatly pinned to a bulletin or magnet board. Artwork in plastic sleeves within an 8×10″ binder, prominently gracing coffee table can help display the rest. Beyond feeling your support, the point is for kids to feel that each piece they create has a life of its own, and so it’s worth striving for excellence. Who would continue acting or making music without an audience once in a while? Some visual artists rarely say it, but we secOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAretly love for our artwork to be seen.

4. Kids Know: Facebook Rocks!

Kids today seem to get more excited about Facebook posts than exhibits on walls! They are keenly aware of the vast audience your posts will reach, with eyes on their work from all over the globe. We’ve seen kids literally jumping up and down at the prospect of mom posting a single piece.  Parents have shown me that their students’ Art Steps pieces outpace all other posts in terms of likes; friends and family can really be bowled over by your child’s talent! Whether Instagram, Twitter, Facebook or Tumblr, when a child’s work receives a “like” or a kind comment, it all counts as first class-encouragement. Oh, hey: “Like” Art Steps while you’re there!

5. Powerful Positive Speech

How you talk about your child’s work matters. Be sure to point out specific things that you notice about the piece; the way a section fades from light to dark, smoothness of lines, combinations of colors. The artist has paid attention to every square inch of that piece; demonstrating that you are doing so as well becomes enormously validating. If you feel so inclined, it never hurts to let a child overhear you saying nice things about their artistic hard work to your friends.  Did anyone ever brag about you? How did it feel?

My two kids proudly showing off sketches of their encouraging dad, who sat still so they could observe him, and refrained from all judgment.
My two kids proudly showing off sketches of their encouraging dad, who sat still so they could observe him, and refrained from all judgment.

Show enthusiasm, and never nitpick. Once a piece is done, whether in class or at home, it’s done. Artists grow with every piece. If you find yourself tempted to highlight a concern, ask questions instead, like: “Why is the highlight there?”  “How did you manage to feather the edges of your tones?” and “What makes your color so bright?” Talking about their work can help art students to process it in a whole new way, and you might be surprised at what you learn.

6. Free Art History Education? Yes, Please!

Did you know that the groundbreaking academic website Kahn Academy provides an comprehensive set of art history tutorials, completely free? Without talking down the viewer, art historians discuss and debate dozens of artworks in each of a litany of art historical periods, from the ancient Lascaux Cave Paintings up to the present. For kids as young as eight or nine through teens and adults, looking at one painting per week provides a tremendous foundation, creating an amazingly well-informed artist over time.

7. A Little Privacy… Or Not

Does your child want you to watch while they draw? Or want to be left alone? Sometimes a quiet space, free of judgments of any kind is in order. Read their desires carefully, and respect what circumstances help them to concentrate best, to practice, practice practice. Help them work quietly, free of older siblings’ commentary, and little siblings’ intrusions.

Part of Jordan's home studio, where she peaceully worked away on a Van Gogh copy.
Part of Jordan’s home studio, where she peaceully worked away on a Van Gogh copy.

One wonderful young artist we know, Jordan, is a twin. While she loves her brother, the section of her garage that serves as a studio is her private, personal sanctuary. Even a corner of the house with a reliably restocked stack of typing paper and a mason jar (free with pasta sauce!) can become a powerful art space. Pinterest has tons of fun home studio ideas. We’ve heard from several parents that a cheap easel ($15 at Ikea) in younger kids’ bedrooms have served as the launching point to a future art career. Create an optimal space and dedicated, unhurried time, take off the pressure, and watch the creativity flow.

8. Open Your Eyes… Together

When reading to your child, take time to notice details in children’s book illustrations. Where is the light source? What colors are shadows? What is the shape around objects (negative space)? Do we see warm colors? Cool? What sorts of visual decisions has the illustrator decided to make?

If you feel so inclined, kids LOVE it when parents draw, too! If you don’t have talent, younger kids will never judge. If you’re not too “good”, older kids will a nice ego boost by being “better” than Mom or Dad.  Kids of all ages get warm fuzzies knowing a parent chose to spend time with them, doing something they love.

And always, always, notice the beauty in the world around you. Talk about the details in the landscape, the colors in the sunset, the shapes of the buildings and trees.  As you do, watch your own young artist grow and bloom.

Enjoy making the most of these precious, beautiful years.

Enjoy every moment!

Why Fine Art for Little Ones?

