Friday, September 23, 2011

The Painting Detective

With nearly two full weeks of the new school year under our belts, I'm still feeling my way around the new school space, which I expect will be true for some time. One of the challenges in our 3-5's class is that we've decided to spread ourselves out over 3 rooms during the indoor part of our day, which means I'm more often on the move, from area to area, trying to accustom myself to not always knowing everything that's going on. It's a strange feeling for me to come across, for instance, a stack of easel paintings, the back stories of which are known, but not by me. This makes me a kind of detective.

As we often do during the first few weeks of school, we're exploring primary colors with our big, fat preschool brushes. I tried something I'd never done before: color coding the brush handles to the color of tempera paint in the cups, while also using the lids that come with those cups that are designed to prevent spilling and only allow for one brush at a time. I've rarely used those before, but they come with the cups so we tried them last week. What can I tell about the children and my experiment by studying the paintings?

In this painting, I see that Kiran didn't explore color mixing, but rather appears to have tried out a couple brush techniques, using each of the colors presented to him. 

I can tell he started with the yellow, using fairly "conventional" brush strokes, followed by a broken red line up the page with a quick down stroke at the end. In fact, with both of those first two colors he seems to have finished with a downward flourish, perhaps only because he was on his way to returning the brush to the color coded paint cup to trade it for the next color. Or was it something else? He's right-handed, so rightward slant of both strokes could indicated his hand was merely on its way to somewhere else, but there could be some aspect of angle and direction he was exploring. With the blue he clearly tried a new technique, dabbing or poking, probably by working his way down the paper.

Luca also used the dabbing technique on a pair of paintings.

Did he inspire Kiran or was in he inspired by him? Or perhaps they each came up with it on their own.

Luca's dabs are more prolific than Kiran's, they look more exuberant, with more spattering. I can imagine Luca standing at his easel jabbing his brushes as a way to play with a friend who was jabbing brushes beside him. I can also imagine him standing there alone, with a look of steady concentration on his face, studying the effect of his cause.

River, on the other hand, seems to have been exploring form or pattern or perhaps even direction, rather than technique, in this painting.

Of course, he's also the kind of guy who doesn't like to be told what to do. If this was a one off, I might even guess it's something he produced semi-reluctantly as the result of adult cajoling, but there's a companion piece that shows he still had something more to explore in this idea of parallel and vertical. With most of the lines, he started at the very top and worked to the very bottom of the paper, apparently careful to keep a space of white between them. Then there is that one wiggly red line on the right, like a joke: River has a great sense of humor.

Calder's painting exhibits a light touch. I was immediately struck by the dancing fluidity of the lines. In fact, this could almost have been a single line, created from a single dip of the brush. He's not normally found making art, and when he is, it's usually to create letters, numbers or the shapes of one of the 50 states. So this is a real departure for him and it makes me wonder if, like with Luca, he was painting with a friend to inspire him. There is a great freedom expressed here, a looseness that I still struggle to achieve in my drawings.

Vivian just worked the side of her canvas. She made a handful like this, each using a sort of muddy color, probably because she either she was exploring the mixing of colors, or chose to work where someone before her had done so and left it like that for her to discover. 

I've seen children do this before, especially 2's and young 3's, sticking to the edge of their paper, leaving the center blank. I have no idea what it means, but I tend to think it's a sign of a brain that is, at least for that moment, seeing the world differently than you and me, a brain focused on the edges, rather than what is right in front of her. I know that she has always been fascinated by little things, often coming to me with insects or motes or stray sequins which she's found on the floor or in a corner. She's painted the center of her paper before and I'm sure she will again. Of course, as always, it could be something as simple as someone was standing with her and she was just painting around him, putting paint on the part of the paper she could reach. 

Then there are those who seem to make it a goal to cover the entire paper, side-to-side and top to bottom.  There is no name on this one, but you can see a great deal of color exploration. Perhaps this was the painter who left the muddy paint for Vivian. I like how you can even see where the clothespins held the paper in place at the top.

There was only one other paper in the stack of artwork that used the entire whitespace: this one by Charlotte. So, I'm guessing the first one is hers as well. Charlotte is an explorer, for sure, one who pushes on limits, so it doesn't surprise me to find her making these kinds of paintings. And she was proud of them too. At the end of the day she tried to pull open the locked classroom door, angry that she couldn't take the wet painting home with her.

Of course, it could have also been this painting she was after.

I do know that for a time she was painting alongside a couple of the older girls, 4-year-olds. I can't recall her painting human figures before, at least not at the easel. I think I'd want to make sure I was taking this painting home too.

These next three paintings from some of our older girls were clearly produced by more experienced easel painting hands. Sadie's primary color rainbow is a masterpiece of its type. 

I often think of how many of us value art for its ability to be creatively groundbreaking, how often we say of a piece, "I've never seen anything like it!" That's usually at least part of the reaction I seek to create in my own artwork, but there is something to be said for recreating these iconic images, over and over, generation after generation, much the way the Native American tribes around the Pacific Northwest have recreated, for instance, the raven, over and over, generation after generation. It's art, I think, that builds community and connects us to those who come before us and those yet to be born.

This one from Sena I assume is a self-portrait. I'm in love with that thick head of blue hair and can imagine her choosing blue, the darkest color on her palette to represent her own thick, dark hair. I wonder, however, about the carefully painted blue on her chin. Perhaps this was the painting that inspired Charlotte's departure.

I was standing beside Violet as she painted this next one. That's a pumpkin head, but it is not a skeleton body. "It's just a body," she told me wearily as if she'd burnt herself out on the head and the rest was sort of a perfunctory endeavor.

This was an interesting piece of forensic work for me, going through this stack of paintings. It's an exercise I suspect I'll need to do more of working here in our new space. I may have to ask the teacher-parents in charge of our art projects to jot a few notes about what the children say about their works as they go along.

As for my color-coding experiment, other than those big canvases by Charlotte, I see little evidence of color mixing: something to keep in mind for the future.

And finally, there is this series by George. Each one seems to be an attempt to show one thing being enclosed or held by another, although those two dots that appear in the second two tell me he was, perhaps, working on a human face. Of course, the final one could almost be a rainbow. I will definitely stand beside George the next time the easels are out. I'm curious to know what these are about.

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Cave Momma said...

I love these! It's also very interesting to compare these to my own kids' paintings. My (now) 4yr old girl loves to color mix and use the entire paper. My (almost) 3 yr old son is a bit more thoughtful with his light brush strokes. Usually a lot like Calder's but he does like to color mix as well.

I love watching them paint!

Unknown said...

Tom, you've got some beautiful art there! I hope that in your new shared space you are able to display it! I'll bet your little friends were so proud of these masterpieces. I like being handy when mine paint, so I can get the "story" behind the pictures they've done. Their stories always amaze me!


Play for Life said...

I love the way to desribed each painting Tom. I could visualise the children painting as I read ... Nice touch TT.
Donna :) :)

David Armstrong said...

I think these art pieces are really great. My name is David Armstrong and I am a student at the University of South Alabama in Mobile. One of the classes I am in requires us to look at teachers blogs and I really have enjoyed yours. I am majoring in secondary history education. I think the work you are doing is so important. I say often that I think that the current education system doesn't encourage young students creativity enough. You are offering these students a skill they can use forever beyond just art. Thank you very much!

Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

I really enjoyed your descriptions of the paintings created by your children.

It truly is fascinating to see the way children chose to paint, and draw - there is so much individuality in each child's work.

You are truly perceptive, and caring to take the time to really look at your childrens work.