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Let a Child Lead You

Color in art is…complicated. While working on writing a clear, somewhat comprehensive article on the subject for my curriculum, I’ve struggled far more than seems reasonable. Connected to my thoughts on color, in a round about way, is another topic I’m interested in: teaching art to children.

Color in art can be realistic, symbolic, emotive, strong, calm, or violent. Color can be a vehicle the artist is using or the point of the entire work. Color can combine to create images so real we think we can touch the fur on a coat or feel a breeze. Or colors can swirl in entirely abstract patterns that seem random and purposeless. Color can shimmer through stained glass, dancing through the air, or color can bring solemnity and weight to a moment.

Color in art can be about realistically representing our world, or it can be about something else entirely. The artist purpose is what determines how color will be used.

Which brings me to children and art. Children are artists, or at least children are artists until we convince them that they aren’t. Toddlers create with abandon, swirling colors, drawing figures that make sense only to them, until we ‘show’ them that a house really should be a box with a triangle on top and a face has to have two eyes and a mouth.

Fairly quickly children learn that their drawings aren’t ‘right’. Green skies and purple cows are rarely embraced by adults. I think this is why most young children respond to Picasso and Kandinsky with smiles and giggles…they are kindred spirits. Kids are smart, they know that cows are not purple, that wasn’t the point, and when we insist that it is the point, we steal their joy.

If you stand in a museum for any stretch of time near art that doesn’t look the way it ‘should’ you will start hearing comments, not unlike the ones given to a preschooler. The viewer is missing the point. Rather than dismissing what we don’t like or understand, it can be enlightening to dig deeper and find out why an artist has chosen to paint in a certain way. We still may not like the piece, but at least we can appreciate why certain choices are made.

I’m reminded of the story of Jesus with the children. When his disciples wanted to shoo the children out of the way Jesus responded that they should allow the children to come to Him, saying, we need to become like little children if we want to enter the kingdom of God.

Perhaps we need to become like little children when we enter museums, checking our pretentious adult persona’s at the door. Children take their ignorance as a matter of course, they know that there is much that they do not know. This innocent humility leaves them open to experience and view art with an openness of spirit we adults often lack.

Take a preschooler with you to an art museum and listen to their comments. That canvas that you dismiss because it’s just been painted orange, they run to because “Isn’t it beautiful, I LOVE that color.”  Perhaps the artist thought nearly the same thing. I’ve watched young children standing in front of an abstract Picasso giggling with delight because the ladies nose is in the wrong place. Watching a video of Pollack splattering paint across a canvas delights young kids. Make no mistake, they also appreciate the beauty of Monet’s water lilies, or will wonder aloud why the man in the portrait looks sad…many want to stroke the marble of a statue. The point is they don’t possess our prejudices and when allowed to interact with art on their own terms are amazingly perceptive and open-minded.

As is often the case, when it comes to art we can gain much by allowing a child to lead us.

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