Super-Frugal Ways to Encourage Your Child’s Artistic Ability

After-school classes can put a real drain on families’ budgets, and with the slow parenting movement gaining momentum, some parents are taking a stand against over-scheduling for philosophical reasons too.

Yet it’s hard to totally step away and let our children run free, especially if they seem drawn to a discipline like art, or we want to redirect some of that creative, messy energy into something constructive.

To help me wade through some of these questions, I thought of Bill Zeman, artist, friend, father and author of the recently-released Tiny Art Director.

Published this spring by Chronicle Books, Tiny Art Director tells through pictures (and few words) of the tete-a-tete between an artist and his adorably grouchy toddler.   The two-year-old art director, whose sweet, pixie looks belie her pugnacious spirit, orders her uber-talented and clearly adoring father to draw various scenarios (often involving dragons). Presented with the masterpieces, she offers her critique (usually biting disapproval) in hysterical one-liners that prove that truth really is funnier than fiction.

My husband and children — aged 39 to 2 — all get a huge kick out of this pint-sized book.  Another thing I love about it?  The price is just as mini: you can get it for just $10 at Amazon, a perfect fit for Father’s Day.

Stay tuned after the interview for a chance to win an autographed copy of Tiny Art Director.  And for even more laughs from Bill and his demanding little elf, see the Tiny Art Director blog.

Interview with Artist Bill Zeman

Frugal Mama: When parents want to encourage a child’s interest in art, we often think of classes.  But are there less costly and simpler ways to support a budding artist?

Bill Zeman: Absolutely. You can spend incredible amounts of money on art supplies and classes, but you can also get your kids engaged, help them develop skills, and get great results very cheaply.

Classes can be pretty cool, especially if they teach a specific skill or work towards a big project like a claymation film, or like some I’ve taught where we made a deck of game cards (like Pokemon), or a group comic book. But even if you are using classes as daycare after school, they can still be expensive.

Frugal Mama: Phew, I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks so. Can you give parents a little guidance on where to start?

Bill Zeman: Because we live in a small apartment and don’t have room to store a lot of projects, I always push the kids towards flat art – drawing and painting – rather than any three-dimensional projects.

But even motivated little artists will get bored of just paper and crayons, so I try to give them interesting or unusual materials to work on. Two of my (and their) favorites are free.

First, if you ever get those shiny white shirt boards with clothing or something you buy, hang on to them. Sharpies or other black permanent markers look great on them and the result is very satisfying. Just don’t forget to protect the table where they are working with some junk mail catalogs or something.

The next thing is brown paper bags or cardboard. Cut a nice flat panel out of a bag or a box from the recycling. That natural brown paper is a perfect midtone so they can use black and white to great effect. Markers, pens, colored pencils, or even crayons will work well, but try giving them just black and white for a dramatic result. For older kids you can encourage them to think about shadows and highlights rather than simple outlines as well.

Frugal Mama: Wonderful. I love these no-cost and resourceful ideas. If parents were to buy real supplies, what is worth spending money on?

Bill Zeman: Painting is one thing that almost always excites my kids. It’s messy, interesting, and feels like a special event. They especially love mixing colors.

I have tried a lot of different kinds of paint and methods, but in the end we have settled on watercolor and I highly recommend it. It’s much more economical because the dry paints last a long time, and cleanup is a breeze (although some colors do stain).

I also think kids get better results with watercolor than they do with acrylics or poster paint, because watercolors are so transparent. I encourage them to do a preliminary drawing in pencil and the transparency allows the pencil to show through. Since they have much more control with a pencil than a brush, that preserves the definition of the drawing.

Frugal Mama: I’m so relieved you didn’t suggest tubs of poster paint! Watercolors are totally doable and unintimidating, and the pencil drawing underneath is a good idea.  It can be hard — for anyone — to create a scene with a brush alone.

Bill Zeman: Yes, and you can get everything you need for good watercolor sessions pretty cheaply. For the paints you can totally get away with the cheap kids sets. Just look for ones with more colors and mixing trays built in to the lid. Keep in mind that they almost always come with white, which is useless (encourage them to make lighter colors by mixing in more water instead of using white).

Also some sets come with decent brushes and some with brushes that are complete junk. If you get one of those you really should consider spending 2 to 5 dollars at an art supply store on a decent smallish flat or round synthetic bristle brush.

After that you need paper towels or napkins and a water bucket. I use old take-out containers for the water, and I collect napkins that would otherwise be thrown away from wherever I find them.

The last thing is the paper, and while typing paper is fine, and probably the best everyday solution, a real watercolor paper is absorbent and gives a great result.

The best affordable option for this is to buy the cheapest grade of full sheet watercolor paper you can find and cut it up into smaller pieces. A full sheet is usually 22” x 30” so you can get 8 sheets out of one. I have found good quality full sheets for $1.00 each, so at 12.5 cents each it’s still something you’ll want to reserve for special paintings.