Why pursue a fine art education during the school year? As a parent, I certainly want my sons to thrive academically in order to maximize their opportunities for rewarding careers. We all know that the best sort of success, however, is far from one-dimensional; a good education will have nurtured a sense of excitement, enthusiasm, culture, focus and care.  At Art Steps, we want to see curious young students mature into enlightened adults, because people with a deeply developed aesthetic sense will add depth and flavor to everything they touch as the years roll by, from their academic studies, to their careers, to the fabric of their everyday lives.

Jillian Chopra, age 17, after Bouguereau  Oil on Canvas 6'x8'
Jillian Chopra, age 17, after Bouguereau
oil on canvas 6’x8′

Countless studies, including a 2002 report by the Arts Education Partnership, have revealed that young learners who are exposed to the arts do a better job at mastering reading, writing and math than those who focus solely on academics. Again and again, I’ve witnessed that kind of success among our own Art Steps kids. Our long-term students are well-rounded and exude confidence, like 17-year-old Jillian Chopra, who has just wrapped up this absolutely stunning large-scale Bouguereau master copy with us and will now pursue a medical degree from the University of Washington in Seattle this September. For these young people, learning to pour their hearts into a painting means learning to deeply love the task at hand, and this spills over into many areas of their lives.

We also see many students who pursue artistic careers for the sheer love of the art itself.  I am incredibly proud of those like Annalise Copenhaver (who I remember personally teaching when she was just 7 or 8 years old), now a prolific painter who has already created a unique visual voice for herself, and will be attending the prestigious School of the Art Institute of Chicago this fall. See her gorgeous body of work at Whether her paintings hang in museums someday or she eventually chooses to parlay her skills into another field, she will have become a highly trained artist, a critical thinker who questions the status quo, and is likely to elevate the discourse wherever she goes.

Both of these kids have a bright future ahead. According to a report released by the County Superintendents of Schools in the State of California, “We are moving from an economy and a society built on logical, linear, computer-like capabilities of the Information Age to an economy and a society built on the inventive, empathetic, big-picture capabilities of what’s rising in its place, the Conceptual Age.“   In this new age, the report notes, professional success and personal satisfaction will depend on developing abilities that require more sophisticated analysis. “The capacity to detect patterns and opportunities, to create artistic and emotional beauty, to craft satisfying narrative, and to combine seemingly unrelated ideas into something new” will be essential skills.   The report outlines movement from left brain-directed reasoning to these six right brain-directed aptitudes:

  • Not just function, but also DESIGN
  • Not just argument, but also STORY
  • Not just focus, but also SYMPHONY
  • Not just logic, but also EMPATHY
  • Not just seriousness, but also PLAY
  • Not just accumulation, but also MEANING
    "Hilda Darling" Oil on canvas board Current work by former student Annalise Copenhaver, now college-bound.
    “Hilda Darling” acrylic on canvas
    Independent adult work by former student Annalise Copenhaver

These are the fruits of years of creative study, enriching our lives as a whole.  Through Art Steps’ gently disciplined approach, we’ve seen countless students start off squirmy and restless, then learn to relax into focusing better and better each month, with both the kids and their parents reporting improved academic results. Though it would be nice if there were more art in schools as a whole, I’m honored on a daily basis to be able to provide this consistent, meditative, aesthetically satisfying experience for the kids in our community.  As Deborah Meier, founder of the modern small schools movement, and recipient of honorary degrees at Brown, Harvard, Dartmouth and Yale, states, “The arts are fundamental to children’s education…. One way we grapple with ideas is through the arts…. A school that has ignored the artist in us has done damage.”

We must also remember: even though September is rolling around, school isn’t everything, nor should it be.   As much as the practice of creative study helps prepare students for such tangible rewards as scholastic advancement and desirable careers, the arts simply make life better for us all. As Deborah Meyer pointed out, “… because the arts are fundamental to human nature, to the human being, I do not see art as an instrument to teach something else. The primary reason why we need strong arts programs in the schools is that human beings are artists.”

As a visual artist myself, I must agree.  My life is richer and brighter because I am able to draw and paint. To sketch a portrait of my niece on a lazy day, to marvel at the extraordinary beauty in the light, shadow and shape found outside the car window, to participate in art exhibits that have made my community richer- these small events bring enormous meaning to my adult life. Whatever happens tomorrow, I know that I have truly lived. Jillian, Annalise, my own boys, and even some of our youngest Art Steps kids know exactly how this feels.  I hope that yours will, too.