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To Paint Like a Child...

Updated: Aug 27, 2023

I have recently had the huge pleasure to have been asked to teach Expressive Landscape Painting to a Primary School in Shropshire. I taught every year group from Reception (4 yr olds) to year 6 (10-11 yr olds).

No matter what their grade I took them through 4 stages in preparation for them producing their own response to the local landscape by their school. The Head teacher had wanted them to learn that a painting is still a success even if its not totally representational. The Self Critic begins at an early age, so he wanted them to have the "tools" and "vocabulary" in order to express what they were observing. They could then learn to put some personal expressions into the work, and find unique ways to communicate their feelings and emotions about the landscape they were observing. He was keenly aware that many pupils get deflated as their work may not be looking like a Turner or Constable painting at first sight! He wanted them to see my work as an example of an Artist expressing through paint, landscape views in a more impressionist style, for them to see other ways of recording landscape. He chose the local landscape as the subject, as a means to record their formative years that they will one day look back on and be reminded of their local roots, childhood and school. So we first had to build some foundations of technique/ colour theory / and observation so they could confidently produce a landscape. It was very beneficial to them to do this over 1-2 days intensive teaching so they really could get into the "flow" of work.

It was immense fun!

One Rule I made at the beginning was they had to learn that they were not allowed to "trash" their work verbally or otherwise! They could not say of their painting "its rubbish!" However, they were allowed to say things like,"I'm not happy with this part, I want to change it".. and then we would discuss what was bothering them, and how they worked that differently and changed things, if need be.

I showed them some of my work and talked about what I like about painting landscapes, and how I go about about a painting. I showed them sketchbooks of rough workings, so they could see the process. Introduced words like OBSERVATION and HORIZON and PERSPECTIVE and what those mean - appropriate for the ages of the pupils.

The 4 stages I took them through were:

Expressive Mark Making Mood board: Taped off a large piece of paper, and they were given a limited palette of one to two colours plus white, a variety of big and little, round and flat brushes, some mark making tools like cake decorating spatulas with serrated edges. under my instruction they could make up a colour, and with a chosen tool, they could make one to two big marks, and then keep repeating with new marks, tools and colours. (the younger years I didn't give as many instructions but had them enjoy the process of making different colours and marks at will) We found other things to make textures like scrunched up paper towels, tinfoil, etc. At the end we removed the masking tape.

AIM: to teach them, each motion and mark is important, less is more sometimes, and taking care to choose a colour they like, and then thinking about the movement they will make. The oohs and ahs were fun as they removed the tape to see 4 separate paintings.

Mark Making with Pens - introducing different mark making techniques with a pen. Sectioned off page into 6-8 sections. each box was filled with marks under my instruction.

AIM: to see how mark making can bring interest and information to the painting, such as movement or emotion.

Composition Tools with 5 shapes. Simple vocabulary of squares, circles, triangles, oblongs, and waves... Exercises in deciding what shape and where is will go and what size it will be. Landscape can be made up of just a few simple shapes placed well.

AIM- give them confidence to break down the view they are seeing into definite shapes for trees, bushes and mountains etc, so they can note-take when out sketching and not be overwhelmed with the information they are seeing.

COLOUR work.. with a limited palette they get to discover how to mix beautiful colours and take time to do that. Gradually introducing more colours in so they can see how the primaries produce secondaries etc..

AIM: they discover the HUGE range of colours they can make just by mixing slightly different amounts of colour in a well planned way. The only colours on their palettes were Magenta, Yellow and Blue plus white. NO BLACK! - ( ok very, very little black - I think it sneaked onto a few canvases! - however its a very dominating colour, and I didn't want them to drown the painting with such a force that they would lose the other effects going on) No ready made colours were poured except the primaries - except near the end I allowed a Burnt Sienna Brown to speed things up for things they wanted brown. All the other colours you see are ones they made themselves.

The next day it was sketching and note taking outside. Then translating that onto their chosen canvas. Then blocking in the main colours, and later the mark making and details to finish it off.

Because the weather was nasty that day - the Reception class ( 4yr olds) worked from a photo I had taken of school playground and we all worked from the same picture. They did SO well! I absolutely love the bold way they put their work down into the sketchbooks.

This is some of the work from the Experimental Limited Palette Board work by Year 2/3's.

Although many of them knew their colour mixing theory - it was still very exciting for them to realise they had just made a secondary colour when they had just 2 colours on their palette. It made them more mindful of working with colour in general, and it was exciting, especially when we removed the masking tape to reveal 4 smaller works.

This is by now means all the work done in the school, but a taster, of which they all should be very proud of - even the ones who didn't make it onto the page due to space limitations!

I loved working with these bright, inquisitive students! What struck me and the Head teacher, was that all the student's work was so unique - there was no "cookie cutter work" going on here! They all decided themselves what they would focus on with their sketch work (which in itself was so lovely to see all the variety)... they then had to execute it onto a big canvas, many had never done before. They then had to choose which colours, which brushes, which techniques to use.. and what they would do to rectify things that were not working well.

Many of them during the Colour Work mini lesson had enjoyed seeing my colour swatches and worked on making their own 'recipes' of colour. Some used my swatches near their painting to help decide what colours they wanted to make. So there were a lot of decisions bing made throughout the project.

We had some excitement from a boys table in year 1-2 when they exclaimed they had made "Slate Grey" and also a lovely Teal.. little interior designers on the way I think!

The joy on their faces as they discovered new colours and new ways of doing things.. and then just the magic process of creating. The buzz of creativity and some singing included at some points too, was exciting to see!

We also talked about how they were feeling during the painting class.. Here are some of their words that they spontaneously volunteered:

“I feel “……

calm x 3





feels like Christmas!





happy x 5




fun Epic! satisfying…


Painting is fun!

Learned to keep colours clean.

That it is enjoyable.

Learned to mix their own colours.

Learned not to be shy at trying a new thing,

They could make new decisions if it wasn’t working well, they could change the painting.

learned what they did and did not like about different effects.

Were now more confident artists.

Learned to talk nicely about their work and use constructive criticism.

When things don’t go well “Don’t panic!” - some children told to me they used this lesson in the playground that day when something wasn't going well in a little friend group issue

photo courtesy of Goalcast. Thanks Picasso... so very true.

Pure Joy. These children really understood some of the concepts - but more than that - they just had fun expressing themselves, more confident now to make their own choices on colours and where their shapes would go.

This one feels like it should be part of a story book illustration! Well done Class!

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