Painting: A Powerful Form of Self-Expression


By Nancy Verdtzabella, Head Teacher

“I’m an artist today! I’m an artist every day! I paint. I draw. I love to paint! It’s fun!—Kelia, painting a rainbow at the easel

“Why do we always have paint at school? What would happen if someday we came to school and there was no paint? And the children talked about it and they said, ‘Where’s the paint?’” —Bella, mixing colors at the easel

Painting is a powerful form of self-expression. It has been used by creative minds since time immemorial to record ideas and experiences. One does not need to know how to speak or read to engage in this form of language. Yet, it is a powerful way of expressing one’s ideas, which may be one of the reasons why children are attracted to painting. With children in West PM painting daily, the teachers were eager to explore how children’s knowledge is made visible through their paintings.

In order to learn more about painting, the teachers took a trip in early February to visit the pop-up gallery of a well-known local artist and former Bing parent, Mitchell Johnson. Known for his use of bold colors and shapes, Johnson enthusiastically shared how color and the position of shapes in his paintings communicate ideas. The next step was to share Johnson’s work with the class. The children were inspired by what they saw and learned by focusing on the details of his paintings.

The teachers returned to school invigorated and ready to create opportunities for children to work with paint. Over the following weeks we set up materials and tools they could use in indoor and outdoor painting projects. We also shared artworks with them and taught them painting techniques to support them in the development of their own creative process.

rhombus shapes

Outdoors, teachers set up a table displaying Johnson’s images and a tray of colorful rhombus shapes. The children arranged the shapes in ways that were visually appealing to them. When satisfied with their configurations, some children expressed interest in painting a version of their creation using the paints at a nearby table.

The dialogue that accompanied their paintings revealed that every shape formation and color selection was intentional:

“I am making a color pattern,” said Sienna, as she carefully picked colors from the 12 hues made available to her.

“I used almost the same colors for both of my shapes. Only the orange and red are different,” explained Maya.

On an indoor table, teachers set out a matching game of Johnson’s paintings. Children engaging with the game were able to take a closer look at the bold colors and patterns in Johnson’s work. At the easels, children also had access to Johnson’s work and extracted ideas from the visuals that were meaningful to them.  
Teachers also provided the children with a variety of surfaces with different textures to paint on. Children experimented with painting on paper placed on ground surfaces such as asphalt and grass or painting directly on tabletops and three-dimensional objects.

How Children Launched a Gallery of Their Own

Outdoors, an art installation emerged when a child became curious about a large branch that he found on the ground. The teacher asked him if he had ever painted on a surface like this before. When the child said he hadn’t, she brought him a paint cup from the outdoor easel, and he sat on the edge of the hill painting. This captured the interest of many onlookers. Soon other children wanted to paint nature materials, too. The teacher quickly went inside and brought a new array of colors while the children searched for branches, leaves and artifacts they created at the woodworking table. After painting, children arranged the painted objects as an art exhibit, and when satisfied with the installation, they invited peers playing in the yard to visit the exhibit. At storytime, the teacher shared photographs of the installation, and at the end of the day, children could take their painted pieces home.

The same sequence of events continued for the rest of the week, with children initiating and sustaining the project, independent of teachers. Here’s how play unfolded on one afternoon:


“I am starting it!” said a child. “What are you starting?” asked the teacher. “I am starting the installation,” he said, as he collected branches and leaves and began painting them. The child also brought over tires and cones to add to the installation. As children came with their painted artifacts, they placed them carefully in a spot that resonated well with them. Some children would position the art piece, step back and observe, and then adjust it until they were satisfied with the placement. One of the installations incorporated easel paintings propped on chairs. When all the objects were in place, another child  spread out her arms and legs and stood as still as a statue. The teacher smiled and watched. After a long pause, the child said, “I am part of the installation.” Two other children who were also invested in the project jumped into place and froze, too!

Teachers also began to see representational artwork emerge from the older children in the class. According to Rhoda Kellogg, co-author of The Psychology of Children’s Art, “Left to themselves, children will draw representationally when they are ready. They will want to picture something from their own lives.”

When a boy found a flower blooming in the garden, he brought it inside and exclaimed with joy, “Look at this flower!” A teacher marveled at its beauty and wondered aloud if he would like to paint a picture of it. He mentioned that his plan was to take a closer look at the flower with a magnifying glass. As he and the teacher looked for a magnifying glass, they heard a girl at the easel speak up:   

    Girl: I need yellow.
    Teacher: Yellow?
    Girl: Yes. I want to paint the flower in [the boy’s] hand!

flower painting

The boy zoomed over to the easel with the flower, holding it up for her to see. He stood very still while the girl painted a flower resembling the one in his hand.

    Boy: I wish I was a bee! Then I could drink all the nectar!
    Girl: You can. Just imagine it.

The girl smiled, and the boy continued holding the flower still while he made a buzzing sound.

     Boy: The flower is beautiful!

When the boy asked the girl if he could write her name on the picture, she agreed, and a new friendship emerged.

Lessons Learned from the Painting Project

An introduction to tools and art images, along with the gift of time, afforded children opportunities to creatively use paint as a visual language. As the months progressed, we noticed an increase in the amount of time children invested in using paint to express themselves. There was meaning behind each painting. Children discussed the intentional patterns and shapes in their work. They also collaborated with peers on projects such as the art installation. Many conversations took place about color selection, techniques to apply the paint, and the messages conveyed by the paintings. As teachers, we became more cognizant of children’s competencies through observing their creative process in each painting experience. We exposed the children to various ways of applying paint, which provided them with new ways to express themselves. And we shared artists’ work with the children as a means of inspiring them to use paint in different ways. Our focus was always to follow the lead of the children and note how they responded to painting experiences that were meaningful to them. Overall, this project made visible how affording children an array of ways to express ideas through paint can spur a complex, active creative process.