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Painting: A Visual Language of Self-Expression

A 3-year-old engages with paint kinesthetically, using both hands, each gripping a brush and moving back and forth and side to side, as he covers the whole paper with paint.

Sep 25 2015

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Classroom Curriculum

By Nancy Howe, Head Teacher

I dream my painting and then paint my dream.
—Vincent Van Gogh

As one of the earliest forms of self-expression, painting is a visual dance of the imagination. It precedes oral language, making thoughts visible, allowing even the youngest children to communicate their ideas, express what they are feeling, construct knowledge and attempt to make sense of their world. Painting gives voice to the unspoken, allowing young children to explore, discover and experiment even before they can attach words or meaning to what they have painted.

I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way —things I had no words for.
—Georgia O’Keeffe

Painting is a universal language of self-expression that transcends time and place. The recent discovery of finger fluting on the ceilings of French caves reveals that 13,000 years ago, children as young as two were lifted aloft by adults to run their fingers along soft surfaces of cave walls, much like young children finger paint today. Rhoda Kellogg, an internationally known authority on children’s art who spent decades collecting, analyzing and interpreting more than a thousand paintings and drawings made by children all over the world, stated: “In art all mankind is one.”

Like their prehistoric peers, young children today find painting to be innately satisfying. Not only does paint have sensory appeal, but the effect of applying paint to a surface is immediate and compelling, demonstrating to a child what the late Stanford professor and art educator Elliot Eisner, PhD, referred to as personal causation: that one’s actions have direct consequences. As with all activities that young children find enjoyable, the process of painting rather than its end product is rewarding in and of itself, and children are intrinsically motivated to pursue it.

Painting is also an enriching experience that supports young children’s growth, development and self-expression and provides many benefits to their physical, emotional, social, cognitive and language development.

As a kinesthetic activity involving the upper torso, arms, hands and fingers, painting provides many opportunities for gross and fine motor development as well as hand-eye coordination and sensory integration. As children paint with long handled brushes and make sweeping arm movements across their paper, they gain grip strength and balance. The act of painting also improves the brain’s ability to integrate functions such as creative thinking with planning and execution. Evidence of the physicality of painting has been well documented by Bing teachers. For example:

Maggie holds a brush in each hand. She dabs yellow and red dots onto her paper as her feet join her hands in a rhythmic, staccato dance.

The process of painting supports children’s positive sense of self. It allows them to gain skills, understand their artistic preferences and unique style, and develop confidence and pride in their work. As a soothing sensory experience, painting can provide children with emotional support as well as a way to process emotional experiences. Children at Bing often choose to separate from their parent or caregiver while painting at the easel, offering them a way to express and communicate their feelings without needing words.

Terra enjoys beginning her day with her mother close by watching her paint and commenting on her techniques. Their daily ritual gives them both comfort. It provides a form of engagement for Terra and the promise of reconnection later after her mother says goodbye, “I can’t wait to see your painting when I pick you up!”

Painting can be a social experience, giving children an opportunity to connect through a shared interest. Observing their peers involved in the process of painting, children are often inspired by the techniques, color choices, lines, shapes and symbols of others. Collaboration can take many forms: from sharing ideas and techniques to painting together at the same easel.

In each Bing classroom are two free-standing easels. The teachers arrange them side by side to allow children to observe what their peers are painting, to be inspired by the painterly techniques of others or to share in the narrative of what they are painting. Sometimes two children will decide to paint together at the same easel. This collaboration, although generally very fluid, involves give and take, sharing paint and space. It also may involve some problem-solving after the painting is completed, especially about who will take the completed painting home. “I know,” said Eva. “Maybe we can make two paintings: One for you to take to your house and one for me to take to mine.”

Painting involves a number of cognitive tasks for children, including concentration, planning, making choices, problem-solving, evaluating, executing, reworking and persistence.

It also inspires a growing understanding of artistic elements and spatial concepts such as color, shape, size, line, texture and directionality. As children explore with paint, they experiment with imagery, patterns, cause-and-effect relationships, critical and symbolic thinking and visual discrimination.

