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How to Use Art Materials

To explore the power of creativity, children need clear boundaries and good organization in the studio. A safe context allows them to enter the deep mystery of the unknown. Adults should be aware of how children are painting and help them use art materials in the most efficient way. They may have to repeat instructions time after time, until children have integrated them into their practice. Children need to understand the simple, commonsense rules on the basis of one principle: Treat the art materials in a way that will make them perform well and last long. When children understand what not to do, adults' demands won't appear arbitrary, but reasonable. For instance . . .

"My red paint turned brown!" exclaimed Annie, disappointed.

"Why do you think it did?" I asked her.

She thought for a while and then realized that the black paint underneath was not dry.

"Annie, you need to look at your painting at an angle. When it shines, it means it's not dry. You must wait. You can bend your head to the side and look. You will see that it always shines when it's not dry."

Children should be taught to respect and care for their painting tools. They need to understand how the brushes work and how precious they are. Contrary to what many people think, to fully bloom in their creativity, children need good-quality materials, not cheap ones. They have less control in holding their brushes than adults do. A good-quality brush follows the gesture faithfully and translates the subtleties of the children's efforts. When a brush is held well, with the right amount of paint and water on it, children are more likely to be able to paint in a satisfying way. A poor-quality brush does not follow the gesture. It does not go where it is intended, and this can be very discouraging. Children need the best.

Children should learn to keep the painting table clean and efficient by putting back the brushes where they found them and by dipping the brushes only in colors meant for those brushes. If they make a mistake, they should let the adult know immediately and help clean it up. If a child needs a special mix, do it outside the basic setup. Children can learn how colors blend by putting a tiny amount of paint on a fingertip and a different color on a fingertip on the other hand and then rubbing the two fingers together. They can also do it in a little dish using a paint knife. Children then explore how to make their own colors and put them on their paintings only when they have found what they want. It is much safer and more accurate than mixing colors on paper. In that way they learn the precise amount needed for creating the color they want. I always ask children to make a new color only when they really need it. Otherwise, they could spend the whole session making colors and avoiding facing the creative void. We help children by showing how to for practical matters - for material painting needs - but only for these needs. As parents and teachers, we never want to enter the private space where their intuition should be used.

This practical attention creates a well-needed structure and impresses on children that adults care. Order in the physical world creates a safe and friendly context that allows the children to soar into their creativity.

I recently asked my two-year-old granddaughter to experiment by holding her brush differently. She reacted to my suggestion by throwing me a dark look and by pushing harder on it. But within a few minutes of hearing my enticing explanations, she became interested in trying. She then held her brush as I suggested: not pushing too hard and painting only with the tip, and filling the brush with water every time before adding paint. She smiled, astounded at the result. The brush was now painting a full soft line instead of a scratchy mark. Her brush had found power because it could follow her gesture. Moments later I witnessed her painting her first form (she had only scribbled and splashed before), a mysterious, well-formed shape. Children love to master the use of their tools. Good workmanship enhances and stimulates their power of expression.

More on: Crafts for Kids

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From Kids Play: Igniting Children's Creativity by Michele Cassou. Copyright © 2004 by Michele Casso. Used by arrangement with Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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