Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Oil Painting In Preschool

I've been known to nerd out over new (to me) arts and crafts techniques and I'm doing it right now, this time over oil painting.

As a boy, I didn't care much for painting until I was introduced to oil paints as a 12-year-old by my Greek art teacher Nico Krederas, a painter of some renown at the time. I loved the texture, color and smell, and I especially loved working on real canvas. It's an experience I've thought off and on about introducing to preschoolers, even going so far as to purchase some "canvas paper," but I've always stopped short of investing in oil paints because even small tubes are cost prohibitive, especially in the quantities that young children tend to use paint. On top of that, there's washability to consider: I make no promises to parents, but there is an implied agreement that I'll do my best to not completely ruin their clothing.

A year or so ago, I learned the technique of combining oil pastels with baby oil from the always inventive and thoughtful Marla McLean. The idea was for kids to make their drawings, then blend them with cotton balls dipped in baby oil. It's a good art exploration, one that has become a regular part of our art offerings, but it wasn't really the oil painting experience of my memories.

Then a couple weeks ago a former preschool parent dropped off a shoe box full of broken and used oil pastel crayon bits and pieces. As I was fitting them onto our storage shelves my eyes lit upon our mortars and pestles. The crayons are fairly soft, would it work to add a few drops of oil, then mash them up into paints? It seemed like it would and I know from experience that kids tend to enjoy anything that requires crushing and mixing.

Our first attempts met with relative success, although the kids struggled to actually mash the oil crayons. They instead created their oil paints by sort of chasing the crayons around the bowl in a small puddle of oil until the oil had become colored. And while the project engaged the children, the "best" paints were being created by adults who could apply the force necessary to create a more paste-like result.

As I was putting everything away the following day, feeling okay about the modest success of our experiment, my eyes lit upon our box of old cheese graters and kid's knives. Eureka! The oil pastels might not be soft enough for the kids to mash up, but they were soft enough to grate, so the following day we tried it again. It was a process: first the paper needed to be removed from the crayons, then we grated and the shavings were collected into a mortar, a bit of oil was added, the pestle was employed for mashing, and finally we got to paint with our new paints, some of which were colors the kids customized by combining the shavings from several different colored crayons. And while, in the end, we might not have produced many paintings, it was an artistic/scientific process to which it was worth returning.

And we did it again the following day, now with a little experience under our belts. Most of the kids chose to engage in the entire process, but some slowed down to be come expert at one or another of the stages. Logan, for instance, settled into the role of creating gratings to share with everyone. Others preferred the color mixing, sharing their finished products with friends who were testing the paint on paper.

We also tried out the serrated knives.

One night we left our oil paintings hanging outdoors to dry and it rained heavily. When we do that with water-based paints we return to find our paper washed clean. Our oil paintings survived, battered, but with colors as vibrant as we'd left them.

Three days into our experiments I was feeling like it was a complete success, but then Gio's mom Molly walked in with an armload comprised of five tarp-sized pieces of canvas. My head nearly exploded from the intensity of my nerd out.

Yesterday, we added a step to the process. This time the kids helped me tear the fabric into smaller canvases and we added them to our process. 

My nerd out was nearly complete.

Audrey's sister Ella, a third grader, arrived with her father a bit early to pick up her sibling. Ella is a former student and like many alumni, there are certain things about preschool she misses. She usually likes to travel down memory lane by pumping the cast iron pump, for instance. Sometimes she engages with her sister's peers in a game of chase. Yesterday, she sat down at the art table and promptly painted her hands and wrists with a nice turquoise color the way she had as a four-year-old. She blanched a bit when I told her that it would take more than soap and water to get it off. It's a lesson the parent-teachers are also learning at the end of each day when I've tasked them with cleaning up the supplies. 

Are we going to have to invest in linseed oil? Turpentine? That would make my nerd out complete.

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Katie said...

I totally enjoyed nerding out with you on that post. I want to have a go myself! I never did get the hang of what the turpentine and linseed oils were for though- assuming cleaning? Never could get brushes clean with water after.

Alison said...

Will have to try this with the leftover oil pastels we have here:) sounds like a wonderful process.
Now for a question: I'm interested in developing/opening a school (starting from K moving upwards) beyond preschool here in Vancouver BC-I have a family daycare and want to extend it for my kids and the kids in my care, since I am not convinced with what I see here so far. I'm at the 'gathering ideas' stage, and would love to visit your school and perhaps get some feedback on a few things if time permits. Is it possible for me to come on down and visit for a few hours with my kids?
Let me know,
Warm regards,

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