So...... what are the underpinnings of this method of teaching art? We call it "Teaching for Artistic Behavior." Identifying just what those behaviors are is an important part of setting up the studios for our work. We spend lots of time, especially when a new studio is set up, talking about what artists do there and how to use, clean, and store the tools that are specific to that media. With nearly 500 students using the studios over the course of our eight day rotation, the logistics of keeping things in order is important shared work.
As important as organization is, though, other artistic traits are just as essential for successful learning. The physical mindfulness is the bedrock upon which we base the rest of our exploration. "Doing" art the way that studio artists do is very physical but includes many cognitive processes, too. What are the behaviors that we cultivate in our art journey? How will we know them when we see them? This post is intended to be the first in a series that will give you a picture of the specific trait that make our studio experience so rich. Knowing the author as well as I do, it's likely that we'll do a little birdwalking along the way, but that's how learning works.
Persistence is important to artists because of the way we learn. Children are instinctive artists and those of us who are fortunate enough to spend our days with them appreciate the attitudes they bring to their art. Following a project through to its natural conclusion might result in a product of some sort - like Jose's giant black whale that's crafted from several scissor-cut pieces of black construction paper.
Persistence also shows up in other kinds of mindful practice that young artists choose. I was a little worried about the kindergärtner who slowly and purposefully filled an entire 11x14 sheet of white paper with black watercolor strokes. When I asked her about her painting she said, "I like the shine before it dries." When I nodded to show I understood, she added, "And I'm practicing my outlines." A volunteer confided that she takes all the black pots out of the watercolor sets in her kindergarten Sunday school class. I pondered doing the same thing for a short time and decided that painters needed to see what a large puddle of black looked like. It's along this pathway that shades of gray are discovered, too, both in the rinse water as it darkens and on paper when the pigment is diluted to just a whisper of color. Many painters spend whole sessions mixing, painting, and re-mixing colors. One question that is guaranteed to *never* receive an adult answer is, "What do I mix to get ____?" (Insert color here.) Even if one of the three primaries is the color in the blank, I always try to ask, "What will you need to find out?" Yes - color wheels are available, as is a gorgeous hard-board copy of Mouse Paint, so there are a few other ways to get the information, but oftentimes the advice from a peer - cross checked with appropriate puddles of paint - is more valuable than the words of an adult.
Persistence shows up in the folder of a child who's in the middle of a grand project of collecting as many magazine photos of baby heads. "I'm going to make a collage, Ms. J. All these babies will be smiling, I think. I don't know why they don't take pictures of babies when they cry, which is most of the time." Good question. Unhappy babies don't sell disposable diapers?
Persistence shows up in the patient practice of a favorite car shape, repeated renditions of faerie queens in long, flowing dresses, and the fifth pony bead bracelet in a series. ("Today is the day for green, Ms. J. It's my mom's favorite color.")
Take one moist (this is the Pacific Northwest, after all) spring, add fragile spring bulbs, a generous friend or two, and you have a drive by daffodilling. How does that work, you ask? Simply place a vase with bright flowers in the center of the painting center and turn the kids loose. Sometimes I like to sit with them, scribbling my own ideas onto rough paper and playing with endlessly fascinating layers of transparent color. Sometimes not. If kids are allowed to explore their own ideas of how to bring flowers to life, it's a cleaner, purer process.
This group was fairly quiet during their daffodil encounter. I heard soft voices as they discussed a bit of color and a bit of technique, but voices never rose above comfortable friendship. The different results were interesting. Two artists chose the splashy heaviness of undiluted tempera for their flowers and, as friends often do, shared more than a few strokes in common. The third chose quieter watercolor from the Crayola pans/Prang refilles trays that are available in the center. I heard her thinking aloud about the differences between her painting and those of her friends and she was a little unsure whether she liked the result. My students are wise to my, "Tell me what you think about your piece." kinds of noises, and I sensed a desire from all three for a little more recognition of what they were doing. I'm a stubborn teacherperson, though, and I stuck to my guns (paint pots?) pointing out the specifics I saw: "You chose bright colors and wiggling lines here; I see the curve of the stem of the flower here; You decided to stress the outline with ink; You enlarged the flowers to give your picture strength." In that way I show that what they're doing impacts me but don't lay my values on top of their work before its finished. I also model the way we talk our way through the creative process sometimes.
The period is always too short. Without exception, there are howls of protest when I ring the cleanup bell, but their artwork is just like a snapshot of time. When these kiddos look at their pictures in coming years they'll remember this day, the friends who sat and painted beside them, and a little about the flowers that inspired them.
I'm certain the daffodils approve.