art for the faint of heart: how to paint with your kids and not lose your mind

Yesterday afternoon we pulled out the brushes and the paint and worked on a few mini masterpieces. Between the giggles and the smiles and the cries of "Oh, yours looks so good!" as the kids cheered each other on, I wondered, "Why don't I do this more often?"  And I didn't really have an answer except I'm in a rut.

It happens, doesn't it? What starts as your general routine can quickly become a formalized plan so rigid that to paint in the afternoon feels like a BIG DEAL. But it's not really that big of a deal. In fact, it is a little work with a lot of payoff. 

So here are some tips to painting with your kids.

WATERCOLORS: the 'gateway drug'

Seriously, start with watercolors. Why?
  1. It's cheap. You can buy a little palette at the Dollar Tree and a pack of more brushes. For $2 you're ready.
  2. If you're painting with multiple kids they can each have their own. This will spare you the horror of little Timmy using all the green or little Katie mixing all the colors together, much to her siblings' dismay. 
  3. Watercolors don't stain. So the kids can paint right on the table and you will be fine. Clothes, carpet, counters- all are safe.
Minimizing Mess

I think the #1 reason we shy away from crafty things with our kids is the mess, right? Here's some ideas to keep the mess factor down.
  1. Use a heavy cup for the water. When using watercolors, you have to keep your brush VERY wet. Though you think it might be paint, the actual MESS variable is the water spilling everywhere as your little Picasso swishes his brush enthusiastically. So using a coffee mug or a glass jar gives you a bit more stability. The bonus of the jar is that the kids can see the water turning colors, which is very fun. 
  2. Consider the location. I think it's easiest to paint where you eat because kids are used to sitting there. If your daughter uses a booster seat to eat, then plop her in there to paint. If your toddler is in a high chair, cut a piece of paper to fit on her tray. This will eliminate spills.
Making it meaningful

I prefer to paint with a purpose. Though you could pull out the paint stuff and let everyone paint whatever they want, sometimes the total lack of direction can be overwhelming for kids. So I like to make it feel like more a guided activity.

Yesterday, I pulled When I was Young in the Mountains by Cynthia Rylant out of our library pile. It's been in our house for two weeks and noone has read it because there are no robots, trains, or princesses on the cover. But I wanted to read it to the kids, and pairing a not-as-exciting book with an activity can make it more interesting. 

So we read the book, talked about how our lives were different than the characters in the book, and some of the things we really liked. Ella noticed that it is a Caldecott book, so we talked about why the pictures would have won that award. Then I told the kids they were going to paint something from the book. 

Then they set to work. So much can be learned about your kids from how they interpret literature. 

Ella (3) painted a picture of the little girl and her brother and the snake and the outhouse. Obviously.

Isaac (5) tends to process information through how it makes him feel. He explained that, in his picture, the black cloud was how angry the kids were that the grandma killed the snake. The red clouds above were how happy the kids were when they were swimming and playing and sitting outside. 

Drew (8!) is more concrete at this age, and tends to actually paint something concrete from the story. The black snake was a major player as all my kids mentioned it. 

This was Tessa. Just kidding- it was mine. I try to paint with them because it serves a few good purposes. First, it shows them that perfection is not the goal. I am not awesome at painting (or drawing or sculpting...) so I think it's good for them to see that's OK. It isn't a contest; it's a creative expression. Second, I use it as a time to talk about the story again and let them recall details. I asked questions like, "What kind of landscape do you think I should paint? What color do you think the swimming hole was? What was their house built out of?" It lends itself to being a natural assessment. 

(Last year I used to use art a lot in conjunction with Bible. We'd read a Bible story and then paint or draw it. Some of the BEST conversations happened as we were working alongside each other!)

Third, it helps me STAY PRESENT. Don't turn to rinse some dishes, don't read the USA Today on my phone, don't rush to switch over the laundry (some of you are probably like "How in the world could you do that while your kids PAINT?" Oh, I can check out. Believe me.) Stay present.

Other Stuff

I know, by now you have completely bought into this idea that painting with your littles could be possible. Excellent!

Here are a few more random thoughts that I couldn't fit into one of the above categories.

Paper- if you have a scrap paper pile of extra copies or print jobs gone bad, those work great for beginning painting. If I am going to use a nicer paper (like a thick cardstock or construction paper), I let the kids know at the beginning how many pieces they will get.(2-3). This keeps it from getting wasteful, lets the little artist show a little restraint, and creates a few less masterpieces to deal with. 

Speaking of masterpieces...what do you do with all the paintings? Good question. I usually keep one from each kid and hang them up in the kitchen or dining room. Yes, you read that right. During clean up I actually throw a few away. You might let them pick or you might pick for them or you might wait until they show dad before you cut it down. Whatever works.

Age range- I'd guess that two years old would be a good age to start painting. You would probably have to help get the colors going and change colors. If you want to wait until the child is more independent, I'd say three or four years. 

Repetition- as with most things, the more often you do it, the more your kids will be able to do it well. The first time, they might be frustrated that the paint isn't bright enough or the brush not moving the way they want it to. They might get the paper too wet, spill the water, drink the water, or spend the entire time trying to paint their actual palette (all of those have happened in my house). That's OK. They'll get it, just give them opportunities. 

Imagine if every Thursday afternoon was painting time. You could focus on scenes from a book or paint a picture for someone who is sick or paint a place that you'd like to visit. Imagine how your kids would look forward to that! 

Art Theory- I recently read a book about art and little kids and how art education is sorely lacking in modern education. (I will fill you in on the details of that book but it isn't with me right now). Two things I took away from the book. 1- The ability to draw or paint is a skill- not just a natural talent. The fact that I say, "I'm not really an artist" is the same as me saying "I'm not a natural synchronized swimmer."  There is a skill set to being able to draw things in a realistic manner, and it's a skill set that we don't usually have because w weren't trained. That doesn't mean that some people aren't naturally talented, it just means that you can learn.  2- Don't rush your kids into realistic drawing. There is a whole cognitive development behind what your kids draw at each age. I shoosh my kids quick whenever they downplay a sibling's work because they don't need to be judge and jury of each other's work. The whole point of art is creative expression, and nothing squelches that like criticism. 

Well, I guess that's it. Go now! Paint! Take deep breaths and remind yourself that your little people will grow up and that they won't always want to hang with you at the kitchen table. And cheer for their black snakes and their angry clouds and their indiscernible family portraits. And remind them that they are full of potential and their creativity is a gift from the Creator Himself and you are so proud when they live in imitation of Him. 

And then relax and wipe down the table top and crack open a Dr. Pepper and congratulate yourself that you broke out of the rut. It was a courageous move, on your part. As all crafts are.

Guess that's it. Have a good one. Catch you Friday!


Jenni said...

Love this! Thanks for the example of how to make it meaningful and why. super helpful!

Becky said...

Jenni- so glad you found it helpful!

Nicole @ she-laughs said...

I love Isaac's mind. :) Him and free-spirited little Elly will be magic together... she lets me know that she's marrying him regularly (though I don't even think she could point him out in a picture! hahahaha).

Becky said...

Nicole- yes, I think they will be two peas in a pod. We need to keep up with these regular family get togethers. Spring???

Katie T. said...

I've been trying to let my kids do more "messy", creative stuff lately and this is super helpful and inspiring. I really appreciate doing it with them so I stay present. So easy to think "They're occupied! Now what can I get done?"