Yesterday I returned to Womanspace to paint with the children. Not all who wanted to come could, so I left supplies for those absent to use at their leisure. The two little girls who I did work with blew my expectations out of the water. Not only were they well behaved, not only did their attention spans hold for over an hour and a half, and not only did they want to learn the basic elements of color theory, but also they created beautiful work.
This first piece, by a girl we will call S, wanted to paint a mermaid -- an especially exciting subject matter for me since I was (still?) am obsessed with mermaids from an early age. What impressed me about S's technique was her methodical, careful approach to the piece. "First, I will paint her skin. Then once that dries, I will paint her suit and hair. Once the hair dries, I will paint her crown." Not everyone who paints understands the very important concept of layering. Most students want to put down all their colors right away or else they compose a piece of many separate parts - ie, paint the suit then paint the skin around it instead of painting the top after painting all of the skin. This "all at once" technique often dirties the colors and makes painting around previously painted parts painfully meticulous. This is why S' colors are particularly vibrant; she was patient.
S surprised me in other ways. Instinctively, she added more water to her brush to paint the ocean water, creating the effect that the mermaid is floating among light reflecting water. Beautiful! S was also unafraid to attempt depth by placing a light blue dolphin in front of the mermaid. Each blade of seagrass was painted with extreme care, and the two-toned green was S's own idea.
The contributions I made to the piece were minimal. I taught S how to make peach by mixing orange and white. I suggested she create a background for her mermaid. I would on occasion point out a detail she might want to add, but the vision and execution was entirely hers. I think you will agree the result is impressive.
This next piece is very exciting for its innovation and color. We will call the young artist C. C created a painting of a lively, green bird. I helped coach C to develop an outline slightly more proportional than she had originally drawn, and I was impressed with C's openness to my suggestions. With C, I taught her about color theory: how red and green are complimentary colors and therefore make each other pop. She took this concept to heart. We also investigated the world of mixing colors. C mixed red with yellow, blue with green, white with black, along with other less successful combinations.
What I loved about C's approach was her ability to at once heed what should be in the picture realistically and then also add her own additions. For example, she knew the beak should be in the middle of the face. When I asked if she wanted to fill in the beak yellow, she said, "No, I want to add another red circle and a pink dot." Well, I had never gotten such a specific, pre-meditated response so I said, "That sounds like a great idea." The result is fairly magnificent. The bird's face is far from bland; it actually moves. The fresh, single stroke of red atop the yellow could be Chinese calligraphy or a stroke from the expressionist era. C used similar techniques in the background, adding spots of pink, yellow-orange, and blue-green. She gave her subject not just a background, but an environment -- a field of emotion that is just as important as her foreground.
Another note about C's work: she perfectly drew her outlines and then violated them. C carefully outlined her bird, its feathers, and its feet. She then without hesitation put dots and blobs of color that trespassed the dark green border. These explosions of color then are not the childish inability to control the brush, but rather thoughtful and purposeful strokes. C knew that boundary and structure (even if she didn't know the words for them) were essential to art; she also knew that structure without personal experimentation and imagination would be boring. Imagine this bird without the spots of color: it would simply be a bounded bird floating in space.
"The Bling Bird"
So while "adults must learn from children" is a slightly hackneyed phrase, it does hold true -- at least in this small, artistic context. I am reminded that patience, boldness, and openness are essential to creating art. S and C also are examples of fearless, innocent ambition. Too often we let our own desires or dreams scare us. Too often we think the converse, that we have no desire or ambition that is worthy of others seeing; or that if we do and if we were to try it, its failure would be inevitable. Both sentiments are false. Here two children reached beyond what even I (shame on me!) expected of them. I assumed their visions would be less than their work suggests. These lessons thus stand: 1) allow yourself to be amazed by your creativity 2) creativity is necessarily a mixture of success and failure 3) your failures lead to more successes than your successes.