Don’t Bother Planning Creativity

Don’t Bother Planning Creativity


Children are natural creators whose drawings and paintings are uninhibited and gorgeous. They’re born loving color and making a mess.

Chana Shapiro
Chana Shapiro

I read that Pablo Picasso never actually put a paintbrush into the hands of his offspring, and yet they turned out to be artists of different genres themselves. He didn’t need to push them; they were surrounded by materials of all kinds and allowed, from their earliest years, to wander freely in his crowded and stimulating studio, touch anything and experiment with his materials.  Picasso gave them space.

I grew up in a neat, clean and tidy home. There was a place for everything – everything had a proper shelf, drawer or container. Yet even in this pristine environment, I always had lots of crayons and watercolors.

My very conventional parents allowed me to pull scraps of old letters and discarded pieces of cardboard from the wastepaper basket. I painted these treasures on our newspaper-covered kitchen table (the paint always bled through!). I even drew pictures in my books.

I guess my mother and father knew what they were up against, because I couldn’t help decorating everything I found. I drew everywhere, including the backs of pastel-colored invoices that came to my parents’ store. I looked forward to the daily mail because I knew how to open and unfold envelopes carefully in order to expose a quasi-trapezoidal blank sheet of paper.



My Aunt Charlotte enabled my obsession. A secretary for a print shop, she raided their garbage for blank scrap paper of every color and size. She became a steady supplier to my drawing habit, and the materials she brought allowed me to make collages.

What’s more, my Aunt Shirley gave me my own stapler and a box of staples, and my mother taught me to make glue from flour and water, so I went three-dimensional. And in the third or fourth grade, I started writing and illustrating my own stories. My parents stood aside, benignly allowing me to draw, cut, glue and paint anything and everything.

The books I loved contained beautiful drawings super-saturated in unreal colors, and I started copying these pictures, sometimes squeezing my drawings into the margins, inside front and back covers and on the flyleaves.

When I moved to grown-up stories that had few illustrations, I discovered the drawings of these tales were intricate and perfect. I tried to copy them, but when my copies were pitifully inept by comparison to the originals, I drew my own pictures.

Who cared? Nobody judged me: I had only to please myself, and the more I drew, the better I felt about my “work.”

Really, it was the opposite of work.

Thus, drawing and painting were essential to me as a child, and – mindful of the pleasures of creating – when I became a parent, I wanted to get our daughters off to a good start. They’d never have to make do with the margins of books, unfolded envelopes or blank sides of shipping cardboard.

To ensure that they could be their most creative selves, I bought colored pencils, crayons, chalk, paint, markers, all kinds of paper, glitter, sequins, beads, feathers and brushes. Pretty rocks, interesting twigs, seeds and acorns were collected when we were outside.

No one came home empty-handed, and then everything was organized into boxes and jars upon our return to the “studio.” Plastic tablecloths were always at hand to cover our kitchen table, ready at any moment for art; bulletin boards were hung; varying sized frames were purchased.

Our daughters well remember our frequent “art projects.” They tell me they enjoyed the organized endeavors, but as I look back, I realize that I was always the instigator. They were both good at making things, and I like to assume that the ambience we provided at home had something to do with it.

But here’s the truth: our daughters were more inventive and original when they weren’t urged into creativity.


The Next Generation


These days, I’ve become an art-supply junkie. I have a room full of every color of paint (water-based, acrylic, tempera) and loads of brushes. There are sequins, beads, glass bits, yarn, pieces of wood and ribbons. I have cardboard (corrugated, packing grade, pliable, coated), rice- and tissue-paper and chalk (as well as chalk paint). There’s even a designated art table.

For the past few years, I’ve tried every trick in the book to get our grandchildren to use this great stuff. We’re blessed that their small motor function and brains seem fine; I’ve seen what they bring home from school, and I love every birthday and anniversary card they’ve made.

So, why can’t I get them to take my lead and create with the tools I present?

I made art kits for each of them, which they enjoy in the car when I’m busy driving.  They have more extensive house art kits, which they employ on their over-crowded, too-low playroom floor when I’m in another room.

Still, what happened yesterday was truly telling. I was in my office, looking for safety pins; the grandkids found me there, rifling through drawers of paper punches, brads, mailing labels, road maps and tape. They closed in, and I watched them finger through the containers.

“Can we have some of these?” Zellik asked, holding a box of paperclips. “I can use all of them!”

“I need the maps and a paper punch,” Miriam added. “And where’s the scissors?”

I pulled out a pair of scissors.

“Thanks,” she said, reaching for the tape.

“Take anything you want,” I answered, feigning nonchalance. “Here’s a shoe box you can dump everything in.”

They loaded up, and I cleverly followed with pieces of red and orange cardboard and some markers.

Miriam and Zellik spent the rest of the afternoon making art all over the unprotected kitchen table, while I forced myself to stay out of the way.

Thanks, Mr. Picasso – I finally got it.

Chana Shapiro is an educator, writer, editor and illustrator whose work has appeared in journals, newspapers and magazines.


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