Raising creative kids


Dear Artist,

In the art of parenting we all begin as amateurs. By the time we turn pro, it’s generally too late. Carol and I managed three out of the box: a filmmaker, a musician, and a painter. All are apparently flourishing. Here are some ideas we bumped into while getting lucky with creative kids:


James, Sara and David Genn
ca. 1976
Bill Staley photo

Show is always better than tell.
Your kids already know your opinions.
Kiss them regularly if they’ll let you.
Be alert when they approach you with ideas.
Encourage them to colour outside the lines.
Keep in touch. Let them know where you are.
Let you and your spouse be sails, not anchors.
Field trips are more valuable than classrooms.
One of the best things you can say is “try it”.
Non-judgmental curiosity beats seasoned guidance.
When kids hang out in the studio, you pick up tips.
Let the kids visit with weird friends and relatives.
The development of imagination requires their privacy.
Always have materials available. Try not to be stingy.
Encourage enterprise. Let them make and sell lemonade.
They understand if you travel during the drum-set stage.
A kid’s opening sentences are not always topic sentences.
If they don’t know what you think, they are likely to ask.

From time to time be dull and stupid. The kids will rally.
Before making suggestions, give it some thought. They have.

Last summer a man who I had never seen before knocked on my studio door. With a sly smile he told me he had nine of my daughter Sara’s early paintings. It seems that twenty-four years ago he had been walking by and purchased them directly from her. She was creating and selling them at a small table out on our lawn. At the age of six Sara’s works were 25 cents each, or nine for $2.

Best regards,


PS: “Your children are not your children.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls.
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, even in your dreams.
You are the bows from which your children, as living arrows,
are sent forth.” (Kahlil Gibran)

Esoterica: Recently I wrote a short article “Daughter and Father” for Art Avenue Magazine. It tells the story of my daughter Sara beginning with her decision to become a painter. Read here: Daughter and Father

The following are selected correspondence arising from the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.


Creative vision
by Pamela Simpson, Connecticut, USA

My husband and I are both artists and our six children share our artistic bent. We live in a rural part of CT. The story of your daughter reminds me of the time Zach and Jen were both about seven years old and had been producing handmade bookmarks at a furious pace for days. I overheard their sales plan one afternoon: Jen said “We could sell them to the neighbors.” Zach said, “Yes, but if that doesn’t work we’ll bring them to New York.”

I do wish I could get their creative minds to think of ways to keep the socks sorted or have the dirty glasses around the house find their own way back to the kitchen. I’m sure my mother felt the same way.


Creative parents
by Denise Scaglione

I am 9 months pregnant and very excited to be having another son. This is a second marriage and I thought I might not ever have another child until I met my husband Giuseppe. To share the love of a couple and understand each other to allow and feed each other’s desire for creativity is one of the most beautiful gifts in a marriage. Giuseppe is a computer engineer and one of the most creative men I have ever met. He understands creativity and how interesting it is the way our minds work. I wonder how this boy will be. Dad creative + Mom creative = ? I have one more project I need to complete before I go into labor. I am painting a fresco in the baby’s room. I slaked my own lime a year ago and it is looking very smooth. Time to get to work, or I should say time to get to JOY!


Show and tell
by Anonymous

You mentioned “show is better than tell.” In the case of my parents they could only tell me what I should do. They were/are talkers, not doers. I had to learn what I’ve learned by working together with people who put value in what they actually do. The photographer Courtney Milne had it right: “Let’s you and I conjure together. You watch me and I’ll watch you and I will show you how to show me how to show you how to do our marvelous human tricks together.”


Two kinds of people
by Martine Gourbault


painting by Martine Gourbault

There may indeed be two kinds of people. Are there not also two kinds of “artists”? Artists who paint for the sheer joy of the process, and artists who paint in the hope their work will sell, earn them a living and some sort of recognition by peers and/or collectors? If we can achieve both, we’ve won the jackpot. If we can refrain from continuing to paint what sells and stay true to what we love to do, how we change, no matter what, we’ve hit it again. We can’t, ultimately, work in total isolation. Nor, I believe are we meant to. Somewhere along the line, whether we ask for it or not, someone will want to make a comment on our creations. Positive comments do not necessarily a “good artist” (whatever that is) make, or vice versa. We are, consciously or not, constantly shaped by what people around us say and do. We are affected by a smile as we are by a frown. It’s part of the game. A comment of any kind is ultimately just somebody’s opinion. It is not THE TRUTH.


No next time
by Faith Puelston, Wetter, Germany

Unfortunately the projection of unfulfilled desires by parents onto their offspring is universal. I have no more right to program my child to so something I want than I have the right to impose a religion before he is able to make valid decisions by himself. I think every human should have the right to choose, within reason, what he wants to do. As a parent I have to protect my child from evil while giving him the opportunity, the confidence and the will to make something out if his life. I am (fortunately) not the only role model my child will have. If I open my child’s eyes to the chances life offers, I have done my job. It is fatal for a child’s future if he is made an instrument of the parents’ wishes to turn back the clock and do it better next time. There is no next time. I have two children. My daughter studied graphic design and is now training to be an educator of abused and abandoned children. Her decision. My son is currently studying philosophy and is an accomplished jazz musician. By choice.


