did you start teaching art in the fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, or nineties? What was the world like when you began to teach? You might say, "things were quite different then." Do you recall your first painting lesson? Art sure has changed since then. With a new century beginning, we all feel a sense of urgency to reexamine our teaching. No one has the definitive answer for teaching painting to children, since painting itself needs to be constantly reevaluated and reinvented. Each approach has to keep the subject open and challenging for students to freshly define. I look for painting ideas in children's playing and in their playful handling of all objects and media. Children who come to the art class have had many painting related experiences at home which they seldom view as valuable art acts. In fact, their painting discoveries are often the best clues to the future of art. Children's painting interests are different from those of adults; and what children find exciting about the painting act and the materials of painting are valuable sources for art instruction.
Tell them I can't paint, Ana keeps reminding me, while I write his article. For the past decade, my daughter, now age 14, has been my constant source of inspiration for my teaching and my books. She is more often recognized at conventions than I am. Needless to say, Ana enjoys her celebrity status and thinks of herself as an artist. So when a young artist speaks, I listen, "I can't paint regularly, Dad; I can paint like you, but not the real way." Now that she had offended her father the painter, I had to hear more. Ana felt that she could not paint as she was required in school, working from photographs and coached by examples from the old masters. fortunately, Ana did not discard her vast color collection, return my brushes, or demonstrate less enthusiasm for using her paints at home. She comtinued to create free abstractions on her nails with her 123 prized nail polish colors She built an enviable collection of Snapple drinks and peeled the labels, so that each exciting liquid color could be enjoyed. She continued to paint her phone, her new boom-box and tennis shoes, and just about any inviting canvas in her room. To her this was not "real" painting. After we sat down to what Ana calls, "one of our boring art talks," I decided to write this paper. Instead of arguing with Ana about what painting is and what it's not, I showed her video takes of our elementary school classes in which children learn to discover for themselves new boundaries for painting.
Each video excerpt contains a demonstration of alternative ways to approach painting. The demonstrations are choreographed into playful skits. Each performance is designed to invite new ways of thinking about painting and for students to expand the performance through experimentation. By acting as the art forms' founders and inventors, we see children who are able to think of the unusual in tools, techniques, and painting surfaces. Painting plays allow leaping beyond ordinary painting visions so young artists can paint in ways they've never painted before.
Each video excerpt contains questions designed to conjure up images of unusual ways to make and envision painting. The ability to "silly talk" about painting loosens up existing views and enables children to build new visions for painting. Discussions based on each question promote thinking about paint ing in ways the children have never thought of before. Talking about new possibilities offers a fresh license to artists of the future.
After 30 years in my own classroom, I still hear the certainty in the voices of my teachers when it came to assignments or criticism. I understood as a student that they knew all there was to know about painting and art. Art was not presented as a mystery with rich complexity, something to search for in each experience, and throughout one's artistic life. Yet a sequentially designed art curriculum that does not include, or perhaps even begin with, questioning what painting, design concepts, or notions of appreciation could be, oversimplifies art and handicaps future practitioners. Art is misrepresented when it is taught only as old knowledge and ways of working, a series of discovered formulas, principles, steps, and ideas illustrated by works already done by others. Part of all art instruction must be the understanding that art has not been discovered for us, that we need to discover it, and the challenge is to question and seek our own answers. Every lesson in an art classroom can be designed to empower young artists with the excitement of questioning art and the confidence necessary for a lifetime of investigating the new.
The following sections describe performances, and questions, which open up children's views on painting and try to capture the excitement of being an innovator in this media.
Take One: Liquid Paintings
With clear plastic cups in hand, children wait for colors to be poured. Some cover their ears from the noise of the juicer on the counter which spews out bright orange and, later, a vivid red. The teacher, wearing an apron and a paper chefs hat, pours colors for tasting. Juice colors are mixed in a blender, and brave souls even ask for a taste test. Our most exciting color finds are bottled in clear juice containers and set up as paintings; rows of bottled colors line the counter. Our palette is extended by collecting Snapple fruit drinks. For further inspiration, we look through a collection of mouthwashes and other bottled "colors."
Can a painting be sipped through a straw? Can a painting be made of liquids? Can paintings be bottled? Can juice colors be composed into a paint ing? Could a painting be frozen? What other colors could be juiced, or blended to make paintings? Can paintings be made to be edible? How could it be done? In our classes, a large collection of plastic see-through bottles, jars, and bags are made available to 25 classroom chemists who combine ingredients using flea-market mixers and blenders. We not only drink to new color inventions, we also select containers and create settings to display them. Our examples and discussions uncover the future of painting.
