On Painting With a Young Child

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Squeezing new tube watercolors on to a disposable palette is always a joyful event. The pure white ground of the palette; the individual paint piles of cadmium red, and blue, a bit of cyan, a larger pile of white, and of course black. But under the close and careful watch of an excited 3-year-old, the activity is almost sacred. "Yes, the red." "Oooh, the green. My favorite color." "Lots of white." Approvingly, "Black." We are artists we two, this small boy and his grandmother. We have been discussing our shared status as we settle into the tiny lakeside cottage and approach our painting. I caution, "This is my studio, and we must take care of our tools." The sacredness is in the ritual of it all.

I remember a summer afternoon years before my grandson was even a possibility in the life of my son. A 3-year-old girl, the child of a dear friend, came to sit close by as I painted on a Martha's Vineyard beach. Could she, if she was very careful, paint alongside me? Her meticulousness was impressive. She dutifully and repeatedly washed her brush, just as I had instructed, before dipping it into any of the colorful piles of pigment.

My grandson began with such care. As his brush touched fresh paper, each color was clean. A ball of yellow lined steadily with blue, then green. With each stroke, his visible response to the image he was creating mounted. A smile at the appearance of the first color, a purposefulness about the application of the next. There was now, without a doubt, a need for red. His brush, with a bit more wantonness than any stroke before, hit the water and then the mound of red and, with emphatic gestural freedom, finally, the paper that was carefully mounted on his easel.

With such a gorgeous stroke, the red spilled from tidily delineated sphere to perpendicular drip. Three-year-olds don't even need the pep talk that "every mistake is on purpose." Without missing a beat, Emerson turned the drip into a powerful downstroke. Interacting with his developing image, he remarked, "I am making a lollypop."

Beyond the colorful center image, another sphere emerged. A muddier circle (the palette was losing its integrity) boasted outbursts of rays embracing a smiling sun. "The sun is out. There is water everywhere." The brush, now without a dip in the water cup, moved with aquatic undulations across the page from left to right, obscuring the clarity of the discrete forms.

How many times as an art teacher in the '60s had I wanted to rip the half-done paintings off the easels of 4-year-olds, before the young artists went on with the undifferentiated gestural stories that ultimately resulted in a muddy painted page?

"And across the water there are fishes," Emerson explained, his pace quickening and the image growing progressively more overall brown. "The fishes are swimming fast," he articulated with enthusiasm growing so great that almost in spite of himself he abandoned his brush and dipped his whole hand into the cup of water that held the brushes.

His wet hand now a tool, Emerson swept his fingers across the muddy paper palette and then across his painting. Practically euphoric at the image (which appeared more like a giant smudge than a dense narrative and gestural account), Emerson declared, "My painting is done. Hang it on the ceiling of the cottage."

I had tried to work in parallel motion, tried to share the palette and the space. As Emerson became lost in his story and the medium, I tried to adjust to the progressively more limited choices offered by our shared and muddying palette. With an eye to the mountains and trees out the window, I had tried to balance my need for representation with the gestural freedom of my grandson.

I looked down at the tidy image I had begun to construct. Anyone could see the careful application of blue water edged with small dark trees in one section against a shadowy hill. My planning was evident. It would be easy to return after a break of hours or days to my predictable piece.

Emerson's work, however, was done. Complete from start to finish in the process of creation, his muddy brown paper would tell no viewer of the progression from sphere to landscape (perhaps influenced by what was happening on my page?) to unified activity between impressionistic fish strokes and feverish young artist.

Are we not as educators just veteran artists hanging out with the very young in hopes of reclaiming early gifts?

Looking at the final smudge, I saw more. The layers of color. The movement and texture. With no eye to this final impression, Emerson had created an image far more interesting than mine. Even in assigning the final work a place on the ceiling (no mention of refrigerator doors), Emerson had broken the rules for art--the predictable expectations for what is made and for what and where.

There is much that Emerson will gain, if he keeps painting: techniques, control of tools and media, and differing criteria for when a work is "done." But if he is like other children developing in their artwork, he will move from this layered, gestural composite of narrative, color, and form to more stereotypical images, self-consciously monitored by cultural constraints. When Picasso said he had painted all his life like Raphael so that one day he could paint like children, he had someone like Emerson in mind.

How can we retain the fearlessness of and passion for materials, the confidence and fluidity of creation, the synthetic process of making and finding meaning in marks--the total involvement in it all?

As the two of us drag an old guitar out into the sun to move on to some early morning songs, I am less aware of my losses as an adult than I am enlarged and exhilarated by my association with this child's process. Why do we teach? Are we not as educators just veteran artists hanging out with the very young in hopes of reclaiming early gifts? Or is the sharing of such brilliance, even on occasional moments, not sufficient impetus for it all?

Jessica Hoffmann Davis is the director of arts in education at Harvard University's graduate school of education in Cambridge, Mass.

Vol. 18, Issue 27, Pages 57-58

Published in Print: March 17, 1999, as On Painting With a Young Child
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