Fill Your Paper with the Breathings of Your Heart

During our Artist-in-Residence Week, the children were in a happy, creative fervor as they explored new techniques and materials alongside professional artists.

Part of the joy of making art with the children, beyond seeing how rapt and focused they are as they explore the materials, is listening to them discuss their discoveries. Creating art is a challenge for the hand, the eye and the imagination, and talking about it is a spur to language development. Young children are often more excited to talk about their process—how they experimented with thick and runny paint, or how tricky it was to attach two pieces together—than the visual result. But they often have profound and insightful reflections to share about their work. Their striking creations sometimes call to mind Wordsworth’s line: “Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.”

Our students are very open-hearted and curious about art, and with guidance from their teachers, they learn to find words for what artists do. When the teachers share images of Matisse’s paper cutouts or Van Gogh’s landscapes, the children pick up the vocabulary to describe color, line, form and technique. By listening to the teachers talk about visual and tactile effects, they are able to make perceptive observations about art by their peers as well as by famous artists.

A lovely, encouraging guide for parents who want to share their favorite artworks with children is Françoise Barbe-Gall’s How to Talk to Children About Art. The author showcases 30 famous paintings, from Botticelli to Jackson Pollock, and then imagines the questions and reactions a child would have in front of each picture. Using a developmental approach, with color-coded pages for different ages (5–6, 7–8, 9–11), Barbe-Galle approaches each painting as a side-by-side adventure, with a child and an adult taking turns to describe what each sees.

The author’s point is that you don’t need years of training in art history to enjoy looking closely at a work of art. One example she offers is Uccello’s Saint George and the Dragon, a wonderful painting to peruse with a child because it has many mysterious details to notice and ponder. (The princess has the dragon on a red leash! There’s a dark cyclone cloud behind the knight. It’s bright daylight but the moon is out. The dragon’s lair looks like a formal garden.) As you look closely at the facial expressions, poses, costumes, the contortions of the animals and the surreal weather, the eerie, playful, storybook quality of the painting emerges. It’s a work that mesmerizes more than five centuries after it was made.

We don’t usually think of coffee-table books and artist monographs as children’s books—but they can be. Indeed, Barbe-Galle sees such books as the perfect medium for conversations about art—even better than a museum, where the works are hung above a child’s eye level. And best of all, there’s no one to stop your child from putting a finger down in the middle of a picture and announcing, “I love this one the most!”