As soon as the child is able to handle a pencil or any such material and starts scratching it on some surface, and creates marks on it, it is time to encourage him to draw pictures. It is the child's first experience and the first step of the journey to the world of picture making.
There is a generally held notion that children should be allowed or asked to make pictures only after they have learnt enough about shapes and colours. It is a mistaken notion and is against the nature of childhood. Children first learn about the world of forms and colours by letting out their responses through creative activities, e.g. painting pictures, clay modelling, etc. To understand form and colour, it is not sufficient to look at them in an abstract manner or understand them intellectually. It is essential to internalize the visual impressions by developing a feeling for them, and it is only by doing something concrete that children do so. Therefore, encouraging children to tackle forms and colours through picture-making is to help them understand the world around and obviously learn about forms and colours at the same time.
Some enterprising teachers have gone a step further. They have tried some interesting experiments by giving small children cups full of water colours, and large sheets of paper, but not brushes. While choosing the material, they made sure that the colours were totally harmless—non-toxic and safe for the skin. Children dipped their fingers and palms in the colours and made their "pictures" by splashing on the sheet of paper. It made interesting bold patterns and at the same time helped the children develop their muscular dexterity, along with the understanding of colours. It is an exciting way of self-expression and has become a somewhat popular technique among art teachers.
There is another notion, rather deeply seated, in the minds of some orthodox teachers. They think that children should first learn to draw with pencil and only after they have practiced it well enough, should they be given brushes and colours. They instruct the children to "draw the outlines first and then fill the spaces with pastel or crayon colours. Only after getting some practice in this technique may you use water colours or oil paints..." On the other hand, after some experience we came to the conclusion that the thin end of the pencil limits children within strict forms and boundaries. It does not allow them the freedom of movement they require for self-expression. If we want children to enjoy their work thoroughly and in an uninhibited manner, they should be provided with tools and materials that will allow them freedom and limitless possibilities to express their feelings without any hindrance.
What Kind of Material
During my childhood, I remember we were given pastel colours. It is good that the traditional pastel colours are going out of fashion. They are so fragile and smudgy that after using them for a while, children start disliking them. My feeling is that pastel colours are a good medium for mature artists. According to my experience, children like to use brushes, probably because a brush can be used in various ways to make thin lines as well as bold strokes and patches, to apply light and thin colours as well as heavy thick blocks. We have also seen that children like wax crayons, and thin and wide marking felt pens. These are also available in many colours. One thing the teacher should be careful about is that felt pens are wasteful and sometimes harmful.
Children develop their own preferences with regard to the material available. Different children like different material and techniques. Peer-group values and styles also influence their choices. If a child likes to use only a pencil, he or she should be free to do so. But sometimes a child may get stuck to only one kind of material and stagnate in the process of self-expression. The child, at that stage, requires help to get out of the stagnation. The teacher should know what to do on such an occasion. The child does not need teaching. He needs support in looking for new ideas.
If a child is not given opportunities to try different materials during the early stages, he might find it difficult to try new materials at a later state. For instance, those who have not-worked in water colours earlier might find it difficult to use them at the age of eight or nine. It is a bit more difficult for children to keep control over water colours than, for instance, crayons. Some might even lose heart after trying it for a short while and give it up eventually. Generally speaking, most children like to use a variety of art materials. Children who never take to water colours are very few and far between.
Every now and then, while working at Sevagram, a question arose in our minds. Can we, or should we, provide our children with the variety of materials generally considered "good quality" by the art world? Provide such materials to all the children, in all the schools in cities, towns and half a million villages? Would it be financially practical? If we think of providing all the children, throughout the country, with cartridge paper, sketch books, Windsor and Newton colours, and Chiness brushes or even the second or third grades of such materials, the answer obviously is 'No'. This may be possible for a very small number of children, say about one per cent of all the Indian children under twelve, whose parents can afford them. We also asked ourselves: Is that expensive material absolutely necessary? Moreover, we firmly believed that there ought not to be any distinction between the rich and the poor, and that whatever was available for the well off section of the public should also be available to every one. Yet, we were convinced that for the sake of the healthy education of our children, there ought to be an adequate provision of the right kind of equipment and material in schools. What should be done then?
This brought us to a very relevant question. What did the Indian artists do hundred or two hundred years ago, when there were no "Reeves" or "Windsor & Newton" in India? We already knew the answer. They did not import their painting material from England or Germany. They made their own tools and the materials necessary for their art work. Even today, there are many artists who make their own colours from locally available material. As art students in Santiniketan, we made nearly half of our colours with locally available materials. So, why not experiment with it now! The kind of colours, brushes, etc. needed for children can easily be made in the art class itself. An enthusiastic teacher with the help of children, whether in the town or in the village, can make most of what is necessary from locally available material. We tried it quite successfully in our Sevagram school.
