How to Combat the “I Can’t…”

“I was showing my grandson some of the techniques we’ve been learning (in our adult watercolor class).  I was doing it with him.  I guess I shouldn’t have because he saw mine and his wasn’t as good.  So he said he couldn’t and he wasn’t any good.  He didn’t  want to do any more.”

“That happens a lot with that age.  They loose confidence.”

“How do you deal with that?  What can I do?”

This was a conversation I had with a student at one of our Adult Watercolor Classes.  Though I was having the conversation with one individual, many others chimed in as well.

How to combat the “I can’t….” 

how to combat the "I can't"

Its a problem I run across more often then I would like.  I work with many upper elementary and middle school kids.  Some have kept the great confidence they had when they were younger.  No fear of creating or making a mark.  To these kids ideas pop in their heads and they aren’t afraid to try.  Others are afraid.  They hold back.  They have lost the confidence.  They compare their work to others and it doesn’t measure up so they quit.

I might hear.

“I don’t know what to do.”  “I don’t have any ideas.”  “I can’t make that.”  “I can’t draw.”  “I’m not an artist.”

And if they do start I might hear.

“Is this right?”  “Is this okay?”  “I don’t now how to do ______.”  “I can’t make the _____.”  “This is stupid.”  “I don’t know why we have to do this anyway.”

I’m sure that each one of these kids had no fear of creating at one point.  I bet a younger self came up to his parents, proudly saying, “Look what I did.”

But at some point they experience what they perceived as failure.

It could have been a negative (or perceived negative) comment.  It could have been comparing his work to a sibling or classmate.  It could have been an internal struggle of not being able to get what was in his head onto his paper.

Here’s a quote by Pablo Picasso…

Picasso quote

It may not be easy but its not too late to encourage that creativity and give him back his confidence.

My response when I get a question like the one in the story above, “How do you deal with that?  What can I do?”….

Give him opportunities to succeed.  Over and over and over again.  It may not be easy.  It may take awhile.  But you can make a difference.

Here are some ideas to give students back their confidence in art.

Try something new.  Maybe she (or you) had an idea that art is only creating realistic images.  Or it only involves what you can do with a pencil.  But there are so many other avenues of art she can explore.  Think different mediums: drawing, painting, sculpture, carving, assembly, clay, weaving, paper mache, plaster, sewing, jewelry, design, animation, building, pattern.  Or think different art styles: realism, impressionism, abstract, performance art, modern, pop art.

If she think she “isn’t good” at art, give her another idea of what defines art.  If she isn’t “good” at drawing, carve some soap.  If her fine motor skills aren’t the best, introduce her to the Stop Motion app.  She can create stop motion videos.  Try new materials and give her a chance to redefine “art.”

Choose materials that are easy to use.  Paint can be frustrating.  A pencil really reveals specific skills.  Try materials that are easy to use.  Let him cut images from magazines to create a collage (hint: challenge him to leave open spaces or work within a certain color range, such as only red images).

During our sculpture series we worked with plaster strips.  They are strips of a mesh material already loaded up with plaster.  I cut them down a bit and students just dipped them in water and made a plaster cast of their hand.  It is an easy material to use (a bit of problem solving if their fingers where in a difficult position).  And Ta-Da! and instant sculpture that actually looks like a hand.

plaster hands

Don’t be afraid to show her your failures.  Sometimes when working on a project I will interrupt my students’ independent working time to show them how I solved a problem.  “I didn’t like this areas here so I did this.”  Its okay to make mistakes.  We learn from mistakes and may even come up with something better because of them.  What did Bob Ross call mistakes, “happy accidents”?  We only see the finished project.  We don’t see all the mistakes and failures that lead up to that finished project.  It applies to many areas of life, not just art.  We learn from our failures and grow because of them.

Sit down with him.   The other day I wanted to do a craft with my kids, 10 and 13.  But I knew if I said, “Hey, lets make snowflakes,” all I would get was groans.  So instead I got out the supplies, sat down, and started making some.  Guess what?  They BOTH came over to join me.  Now with my boy I actually folded the paper and handed him the scissors as he was pacing around but he did it.  And as long as I had another folded paper all ready for him he kept right on going.