Frugal Mama: Once again, I love how you find ways to reuse everyday materials. For the real supplies, can you suggest a good online source?

Bill Zeman: Personally I love Pearl Paint, but I was just checking prices and Dick Blick looks a little cheaper and has a good range of the watercolor papers I was talking about.

Frugal Mama: Okay. Let’s talk about the more unpredictable human element for a moment. What if you get your child all set up with these great supplies and he says he doesn’t know what to draw?

Bill Zeman: Well, that will definitely happen and of course if you let them know how much you want them to do it, you’re sunk, so it’s always a fine line of finding what motivates them. For my 5-year-old (the tiny art director), she’s currently obsessed with horses so I’ve been suggesting that she observe her toys and draw from those. This has worked out really well and gives her a sense of pride as well.

For any age, self-portraits are really great. Just set up a mirror on the table with them. Again this teaches observation and I just think it’s a great exercise for anyone.

Finally some kids are going to be more interested in stories or characters, such as superheroes. You can walk them through doing a comic book, or even just a few panels by listening to their story ideas and repeating them back to them. Somehow hearing it from you lends it your authority and helps them solidify their own ideas. They will need your help to break the events of their stories into scenes, one panel per scene, and if your kids are like mine, you’ll have to walk a fine line between encouragement and pressure, but the results are really fun.

Frugal Mama: Speaking of encouragement and pressure, if you believe your child might have some real artistic talent, do you think formal instruction is the best way to nurture it?   If so, is there another option besides classes, like an instructive book or something?

Bill Zeman: I think the key thing for most young artists, at least up until middle school or high school, is to stay interested. Learning about materials and techniques is secondary to exercising their creativity and just drawing.

The only skills I would really push are observation and maybe basic design (photography is great for teaching composition and digital photos are free!). There are some great how-to-draw books for various techniques, but in general I would use those more as motivation than instruction.

Frugal Mama: And finally, for the skeptic in all of us, why is art important for kids?

Bill Zeman: I think about that all the time (for adults too), and I think there are tremendous benefits even for kids who won’t maintain an interest in art later in life.

For pre-literate kids, art is a terrific way to express themselves and communicate, and I think it helps them make sense of their world.

I love watching the way kids’ understanding of the human body develops over the months and years, from those wonderful crazy pictures with hands and feet coming out of their heads to slowly figuring out how to draw a whole person. The eye-hand coordination and understanding of symbols is also very valuable.

One of my favorite things about kids and art though, is the way it gives them confidence – not just in their drawing ability — but because they are in control of the world they create on the page. This lets them work through their anxieties and fears (by drawing monsters and dinosaurs) and lets them get a sense of their own abilities and power.

Frugal Mama: Thank you so much, Bill, for these valuable thoughts and ideas.  If people want to find out more about you and your projects, they can visit the Tiny Art Director blog.

Win a Free Autographed Copy of Tiny Art Director

For a chance to win a signed copy of the Tiny Art Director, just tell three friends about Frugal Mama and then come back and let me know in the comments section below that you’d like to be entered in the contest.  All entries must be received by midnight, next Tuesday, June 15.  A winner will be chosen by comment number via third-party random number generator,, and announced on Wednesday, June 16.

Thank you to Bill Zeman and Chronicle Books for the interview and give-away copy of Tiny Art Director.

Share this post:


  • Renelle Musielak-Legos June 11, 2010, 4:56 pm

    I’d love to be entered in the contest! I’ve been dying for this book for so long!

  • Katherine Lally June 11, 2010, 4:23 pm

    My goodness that is so sweet. I’d love to be entered. It reminds me sort of what my mom would do — she would start to draw and then we would fill in what should be added to each scene.

  • Tamiko Nimura June 11, 2010, 1:57 pm

    I retweeted the Chronicle Books tweet about this post–and have more than 3 followers. I hope this counts. I love this post and look forward to reading more, both about the book and on this blog!

  • Candy June 10, 2010, 9:11 pm

    Another very informative posting. You are amazing when it comes to finding great topics.
    Please enter me in the drawing.

  • tegan zimmerman June 10, 2010, 10:37 am

    i’ve been following TAD since the beginning- I adore his simple and unique style of writing, incredible art and most of all his humor! I’d love to be entered. Thank You!

  • Alex June 10, 2010, 10:33 am

    Hi. I love the ideas you offered. I can’t wait to try some watercolors with my kids.

    I’d like to be entered in the drawing, please.

  • Nikki June 10, 2010, 10:20 am

    I found out about this through Mister Zeman’s facebook update, so I went back to the source and posted about this article there!

    Thank you for the opportunity to be entered in a contest! I’m a brand new reader, but I am loving this blog so far.

  • Lol Fow June 10, 2010, 10:16 am

    Thanks for the great website, and it’s great you had Tiny Art Director here! I’ve forwarded this article to a bunch of friends – it’s terrific.

    (Please enter me in the contest!)

  • EMO June 10, 2010, 2:23 am

    I’d like to be entered. Thank you!