Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Painting Like A Child

It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child. ~Pablo Picasso

I admire, respect, and am even inspired by Picasso's art, but he didn't paint like a child. At least not like a 2-year-old. 

I have no reason to doubt that he attained a child's intense curiosity as he worked with his chosen medium, losing himself in the pigment, moisture, and texture of paint, but I don't think that's what he was talking about. I think Picasso meant to say that it took him a lifetime to make paintings like a child. That I see. That I get. That, I think, he achieved. When Picasso knocks me over it's when it appears he's painting as if remembering what was like before having acquired an adult understanding of perspective, color, and shape. But Picasso was still talking about product, which by definition means he was not painting like a child.

For an adult to actually paint like a child, I think, is impossible. I won't call it wisdom, this superiority children have over adults, because I think that's a function of experience, but it is an appreciation of this moment that transcends wisdom. It looks to me like a kind of immersive spiritual experience, one where there is only doing and being. Adults can't get there, if at all, without years and years of training with great masters who live on mountain tops. So, maybe that's what Picasso was talking about, but even then he couldn't help but make paintings that he hoped were destined to hang on walls. 

We put their names on the paper for ourselves, as an act of administration.
 It's amazing how often they then paint their own names out, as if 
trying to erase something that doesn't belong there.

This week, we taught the technique of putting paint on paper, folding it in half, then opening it again. By "teaching" I mean we provided paint, spoons, and construction paper that was gently scored in the center, then presented the idea of folding the paper over.

Most of them eventually do come around to trying this rudimentary exercise in symmetry, but painting with spoons comes first: not just dolloping on globs of paint the way I showed them, but fully exploring the possibility of the tools at hand.

The back of the spoon, they all find, is the one that gives them the most control when manipulating paint on the paper, while the concave part is best for conveying paint from the cups. 

Unless we tell them, there is no preconceived notion of how much paint to use or even that it must stay on the paper. Sometimes our parent-teachers can't help themselves, gently harping on the kids about "waste" or "mess." I try to make a point of instructing them in advance, "Be generous: paint is cheap. Don't clean up until they walk away."

Sitting beside her, I demonstrated the fold over technique for a few children standing nearby. Finally, she imitated me, pressing her paper over, pressing down with her fingertips, paint oozing out and onto the floor. She said, brightly, "Oopsie." I echoed, brightly, "Oopsie." Then we watched as it dripped, leaving the not-mess because that is part of this moment and messes, by definition, belong in the future, outside of our time.

When she opened the paper again, I said, "Look at that." She didn't say anything, although she did look at it, as she would have even without my inane urging. (Shut up, Teacher Tom!)

This is where we Picassos would have stopped, our product suitable for hanging, but even as my words of false eureka hung in the air, her spoon was back in action, moving paint, mixing paint, adding paint, pushing paint right onto the floor, turning this ostensible exercise in symmetry back into one about not-symmetry, about spoons, about paper, about paint.

She walked away when she was done, moving as her moment guided her, flowing like paint before a spoon to whatever was next in her ongoing process of not-art. It's only me who can't wait to get back to school to see what it looks like when it dries.

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Rach said...

Thanks for the fascinating post. I'm been thinking a lot about how I can facilitate my daughter's (19 months) creativity. Like you say, the simplest, yet hardest, way is just to stand back and do nothing! My most recent post on my blog shows how I arrived at this.

marcie jan bronstein said...

Another great post Teacher Tom.

CJ said...

I just had a similar experience in my classroom today! I put out 3 kinds of paint with large paint brushes, and the (only!) two boys in my class spent at least 30 minutes at the easel just experimenting with the colors and experimenting with placing the paint on to the paper. They were amazed at the colors they came up with, and at the different textures of paint they could make with just a paintbrush. Process art at its best. It was fascinating to watch!

LeeAnn Bone said...

I love to watch children be creative. Just grabbing a pencil, pen, paint, whatever to create art of some sort and throwing on paper or anything. You get to see what they are thinking in their heads and in the end you get something truly amazing. To children their are no boundaries for art, they just go with the flow. It is really great. This was a great post. I love the pictures.

Brandon said...

"It is an appreciation of this moment that transcends wisdom. It looks to me like a kind of immersive spiritual experience, one where there is only doing and being." Well said.

To be content with every form the artwork takes (including the transition to non-art)...sounds like the perspective of a truly joyful artist!