Let’s be honest; sometimes we don’t quite know how to talk to children about art. Maybe we don’t really know how to talk about art at all.
Despite the fact that many of us believe in the benefits of art education, we may not know quite how to embrace art with our family. Fine art can be intimidating, and while academics and art historians can speak endlessly about art and its layers of meaning and interpretations, we may find ourselves staring blankly with only questions and no answers.
The truth is you don’t need to be an art historian or expert to talk about art or appreciate art with your child. A visit to an art exhibit can be a great bonding experience for parents and children, and experiencing and talking about art is a great way to promote empathy in developing young minds. Talking about art can also enhance critical thinking, vocabulary, and communication skills.
All Art Has a Story—or Three
We love sharing books with our children. We enjoy getting wrapped up in stories and seeing or children do the same. Art is all about stories too. We just have to find them and help create them ourselves.
Here’s where those stories lie:
- in the images or figures represented,
- in the making of the art,
- and in your own reaction to the art.
If you’re looking at a portrait or other representation of people, there’s a story to be told about those people—who they are, where they are, what they are doing or wanting. If it’s a place, there’s a story about where it is, what season it is, and what happens there. It could be a bustling city full of busy people or a quiet landscape few people visit.
Then there’s the story of the artist and the creation of the artwork. Maybe the piece was commissioned by a royal family. Maybe it was created in reaction to something happening in the world at the time, or maybe it is deeply personal to the artist. Maybe the piece took seven years to create or was underappreciated until years after its creation. There’s always a story about the creation.
Then there’s your own story. It’s the story of how you feel about the art and what it reminds you of. Maybe it reminds you of a place you’ve visited or a book you’ve read. Maybe it makes you think about something going on in the world today. Maybe it makes you feel peaceful, or maybe it makes you uneasy.
So how do we start talking about art with kids? How do we get to those stories?
Talk About What You See.
If you want to talk to kids about art, start with what you see. Talk about the colors, shapes, and what’s represented. If there are people, talk about what they are doing, what they are wearing, whether they look happy or sad, etc. You and your child can make your own inferences and create your own story about what is happening in the piece of art.
If the piece of art is abstract, still describe it. Is it bright, dull, smooth?
Next, compare different pieces of art in the same exhibit. Talk about the theme of the exhibit, and read a few of those informative plaques on the wall.
There is no need to spend hours decoding every piece of art in an exhibit or pouring over every word of information that goes with it. Pick a few that interest you and your child the most, and then just peruse the others.
Also, of course, talk about which piece or pieces in the exhibit are your child’s favorites and which are yours. What makes them your favorite?
Talk About the Artist.
After talking about what you see and like, start to imagine the artist. Who was or is he or she? How did he create this work of art? Did it take a long time? Did he draw or paint fast or slow?
Why did the artist make this? What did it mean to the artist, and what was he or she trying to tell people?
You can also read some information about the artist during this discussion to give you and your child some background and further shape the conversation. Allowing your child to put him or herself in the artist’s shoes is a great practice in empathy.
Talk About Your Own Reaction.
After talking about the characteristics of the art itself, what the art depicts, and who created the art, you can talk about how the art makes you feel. This can be a very serious or a lighthearted conversation.
Some paintings might depict something sad or serious. Other pieces might be whimsical or even funny. And it’s perfectly okay if a particular piece of art leaves you or your child feeling perplexed, or if you simply don’t like it.
It doesn’t really matter whether you like the art or not. The conversation is what is important. When I studied art, I remember hearing that love or hate are perfectly good responses to art. As an artist what you don’t want viewers to feel is indifference. When you and your child are standing in a museum before a piece of art that was deemed worthy by art experts and museum curators, it’s perfectly fine and even normal to dislike something. Talk about why.
You may end up having an insightful and interesting conversation with your child about why your child simply doesn’t like a piece of art. You’ll come away knowing more about your child and with them knowing more about you.
Scan the Room.
When you visit an art exhibit, there may be room after room of art on multiple floors. There will likely be more than one exhibit. There’s no need to see it all, and there’s definitely no need to uncover all three stories—the story the art tells, the story of the artist, and the story of your own reaction—in every piece of art.
Try to find an exhibit you think would interest your child, and pick a few key pieces to discuss in depth. For the others, just peruse them. Maybe take a moment to compare or appreciate them, and keep going.
Remember a short museum visit can be a successful museum visit. And also remember you can have just as interesting and meaningful a conversation about art you don’t like as art you do like.
Share the art. Share the stories, and come away with a shared memory for you and your child.
Conversation Starters for the Art Museum
Uncover the three stories in your most and least favorite works of art.
The Story the Art Tells
What do you see?
What colors are used?
What mood does the piece evoke? (Does it look happy or sad?)
Are there people or animals depicted? If so, what are they doing?
Can you guess or imagine something about who or what is represented?
If the piece is sculptural, what is it made of?
Does the piece of art look different from different angles?
The Story of the Artist
Who is the artist? Where is he or she from? What other type of art did he or she make?
Why do you think the artist made this?
Was this difficult or easy to create?
How long do you think it took the artist to make this? Did he or she work fast or slow?
How does this piece compare to other pieces of art in the room?
How did the artist feel when he or she made this?
(Look for information about the artist to guide this conversation more.)
The Story of Your Reaction
What was the first thing you noticed about this piece of art?
Do you like this piece? What makes you like or dislike it?
Would you like to have this piece of art in your own home?
Does this piece of art remind you of anything?
How does this piece make you feel?
Download a handout with these conversation starters here.
Lastly, remember that while visiting a museum is an enriching experience, you can also discuss fine art by flipping through books from the library or taking a virtual visit to a museum or gallery.