Is it possible to nurture a love for art without investing in lessons? It is, says Jessie Chandran, a self-taught artist and art instructor with a background in psychology. Read on for our conversation with her.
You taught yourself to draw and paint. When did you develop a passion for art?
I have been drawing and painting since I was about three years old. I’m told I used to draw and colour on any surface I could see. My parents were very encouraging and they never stopped me from my adventures, although I created a huge mess most of the time. Then, like everyone else, I took art lessons in school, and much later, got serious about painting. I started with portraits and became fascinated with faces, light, and shadow.
What motivated you to keep going?
I truly enjoy the process of making art. I spent many years of my life in search of something greater and wondering what my calling was, and I believe art has helped in guiding me to discover myself. Through art making, I have a different perspective and approach to life now, and a greater awareness of everything around me. Art is about seeing.
Do you think art is something everyone should explore, as a means of self-expression?
Yes, art is an excellent way of communicating feelings, ideas, and thoughts in a non-verbal way. It’s also thought to have stress-relieving and healing benefits, which explains the growing popularity of art therapy.
We have plenty of access to art and art materials, so it is about taking the first step and following through. Many individuals are afraid to get started because they believe they “can’t draw,” which is not true. Anyone can make art. This fear is common in older children and adults, but not in young children. Young children are bold and brave—they have not been structured, and they do not have the mentality that art has to be “perfect” or carried out in a certain way. They are playful and intuitive, and this is something we can learn from them.
I believe we don’t need to have any “artistic ability” to create art. Not everyone may know how to ride a bicycle or swim, but most of us can hold a pen. And if we can hold a pen, we can hold a brush, dip it in paint, and apply it to a surface.
I feel that many individuals, especially adults, focus on the end product looking a certain way, or they may have been told that their artwork was not good enough at some point, or they may even have failed art in school. Be it due to environmental or personal reasons, these are barriers that need to be overcome, and our resistance towards art making says something about our thought process and how we view ourselves and our creative work.
In your experience working with children, what are the challenges they face when approaching art?
I have worked with both expatriate and local children, and I have observed differences between the two groups. Local children are more concerned about getting it right, and how their artwork looks. They generally tend to paint within the lines, and to be more careful around paint so they don’t get their clothes and hands dirty. Recently I had a local student who was so careful with her artwork that she worked on it for two days, grew tired, and gave up—she wasn’t connecting to her art.
Later, this same student asked me for ideas on what to paint, and I told her to paint whatever she felt like expressing, be it an idea or a thought. I got her to think about it, and she started painting. For once there was no clear goal and no end product in mind. She painted layer after layer; when she completed her work, she said she had never done this before, and that for once she really loved her artwork.
What about the parents—how have they helped or hindered the creative process?
As an art teacher, I have met hundreds of parents, and they all have different approaches to their child’s artwork. There are parents that are encouraging and not averse to mess. They love the spontaneous creativity in their children’s art. They don’t try to intervene in this process, and instead, place the onus on the child to explore and learn independently.
In one of my sessions, a boy asked his mother, “What do I paint Mommy?” “You can paint whatever you want,” replied the mother. He proceeded to paint, using his fingers, and he even got paint all over his face. When he finished his piece, he declared to his mother that he was satisfied with his work, to which she replied that it was “awesome.” The boy was genuinely happy, and there was acceptance, confidence, and ownership.
I have also witnessed parents saying to their children, “Why did you paint it like that? It’s so ugly. Why is it not like [another child’s] art? Why can’t you paint like this instead?” This sort of conditioning breeds fear, and children will in time begin to dread art and see it as a tedious and arduous process.
How can parents encourage art exploration at home?
Set up an art corner and place materials where they are readily accessible. It will be messy, but that is part of the process. If a child wishes to spend the day drawing or painting, give him or her the time and space to do it. If children need inspiration, instead of asking them to copy a particular picture, get them to use their imagination, or encourage them to recreate an existing picture with different colours, textures, and tools.
In general, try not to intervene when children are creating art. They will find out what works and what doesn’t. When they’re done, talk about how they created their art: Ask what went on in their minds, and how they felt as they were creating it. I find that the process of talking about their artwork helps children to be more assertive and confident. And finally, remember to display their artworks up on the wall.
Art journaling is another activity that can be done at home. You can give children a blank drawing sheet, and ask them to draw or paint what they feel. Alternatively, have them close their eyes, and ask them what colours or images they see. Or have them go on an imaginary nature walk.
If children find blank sheets intimidating, you can use pictures or cut-outs of faces, and encourage them to paint over these. Or look at pictures together, and ask children to pick out pictures that they don’t like to paint over. Another fun activity is having children paint with their non-dominant hand—it not only gets them out of their comfort zone, but also frees them from expectations about being “right” or “perfect.”
What materials should parents prepare?
The staples would include paint, brushes, pencils, crayons, and drawing sheets. There is a lot of play involved in art, and children can also paint with old sponges, bottle caps, toilet rolls, or even fruit and vegetables!