Take Two: Color Collections
"For deposits only," reads a bright sign posted over a large wheeled storage unit that has a slot cut out on the top like a mailbox. Each day children make contributions of interesting color finds: a new colored Post it pad, an unusually colored rock, wire, button, or comb. By the end of the week, students can hardly wait to open the container and sort through its contents. On Fridays, we feature a weekly color store using the children's pocket color collections. Color finds from the environment such as, sidewalk pieces, buttons, and circuit board parts are placed into clear containers such as baseball card holders, name tag pockets, slide sheets and added pin, or magnetic backings to wear or display. Color cards collected from paint stores are kept in an album. Children rescue an object because they like its color. In our store, collectors set up sample jars and use Ziploc bags or portable cork boards to display colors.
Can a painting be made up of a million tiny, colored pieces? What would these colored pieces be? Could a painting be put together and taken apart like a puzzle? Could a painting be put inside a box or earned along in a collector's case? Can a painting be a special, found object consisting of a single color? Could a painting have moving parts and be sewn or held together with Velcro? Could you describe such a painting? Young collectors' color finds suggest new ways of making a painting. Students learn by creating color displays and trading color samples. Color
collectors are encouraged to use their choices and work with their color discoveries, and build their color displays into paintings.
Take Three: Object Painters
Similar to a Cristo-like form ready for unwrapping, a large object stands in the middle of the art room. The young painter whose work it is anxiously awaits the opening ceremony. When the cover is removed, we see an outdoor bench, freshly painted bright green. It is "hunter green" the young artist explains, showing the many color samples she required to make her decision. The young artist was none other than Ana. She also brought along her favorite hand rollers and sponge brushes which she used on the bench. I shared pictures from my valet of our steel gray railing and other painting tasks Ana participated in. Children are joyful object painters who don't mind being called upon to do house painting.
Can a painting have a door? Can it have wheels? Can you sit on a painting? Can painting a chair, or bench, really produce an artwork? What evidence can we find that painting real objects has always been a part of art? What other furnishings can serve as an interesting canvas? How can one describe the differences between paint ing an object and painting a picture? Home painting chores are creative opportunities for children to discover new canvases, new opportunities to color parts of the environment. In video surveys of children's rooms, we find custom-painted toys, school supplies, clothing, appliances, and furnishings. There is a sense of excitement in being able to redress one's object world, to repaint one's switch plate, mirror frame, sneakers, or garbage can. Our art room sometimes looks like a thrift shop, in its stocking of old appliances, chairs, and picture frames-all awaiting a fresh paint job.
Take Four: Getting into Color
A cup of coffee and a Tupperware container of paint sit on the teacher's desk. He talks about color as he merrily dunks his doughnut into coffee. The children think the teacher is absentminded as he continues speaking and dips the pastry into paint, then makes beautiful paint marks on a white paper tablecloth. Paints in mugs just like the teacher's coffee mug are set out on students' tables, also covered with white paper tablecloths. Instead of donuts on the students' tables, there are puzzle pieces, chewing gum, popcorn, Q Tips, and other small items available for dunking. Tweezers and phototongs of all sizes are available to bathe objects in colors. The children are excited about arranging the freshly-painted forms and testing their impressions on the white tablecloths.
Can a canvas be dipped in colors) instead of painted over? Is this a valid way to make a painting? Can objects be freshly dipped into colors and arranged to become a painting? Could a painting be made by rolling objects through puddles of color? What could be dipped, bounced, or rolled through paints? Can pressing painted forms against a canvas be a new way of paint ing? It is not that children want to upset adults by getting into paints; it's just that paints are difficult to resist Colors are fun to touch. In our art class, dunking and dipping fingers, spoons, and rubber bands are allowed. A brush, baster, chopstick, glove, or fingers are means of transporting paint from one "container" (a paint jar), to another (a canvas). In our classes, we think of a canvas as a container, and children discover new ways to fill it.
Take Five: Painting With Objects
I love brightly-colored socks, and I select them as enthusiastically as my paints. I brought my dresser drawers to school, so you could help me organize them. I confess that I spend a long time trying to decide how my socks should be arranged in each drawer. The children are amazed to see such an extensive sock collection laid out in five drawers. A video camera, set on a tripod, smiles over students eagerly arranging the teacher's colored socks.
Can a painting be in a drawer? Can a drawer be a canvas? How is the artists canvas like a container? What other containers would make great canvases? Students fantasize about arranging their color collections on plates, in trays, inside suitcases, and on shelves. Can paintings be made with objects or does one have only to use brushes in order to paint? Students envision paintings as collections and arrangements of beautifully colored objects and canvases as being exciting containers. New painting ideas can be rehearsed and student ideas taken seriously.
