Why Process Over Product? {Part Two}

(Part One)

Part Two: Knowing the Materials

When a child (or adult) has an idea and a specific end result in mind, if he or she hasn’t had the opportunity to explore different media and materials to see what they do, he or she will have no idea how to achieve the desired goal. I can’t stress this enough. It seems so basic, but I see so many people going about it backwards. Until we learn how to use various materials, we have no idea which one is best for the task at hand. If we have a vision in our mind but have a limited number of techniques from which to choose, we may never reach our vision.

When my children come into the studio with an idea, they have a vast array of materials from which to choose. They learned how to use these materials not by following step-by-step directions to reproduce a project designed by someone else, but by experimenting with the materials in a controlled way. Parameters are, I think, necessary when learning a new material or technique. I didn’t just give them watercolors and leave the room. We used, at different times, watercolors wet on wet, wet on dry, pan watercolors, liquid watercolors, watercolors from a tube. The different methods and materials yield different results, and we learned what they were by doing. In the same way, watercolors are different from acrylics and gouache and tempera. So when my kids say they want to do X and they need paint, I can now ask them, What kind of paint? And they will think about their desired end result and decide what they think they need.

The same thing is true of every material in our studio.

Non-representational creativity is often difficult for adults to understand. They think kids are just “messing around,” the painting is “random,” the activity is “aimless.” If it’s not a picture OF something, an adult often doesn’t see the point. Firstly, if the child is enjoying himself, is another point necessary? But beyond that, quite a bit is going on—or can be going on—when someone is “just messing around” with a material. The first thing I did when I bought new watercolor pencils was scribble with them and add water to see what happened. It would be frustrating to try to use a material for a specific end result if I didn’t know what the material could and couldn’t do.

Exploring tints and shades of blue.

Exploring tints and shades of blue.

In the same way, a child learns quite a lot while “smearing” paint around. He’s learning how paint moves, how much to put on the paintbrush to get different effects, what happens when wet paint touches. If it’s quality paint, he learns what happens when different colors mix. When my middle child was about five, he spent weeks investigating different paint colors, a couple at a time. He learned about tints and shades and secondary colors while he moved the paint around on large sheets of heavy paper that I’d pinned to the wall. Limiting the color palette meant that he could see what happened when just those two or three colors mixed. This is, again, about setting parameters to help a child learn about the materials in a useful, meaningful way.

During this time, he happened to be painting while an adult relative was over, and that adult stared at the non-representational paper that held all that exciting information about tints and shades, and instead of asking my son about it (and he would have eagerly explained what he’d done to get that range of color), she stared and stared until she found something that sort of looked like a flower and pointed it out. “You painted a flower.” No. But now, when he does want to paint a flower, or anything else, he is confident that he can mix any color he needs or wants, in a variety of paint types. In fact, like me, he’d rather have just the primaries, white, and black in his palette, and mix his own colors.

For more on this sort of sequential introduction of materials (as well as how to talk—and NOT talk—to children about what they’re doing), I highly recommend Susan Striker’s Young at Art.

Next: Part Three—Realizing a Vision.

10 thoughts on “Why Process Over Product? {Part Two}

  1. Pingback: Why Process Over Product? {Part One} | kids in the studio

  2. Lori

    beautifully said! re: adults commenting on what children have made, we had to educate parents to say “tell me about your drawing/painting/what you made” rather than “oh, you drew a XYZ” — usually their guess was dead wrong and their child was deflated!

    “The first thing I did when I bought new watercolor pencils was scribble with them and add water to see what happened. It would be frustrating to try to use a material for a specific end result if I didn’t know what the material could and couldn’t do.” — so much of what we’re doing is setting children up for success. part of that is helping them become fluent in a wide variety of materials so they’re ready when they have something they really want to say. <3

    1. amy

      It’s become second nature to me to talk to my kids about their work in that way, a product of reading done early on. So it always surprises me when I hear adults take over in that way…I forget that it’s the default method for so many. But with a little thought it’s easy to change that habit.

      1. Lori

        adults like to rush in and fill any void … i think it feels physically painful to some people to just wait and be quiet. and i think adults often feel pressured to define their child’s art in some way. (it makes sense! i’ll show you!) it takes strength and confidence to remain calm and easy and let children make what they make and explain it the way they want to explain it.

  3. Michelle

    YES!!! Exactly. All of this.

    We didn’t always work this way with E, so she had trouble with the shift. She didn’t want to just experiment with one color or she would get angry if I gave her watercolors and she coyldn’t make them work the way she wanted them to. She adjusted and loves to experiment with supplies now, but it took some time to help her relax and change that mindset she learned in school.

    1. amy

      I think part of it is personality, too. One of the things I noticed with working side by side with my kids is how my oldest always approached his work with a plan–it was very hard for him to let go and play. And my middle child almost never approached with a plan. They’ve both moved away from their respective end poles a bit, and it’s lovely to watch my oldest relax and let go, and my middle child become more deliberate.

  4. Pingback: Why Process Over Product? {Part Three} | kids in the studio

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