Saturday, January 20, 2007

Thoughts on Making Art With Children and Flow; Had Fun Painting With The Kids The Other Night

Last Sunday I went to A.C. Moore because they were having a sale on 2 oz. acrylic craft paints, priced at three for $1 (they are usually about 99 cents each). I picked out 15 paints in colors that we have run out of or that are new to us to play around with.

When I got home after having such a bad weekend I decided I wanted to play with the paints right then and there. I asked the kids if they wanted to paint also as it has been months since they painted with acrylic paints. They wholeheartedly agreed yes, they would like to play and make art with me.

I used to do a lot more art projects and kid-centered, “process-not-the-product” art and crafts with my kids. But as my older son got older and both began doing more outside classes we are home less often and stopped making the time for doing arts and crafts, especially those that make a mess such that often the clean up is nearly equal to the amount of time it takes to do the project (which is the type of thing we used to do nearly on a daily basis).

I covered the kitchen table with old newspapers that I pulled out of the recycle bin. I warned the kids that if any acrylic paint got on their clothes we’d have to wash it out while it is still wet lest it stain.

I grabbed some oversized heavy drawing paper for them to paint on. I made a suggestion that they try for the first time, to lightly sketch a drawing in pencil then to fill it in with paint afterward. They did this and they painted away. (In the past they complained that it was hard to ‘draw’ with the paintbrush which was loaded with paint.)

To avoid wasted paint I squeezed the paints out of the tubes for my kids. They either have weak hand muscles or they have poor judgment of measurement, because if left to their own devices they pour out way too much paint then they can use. Although the paints are non-toxic I have read they are not so great to wash down the drain and to put into the environment.

We use the little 99 cent paint palettes from the craft store. I give them free reign to pick the colors that they want to use. They paint with cheap brushes from the craft store. On this night I showed them the difference in painting with a flat brush than a rounded tip brush. They then could use the right brush for the effect they were trying to accomplish. What I do is give them information or a tip and then it is up to them to decide whether they want to use the new knowledge or not. I don’t push or force them. They also have freedom to draw or paint whatever object or abstract painting that they desire; I don’t dictate to them what they have to do.

I ended up so busy with helping them and rinsing wet paint out of a shirt that I didn’t get to do much painting (but I was not angry about it). I made only three large paintings that will serve as backgrounds for future artist trading cards (on watercolor paper).

I then took the leftover paint from the kids and used that to make more backgrounds for artist trading cards. I tried a new-to-me technique of using a credit card sample from junk mail to smear the paint onto the blank paper in random swipes. I actually tried two methods. One was to splatter the paint randomly on the paper and then to smear it. The other was to dip the sample credit card into the paint and to smear it on where I wanted it to go. The result is an abstract painting type look. One son told me that one of them is especially ugly. Oh well. It was his leftover paint that I was trying to use up. (Actually after it was cut up into artist trading card size they looked great, I think.)

Another way to use old paint rather than to pour it down the drain or put it into the landfill is to swipe it on brown paper bags and to use those papers later in making collages. For example smear a bunch of left over blue paint onto the paper bag then later cut shapes out of that and make a collage with the shapes (think: the style of Eric Carle).

I then cleaned up the mess and we got on with the evening.

But then I realized the paintings that were drying on the floor looked a bit different, and suspected that one of the kittens had walked upon it. The purple paint on the bottoms of our male kitten’s paws proved this suspicion. Sigh.

The kids were in their glory, by the way. It made me realize that I need to make more time for making art together and getting into painting with them on a regular basis again.

The Way It Used To Be
Back when my husband was working he used to get home at 6:45pm. I used to time the day so that we’d eat together as a family as soon as he walked in the door. The kids would be antsy and bored a bit by about 5:00pm so nearly every day, I’d pull out arts and crafts at that time. No matter what testy mood they’d be in they’d lose themselves in the “flow” of creativity and they’d become quiet and content. They would make art like that for up to 90 minutes, working independently for the most part; while I played with them then they kept on while I was making dinner. They would use regular old play dough and clay tools, air drying clay, make collages out of scraps and junk mail, or they’d paint or use chalk pastels. We did this for years and it was a fun time for them. However when my husband became unemployed he was home more often and earlier and the whole routine was lost. I will always remember those quiet peaceful times of creativity, when my young children would be calmed by being allowed to experiment and play at making art.

