“A picture lives a life like a living creature, undergoing changes imposed on us by our life from day to day. This is natural enough, as the picture lives only through the [person] who is looking at it.” ~ Pablo Picasso
I have learned many things in my abstract painting class like how to make a preliminary drawing, plan and create a painting, and also to listen to criticism of my work (even if I don’t like it!). Developing an artist’s eye and imagination, understanding the medium of watercolour, and creating a work that pleases me has been a challenge, but truly, a bigger challenge for me has been contributing ideas to the conversation when we talk about each other’s art. And this is in the knowledge that there is so much to talk about – what constitutes art, the history of art and of artists themselves, and aspects of what we are seeing when we look at art, whether it is colour, line, or perspective. I want to know how to move beyond my subjective experience of art and talk about it in broader ways. This blog post is my effort to understand how to talk about art, and for our purposes, how to show children ways to talk about art.
But where to begin? Art history is fundamental to understanding art, but for preschoolers this is an abstract concept. Bob Raczka’s age-appropriate book, Art is… invites children to consider what art is, and where and when it comes from. The book provides straightforward answers, such as “art is lines”, “art is shapes”, “art is a record of what has occurred”, “art is an old thing that takes a new form”, and “art is how artists get you to think”. For each line of rhyming text, we see many examples of paintings, portraits, sculptures, collages, tapestries, mobiles, instruments, armour, quilts, carpets, buildings, frescoes, cave paintings and more. Though art history is not mentioned directly, the images open the door to asking about and exploring it. The book also includes some information about each artist and work of art. In a very simple way, Art is… shows that art comes from many places in the world, places in time, and places within an artist. Art isn’t merely the finished product we look at in a gallery. It is the product of many different forces that brought it into existence. Art is… provides an excellent launching point for asking questions, and talking about art.
A series of books by Paul Flux, How Artists Use: Line and Tone, Color, Shape, Pattern and Texture and Perspective, provides some insights into how we might talk about these aspects of art. Artists can use a variety of lines, which can do and mean many things. Lines can give a picture depth, show movement, and create dramatic effects. Tone and colour can range from light to dark, or dull to bright, with many different shades of primary, secondary and complementary colours. These can be symbolic, or can suggest certain feelings and the mood of a painting. Different brush strokes can impact how we perceive colour (e.g., dots, splashes of colours, or swirling lines). We can talk about regular shapes that appear in art, like circles, squares and triangles, or irregular shapes. Shapes are used to create realistic and abstract paintings. How do shapes affect what we see in a landscape, still life or portrait? How do straight, bold, or curved shapes make you feel? Consider shapes in the environment and how they inspire artists to create paintings and sculptures. Patterns (repeating shapes or designs) often appear in art. Simple and complex patterns inspired by nature and man-made items can create a sense of movement and texture in art. Tesselation is a special effect created when shapes in an image fit together with no space between them. Lastly, we can notice how artists create the illusion of distance and depth, or perspective. Our eyes can be fooled when things appear larger or smaller, closer or farther apart, when a vanishing point on the horizon is used effectively, or when figures are made to appear three dimensional. Light and colours can be used to show perspective (e.g., close things have sharp outlines and distant things are fuzzy). As children look at more and more works of art, they can use these different concepts to develop a vocabulary for talking about what they see.
Gladys S. Blizzard’s book, Come Look with Me: Enjoying Art with Children, provided some insights for me, into how to ask the kinds of questions that help children to look at, get to know and talk about art. Written for the author’s first grandchild, the book includes twelve paintings of children by artists such as Hans Holbein the Younger, Edouard Manet, Pierre August Renoir and Pablo Picasso. For each painting, some personal stories about the artists are provided, along with questions that are intended to stimulate and reinforce discussion, to encourage children to share different ideas and opinions, and to look at each painting again and again. Some questions invite children to compare their own experience with that of the subject of the painting (e.g., What is the child looking at or thinking about? Would you like to be dressed like the child in the painting? Why? How do you think the child feels?). Some questions invite children to experience the paining with different senses? (e.g., How would the clothes feel if you touched them? If the painting suddenly came alive what sounds would you hear? Can you find something you could smell?). Some questions ask children to attend to certain details (e.g., What is the first thing you notice in this painting? Can you find a gently curving line? Can you find the colour red?). To me, something that makes the book particularly wonderful is that children see different artistic styles, learn a little about the artist who created them, and what inspired or influenced them. Blizzard’s book is personal on many levels, arising from her own personal and professional motivations for writing it, a desire to help children relate to art in ways that are meaningful to them, and to show that art was (and is) created by interesting people who had something inside them to express. She writes that when children go to art museums and see “the size of the original painting or the texture of the artist’s brush strokes” they will “be able to see the original works of art with greater understanding.”
“Painting should call out to the viewer….and the surprised viewer should go to it, as if entering a conversation.” ~ Roger de Piles