Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Art Appreciation for Kids



My kids really enjoy watching shows about art. Mostly they watch shows about kids making their own art ("Artzooka" being one of their favorites), but every now and then I'll notice their attention being grabbed by a painting on "Antiques Roadshow" or a sculpture in some garden on "Rick Steves' Europe".  Kids are perfectly capable of enjoying - and understanding - classical art, a lot more so than I sometimes give them credit for. Just this afternoon, my daughter was painting with fingerpaints, forming a flower from a series of dots, and she announced to me, "Mama, I'm doing pointillism!" and then when my husband asked her what she knew about pointillism, she informed him that's how the artist Seurat painted. She's four, and she knows who Seurat is and the style he painted in. My kids are definitely ripe for some art appreciation.

So here are a few famous works of art that I think most young children can appreciate and understand.

The Dance Class (Edgar Degas, 1874)
The theme of ballerinas in tutus will obviously appeal to little girls, but even young boys should appreciate the sweeping movement of the dancers' arms and the full tutus, and the vivid splashes of pink and red and gold among the white. Looking closely at the painting, they can see that, unlike a photograph or a more realistic painting, the lines are blurred and smudged, representational instead of realistic. They can see how the bright gold at the rear of the painting draws the eye, and how the graceful curves of the ballerinas contrast with the starkly straight perpendicular lines of the ceiling, beams, and stairway bannister.

The Gulf Stream (Winslow Homer, 1899)
Most little boys may not appreciate ballerinas, but nearly all of them will appreciate sharks. Homer's painting of a lone man in a tiny boat surrounded by sharks is both exciting and terrifying. The detail in the roiling sea and the wooden boat are contrasted with the simple representations of the sharks. The sailor's posture implies resignation, almost calmness. It's a good painting to discuss context: How did the sailor get there? Did he set off alone? What happened to everyone else? How long has he been there? Do you think he will survive?

A Young Hare (Albrecht Durer, 1502)
The realism and sharp detail of Durer's painting is a good contrast to Degas' painting. Every individual hair is shown, rich depths of colors and textures, the softness of the hare's coat, the sharpness of his claws. The angle of the ears makes you feel like you can see him turning them at the slightest sound, and the tensed muscles in the haunches are prepared to make a huge spring to safety. Durer's stylized "AD" signature and the date on the painting are an interesting feature for children who love writing their names on their own artwork.

David (Michelangelo, 1504)
A different kind of realistic artwork, Michelangelo's famous nude is sure to bring a titter or two from youngsters. But this statue shows why artists need to study human anatomy and physiology, and it is a glorious celebration of a young, strong human body. The musculature, the counterbalance of the lifted arm and the outthrust hip, the angles of the limbs all show the artists understanding of the workings of the human body.

Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray and Blue (Piet Mondrian, 1921)
Abstract art may be difficult for children to understand at first, but very soon they realize that much of their own art is abstract! You don't have to draw or paint something, you can simply draw or paint shapes that look interesting to you. Visual interest can come not from the subject of a painting, but from an aesthetic enjoyment of the lines and colors and shapes and how they are juxtaposed.

Starry Night (Vincent Van Gogh, 1889)

The rich blues and golds, the swirling movement, the dominance of the sky over the diminutive town, the stylized glow of the moon and stars are all intriguing to the young eye. Children can easily see the contrast of the simple, realistic, geometric lines of the buildings with the fantastical dreaminess of the sky. For slightly older children, this painting can also spark a discussion of van Vogh's mental illness and depressive episodes, and how they affected his art. Even younger children can understand how an artist's mood and outlook had an impact on both the subjects and the style of his or her art.

Red Canna (Georgia O'Keeffe, 1924)
O'Keeffe's flower paintings show that an artist can depict a closeup of an object, rather than having to show a whole scene. The bold blocks of color faithfully represent the flower without needing to include every tiny bit of shading and detail. It shows how an object can be reduced to abstract shapes but still be recognizable as the original object.

Guernica (Pablo Picasso, 1937)
Cubism is fascinating to children - how can you see multiple surfaces of an object at the same time? Many of Picasso's works are interesting studies in perspective and dimensionality. But Guernica also serves to create a very emotional impact using unusual juxtapositions of subjects. The agony on the faces, surrealistic as they are, is undeniable. The way that lines are created by the edges of color blocks, the cartoonlike lack of shadowing and shading, and the additional of detail through a few simple lines are techniques that children can understand and appreciate.

The Persistence of Memory (Salvador Dali, 1937)
Dali's famous melted clocks show that realistic objects can be represented in unrealistic ways. Many elements of the painting could actually exist - the tree, the cliff, the sand - but the artistic shows them in imagined and unexpected ways. This is a good painting to use to discuss how it makes the observer feel, and what it makes them think about. Why would the painter want to show the clocks melting? Can they serve their purpose as they are shown? What do you think Dali meant to say about time with this painting?

Christina's World (Andrew Wyeth, 1948)
I've always loved the graceful simplicity of this painting. The light, the silhouettes, the shading. And I've loved wondering about it: What is she looking at? Why did the artist choose not to show her face? Why is she in the middle of a field? Is she lonely or is she happy to be alone? The artist's techniques are also interesting to study: the texture of the field fading from crisp in the foreground to blurry in the background, the delicate shadows and curves of the subject's pink dress contrasting with the stark gray lines of the buildings.


These are only ten of the dozens, even hundreds of works of art that can be used to introduce children to the world of wonder and beauty that is art through the ages. What favorites would you choose to examine with a budding young artist or art appreciator?