Help with Painting
At the bottom of this post you can see that I wrote it more than 10 years ago. At that time the Third Grade Syllabus was new—it has since been joined by grades 4, 5 and, summer 2019, 6. In every syllabus there is advice for painting and painting features as part of 6th grade physics during studies of color, light and dark.)
Something which appeals to many people new to Waldorf education but which also fills them with dread is wet on wet watercolor painting. The colors are so vibrant and it is clearly a healthy and nurturing activity – but it is also really hard. Yes, you read that right – wet on wet watercolor painting is really hard! I can’t tell you how many people have sidled up to me at workshops, furtively looking over their shoulder or whispered hushed confessions to me in the course of telephone consultations that they find watercolor painting to be very difficult – but shhhhhh – “people” (whomever they are!) say that it is not.
Well, it is. After 14 years of a Waldorf education and many years painting as a Waldorf teacher, Camphill housemother, and Waldorf homeschooler, I can freely absolve all of you out there from your guilt at not being good enough or having what it takes to successfully paint in the Waldorf way. Colors float off the paper, figures blob out until they are unrecognizable, hairs from the brush show up in inappropriate places…. and paintings that look very nice when wet morph into something completely different when dry! Been there – done that!! I know all the pit falls. Too bad I don’t have all the solutions!!
But I can offer some advice. In my kindergarten book, Curriculum Overview, first grade syllabus and second grade syllabus I give a long list of painting advice – and in the new third grade syllabus I have added to this. I also give step by step instruction on how I painted various paintings reproduced in full color in the second and third grade curriculum – as well as an apology for the slight weirdness of the colors. Our printers, wonderful as they are, cannot seem to reproduce my paintings accurately! It is so frustrating! I have written out how I “brushed a sweep of golden yellow across the sky” and just know that people will be looking at their own paints and saying to themselves – “but my golden yellow doesn’t look anything like that!” Yes – that’s right – neither did mine. But even modern printers have their limitations.
Anyway, I thought I’d trouble shoot some of the most common problems that people seem to have when attempting to work with wet on wet and see if this helps. And I hope that it does – wet on wet is a wonderfully healing art that brings a great sense of peace and is an essential part of a healing approach to education, which is, after all, the highest mission of a Waldorf education. It’s a pity when people give it up out of frustration of not being able to succeed.
First of all…. do, by all means, paint with your young children of about 4 and up – but keep everything out of reach until it is being used. Create a strong form around how you take out the paint. soak the paper, lay it on a board (you must get painting boards – they are essential) and how you present the paints. No silliness or messing around – it is an awesome gift to a young child to expect that she can meet the requirements of an art like wet on wet. Create the right mood of reverence and awe and let her experience how that resonates within her soul and is met by the glorious soul-singing colors of Stockmar or Stone watercolor paints. Light a candle and say a verse before painting and help impress upon your child not by what you say but by how you act that wet on wet is something very special.
Do only use one color at first when painting with your little one. Let her really get to experience blue, in all its subtleties. She will not be “bored” with this unless you (or another adult or older child) bring such a possibility to her awareness. If you have ever seen a little child carefully and solemnly painting with just one color – carefully dipping in his brush, considering where to start and how to move along the paper, when to stop, how much more to paint – you will never ever again think that painting with “just one color” could somehow be missing something.
After perhaps a few months of once or twice a week painting with just one color at a time ( use one color for a few weeks before changing to another) (and do use only primary colors – rose red, ultramarine blue and either golden or lemon yellow will suffice through first grade) then use two colors. Tell a little story: “One day red went out to play and he met with a cheerful friend called yellow. Red asked yellow to dance with him – and off they went, round and round the playground.” Then you do this painting as you speak. Your child watches – keep her prepared paper up on a shelf away from her while she watches you paint your picture. Children of 4 – 6 are highly imitative – this is as it should be. So don’t work against this by expecting her to be able to contain herself from painting when you want her to watch! Preparation and being several steps ahead – as in all teaching and parenting – is 90% of what’s necessary!!
DO NOT USE TOO MUCH WATER! This is THE number one reason why wet on wet fails and people give up. It is only relatively wet – perhaps it should be called Damp Watercolor Painting to give a more accurate name. Your paper should be soaked in a tray for about 5 minutes – and then mostly dried. It needs to be damp. No puddles!! When you tilt your head so you can see alongside the paper, there should be no wet patches. Mop them up with a paper towel – no rubbing!
Along this theme, do teach yourself and your child to squeeze out all excess paint or water every single time the brush is dipped into either. Dip, squeeze. Swoosh in clean water, squeeze, dip in paint, squeeze again. Use your fingers to squeeze the brush and then wipe them off on paper towel.
Do not pre-mix paints. Once you’ve got to the stage when your child is using all three colors (first grade) or all six (second or third grade on), let him have the experience of “letting the colors meet.” Let them blend on the paper – the wetness – er, dampness – will ensure that they blend beautifully and in different ways depending on how your child creates his painting.
And no child ever creates a wet on wet painting like any other child’s. So many parents new to Waldorf visit the schools and say “why do all the paintings all look the same?” Aside from the fact that they clearly only visited the first and/or second grade classrooms, they have not paused to look carefully enough. Look again at those supposedly identical 20 pictures hung on the wall – this one is very light, tentative even. This child used broad bold sweeps of yellow. This one used just a tiny bit of blue and a great expanse of yellow. This child’s paper was obviously so wet that most of the color floated right off the page. And so on.
Through this wonderful art, children can express and experience the secrets that live within their soul and which are called forth by the resounding glory of pure color and without there being any interference of the thinking processes. This is a heart centered activity that every child – and adult – can learn to simply breathe into and relax into, supported by the fluidity and grace of the medium.
One last note…. please do not attempt to create forms before second grade. Yes, I know – we have examples of paintings on our Homeschooler’s Work section which have forms done by younger children – but that’s what people gave us! There is a real tendency – especially, it seems, on the West Coast, to bring form too quickly to what is essentially a formless art. Wet on wet is primarily about mood and about gesture. The colors need to speak unfettered by form – and the younger a child is, the more this is so.
However, by second grade, children will certainly want to be able to create some forms – but if one continues to prioritize color and mood, this can help enormously – and help a child get over the fact that her Michael isn’t exactly as she wanted. What should the Archangel Michael look like? Well, he needs to be upright and he needs to be a strong powerful golden figure – with this in mind, a rather general figure which encompasses the mood and gesture but not the formed impression of Michael can easily be created.
When, thou, forms just do need to be made, here’s a tip: paint the background and then let it dry. Return and using a dry brush, carefully paint your figures without using any further water. This helps enormously.
And good luck!