Self-portraits can portray more than a child's face. Why not allow them to draw their inner worlds or their favourite places, suggests Ted Dewan
As a cheeky schoolboy with a compulsive drawing habit, I usually found a way to subvert art assignments I wasn't keen on to keep myself amused, much to the annoyance of my art teachers. But the most dreadful of all assignments, the most difficult to subvert without getting into trouble, was the "self-portrait".
Any art assignment dealing with a child's self and identity is a hazard. Young egos are squishy and vulnerable, and much youthful energy is spent trying to conceal true identity or create fictitious ones for survival purposes. Budding artists who invest a sense of self-worth in their artistic abilities have egos especially vulnerable to "self-portrait" attack.
The dreaded assignment came around every few years in various guises. It first appeared at age seven; no problem - we were still romping in a Garden of Eden free of self-consciousness. But by age 10 or 11, just as our mirrors started to taunt, it came up again, and this time it was a bit scary.
To make matters worse, we were usually forced to do the self-portrait using some ungovernable mucky implements, such as Cray-Pas. To this day, I can recall the angst vividly, just by looking at a box of those loathsome colourful turds. Worst of all was the humiliation of having all the self-portraits hung on the class walls to leer out at us for an indecent amount of time.
Years later, age 16, the dreaded assignment came up once again - acrylic paints this time. Mine ended up looking unintentionally and alarmingly goth, as I was unable to stop myself outlining the eyes in black. All the portrait revealed about me was my inability to manage acrylics and grasp the concept of painting tonally rather than drawing outlines.
The following year, as part of a portfolio-building class, the self-portrait assignment was to draw ourselves within a fantasy setting, sort of film-poster style, surrounded by representations of our interests and passions. Mine was, predictably, a control-freak fantasy based on the prog-rock artist Roger Dean.
This time, I decided to overcome my dread, and gave my heart and soul to the assignment. The likeness itself was pretty good, and I made sure the fantasy environment depicted my private interests in what I thought was a mysteriously indecipherable code.
One thing I did get out of this final self-portrait assignment was an understanding of how drawing a chosen environment can be an effective exercise in honest self-expression. Although much of the environment was completely fictitious, drawing the objects and places allowed me to tell my own story without the angst, disappointment and dread that fumbling to create a likeness of my own face would have had on its own.
Unfortunately, my art teacher decided to show slides of these self-portraits to the younger art students, including my little brother.
The teacher psychoanalysed the pictures in front of these kids, and her (correct) analysis of my self-portrait was a conveniently sharp and painful tool of torment for my little brother for years and years.
Children around Britain who take part in a project called In the Land of Illustrations may be more fortunate. Teachers from 29 schools around the country took part this month in a workshop in London with illustrator Quentin Blake and other artists to learn how to create pictures to tell a story.
"In the Land of Illustrations" aims to encourage children to think about, illustrate and take pride in where they live. They will visit local landmarks and explore local lore. A book created for the project by Quentin Blake and writer Joanna Carey contains the work of seven 20th-century illustrators. The drawings, such as "Great Jones and Lafayette, Christmas Eve" (New York 2002) by Lucinda Rogers (above), are expressions of each artist's reaction to their environment, and it's remarkable how much the personality of each artist shows up on paper.
Each of these illustrators, working on location, will have found a way of being invisible, something very difficult to do once you've whipped out a drawing pad on a street. It's this very invisibility that's allowed them to approach their environment with an honesty and vulnerability that a self-portrait would never have allowed.
So, consider this a plea for mercy for all of you who teach art to kids.
Help them discover the joys of invisibility, and you may find they see more clearly.
Ted Dewan is a children's author and illustrator lIn the Land of Illustrations is a collaboration between the Prince of Wales Arts Kids Foundation, the Quentin Blake Gallery of Illustration, and Land Securities shopping centres, where children's work will be displayed during October half-term