Our cultural history is filled with artists who have distinguished themselves at an early age, across all backgrounds. The 12th-century Chinese artist Wang Ximeng made his only surviving work – considered a masterpiece – before the age of 18, and died at 23. The 18th-century Swiss painter Angelica Kaufman was only 13 when she drew the world’s attention. More recently, UK artist Keron Williamson was dubbed the “mini Monet” by the age of 8.
All these artists came to prominence after years of work, having started as young children, like Emilie Barton. In many cases these child artists show a combination of natural aptitude combined with parental guidance. Two of the most famous child prodigies, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Pablo Picasso, are classic examples of natural talent nurtured by a guiding adult hand.
It seems that early encouragement in the arts can lead to early accomplishment. But why should the rest of us, who are not gifted with genius, care?
According to psychologist Alison Gopnik, we should care because encouraging children to be creative on their own is allowing them to be who they have been programmed to be by nature. In her research, she has found that four- and five-year-olds apply the same mental discipline and tactics in problem solving that successful adult scientists do, without prompting. Other researchers have noted that musical aptitude peaks at age 8 or 9. Creativity is innate in us. According to Gopnik, it is the very reason humans have a much longer childhood than other mammals. In terms of evolutionary psychology, our extended childhood allows us more time to learn, explore, innovate and be creative.
Successful child artists make the best use of this extra time. According to educators, other children would benefit from artistic education in their early years, too. Research has shown that children who study and practice art report far less anxiety and much greater focus.
The lesson? Start early, when you are more naturally inclined to creativity, and keep going. You may not be a genius, but you’ll feel better.