However I would suggest you not try to do the exact same thing that they are doing.  My daughter got a bit frustrated because hers didn’t look like mine.  With some kids that would have been enough to stop them from continuing but I just folded a piece for her (some of her “mistakes” were due to how she folded it), made a few suggestions.  We kept on working.

Provide easy access to supplies.  When you are trying to build back confidence and a willingness to try, you don’t want to say, “Clean up this mess.”  And you don’t want there to be barriers when a willingness to create comes.  Maybe extra toilet paper is hiding the paints or there’s a pile of junk on top of your paper supply.  Keep supplies within reach in the same spot.  There are lots of suggestion on Pinterest for storing art supplies.  You want something that will work for your family and your household.  This could be see-through drawers labeled with “tape,” “paint,” “paper,” a shelf in the closet dedicated to art supplies, or a box to grab when needed and toss everything back into when done.  Easy-to-get-to supplies means she will be more likely to use them.

Get a “how to” kit that will walk him through a “good-looking project.”  We love scratch art paper in our house.  Its fun and easy to use.  But recently my daughter got a pre-packaged kit that already had the design sketched onto the paper so that all she had to do was copy those marks to create a beautifully finished piece.  Now my daughter has creative confidence so she was a bit bummed she didn’t get to make her own picture.  But for the person trying to build back that confidence this kit or another “paint by number” type project would be great.  It gives him a chance at trying, practicing, and learning the medium in a safe (less chance for “failure”) way.

Sincerely and specifically make positive comments about her work.  Everyone likes a pat on the back or a “way to go.”  The same goes for artists.  But these upper elementary and middle school kids are sharp, they know a generic “Looks good” or “That’s nice.”  They can see right through such comments.  And even if it is genuine, its not personal.

Really look at what she created.  Find something specific that you like about it and comment on that aspect.  “Great detail work on the _____.”  “Those colors really make _____ stand out.”  “I especially like ______.”  And even if you can’t find something you genuinely like to point out, you can still make sincere positive comments.  “I can tell you spent a lot of time on _______ part.”  “”My eye is drawn to ______.”  Just take the time to really look at her piece and respond.  It will go a long way to encouraging her.

Display his work proudly.  When he was young I’m guessing his work was always on the fridge or taped up in his room.  As they get older we don’t seem to do this as much.  But I say bust out those fridge magnets!  Hanging or displaying his work says, “I’m proud of this.”  Again Pinterest has many ideas for displaying artwork.

If you fight clutter in your house, remember a piece doesn’t have to be displayed for 10 years.  Have a place on a shelf for 3D projects, when something new comes along replace something else.  Even ask which one he would like you to take down.  Or you could get one of these frames where you can easily switch out artwork for display.

Respect her privacy if she doesn’t want to show her work.  Sometimes art is private.  She may not want to share what she is working on.  And you definitely don’t want her to not create for fear that someone might see and judge her work.  So if you have a child who wants her sketchbook to be off limits, then respect that wish.  You don’t read her diary, do you?  Eventually she may feel secure enough to share.

Enroll in a class or workshop where he can learn skills to build confidence back.  A good teacher can really help a student grow.  I, as an art teacher, know those students who need the extra explanation or encouragement.  I know which students I need to keep a close eye on as far as their confidence in completing an assignment.  Especially in classes with small numbers, students can really get the attention they need.  Classes are a great setting for success!

Painting workshops are all the rage right now.  You know the ones I mean.  You go to the workshop and everyone paints the same picture.  A simple painting that someone walks you through each step.  There is absolutely no experience necessary and you end up with a pretty good looking finished piece.  For kids who have lost confidence, this is also a great opportunity to give them success!


Have you tried to combat the “I can’t…”?  What have you found to be successful?

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Welcome to my adventures in teaching Art outside of the public school system. I’ll share our projects and challenge myself and you to continually improve. So glad you stopped by!

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