Last year when my daughter started Kindy we had a lot of adjustments and growing pains – like many other kids and parents, no doubt. Although I am a huge champion of teachers and public schools in principle, I also believe that there are lots of systemic issues (starting with funding!) that aren’t always conducive to nurturing creativity.
Lots has been written on the subject and I won’t get into it here, but Ken Robinson’s now famous TedTalk: Do Schools Kill Creativity? is a good place to start. But I spent much of last year trying to figure out what changes I could work towards on a broad scale and what I could do hands-on in our own school.
So I offered my time in the classroom helping with art projects and my daughter’s lovely Kindy teacher took me up on it, asking if I would do a series of self-portraits with the kids, linking it to the Archibald Prize. It was a great way to get to know Luella’s classmates (40 kids across 2 Kindy classes), to observe a bit more of their daily life at school, and of course, make space for their creativity to flourish.
I was given 6 kids a week to work with at a time, which was a nice small group. We started off with looking at some famous self-portraits in the art world:
We’d start with Vincent Van Gogh, a fairly realistic depiction and discuss the colours and lines – why do you think he used so much blue? What kinds of feelings do these colours bring up?.
Next I’d pull up Andy Warhol, partly because his portrait always gets a laugh and someone would say “His hair is crazy!” which would lead me to ask why he might depict himself with crazy hair – what does he want the viewer to know about himself? What do you want people to know about you when they look at your portrait?
Moving on to Frida Kahlo we’d discuss the animals and plants depicted in her paintings. I’d tell them a little bit about Frida’s life, being often confined to a hospital bed and ask them why she might want to depict nature in her paintings. What might you like to add in your background? What’s important to you?
Lastly, Pablo Picasso which also got a bit of a laugh and started a discussion on making portraits that are more abstract, playing with patterns and shapes, experimenting and doing your own thing – even if it looks nothing like anyone else’s work.
Inevitably they’d be itching to get painting at this point which is something to note – I’d always wait to put out their materials. Everything would be set up on the side for me to hand out in steps.
Step 1 was to draw a head in pencil, and I’d point to our examples of how the head fills almost the whole space. I had a cardboard silhouette of a head and shoulders I’d let the kids trace if they were struggling with getting the right scale.
Step 2 I’d talk them through adding detail, starting with the face, then the hair, clothing and anything they might like to include in the background. It can be tough to get kids to fill the space so I’d really encourage that aspect and re-iterate those ideas of “what do you want people to know about you?” and ask where they are in the portrait. We ended up with lots of outer space, under water, and at the beach drawings.
Step 3 I’d have them go over all the lines in black marker because it just makes the portraits pop off the page more.
Step 4 The paint. I chose water colours for this because using anything thicker like tempera often results in them just slapping on colour, mixing everything into a big brown blur and the strong desire to paint on one’s hands. Granted, these are all things I encourage when we’re playing and doing open-ended art, but with something more project-oriented, you need to set some limitations. It’s also transparent enough to allow those black lines through.
Step 5 I’d talk a lot about colour as the kids worked, referring again back the artists’ portraits and what they’re trying to convey with colour, about mixing colours and experimenting with how much water they used, about filling the page and about how the colours didn’t necessarily need to reflect what they actually looked like.
And though I’m not usually results-focused, I really loved how many of these portraits turned out – and how unique they all are. Here are the portraits from the first workshop:
I shared that image on Instagram with the hashtag #kindyart and was exploring other photos on that thread and one came up that was basically the same project at another school, except that the 6 portraits in the photo all looked nearly identical. The kids all made themselves in their school uniform, all had the same skin colour and face, with small variations in hair and eye colour, blank white backgrounds.
I won’t share it because it’s not my work, and I’m not trying to critique another facillitator’s style, but it does point to two very different approaches. I think there are plenty of valid skills to be learned from painting more realistic portraits (I suspect those kids got out mirrors to observe their faces).
But I also kind of think as kids go through school they are starting to form their identities, but also have fewer and fewer opportunities to express themselves. So if they want to paint themselves with four eyes or rainbow stripes on their faces or as Iron Man, then who am I to stifle those impulses?
Later in the year the school had an art show and we mounted the portraits on black card stock to hang in the gallery. I only wish I could have done more in the classroom!