Art of illustration
by Sarah Sibley, Suffolk UK

I think I’ve decided on a career in illustration and I hope to go to an art school after my a-levels. My problem is with choosing the right art school to go to. My art teacher has told me to visit the final shows of some of the art schools to see the kind of work being produced at that particular place, however when the art schools I’m interested in are miles away (Edinburgh, Falmouth) this is going to cost. I’m also worried that the future lies in graphic design and everything will be done on computer and I’m thinking that if this is the case then I don’t want to do illustration. Also I was wondering how important you think a mentor is with regards to your development in art. Perhaps at the end of the day our artistic development is down to us and we just have to keep working. But I think I’m going to be quite lost next year as my art teacher, who has given me 3 years of constructive criticism and has generally dug me out of a hole when I’ve gone wrong, is leaving. And I feel too young and naive to be left completely to my own devices. I would be grateful for any advice.

(RG note) Computer-generated graphic design is the future. If you don’t like computers you could be left out in the rain. Many areas of illustration are still relatively computer free, but don’t count on it staying that way. I think you should go to art school and see what likes you. All you may need to set the juices flowing could be at a nearby community college. In art education it’s not the school you go to but what you bring to the school. With regard to mentoring there is a balance between self-motivated rugged individualism and a respected authority who cares for your progress. Those who show the first often receive the second.


Paint box
by Cathleen Perkins, Bozeman, Montana, USA

I am quite interested in plein air painting and remember you had talked about a pochade box in one of your letters that you had made. I emailed you and asked about the directions. If you can find them I’d surely be interested.


(RG note) This is the box that I mentioned in “Pick up your tool” — May 21, 2002. Mine is home-made from quarter inch mahogany plywood. Overall dimensions are about 16 x 10 x 6 inches. The lid holds an 11 x 14 stretched canvas for standard painting. The other paintings in unfinished stages have been drawn with liquid acrylic with cone-shaped dispenser tops. This is an easy and fast way to make sketches on location.


Art in Cuba
by Carol Lopez


“Water Lillies Reflection”
by Carol Lopez

I’ve just returned from a month in Cuba. I found it incredibly easy to paint there (lots of good subjects) and also easy to meet with other artists. Just swinging down the street with my portfolio made the locals curious. They are so kind and friendly. “Tu es una pintura?” they ask, and then hang around to watch your progress. They were full of admiration, not jealousy, for my materials, paper, quality brushes which we take for granted. The government pays artists a regular salary, similar to doctors, but it’s not much by our standards. There are small state-run commercial galleries here and there with lots of staff but not too busy. It seems that if private individuals start up their own and get a little too successful the state shuts them down. Fidel wants to encourage art, but only through the proper channels. I visited a wonderful new art school. State of the art, built inside an ancient ruin in the provincial town of Trinidad, it had yet to be opened. It contrasted with the existing school which was depressed, run down and seemed to be short of everything. The embargo affects everyone but the result is that Cuba is a roll-model for recycling. The country is clean; there is no litter. Their ingenuity in maintaining old cars is legendary. Period and Spanish colonial buildings are frozen in time and the place is bubbling with romance and past splendor. Everyone seems to have charm and charisma and while they may want to get something from you, they are generous and thoughtful to foreigners.


Validation by taxation
by Yaroslaw Rozputnyak, Moscow, Russia

Your recent letter was about external validation. In the Soviet Union validation art was not free, artist not obligatory want it, but he was enforced to have validation from state art critics – Artists who were not validated did not have the rights to be exposed at exhibitions or even have not right to have name of his production as art. Of course, not always that art critic’s validation was truth. These days this validation is necessary too. Our state tax law demands validation of art activity as business.

(RG note) Yaroslaw has sent us a large document about art taxation in Russia. If you are living somewhere other than Russia and are depressed about taxes, you should read it. It will make you feel better. We will copy his material to you if you ask. He is interested in hearing of tax situations in other countries so that he might advise his own on a more sensible and less punitive approach.


We are alone
by Dave Louis, Coventry, UK

As far as being an artist is concerned I always had a precocious talent and that’s what has helped me throughout the whole of my life. I can honestly say that I have never asked for approval in my work. I learnt long ago that life is your own, inspiration is your own, you create alone, and the results are your own, and that’s good enough for me.


Contest entries


oil painting by K. Y. Hanewich


“Salt dish and flower”
acrylic painting by Ilania Abilea








oil painting by M. Lyttle


watercolour painting by Vivian Dere









“The Iris”
mixed media painting
by Sharon McCord, Bremerton, WA, USA


“Ploughed Rice Fields, Meegoda, Sri Lanka
by Ifthikar Cader, Sri Lanka










by Helene McIntosh


by Afton Corbett, Colville, WA, USA








You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 100 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2002.

That includes grandma of seven Shirley Flynn who says, “Most of us do finally figure it out, when we become grandparents.”

And Norma Hopkins of Bolton, Lancashire, UK who writes, “If there are any fathers out there and I could give you any advice, listen to the questioning of your little ones with a smile in your heart they will never forget and the smile will linger for ever. My Father’s does, I’m smiling now.”

And Jesi Barron of Victoria, B.C., Canada who says, “I come from an artistic family. I recently discovered my grandfather’s work on line. His name was Henry Bowser Wimbush. He painted in watercolours and many of them were printed for post cards at the turn of the century. He died 1943. He supported 12 children in England.”

A Life In Your Hands

poem by Dorothy Law Holte

If a child lives with criticism, he learns to condemn;
If a child lives with hostility, he learns to fight;
If a child lives with ridicule, he learns to be shy;
If a child lives with shame, he learns to feel guilty;
If a child lives with tolerance, he learns to be patient;
If a child lives with encouragement, he learns confidence;
If a child lives with praise, he learns to appreciate;
If a child lives with fairness, he learns justice;
If a child lives with security, he learns to have faith;
If a child lives with approval, he learns to like himself;
If a child lives with acceptance and friendship,
he learns to find love in the world.


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