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The Artful Family: Drawing Outside the Lines

By Aja Blanc
Associate Educator for Family + Youth programs at the RISD Museum of Art

My line is childlike but not childish. It is very difficult to fake… to get that quality you need to project yourself into the child’s line. It has to be felt. — Cy Twombly

Cy Twombly

Cy Twombly, American, b. 1929. “Untitled”, 1976.
The Museum of Art, The Rhode Island School of Design.

For many people, a line is the first mark we ever make with our hands. For children learning to draw for the first time, it is a huge developmental milestone when those first scribbles are set to the page (or wall!). It is an experience that attunes children to cause and effect and acquaints them with their capacity for hand-eye coordination. Once we start to grow however, the joy of scribbles on a page fade as we feel a pressure for those lines to represent a drawn reality that we see in the world. That pressure to represent can grow so strong, many children learn at a very early age to abandon any creative expression that falls short of realistic representation.

However, there are many artists who dedicate much of their practice to exploring the power of line. Pat Steir, whose recent show at the RISD Museum celebrated the power of line, creates drawings and paintings that explore line as a fundamental effort to communicate. She has said that her work “shows something we all have in us, something that belongs to all of us but is obscured by our habitual way of seeing.”  Artist Cy Twombly speaks to the power of a line to express, but only when it is imbued with feeling. In his untitled painting above, now on view at the RISD Museum, Twombly creates a line that appears impermanent and spontaneous, evoking chalk scribbles on a blackboard expertly rendered in oil paint. When he says the line one must “project themselves into the child’s line”, it is to say that one must go back to those first lines of a child in, lines that are free to express without the pressure of representation.


A very simple, but successful, studio project we have used here at the RISD Museum involves using line to express the felt passage of time. This project is wonderful for both children and young adult and always results in great discussions.

Start with a letter sized piece of paper. Whatever you have is fine (such as computer paper) but a heavier weight is nice to work with. Cut two inch strips down the long side of the paper.  Each artist (parents participate) gets one strip of paper and also a pencil.

The strip of paper will represent a period of time — maybe from the morning of one day to the night, or for older children, from the beginning of the year until now. Thinking of the strip of paper as a timeline, invite your child to show their day or year thus far through lines only. Resist the urge to demonstrate, which could suggest that certain kind of lines have universal meaning. Rather, try to keep it as open ended as possible, which will lead to lines that are personally expressive.

If your child is having a hard time understanding the project, a great way to start is to begin with a game before introducing the project. Together on a piece of paper, draw as many different kinds of lines possible, as many as you can think of.

One of the best parts is discussing each other’s timelines together afterwards. Ask your child to walk them through their drawing. What do the different lines means? This project can open up great discussions — for example, a  15 year old boy expressed through line the highs and lows of his school year thus far, using a variety of different lines to show his mind states through the year, from stress at the beginning to relief at the end.

Encouraging your children to explore lines, and the powerful simplicity they can carry, may free them stifling attitudes about what art must be and represent. As artist Paul Klee wistfully stated, a line is simply “a dot that went for a walk.”

The RISD Museum’s new brochure just for Families + Youth arrives this week and features exciting new programs at the museum, including workshops, gallery talks and a new teen film series. Call Aja Blanc, Associate Educator for Family + Youth Program at 401-454-6674 for more information or to be sent a brochure.

The Artful Family
is a monthly column from the RISD Museum of Art. Each month, Kidoinfo will help introduce art and creativity into your family life. To learn more about family programs at the RISD Museum, visit the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, located at 20 N. Main Street, Providence, RI.

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1 comment
  • I agree, the new brochure is definitely exciting! I got mine a few days ago. I’m hoping I can attend the Artful Family workshop next month, but I have a nursing toddler who goes where I go, and a 6yo who has an afternoon art class (at RISD!), so I don’t know if we can swing the day. But I’d so love to attend…