Leading and Caring for Children

Talking About Art

Ways to convey to children that art isn’t words; it speaks for itself.

boy painting and finished work

“Look!” Nathan says when his work is finished, and you respond…

Oh, how beautiful.
Can you tell me about it?
You worked really hard at that.

In my experience observing early childhood educators, these are the three most common kinds of things people say to children when talking about their art: they judge; they question; they make false assumptions about things they haven’t seen. Most people might agree these could be described as detached, habitual, or inauthentic utterances that do little to educate Nathan in the nature or skills of artistic expression.

This is the protocol or convention I use immediately after a child completes working on a painting. I think this is the most important time for the educator to step in and discuss the work. Normally I leave children alone when they are painting in order for them to interact with what they have done. Painting, as opposed to clay, is an all-consuming process of impulsive acts and seeing results, over and over again. Somehow clay can be explored while talking to others, which is not true of painting. At the end of a painting, it’s time to talk.

I invite you to try this way of talking about art and see if you find it enhancing engagement and expressiveness. The goal is for all of us to attend to how art communicates what cannot be said in words.

Three parts to this listening protocol: stopping, hearing, responding.

Becoming Available

Stopping. I pause, wait, and listen first, keeping my impulse to say something under control. I assume that to start I will spend at least 10 seconds in silence, looking closely at the work, taking it in, waiting for the child to say something or turn to me. Sometimes it is longer as I work to pay close attention. I want to be empathetically available, here and now. It usually takes 10 seconds for my whirring thoughts to stop.

Listening to the Person

Hearing. A conversation is not necessarily the focus; this time is dedicated to a work of artistic expression. If the child wants to say something, I find it usually takes 10 to 15 seconds to transition from the non-verbal intensity of painting to conveying thoughts in words.

If the child says nothing right away, you still have offered a space for closeness that conveys your interest. If the child says something, I recommend the Responding Convention, which I discussed in other contexts: Best Practices in College Teaching, Responsiveness, Active Listening.

I use these to make sure I hear the meaning of those words or actions.

1. Paraphrase

I restate the child’s underlying message, confirming I understand what they mean by trying to say the same thing from my point of view using totally different words. I want to check we have communication: sending—receiving—confirmation.
Nathan: Look! Tom: You want me to see.
Nathan: I’m done. Tom: Ready to move on.

2. Parallel Personal Comment

As an alternative or a subsequent step I can reply with something from my own experience that exactly corresponds. I must match the topic exactly.
NathanIt’s a cave. Tom: It looks dark in there.
Nathan: It’s a cave. Tom: Too scary for me.

Listening to the Work

Responding. Two parts here, also. First, objective comments that focus on those aspects of the media that can be regarded and, if appropriate, sharing my personal, subjective experience of how the painting speaks to me directly, in the way art does. I find it takes concentration to attend to the work first. Then these guides help me respond.

1. Objective Comments

Painting has its manipulable qualities seen in the application of paint and the results on the paper. (Clay has another set of qualities to regard, wire still another. All media are different.)

In no particular order:

Brushwork: quality of line, weight, texture, direction, fullness/dryness of the brush, energy conveyed in movement.

Color: fully descriptive names for colors, referring to colors found in nature, color balance on the page, the ways colors interact (blending, overpainting, and mixing), receding colors, advancing colors, complementary colors, tints, shades, colored grays and browns we see in life versus the colors in the paint containers.

Mass: use of space on the page, relationships of spaces, relative sizes, balance, negative space, the travel of one’s eye

2. Subjective Comments

As in other discussions  at this site, I use the word subjective to mean I am the subject of the sentence. Sharing one’s experience of regarding an artist’s work communicates to the child what art does for the human spirit. Here is an opportunity to convey something of the impact the work has on a sensitive observer of the child’s work. Usually these are brief comments that allude to what makes art unique.

Personal associations: what immediately comes to mind, first thoughts, “Reminds me of…”

Personal experience: attending to one’s emotions as if personally immersed in it and then describing one’s feelings, describing an experience where that same feeling was created.

Below are protocol examples applied to Nathan’s painting.

Objective Comments

Examples of comments about brushwork:

I see drip lines and dots over areas of color.

Your brush spread the blue evenly, creating smooth areas, where you can’t see the strokes.

Other places I can still see how you moved the brush.

The smooth area remains calm, so the color itself is what is most noticeable.

Gently brushed areas around the outside catch the eye, providing an energy and interest.

The fast, strong strokes dark middle almost explode in your face.

Examples of comments about color:

The deep blue of unmixed primary color right from the cup dominates the painting.

Where you brushed white paint into the blue, the colors blended into a bluish white or a whitened blue. In blending, you can still see both colors.

Where the blue and white mixed (top right) it tinted the blue, same blue but lighter.

The line of dribbled white and the dots didn’t mix and stayed on top; that’s overpainting.

Where yellow mixed into the black, none of it remained. Black is strong.

I can understand the muddy brown was made by the yellow into black, but I have no idea where the rusty brown came from. That would need some red, but I don’t see it.

Blue over the black turned dark as night.

I see apple greens and the colors of clouds.

Those dots of yellow come forward like lights.

Examples of comments about mass:

The page is filled entirely; the colors go right to the edge of the paper.

The white line connects one side of the painting to the other, like a string.

This painting has four areas: the white center dot, the dark tumbling flow in the middle, the sea of blue around it, the edges of lighter blue.

Subjective Comments

These are best kept brief. The goal is to show how one person is affected by what the painting conveys.

Examples of personal associations:

“It reminds me of falling off a bicycle: everything is beautiful and fun, then crash-and-burn Ouch!”

Examples of personal experience:

“It makes me feel like the trouble is there, but I’m OK about it. I can handle it without getting upset.”

Here’s an example from the Examples of Learning Stories page from the Jolene materials shows this convention applied to her painting. Note how brief the comments are. It’s not an art lecture.

Tempera Paint

Here are Jolene’s painting and Nathan’s side by side. Note the difference in the quality of the paint.

Jolene was using a kind of tempera that is washable and comes in premixed colors. Nathan was using a premium tempera from a major online supplier. Note how the depth of the color in Nathan’s retains its vibrancy when dry. Note, too, that the paint Jolene was using does not blend or mix; when one color goes over another it stays on top and no new color is created like Nathan’s apple greens and deep browns.

I care about providing the tools that work, like paint brushes that hold enough paint for a long line, color that excites the eye, paper that is weighty enough to carry a thick coat of paint. Great art materials attract children back another day to find that same excitement.

I think the work that preschool children do with tempera paint might be the most creative works of art they make in their lives. Children this age have both the ability and the unfettered freedom to try what comes to mind. In the beginning they explore the medium and its properties, but once they become intentional in action, they become less of a scientist and more of an artist.

Art at this age is almost magical. Art enables children to discover what they can do and who they are with a precious immediacy that can startle the mind.

Presentation of Tempera


2 oz portion cups so impure leftovers, like the yellow, can be discarded
choice of two brushes, long handle or short handle|
tray serves as both carrier and palette
red, yellow, blue primaries, white and black
cyan, magenta, and yellow would be better, but cyan paint isn’t available
turquoise doesn’t replace the mixing qualities of cyan

Exercises for Protocol Practice

Objective qualities: brushwork, color, mass
Subjective comments: associations, emotional experience









liquid watercolor
0.5 oz portion containers with a very small amount of liquid watercolor
cut down sheets of 140 lb. student grade watercolor paper
one taped to back of a tray and another taped to the front
children start with the front side and turn it over to paint the back paper
container of water
brushes #0 and #2



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