We knew that in the murals of Ajanta and in most of the Rajput and Mughal paintings, the colours and brushes used were made by the artists themselves. One colour that was difficult was blue. In some old paintings the blue is of lapislazuli, a semiprecious stone not commonly available. In Rajput paintings, the blue used was often vegetable indigo. For our art work in Sevagram, we used the common indigo powder, as the vegetable indigo does not last long. It fades away quickly, but that was not much of a problem for our child artists. We used, for instance, common yellow ochre earth for yellow, red ochre for brick red, soot for black, green stone for green and some vegetable colours. Brushes were made of hemp fibre with bamboo handles, hair from the ears and other parts of animals like goats and calves. Sticks of date-palm or ordinary palm leaves could also be made into nice hard brushes by gently crushing one end of the stick. For an enthusiastic teacher it can be an interesting activity, which can be correlated with other subjects. In itself it is creative and introduces the spirit of resourcefulness in children.
Child art being a term and concept not known widely in the educational world of India, very few teachers trained traditionally in the Anglo-Indian educational system, knew or understood the creative potential of the child. When such teachers visited the Sevagram school and came to my class, they often asked: "Are these children making their pictures or clay models according to your instructions?" My answer was: "No, not in eighty to ninety per cent cases". It is important here to explain why my answer could not be hundred per cent "No".
We have already discussed the psychogenesis of children's drawings. Beginning from the age of two or so with scribbling to the age of eleven to twelve, when they start making pictures which show some kind of similarity with the work of adults, children climb their natural ladder of growth without much break or hindrance and with minimum necessary guidance. But this happens only when they are provided with a supportive atmosphere which fulfils their need for communication and creative expression. We know that such an atmosphere and the necessary encouragement is not always available. It is not only the school atmosphere that matters. The family and social environment also contribute to the development or otherwise of the child's personality. In spite of the encouraging atmosphere of the school, some children do experience difficulties in their creative expression, probably due to some other reasons. Hence, my answer to the question put by the visitors could not have been an emphatic "no". In other words, despite the fact that children need support and guidance instructing children to "make that or do this" is wrong, both psychologically and educationally.
My experience convinced me that even when the home atmosphere is not geared to the idea that genuine freedom is one of the greatest teacher, if the school atmosphere is oriented to it, the child often comes to the art class with his own ideas. If the classroom is properly equipped and arranged, some children may straight away start working on their themes. They do not need any stimulating talk, permission or instructions from the teacher. Although in their own mind they may be clear about it, it is very likely that if asked what they have in mind their answer may not be explicit. But that does not contradict the fact that some children do come with ideas for their pictures. This is so because of the encouraging atmosphere of the school. Children go on have new experiences all the time, which continues to stimulate their imagination.
What all this means is that, in addition to several other factors, there are three environmental factors which contribute in the making or destroying, of the inherent creative potential of children. One is, obviously, the family; the other concerns the values and aesthetic atmosphere of the society, and the third is the school.
What are the other factors that affect the growth of the child? Certain parameters are already drawn before, during and after birth. These depend on genetic factors, as well as on the conditions during conception and birth, some of which might remain unknown or unnoticed until much later, when they start surfacing.
The three factors I have mentioned above have their own perimetric possibilities or otherwise. Although the teacher has just a tiny part of the total responsibility for the growth of the child, much of the onus falls upon the educational philosophy and its set up, of which the teacher is the most important agent.
The implication is that the educational set up has to do a great amount of diagnostic work regarding each child—familial, social, medical and psychological. The educational set up has also to find out reasons behind a child developing various kinds of traits, problems and potential. We have seen that, very often, lack of new experiences does not allow a child to express its inner feelings. It may be that the child is not getting enough of the freedom required for experiencing new things. Could it be a simple case of malnutrition and poor health? Or something related to the home situation? Or is it something that has created a feeling of inferiority or defeatism in. the child? Could it be too much criticism that has made the child hesitant to do anything new? Are there any other biological or emotional reasons? It could be a mixture of various factors, which need to be discovered.
Some of these problems or inhibitions may become visible at the age of eight or nine, or even earlier. At that stage, the child needs the greatest support. If the family is sensitive and the teacher enlightened enough, the child may be able to overcome, to a certain extent, the hurdles created by some of these factors. In other words, the atmosphere in the school has a crucial role to play in the development of the child's personality.