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36 JANUARY 2002
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Karen vanderVen

Painting by numbers can be good for kids

"Paint By Numbers"? Believe it or not, famous artists such as Andy Warhol learned about art and practiced their skills by doing “paint-by-numbers" paintings years ago, according to a recent newspaper article I read. Vindicated! I said to myself. For many years as an activities worker with troubled and handicapped children in various settings, “paint by numbers" pictures were a mainstay in my crafts supply closets. There were many attractive paintings laboriously produced in my shops. Where there had been a slip over the boundary or the paint was a little too thick here and there amazingly this added to the atttractiveness of the painting. I still prize several of these given to me as gifts by the children upon my departure.

I had always been convinced that these paintings not only were an excellent developer of skills, but also that they yielded meaningful results. This opinion certainly went against the prevailing ethos of the time: that any art experience needed to be totally unbounded; that any imposition of structure or content would “stifle their creativity". And that the children didn’t care about the “product"; “process" was everything! The thing was, to me, that most of these children and youth didn’t have much to base their creativity on. Their experiences were limited. They did not have the ability to select or to plan how they might execute an art or crafts project. Their impulse control (or self-regulation to use today’s term) was highly limited. A few swishes with a brush, a few back-and-forth strokes with a saw; or a few twisted laces in a wallet “and they “didn’t want to do this any more"; they insisted on “a new project".

It seemed to me that the numbered paintings offered the children, among other things, a framework that embraced both content (the nature of the scene to be depicted as the numbers were filled in) and a structure that would directly teach the skills of planning, sequencing, restraint, modifying a response to fit a particular guideline, etc. It offered them something else: the gentle but firm guidance of invested adults.

Coaching, encouraging, and sometimes cajoling a child through a numbered painting through to the end was not always easy. “You still have a space there to be filled. Just take a little bit of paint on your brush and dab it in. “ Oops, looks like that went over the line a bit too much. Take your cloth and wipe that part off". “F... you" might be the response, even as the youth followed through with the instruction.

Furthermore, I thought that with more knowledge of the nature of representation and composition, and the skills of staying at least more or less within the lines, and following a plan step by step, that this would actually develop and release creativity. On their own, then, children could try out and practice what they had already learned about how to approach a task and hopefully had internalized.

Incredibly, when finished, the children's pride in their finished work was immense. Both the exhausted adult and proud child would smile together. To me, back then before the “self-esteem" movement, the way to promote a positive sense of self and identity was to do something with sufficient persistence and discipline so that it yielded a finished product that was recognized and valued by others. Sometimes a ward attendant would break the rules and buy a painting “perhaps the first real money the youngster had ever earned.

The issue to me here is not really one of confirmation or vindication of one’s views. Rather it is recognizing that an absolute position may be more tenable when paired with its counterpart. In this case the contention that lines and numbers “stifle creativity" would be paired with the opposite scenario “that structure, limits and content can actually enhance. Then one might consider that both “structure" and “freedom" together are perhaps optimal. This notion, it seems to me, applies to so many issues in child and youth work. It’s not “whole language" vs. “phonics", it’s both. It’s not “homework" vs. “play", it’s both. It’s not “instructional swim" and “free swim", it’s both. It’s not “training" vs. “education", it’s both. And, always, it’s about adults who offer themselves as “co-egos" to children who need ongoing investment and “structuring" to develop the knowledge and skills they need to apply to life as they continue to grow up ... and who of course also need the security and support within a relationship for expression of feelings, ideas, and ways of doing things in the world.

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