Saturday, January 14, 2017

Painting Their Way - Tempera Cakes

A few weeks ago I wrote about letting children decide how to use the paint provided to them, even if the teacher has a different plan. When we say that we value “process over product” we’re often talking about letting children decide what to create, but not necessarily letting them decide how to create it. Process oriented art activities still often involve teachers encouraging (or requiring) children to use a brush, or to try out a specific painting tool, or cautioning not to use too much paint, or suggesting children finish one painting and start another. One of the challenges of truly valuing children’s process is allowing children to control and make decisions about the process, without forcing the teacher’s values and ideas onto them.

One of my go-to art activities are watercolor and tempera cakes. For the younger children, I wet the cakes ahead of time to make it easier for the children to get paint onto their brushes and to eliminate spills. Set up this way, watercolor painting is usually an activity the children can do independently without assistance.

The children started painting broad strokes and stripes on the paper, then swirling their brushes to make circles of color, then eventually holes.

But then one child picked up a tray, turned it upside down, and pushed out the paint. Just as I was about to say, “The paint needs to stay in the tray”, I decided to say nothing and wait to see what her plan was. She moved the disc of paint around on the paper, making some stripes and marks, and then pressed it down, forming circles around the paper.

Another child noticed the paint on the first child’s hands, and tentatively pressed one of his own fingers into a paint tray. The other children followed suit, and soon, they were all grasping the wet tempera cakes into their hands, and pressing handprints onto the table.

Eventually, painting gave way to exploration of the trays themselves, as the children stacked them to build towers, and reached between the layers of the towers to get paint onto their brushes.

So, what happens when we as adults let go of control over the process and let the children use materials the way that they choose? They create art.