I never minded the mess, I accepted that it would happen and just cleaned it up. At times my kids painted in their diapers or underwear so as to not stain their clothes. Other times they were so full of paint that a shower or bath was necessary to fully clean them up. The only thing they were not allowed to do was to wreck the house with hands full of paint or to take the art supplies out and all over the house. We had simple rules and reasonable limits and we all had a ball working within those parameters.

Since reading a little about the creative process of art making (about adults doing art) and reading about that state of “flow” that artists can achieve, I know what my kids were doing was getting into that flow state on a regular basis that calmed them down and made them happy.

I had not thought about the effect on children’s psyche while making art. Usually when one reads about making art with children it is about ‘art education’ and teaching them things, not about just having a feeling of happiness or benefiting from that wonderful state of flow that can be achieved.

Another negative thing that can happen with the art making with children thing is if the adult, parent or teacher is centered upon a final product and the adult guides or forces the child to make the project. Some of these projects are not fun for the child or beyond their physical (fine motor skill) developmental stages and the child must rely on the adult to do the actual work for them. That is more about making a final product than the process of making something. I am against any project done with young children in which the adult dreamed up the project (or is following directions from a book) and in which the adult basically tells the children step by step what to do in order to make the thing appear in a very specific way that was preconceived by the adult. I don’t think that is always fun for the child and they are not at all exercising their artistic or creative energies in that process. One caveat is that some children like to do projects which have a known result and they may like to follow the necessary steps to get to that end. However that kind of work is not exploring the child’s personal creativity, it is not about experimentation either and it doesn’t usually involve any imagination.

To me making art is primarily about exercising ones creativity and experimenting. I know first hand that some art projects are not pre-planned, they happen and unfold during the process itself. A person can start out with a general direction but often if they go with their instincts as the project unfolds a different result will happen and often, with pleasing results. Even if the final project is not perfect or not liked the person usually learns something about that artistic process or technique that can be tried again later in other ways, to practice, and pleasing results with the end product may happen at that time.

In fact some children get turned off on making art or crafts as they rebel against the overly intruding directions of the adult and also some perfectionist children lose self-esteem if they feel they can’t do the task as well as the adult can do. I suspect this is the reason why most boys beyond age 7 or 8 rarely make art on their own; they often do it only if forced to in school.

I don’t really feel much talent is used when I see an entire batch of work done in a classroom where the teacher told the kids what shape to make, what color to use, etc. This happens not just in public schools but in the Waldorf preschools. I don’t see anything original there and I think that is not the point of making art or even just experimenting with art in a very basic and rudimentary manner which the very youngest of children is capable of doing. One could argue that if the technique is being taught and if exposure to that technique is the goal then that exercise was good. However I don’t think most children are then given additional time to practice and make art with those same materials or using those techniques on their own, allowed to make what they want, when they want, to practice and have more control over the process. In other words they may try a certain technique in art class at school then never do it again. I can list techniques and processes that I learned in school which I’ve not repeated in school or at home, ever again.

If you are looking for a great book that covers this philosophy of art making for children aged from birth through age six, that is about the process not the product, then Susan Striker’s “Young At Art” is the perfect book for you.

I have not yet read the book “Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and I wonder if it addresses young children and flow. From my experience mothering my children and doing creative work with them I can attest that this happens with children as young as one year old, if not even babies.

And also on the topic of flow, I achieve it nearly every time I write on the computer and that is how this blog has come into existence. Since I love being in the flow state I look forward to any chance I can get to write and get into that flow mode. I have only published a fraction of my actual writings. If my main goal were just to write and publish I’d be spending my time editing my old writings. However since the writing and the flow is what I like I will often write 2-3 long entries per day but will only publish one.

Wikipedia entry about the flow state of creativity

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