Take Six: Painting as Display
Table setting artists wanted! A sign in the art room invites eager volunteers, with previous experience, to line up before a well-stocked wall cabinet `fhe cabinet is ablaze with multicolored plates, cups, paper napkins, colorful plastic straws, kitchen utensils, and a wide range of place mats in many colors. Each long art table wears a different colored tablecloth and has been prepared for display artists. Metallic colors of Post-it pads are available to sign each canvas. I share a slide portfolio of children's table settings made in our home, using multi-colored Fiesta ware.
Could setting a table be considered painting? Can arranging beautifully colored flowers in a vase be displayed as painting? What other colored objects would be interesting to set out on tables? Would tablecloth painting be an artwork in itself? Displays, like getting dressed each morning, are planned color events. Other color displays, like the arrangement of car colors within a parking lot are chance displays. What other home chores involve color choices and displays?
Take Seven: Painting the Town Purple
On an outdoor walk, the camera follows students armed with superwide paint brushes, long, white-haired rollers, giant textured car wash sponges, and other choice commercial painting tools. Students stop to moisten their brushes in imaginary colors. They freely describe, point to roofs, columns, stairs, doors, chimneys, and other outdoor canvases they are repainting. For our imaginations nothing is unreachable, nothing is too tall or too large to recoat in unusual colors. The outdoor painting crew offers fantastic descriptions of freshly painted surfaces, and how it affects the street. There is a sense of artistic power in being able to paint everything on a street, being able to transform the environment through painting acts. A recording secretary takes note of all our jobs, not to hand the city a bill, but to identify all outdoor canvases tagged.
Artists have always been inspired to paint from the landscape. Could paint ing the landscape itself be a form of painting? Which outdoor canvases would be the largest and most exciting on which to work? Painting ideas quickly spread beyond school paper boundaries, as we consider repainting light poles, bridges, and highway exit ramps. Green roofs and yellow driveways are new visions for familiar places. Students dream about a wide range of new painting tools, could a street striping machine be a painting tool? Back indoors, in the art room, color changes become pronounced after students wrap up walls, floors, furnishings, garbage cans, and the sink in white papers. Painting is explored on different indoor canvases. Wrapping and draping are a means of opening indoor canvases for painting.
Take Eight: The Dissection
On a white pillow, illuminated by bright surgical lights, lies our patient. An elderly paint brush is surrounded by scissors, pliers, tweezers, and other improvised surgical tools. As students gather around the operating theater, the art teacher, in a white lab coat, passes around surgical masks. We are ready to dissect the paint brush and question a major tradition in painting. As the silver bristle case is opened, the wood handle separates from thousands of tiny contact points. What an incredible invention, this tool has been in the history of civilization.
Considering the basic parts we examine in our hands, could one really improve on this basic art tool? Could we reassemble the "patient" in other ways? Students begin to fantasize about new brush forms which may change future art. Children eagerly pull out tiny toolbox drawers and scout the art room for new handles and different things they can attach to handles. Could we remote control a brush? Could chewing gum be stuck to chopsticks in order to make a new brush combination? The address of the U.S. Patent Office is listed on the board, as we begin research and development
Take Nine: An Homage to Brushing
My students were surprised to see me with a towel slung around my shoulder, disheveled hair, and wearing pajamas. I headed towards the sink with my morning brushes: a toothbrush, a hair brush, a shaving brush, and a shoe polish brush. "There was no hot water at home," I explained, "so I have to do my brushing in school." From this class act, students begin to make connections between daily brushes, brushing, and painting. I offer students the use of my personal brushes for painting. Toothbrushes are dipped into paint, and everyone is reminded to brush the way the tool was intended for use.
What other brushes, large and small, do we use in our homes? How can a non-art brush change the attitude of the user and the appearance of the art? For our next painting session, school brushes are replaced by scrub brushes, porcelain and bottle scrubbers, floor and window cleaning tools, vacuum cleaner brushes, combs, and make up tools. The size, shape, and form of each specialty tool suggests new art uses. Students demonstrate new brushing techniques to each other never before used by artists.
Take Ten: New Art Shows
Children quickly notice that their teacher is wearing gloves to class. Even though there is nothing visible on the walls, the unveiling of ten new paintings is announced. Everyone is invited to the exhibit. Artists celebrate with food, as snacks are passed around for the opening of the art show. A spotlight is turned on as each glove is slowly and separately removed to reveal tiny nail polish paintings on each finger. Although American paint ings tend to be large, children often prefer to work on small, non-traditions canvases. Each home contains scores of colors young artists can explore, colors never found in art supply stores Whiteout, shoe polish, nail polish-artists discover unique places to paint and new ways to display their art.