Santi covers his entire paper thickly with paint using all the colors in his palette. When he is done painting, he seems intrigued by the still-wet paint. He turns his brush around so that the end of the brush becomes an instrument for making delicate lines in the wet paint and begins to “draw.” A teacher takes notice and offers him a plastic comb so that he can add variety to his line making.

Finally, while children paint, they often incorporate story elements into their work, providing a narrative of their thoughts and theories.

Uday looks at his collection of paints before he starts painting. He realizes that he doesn’t have a color he needs. “I need red to make a rainbow. Can you get me red?” The teacher gives him a cup of red paint and Uday begins to paint a rainbow. He carefully paints, using all the colors. “Look, I painted a rainbow!” Then he takes his brush and with spontaneous-yet-controlled large sweeping strokes of his arm, he mixes all the colors together until they swirl upward with abstract movement. “I’m done with making a rainbow. Now it’s a helicopter! A pretty, colorful helicopter flying very fast through the sky!”

According to Kellogg, painting follows a distinct and predictable developmental progression. Although the ages and stages of artistic development overlap and are approximate, skills and aesthetic awareness grow as a child matures.

First stage (1-2 years): Attracted to the sensory quality of paint, beginning painters experiment with its properties and are awed by the realization of their own ability to make something happen: to create marks on paper with a brush. This stage is largely motoric, characterized by rhythmic and repetitive arm movements as children spontaneously make sweeping strokes back and forth across their paper.

Leo (2 1/2 years old): Leo grips his brush with both hands. He moves his arms in a large circle, balancing his body as he guides his brush in circular movements around his paper.

Second Stage (2-4 years): Through repeated experiences and experimentation with paint, children gain more control and act with more intention. They gradually realize that they can make lines and simple shapes, usually circular at first, and that colors can mix together to form new colors. As children create shapes and lines, they discover that they are often able to use them to represent something personally meaningful and emotionally satisfying, a powerful form of visual expression for helping them understand their world.

Evan (3 ½ years old): Evan’s baby brother has just been born. Painting is a way for him to process the changes happening at home. After he paints four simple oval shapes to represent his family he says, “That’s me and my mom and dad. And that’s my baby brother. He’s very little but I’m much bigger.”

Third Stage (4-6 years): Children are refining and combining lines and circles to create other geometric shapes like squares, triangles and rectangles. They use these more sophisticated shapes to create familiar objects and symbols: a house made from a square with a triangle roof, a mandala, a sun with rays, a flower or a face with features. Details and embellishments are added, and multiples or a series will often emerge depending on a child’s interest. At this stage in their artistic development, children often plan what they are going to paint, naming their painting and the objects in it before their brush even touches the paper.

Jace (4 ½ years old): Jace has a strong preference for the color orange and painting flowers. Each day, he looks forward to creating a new painting of orange flowers. He approaches the easel with confidence, dipping his brush in and out of the orange paint cup until contours of orange flowers fill the entire paper. His eyes engage intently with his evolving painting, focusing on the details he adds: a curvy green stem or more petals. Then he steps back to gain perspective on the painting’s wholeness, moving back and forth, from detail to wholeness, until he feels satisfied that he has finished.

It is no wonder that paint is valued as one of Bing’s five basic open-ended and foundational materials—along with blocks, clay, sand and water—and is recognized as one of the most important and satisfying symbolic languages available to children for self-expression and communication.

Although Bing has no formalized art education program or instruction in how or what to paint, Bing teachers play an important role in supporting children’s experience with painting. Teachers provide children with the highest quality tools and materials, thoughtfully set up an environment where children feel safe to explore and experiment, and allow ample uninterrupted time every day for children to practice painting skills and build mastery through repeated experiences. They express genuine and authentic interest in children’s work, spend time observing children while they paint, ask open-ended questions to expand children’s thinking and make comments about the techniques children are using. Teachers invite children to reflect on their work, model the vocabulary of art to help children develop aesthetic awareness, refrain from making judgments and place value on all efforts.

As children grow and develop, painting may be replaced by other ways to communicate what they are thinking, feeling and imagining. Although painting’s importance as a child’s means of self-expression is fleeting, hopefully these early, immersive experiences with paint will always remind them that their ideas are unique and what they have to say is worthy of sharing.