Paint is often one of those materials that’s available in the classroom, but doesn’t change much during the year, unless it’s being used for a specific project. One of the places paint is usually available is at an easel, where it involves gross motor movements, and the experience of painting on a vertical, instead of a horizontal plane.
Many teachers I know (myself included) have conflicted feelings about easel painting. Even in classrooms that focus on process over product, easel painting seems more like a sensory activity than art. Children fill the paper with paint, paying more attention to the sensory process of putting paint on paper than to planning or thinking about what they are creating. The thin easel paper rips as more and more paint is added to it, and changing the paper is a cumbersome process that’s hard for younger children to do independently.
But painting can be much more than just thick brushes at an easel. The process and sensory experience are important, but so are the creative aspects of painting. By intentionally choosing materials, we can balance process with encouraging children to plan, to think about spatial design, to choose colors, and to experiment with the relationship between physical action and their marks on the paper.
When easel painting involves large thick brushes, and only one or two colors, children paint with large thick strokes, mixing colors to fill the paper. But once this sensory process has been experienced, and repeated, and repeated again, the children are often done with it. By mid-year, teachers often say that their children “just aren’t interested” in paint anymore.
But what if we change the materials, and the presentation?
Substituting thin brushes gives an opportunity for greater control over the brush, so children can better plan where they are going to put the paint on the paper, and make deliberate motions. Adding a variety of colors allows children to be more deliberate and purposeful in their design. Valuing process doesn’t mean ignoring the possibility of making a product. When children create, it is to make a product, even if that product is transient and temporary, like a block tower a sandcastle, or a painting that might be painted over within minutes. When we give children choices of color, with materials that they can easily control, like small brushes and thick paper that doesn’t rip when wet, they are encouraged not only to “do” the action of painting, but to be purposeful and think about what they are doing.
One of my favorite paint tools are these 6-cup trays, that each hold a small amount of paint. I’ve used these at the easel but prefer to introduce them as a table activity. On a table top, it’s easier for children to see inside and make deliberate choices about color. Using color coded brushes helps children replace the brushes in the right place. Some paint will get mixed up, but the amount of paint in the cups is so small that nothing much is wasted even if colors accidentally get mixed.
Watercolor cakes are another way of providing a variety of color choices. For the younger children, I add water to the cakes first. Later, when they’re familiar with the materials, I add the step of providing a water cup to rinse their brushes in.
When given materials that they can easily manipulate, and that challenge them to plan, design, and make choices, even two-year-olds can be purposeful in their painting. As teachers, we can value both the children's process and the product they create.