Will galleries of the future have paintings on the wall or will artists be wearing paintings? Young children car make everything they create wearable Ask students to survey unique paints and unique surfaces where children work at home. How are they exhibited In a recent video study of a child's room-instead of pictures in frames-- we noticed silver party trays, fast food trays, and a plastic soda crate hanging on the wall. Each frame idea container its own painting, or colored objects on display. Children create art shows in doll houses, discover new display cases in fish and tackle boxes and create glass galleries inside aquariums or on their window. If we take children's display ideas seriously, art exhibits may never be the same.
Implementation in Schools
In every elementary school there are groups of very special teachers who value the unique qualities of childhood, who are amazed by the fantasies and creative abilities of young artists and who are dedicated to preserving those abilities. A newly arriving graduate student from China gave me a gift folio of photos, depicting his classes. Imagine my surprise to see the children in these photos constructing paintings inside Hula Hoops, arranging colored objects on hop-scotch squares, and weaving painted strings between the legs of tipped tables. I also noticed tastefully arranged paintings of flowers around the room, executed in a traditional style. Ming-Fu Wu explained that these were required subjects in his school system. Close-ups of the still lifes revealed not ordinary flowers, but the strokes of lively and energetic movers. Since my text, The Art of Teaching Art, was published in the Chinese language this year, I have been receiving a steady stream of photos and letters from readers in Chinese-speaking countries. It has been fantastic to find teachers in the most rigid school systems interested and able to support children's unique creative plays, collections, and art. Teachers welcoming our experimental art teaching have kept strong connections to their own childhoods and are energized in the company of young visionaries, kids with an endless stream of great ideas. These teachers are able to have fun with kids, to learn from them, to value their collections, interests, inventions. Teachers implementing experimental art recognize the importance of altering school rooms, moods, and routines to promote children functioning as young artists and independent investigators.
A secret to installing a creative program in any size class or school is perhaps best expressed by an art teacher in our project who returned to school this year. She notes how much more independence her returning students had compared to her newer students:
My kids come in and they are ready to shop and experiment; they know where to find great stuff and how to use it. They know I will be interested in their finds and experiments. The new kids just sit and wait for every thing to be brought to them. My kids are already empowered by the trust of the art teacher and are able to act as independently and purposefully as any adult artist. To preserve children's independent spirit of investigation that they often bring from home playing is the most important ability I can give to future artists. Besides, I have the largest elementary school in the county, and in practical terms I could not lead a creative art class if my students could not independently function as artists. Children always have an abundance
of great ideas for the special objects they find around the house. Although artists discover inspiration from many sources, ideas emanating from object finds and material experiments can easily be stimulated in every art class room. In our classes, an old library card-catalogue-file, a rolling dental tool cabinet, vintage trunks and store display units are constantly restocked with unusual items for art class shoppers. Each shopping site encourages student ideas where objects speak to children. Every bin, tray, or hat box is set up for choices. The more drawers, pockets, or secret compartments a container has the more it invites discovery and serious art plans. Unusual wrappers, and secret hiding places such as the teachers many pockets, spur children's artistic shopping. All art rooms can be opened to satisfy material curiosities, to start collections, and to practice playful visions into the many lives and uses of each found form.
A Parting Image
Children have a natural attraction to color and painting. Their interests range from being serious color collectors and arrangers of colored objects, exuberant color mixers and inventors, to constant explorers looking for surfaces to decorate with new paints. The future of painting may be best observed in children's art today. Exploring the future of painting needs to be more than a show of adult examples, suggesting that adult artists have already discovered and chartered the future of art. Art teaching for our next century has to empower a brave and confident generation of artists who are excited about the role of being a seeker of new art. We need to design experiences of doing and questioning that capture children's futuristic imaginations, that are memorable as well as challenging to the boundary-breaking instincts of children. In our classes we don't do boring art talks. Laughter often accompanies our dramatizations and fantastic inquiries. While we laugh, we also dream up ideas that will build the next century in painting.
Szekely, G. (1988) Encouraging creativity in art lessons. New York: Teachers College.
Szekely, G. (1991) From play to art. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Szekely, G. (1998) The art of teaching art. Needham, MA: Simon and Schuster.
George Szekely is Senior Professor and Area Head of Art Education, University of Kentucky, Lexington.…