Advice for Young Artists & Their Families
Mothers often ask me for advice when they notice that one of their children has a particular gift. Their concerns include the difficulty of finding authentic training, expense, and the moral dangers of the art world. These are all valid concerns.
I would never recommend becoming an artist as a practical career. The investment of time and money is akin to that of becoming a surgeon, but without the accompanying probability of financial security. In addition to the difficulty of acquiring the many skills necessary to become a professional artist, many people are temperamentally unsuited to the level of self-discipline required or lack the ability to approach their practice from a detached business perspective.
Despite the challenges, however, if a young person discerns a call to be a visual artist, I think he has a responsibility to develop his natural gifts to the highest possible level. Indeed, it is often in responding to the call of beauty that one discovers the call to a particular state in life.
How do parents form their children so that they can have a true knowledge, love, and respect for art and beauty? What are the practical steps for fostering a vocation to the arts in the very young?
Baby and Toddlerhood
Begin by seeking out good-quality toys, books, and clothing as your budget permits. Regularly discard cheap toys, ugly children’s books, and vulgar pop-culture clothing. Encourage long attention spans by eliminating screen time for your children and limiting it for yourself. Spend ample time in nature and walking through beautiful cultivated landscapes and architecture. This can be as simple as walking the streets of a well-maintained older neighborhood.
From pre-school through elementary school, children should be encouraged to experiment with a variety of media. As they mature, the subjects they draw should shift from being purely imaginative to those observed from nature. They should also look at many masterpieces and copy those that they like. Frustration is a good thing. It will lead to an appreciation for instruction later on.
By middle school students should work on the virtues of fortitude and humility so that they can develop drawings to a higher level of finish, gradually correcting proportions and shading. One of the best exercises is to copy plates from the book Charles Bargue: Drawing Course by Gerald Ackerman and Graydon Parrish. This period of time is essential for beginning to train the eye to see correct proportions and accurate color. It is advisable to begin searching for a master artist at this time.
Children who are self-taught tend to plateau if they are not placed under the guidance of an instructor. Find an artist whose work you admire unreservedly on a technical level and seek regular critiques and assignments. Use professional-level art supplies. Art is hard enough without having to fight inferior materials.
The discernment to pursue a career in art should involve several frank conversations with professional artists, one’s parents, and even one’s confessor. Like a doctor, the art student must study the anatomy and gesture of the human body inside and out. If this is a significant occasion of sin, then that might be a clue that one is called to a slightly different field – perhaps some form of craftsmanship rather than fine art.
Unfortunately, there is no perfect solution for aspiring Catholic artists at this time. Some of the best technical training today is through unaccredited, non-Catholic ateliers. It is best preceded or supplemented by a solid moral and intellectual formation at an authentically Catholic liberal arts college (The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College is a good place to start a search). There are a few opportunities specifically geared for Catholic artists, but none seem to demand the same rigorous training as that required by the atelier movement.
If there is no money for college or art instruction, it may be necessary to pursue training in a third area for a practical way to make money. Although getting a side job may seem to distract one from the goal of becoming an artist, a real-world knowledge of money, business, and professional experience will be beneficial in the long run.
Marriage and Children
It is hard to make a living as an artist. Male artists should be fairly well-established, independently wealthy, or have a back-up career before attempting marriage and family. The responsibilities of children, marriage, and a home are so considerable that most married women artists I know are compelled to cease all serious work for a time. I would advise trying to work at least one or two hours per week if at all possible – it is easier to get back into regular practice if you don’t stop completely. Even if it is impossible to have delicate art supplies and projects in the house with small children, this time should be seen as a fallow period of life which will make one’s work richer in the long run. As parents, we are called upon to nourish our children with beauty. It is a noble calling and all of our artistic skills find frequent and unexpected outlets when we bake, clean, build, sew, and garden. The most important element during this period is a supportive spouse who respects your artistic vocation and insists on its pursuit.
I am always happy to provide suggestions for individuals who have particular questions about art training. Please feel free to contact me and I will do my best to help.