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Kids doing calligraphy

Different Strokes: Painting & Calligraphy for Kids

a brush can build creativity and other valuable skills

At the age of 6, Elliot McLean has several paintings on display—maybe not in a museum (yet), but his colorful artwork fills the Oak Cliff home he shares with mom Amanda Reiter and dad Bruce McLean. Elliot has been creating mini-masterpieces for years as a student at Dallas’ Oil & Cotton, a “creative exchange” offering classes and art supplies.

“We love looking at his art and reflecting on how he created it,” says Reiter. “I think when he looks at his own artwork, he is very proud.”

Oil & Cotton lead teacher Emily Riggert says picking up a brush can bring satisfaction and a sense of catharsis to people of all ages. “Especially right now, with so many things going on,” she explains, “it’s important to distill our experiences in our daily life using art as a way to think about and move through those emotions.”

Your little ones, perhaps frustrated with virtual learning or mask wearing, just might feel better after expressing themselves with a brush. And they’ll have a whole lot of fun in the process.

Painting is time well spent

When you think of brush arts, painting almost certainly comes to mind. But don’t little ones stick to finger painting? Not necessarily, says Deborah Down, art teacher at Fort Worth ISD’s E.M. Daggett Elementary School. “My background before joining Fort Worth ISD was teaching preschool,” Down explains. “From experience, I can tell you that even toddlers can paint with a brush.”

Painting develops children’s motor skills and decision-making abilities while, as noted, providing an outlet for dealing with emotions. The focus for littles is on the creative process and modeling. “We must show them how to use the tool, in this case a brush,” says Down. “Show them the handle and model how to hold it—‘This is the handle. This is where we hold the paintbrush.’ And show them the bristles—‘This is what we dip into the paint.’”

Still, says Down, their brushwork may look a little different as they learn. “Be prepared for a young child to explore it and use it in a way that may be different than what was modeled,” she warns. (Of course, there’s a limit to what your tiny artists are allowed to do. “Young children also have the tendency to put things in their mouth, so supervision is a must,” says Down.)

Worried about your child losing interest? Make it fun. To teach kids to clean the paintbrush, Down tells her students they are going to wash the brush’s “hair” and reminds them that the brush needs “dry hair before we put him away.”

Riggert incorporates a similar style of storytelling by personifying the art materials—kids meet Glue Lou, Scissor Sue and Bob Marker (“Come on down!”). Riggert also tends to focus on one color at a time, making it all the more exciting when a new color comes out.

For Andrew and Jennifer Snow, whose children Harrison and Georgia are Oil & Cotton students, it’s been amazing to watch their kids’ painting skills grow over time. “We started our oldest at a parent-kiddo class when he was 2, and it was hard not to intervene with his brush approach sometimes,” remembers Andrew. “Harrison is almost 10 now and has lately been really keen on learning brush skills. He has been practicing by painting mountains.”

Even if the act of painting is easy to do at home, don’t discount the value of school or studio art classes. They provide talented teachers, a full stock of supplies, a space that’s designed to get messy (with no cleanup for parents) and benefits beyond art skills.

“After Elliot started attending classes, I realized the topics covered were much more than just art,” recalls Reiter. “This time with trained teachers also gives him history lessons, helps him learn how to interact with other children and provides him useful tips, such as how to hold a pencil.”

Painting at home is, of course, a popular choice, and it’s a good way to gauge your child’s interest and get started without making a bigger investment.

You could hit up your local craft store or go online to buy paint-by-number kits with vivid colors and elementary designs. I did that with my son, and we had a blast painting together. The kits come with a brush and tiny pots with all the paint your child will need for that project—so you don’t have to buy bigger containers or a full rainbow of colors.

Here are some more tips for at-home painting:

  • For little ones, be sure to choose non-toxic, washable paints. Acrylics won’t wash out and will ruin surfaces. Be especially careful with reds: “Red dye is often staining, even if it claims to be washable,” shares Down.
  • Be OK with spills and stray marks; they’re inevitable with paint play. “Either put down an old sheet or drop cloth, or go to a location where it won’t matter if they spill, like outside,” suggests Down. To protect your kids’ clothes, she says you could fashion a smock by cutting an old adult T-shirt straight down the back, then using a clothespin to hold it together.
  • Your kid’s canvas can be most anything; think junk mail and cardboard. Most anything can be a “brush,” too (cotton balls, kitchen gadgets, etc.). When using a traditional brush, big handles work well for little hands.

