Ever since the movie My Kid Could Paint That came out about Marla Olmstead, the 4-year-old "artistic prodigy," I have been following her story with an almost obsessive interest. The kid is adorable -- you can't not love her -- and she reminds me very much of my own little "artistic prodigy" at home, Olivia.
To be honest, when I first heard about Marla, I expected her art to be the stereotypical stuff we expect from little children. After hearing all the flap, I expected a fluffy tree and some birds in the sky represented by little "M's" in black crayon... I didn't expect these large canvases that look more like Peter Max than Preschool Princess.
Marla's work is actually pretty good, but it's also entirely believable that a child could create it. (I'm speaking as an art teacher, here, with a lot of training and experience in the development of the artistic process at different age and maturity levels in children.) People refer to her work as "abstract expressionism," and I can see that... although abstract expressionism is pretty much what kids do naturally when they're allowed to create art without inhibition. They tap into the emotions that colors give them, and the experience of putting the paint onto a surface, and the joy of putting things together in a picture that communicate something. All kids are abstract expressionists. Kids are content to represent things in abstract ways, partially because they don't have the ability, yet, to draw realistically, and partly because sometimes you don't need realism to communicate an idea -- sometimes a less realistic style carries your message even better. Abstraction works, and abstract designs are fun to make and look at. That's why children in my classes have always been drawn to images by abstract expressionists. It goes beyond "I could do that." Art is every child's first language. It just comes naturally for them to express themselves through art, until – at some point -- kids feel like they're too "grown up" to draw anymore. Or not.
Back to Marla. Marla has an excellent feel for composition, which is something that a four-year-old can understand. Composition is not a complicated science -- in a nutshell, it's as easy as "if you put something yellow on the left side, you need to put something yellow on the right side to balance it out." It isn't hard for kids to learn good composition, but they typically aren't exposed to the principles of design much at such a young age. My guess is that Marla's had good training, from either a parent or annother adult, but that hardly makes her a fraud. Many famous adult artists have had extensive training. Age isn't really as much of a factor in whether or not an artist makes good choices, compositionally, as is having exposure to good art and an understanding of design.
What impresses me most about Marla's art is that, at some point, someone put quality art supplies in her hands and let her go at it. Do you know many parents who would give a toddler non-washable paints? I don't think so. I am thrilled that someone gave her access to well-built canvases, quality paints, brushes, palette knives (don't worry, they're not sharp,) and other supplies; threw a dropcloth down on the kitchen floor, and let her experience making real art. Someone encouraged her to fill in the entire background and then add details, painting from the background to the foreground (something kids don't do, automatically.) Someone gave her a crash course in composition and color, lots of encouragement, and an endless supply of good paint. Not surprisingly, the end result is gorgeous.
Compare Marla's training to that of the average child of her age in America. What kind of artistic training do kids get in preschool? Not much. Preschools usually don't have certified art teachers, and while pre-K teachers do give kids a lot of "art projects," it's generally fingerpaint and crappy newsprint paper, or macaroni and glue, or other items commonly used by schools and other institutions where the quality of the end result isn't really a consideration. And that's fine -- kids need these experiences -- but these teachers aren't teaching a lot of design skills beyond just giving kids a sensory experience with art supplies. These teachers aren't trained to teach art, and art teachers aren't hired for pre-K and elementary age children because it as assumed that young children wouldn't understand good art (or have any real need to.) Other kids are not getting the artistic training that Marla is getting, and sadly, the problem just gets worse as art programs are routinely cut further in most school systems. Some students don't get the artistic training that 4-year-old Marla has gotten until they're in high school -- and then only if they have room in their schedules for art courses and are lucky enough to attend school in a district that will ply an art teacher with good (expensive) art supplies.
My verdict: Prodigy? Maybe, maybe not. Great art? Sure -- Marla has a great feel for composition and color and loves to express herself through art. She is every bit as qualified to call herself an artist as many other artists whose work sells for $25,000 a pop. Awesome kid? Absolutely.
You think your kid could paint that? You're probably right. Get them some quality paints and take them to galleries often for inspiration. Better yet, bring more good art teachers back into the school systems (especially at the younger levels) so all kids can capitalize on their inborn artistic genius!
I'm so getting my daughter an easel!