Your kid may not yet know a Gauguin from a Cezanne (unless they’ve been binge-watching Little Einsteins), but they absolutely know Oliver Jeffers work — because you read it to them every night. The Brooklyn-by-way-of-Belfast illustrator is behind The New York Times bestsellers like Once Upon An Alphabet, The Day The Crayons Quit, and its sequel, The Day The Crayons Came Home.
So, how does one get their child to go from scribbling with crayons to becoming a world-renowned artist … who scribbles with crayons? According to Jeffers, it’s a little bit of traditional technique, and a whole lot of embracing mistakes. Because there’s a difference between looking at a Jackson Pollack piece and saying “My kid could do that,” and being the parents of Jackson Pollack.
Draw From Memory
“Say I’m drawing an animal or something like that. What I always to do is draw from memory without looking it up first,” says Jeffers. “I think sometimes that creates a much more interesting idea of something than a literal representation.”
Tell your little Rembrandt that it’s less about the photo-perfect image of a horsey, and more about what they think a horsey should look like. Green? Sure! Nine eyes? Even better! Jeffers does the same thing, but he gets paid to do it.
Use Your Tools Incorrectly
Bob Ross may have wanted everyone to draw “happy little trees” like him, but f–k Bob Ross. “A lot of [the tactile skills] you can teach yourself,” Jeffers says “If you want to learn how to use oil paints, there are books. Same with watercolors. Most of it is experimenting and figuring out what you like to do with them. Exploring them for your needs rather than sticking strictly to how they’re supposed to be used.”
You can point out those watercolors Jeffers is talking about in a book like Lost And Found “I think I use them wrong and too densely. But that’s probably responsible for the signature style, where the colors are much blockier.” See, no wrong way!
Imperfections Make Better Art
“Charm comes from its imperfection, that’s where the humanity is instilled in a piece of art or drawing,” says Jeffers. “Whenever I let my hand draw what it wanted, it felt natural and comfortable. There was never a desire for a perfect rendering. If you look at David Shrigley for example, there’s a listlessness and freeness to the way he draws, and he’s clearly not concerned for the actual form.”
Your Kid Knows More Than You Do
As it turns out, it’s harder for an adult to draw like a child than it is for a child to draw like an adult. For instance, in The Day The Crayons Quit Jeffers had to throw out his training and study some real kids.
“Once you properly learn how to do something, it’s very difficult to unlearn that,” he says. “I made a bunch of drawings of what I imagined a 5-year-old’s would look like, and then I got some actual 5-year-olds to make some drawings. I realized that what they were doing was much more interesting than what I was doing and employed some of their techniques.”
Copy Comic Books
Now that your kid knows all the ways Jeffers throws out the rule book when it comes to drawing, they should probably know that he didn’t simply freeform his way to the top of the bestsellers list — he employed some more traditional techniques, as well.
“One of the ways that I learned to draw was by copying the Asterix comics,” says Jeffers. “The way they were drawn helped me deconstruct the world around me. I would have the paper beside the comic and look back and forth, rather than tracing over it.”
So, bust out that stack of X-Men books you’ve been saving to cash in for retirement, and let young Picasso have at it. At best they’ll be the next Jim Lee. At worst they’ll learn how to spell the word “snikt.”
It’s one argument for continuing your home delivery of the Times. Jeffers says that he used to trace over the front page photographs of his father’s newspapers. “It gave me a sense of how to draw with a more realistic, figurative approach, and helped with shading and composition.” Cancel the subscription when your refrigerator is covered with pictures of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
Take Still Life Classes
“An artist friend said [still life classes] are the equivalent of push-ups for artists. Having that relationship between your hand, mind, and pencil and paper — the more that that’s a working relationship, the more free and easy those marks are to make,” says Jeffers. Sounds like you’re due for a trip to Color Me Mine.
Take The Word “Mistake” Out Of Your Vocabulary
“With very young children, there’s a lack of concern about what other people think, so there are no mistakes,” says Jeffers. “Older children have an awareness in a context, and that’s when they start putting pressure on themselves. The freedom that goes along with not caring leads to much more interesting work.”