Almost from the time I graduated from college, I taught adult art classes--that definition being teenagers and up. They were usually small groups of about a half-dozen, often VERY mixed as to age. On occasions, I've faced down groups as large as seventeen (too many) and at other times sat patiently reading the newspaper, a magazine, or doing a drawing on my own while shepherding a group of two or three. In none of these groups did I ever dictate subject matter or medium. Most worked from photographs, with many trying to do portraits (since that was what I was most known for). Eventually, for several reasons, my adult classes kind of petered out. I did find, in their place however, a surprising demand for children's art classes. And with this perceived need, a certain angst among parents in trying to decide if their young, would-be Picasso really had great talent or were merely enjoying a passing fancy. For some reason, a major predominance of my extracurricular students seemed to be about seven or eight years old. My own personal feeling is that most of them are too young to benefit greatly from even group tutoring, but then who am I to argue with starry-eyed parents?
So, how does one know if a child has real talent and the potential to become an outstanding artist? One way is to study the early lives of those great artists from the past who have become standards of excellence. Human development and history does repeat itself. Art history is full of household names that were child prodigies-- not just Picasso, but Dürer, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Matisse--the list is almost endless. But how does one know? What are the signs? First of all, an interest in art is not enough. An obsession with it is. Regardless of age, quantity is no indication of greatness. The truly talented child will slave away at his work, always striving for improvement, sometimes growing quite frustrated at his or her own ineptitude, and always, with realism as the ultimate goal. Well-intentioned art teachers and misguided parents will often worship a display of freedom and creativity, but the exceptional child artist will be little effected by all this. He or she will impose a disciplined standard of excellence upon themselves far more demanding than that of their elders.
Watch the child work. Watch his or her eyes. Exceptional children in art have an almost constant rapid eye movement between their source and their work. If working without a real-life source, watch for a focus on details, sometimes at the expense of the overall work. Here is a student with the requisite memory so important for clarity and artistic purpose in later life. If you have a prodigy on your hands, be prepared for that young person to want to experiment with many different mediums, often at alarming rates, and sometimes with dismaying brevity of interest. He or she is discovering strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes that may last a lifetime while demonstrating a very low threshold for boredom (another sure sign). Almost universally, the exceptional art student will create using a story line, either verbal or written, sometimes both. It may also be implicit...too obvious to warrant either. Young children fascinated by cartoons and comic strips often display this trait.
Okay, so, you've got a creative genius on your hands...what now? First of all, don't dictate. There's no need to. Let the kid decide what he or she wants to make. Second, and this may sound downright heretical, offer support, but limit praise. Expect excellence on the part of your exceptional child artist as a matter of course. Too much praise shifts the focus from learning and self-expression to parent-pleasing, which often diverts the child from personal growth toward simply producing art. Avoid bragging about your budding Picasso, especially in his or her presence. It inflates the ego. The child doesn't need that and believe me, neither does the parent. It can really get out of hand. Plus, other parents resent it. And finally, once it's a generally accepted reality on the part of the child that he or she is going to become some form of an adult artist, then by all means, serious outside instruction is important. Public school art is good, but elementary school art rooms especially are mostly factories, in spite of their calling and supposed philosophy, all too eager to bend toward conformity and a thirty-minute timeline, rather than fostering exceptionality. They're usually quite good for teaching rudiments but only rarely in exciting excellence. There's a lot to be said for children teaching themselves art at this age. And as I said before, age seven or eight is almost always too young for true art genius to become apparent. Around twelve (for boys, slightly earlier for girls) is more likely, and a better time to commence outside instruction. By the same token, sixteen may be too late.