Painting With Preschoolers
Updated: Aug 5
One can't really talk about art with preschoolers, without talking about paint. It doesn't get me as jazzed up as talking about glue, scissors, and my beloved tape, but it is a part of our daily classroom life. I do adore watching the way children approach their paintings. And, of course, we have a method for it all too.
I want to share with you how and why we paint, the colors we use, the ways that we present paint to children, and what you might notice about the way children work with paint.
My own artistic limitations aside, paint is a powerful artistic medium. With it, an artist can manipulate lines, shapes, texture, and color in almost limitless variations, (I think that's what painters do. Again, I am not a painter) and images can be created with minute detail. There are different kinds of paint, and each of these create different effects. There are a variety of tools for putting paint on a surface. Brushes, rollers, sponges, etc. And, there are variations with these categories of tools. There are brushes of different sizes and shape, sponge rollers and rubber brayers. Of course, we don't need to introduce everything to young children, but the basic idea is this:
There are different ways to make marks with paint on paper and other surfaces.
So, when we present children with watercolors, when we do fun activities like marble painting, or painting with toy cars, we are experimenting with the ways paint goes on paper, what it does there, and how we can manipulate it.
And then, there is the important element of color. At its most basic, the thing to know about colors is that they mix together and we can make them lighter and darker.
In our classroom there is almost always tempera paint with various brushes at the easel. And then we experiment with a variety of other tools and methods at the art table once every few weeks. This post will focus on just the easel, and later ones will delve into other methods and activities.
Beginning in the third week of school, or so, the easel is open almost every day.
At first, we might let everyone paint on the same piece of paper. Many two year olds and young threes do not know or yet care about having their own piece of paper. They are not worried about taking their work home to show their parents or caregivers. They are interested in the process of painting, and often not as interested in the finished product. And being so young, they might need your attention in more pressing ways than writing their names on papers and putting them up to dry.
Then again, they might be quite keen to take their work home, and they might be quite upset if someone else paints on their paper.
I like to play that one by ear.
What stays the same year to year is how we present the paint colors.
I tend to be a purist when it comes to paint colors. Possibly too much of one. But, we almost always use red, yellow, blue, black, and white. But not all at once.
Not all at once at all.
We begin with one. One color. We usually start with blue. Just blue. For a whole week. The following week, we have blue and white. Then blue and black. Then...wait for it...blue and white and black!
Then we move on to the next primary color. One week plain, one with white, one with black, and one with all three.
When we have completed those rounds, we have a week for each color combination. Let's say blue and red. Then a week of blue and red with white, a week with black, and then 4 colors together.
By the time we are ready for FIVE colors at the easel, we are midway through the school year.
And when they day happens, there is pure joy. As the teacher, I am excited to see the children discover all the colors. I am excited to witness them mixing all those colors together. I love hearing their squeals and exclamations of joy over all the colors they create.
Why use only primary colors?
This is a question that I am not sure that I have the right answer. There are beautful colors that are available for purchase out there in the world, and they can be a joy to work with. Children still can gain plenty from working with pre-made oranges and purples and turquoises. We pull out some sparkly colors around Chanukah time, and it is thrilling. I don't believe children will be harmed or stifled from use of these colors. You will have to work harder than that if you would like to stifle children's creativity.
Yet, I stick to this process that I laid out above. Because, it breaks down color to its most basic elements. And with the knowledge of how to use primary colors, and how to create tints and shades, then the rest of the rainbow is at your fingertips. Children don't know all this as they are painting up a storm, but they are authentically experiencing it day in and day out from September through June.
I know that there are curricula out there to teach colors to children. And to help children remember all the color combinations; that yellow and blue make green, red and blue make purple, etc. I can tell you now, that not every child leaves my class with that knowledge at their fingertips. If you asked them how to make green, they might not be able to tell you. But they will have hours and hours of practice with how to find the answer should they need it.
Furthermore, when they do memorize all the ways that colors mix together, it will not be information that they are remembering because an adult told them what and how to remember. They will know the information to be true, because they engaged with color so deeply for so long.
I would also add, that knowing that yellow and blue make green is one bit of knowledge. Knowing that it makes green every single time, is another piece of information. And that is also what they learn over the course of their preschool careers.
Why introduce only one color at a time?
As above, I understand that this is not necessary for painting to be meaningful and educational. But the goal, again, is to engage deeply with each color on its own, with it's darker and lighter shades. To teach them through experience that colors can always be made lighter and darker.
Also, I have never seen a young child bored while painting with just one color. So, why not prolong the magic? Why do we feel the need to introduce more and more, when children are not asking for it? If children are happily engaged with just blue, let the joy of blue last longer. It is that much more exciting, when a new color shows up at the easel.
A Word about Brushes
As I mentioned before, different brushes make different kinds of marks on paper. When we first begin painting at school, we place all the brushes in the paint containers. They are all big, full brushes that are great for spreading lots of paint over large areas.
After a few weeks, though, we add some other choices of brushes to the art area. And when we prepare the easel area, we leave a container of brushes nearby. The children choose which brushes they would like to use. It's a little dose of choice; it opens up the possibility to talk about how the brushes work differently; it adds an element of independence.
The Sensory Experience
At this point, I have only discussed the artistic elements of painting. (With good reason.) But there is another entire reality of children's artwork. Yes, they notice marks and colors and tools, but in the moment, they may just be enjoying the movement of their arms. They might like the sight and feel of paint gliding across paper. Many enjoy getting it all over their hands. This is not any less important to the process. Their bodies are growing and developing and movement is good. Sensory input is important for their developing nervous systems.
While I am not a painter, I am a crafter. I craft because I love the creative process, and I enjoy working with my hands. Adults say that all the time, and that is just the grown up version of engaging in a sensory activity.
Do you have an easel in your classroom? How is yours set up? DO you have any questions? Please let me know in the comments.