03 December 2013


by Andy Weddington
Tuesday, 03 December 2013

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

"Silence! Silence in the Temple of Art," I bellowed. 

The order necessary to quiet chatterbox students.

Silence there was.

And then a sweet little girl giggled.

I ambled over to her at the work table and asked what was so funny. With a bright smile she looked up and said, "You called this classroom the Temple of Art. That's funny!" And she giggled some more.

A couple weeks back I spent five days at a school in Louisiana teaching some 70+ children - grades 2nd through 8th (some previously identified as talented in visual arts) - my unusual approach to painting. The school had recently opened a new fine arts center and it was my good fortune to be invited to participate in their visiting artists program.

My Monday morning opening 'attention-getter'...

"The word is not the thing!"

And I paused for a few moments. Let me say that again, "The word is not the thing!"

And that truthful declaration was followed by explanation, and demonstration with sundry teaching aids, that words and symbols and even things that look like the things (they represent) are not the same.

For example, you may be able to cut the word 'lemon,' but squeeze juice from it you cannot. Nor if you eat the word will it taste like a lemon.

Young eyes, ears, and minds were wide open. And some mouths agape.

That is, that the word "lemon" is not a lemon. Nor is a plastic lemon nor cardboard cut-out of a lemon a lemon. Further, 'lemon 1' is not 'lemon 2' is not 'lemon 187.' Every lemon is unique. Thus making assumptions about lemons is false, is hazardous.

Heady stuff for children - especially 2nd, 3rd, and 4th graders.

But I found a way to explain it at their level. I managed to capture and hold their attention. That, too, not easy.

And then we discussed the essence of shape - how we first recognize things (not by color).

As complement I taught them the core of color. That is, from the primaries yellow, red, blue all color comes. That two primaries make a secondary and that that secondary's complement is the primary not used in the mixture. A few words about tertiary colors - split complements (e.g. yellow-green; red-violet; et al.) - and that complements, when mixed, create neutrals completed the necessary foundation to begin painting.

"Color," I told them, "is as simple as that."

Finally, I clarified for them (and their regular art teachers) the week ahead was a painting course - preliminary drawing would not be allowed. No pencils. No pens. No drawing implements of any sort.

Painting colors and shapes as accurately as they could - as if working a jigsaw puzzle (as opposed to a coloring book) - would emerge the drawing. Be patient. Taught to the contrary, as is typical teaching art to children, they looked, and some wondered aloud; suspect.

The rest of the day and evening was theirs to mull it all over. 

The following day a simple still life constructed of primary colors (including a lemon) - and using only primary pigments and white - was their first task.

Eager, paint they did. And slowly they began to understand the idea of painting color shapes.

They learned the four sounds permissible in the Temple of Art:

1. Eyeballs clicking (moving up and down and back and forth studying the still life)

2. Brains working (cells firing in the analysis of colors and shapes)

3. Brushes moving across canvas

4. Brushes swishing in water

Translation: "It's impossible to observe, think, paint, and talk at the same time." Hence, "Silence! Silence in the Temple of Art."

The next day was more still life constructed of secondary colors - using only primary pigments and white (to learn color mixing). 

Each successive day the still life projects advanced - introducing glass and reflection and color and shape relationships - to emphasize there is no secret to painting anything. Color and shape - as you see it. Still life; landscape; figure; portrait; whatever - is all painted the same. And all done with primary pigments and white.

They caught on. Quick. Believers they became - with some surprising themselves.

Ending the week, I asked students what they learned.

A smiling 3rd grade boy told me, "I learned the word is not the thing." I hope he remembers that reality. It'll serve him well in life.

A 5th grade boy paused and finally said, "Look for the big abstract shapes." He earned a smile back from me.

A 7th grade girl said, "I learned I can paint whatever I want." "Exactly," I told her.

An 8th grade girl thought a few moments before saying, "I learned to look at things without making assumptions." I reminded her that lesson applies to everything.

And the sweet little girl who giggled said while beaming, "I'm going to be an artist when I grow up."

She already is. They all are, in reality.

And she was one of the quicker studies picking up the idea of painting what you see.

The children were fearless. They listened. And they painted. And painted some more. And they taught me, too. As they would have Picasso. By the last day most had completed nine paintings (working on three types of supports and of varying sizes). It was much to ask of children for painting day after day is hard work; tiring physically and mentally. But that volume of work was necessary to reinforce lessons and learn. And build confidence.

They improved.

They surprised their teachers - with some perhaps earning a closer look for the talented in visual arts program.

The children were anxious to take their paintings home and show their parents. That was a good sign. 

Most likely they taught their parents a thing or two about painting. And taught them 'the word is not the thing.'

My hope is all will no longer see the same. That hence forward they will look, and look again, ridding their sight of cumbersome, restrictive language, mental models, and all the other baggage that makes for false conclusions about reality. For with that idea there is application to all in life, they'll learn. 

If only to see through youthful eyes; again.

A sampling of paintings...

There were dozens and dozens more - regrettably not enough room to post them all. But brighten walls in homes they will.

If only each student holds on to two lessons; 1) That words are words and things are things; and 2) That painting is rather simple - fitting together color shapes makes for drawing, makes for complexity. And, only four pigments necessary.

What a happy week!

Post Script

I remember art class at their age. Our small school - one class each grade - did not have an arts center. There was not even an art room. There was no art teacher - there were teachers who taught art (the best they could). Well, sort of art. We sat at our desks and did what was simplest for all to do - mostly copying and the result was much like a production line (one student's work looked like the next). For want of expertise, facilities, budget, and time freedom to create was innocently stifled. I vowed when afforded opportunity to teach I'd do it differently. I do - whether adults or children.

1 comment:

Dottie Jean said...

Andy, I love this post! What fun. And I learned, too. And the children's paintings her beautiful, really fresh and interesting. You're a great artist who also has a gift for teaching. Wish I'd had an art teacher like you when I was a child.