While there are no promises that your child will be the next Michelangelo or Monet, you can rest assured painting is time well spent. There are the sensory benefits, and not just in seeing the final product. “For toddlers and kindergartners, there’s the tactile experience of paint,” says Oil & Cotton’s Kayli House. “It’s gushy and squishy. It’s something you can touch and feel.”

There are also cognitive advantages. “There is language development, writing, math science and social studies naturally occurring during my elementary art lessons,” notes Down. “Art gives students experiences to appreciate culture, explore their talents, boost their confidence. It provides challenges for learners at all levels and boosts academic performance.”

Introduce your kids to the art of calligraphy

Your kiddo may eventually want to use brushes in another way: for artistic lettering. You can actually use a variety of tools to introduce your child to calligraphy: “Calligraphy-style lettering can be done with a calligraphy pen, a brush, a crayon, a pencil,” shares Emile Stewart, founder and CEO of Wildflower Art Studio in Denton.

You don’t necessarily need to be a prolific (hand)writer to enjoy the art. Stewart says her children started doing block lettering before they were in kindergarten. Pencil lettering is best for young ones, but as they gain hand control, they can branch out into ink-based calligraphy—growing their artistic talents right along with their writing skills.

Stewart, who started a hand-lettered greeting card company at age 12, loves sharing the lettering arts with beginners. In addition to offering online workshops (in-person classes will resume as soon as possible), Wildflower Art Studio posts tips and inspiration on Instagram (@wildflowerartstudio) and sells DIY calligraphy kits.

One of those kits made it all the way to North Dakota, where Lexie Huebner purchased one via Etsy for her 12-year-old daughter Kloey. It was the perfect gift.

“We run a wedding venue,” explains Huebner. “Kloey frequently sees that type of writing on wedding chalkboard signs and has commented about wanting to learn how to do it. When I saw the kit, I thought it would give her a new challenge and help her achieve the goal of creating those kinds of signs.”

Kloey got started right away, spending hours in her room tracing and learning the different pen and brush techniques. “She’s now able to do different styles of handwriting, and her cursive writing has really improved,” shares Huebner.

Calligraphy may especially appeal to kids who, like Kloey, enjoy challenges and working alone. Here are some suggestions to get your child going:

  • Don’t push them to do calligraphy. “If a parent is interested, why not get some basic materials and sit down to use them while your child is working on something else?” recommends Down. “Children are naturally curious.”
  • Start with the basics. For littles, Down suggests beginning with shape identification. “Once they know those, start looking at letters of the alphabet. Which one looks like a circle? And compare the calligraphy letters to regular letters. What are the differences? All of these things can be explored with your child” as an introduction to calligraphy, Down says.
  • Once they’re intrigued, show them examples of interesting calligraphy. (Hello, Pinterest and Instagram.)
  • In addition to traditional brushes, you can get brush pens for your child. Those tend to be easier to use than dip-pen sets, and they’re often less expensive.
  • Try a kit with templates your child can brush over to see the possibilities as their skills develop.

And if you’re concerned that your child will think of calligraphy as glorified writing homework, Stewart says don’t forget to emphasize that it’s an art. “There is not a right or a wrong way to do it,” she explains. “Creativity is about embracing the beauty of imperfection.”

So whatever your child creates with a brush, enjoy.

Kit & Ca-Doodle

Oil & Cotton and Wildflower Art Studio are just two of the many creative establishments that can get kids going with brush-based classes and kits (available to order or pick up). Here’s how to find them, as well as a few other local studios:

Cloth & Glaze Painting Studio
1230 Red River Drive, Suite 400, Euless
8901 Tehama Ridge Parkway, Suite 125, Fort Worth
Our kit pick: PYOP (Paint Your Own Pottery) Kit

Jump Into Art Studios
404 N. Church St., McKinney
Our kit pick: Watercolor Artist Kit

Oil & Cotton
817 W. Davis St., Suite 110, Dallas
Our kit pick: “Everything You Need to Be an Artist” Kits

Play Street Museum Shops
Multiple locations
Our kit pick: ABC Learn With Me Activity Kit

Wildflower Art Studio
715 N. Locust St., Denton
amazon.com; search “Wildflower Art Studio”
Our kit pick: Brush Lettering Kit

Photo courtesy of Amanda Retter.