Technique Schmechnique: Why Kids Don’t Need to be Taught How to Use a Paintbrush | David Rufo

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On an online education forum an art teacher asked: “Can students be taught to use paintbrushes so that the bristles aren’t ruined?” I replied with a variety of suggestions: students could experiment with paintbrushes or employ alternate methods of paint application via fingers, sticks, paper towels, or squeegees. The responses from other educators endorsed traditional applications rather than experimental or unconventional methods of applying paint. Some recommended that students use their brushes “gently,” “respectfully,” and “carefully” in order to generate work that was “nice” and “proper.” In their opinion, students should first be taught to use paintbrushes in appropriate ways. Then, they must practice these techniques so the resulting artwork was not “messy” or “bad.” One teacher even implied that students who were “caught” using brushes improperly should have their painting privileges taken away. I felt the tenor of the posts was summed up by this comment: “care of the tool is paramount.”

I believe the emphasis on the technical aspects of watercolor painting has limited the ways in which watercolor painting can be taught. After perusing the online galleries of past Scholastic Art Award winners it becomes evident that the paintings of high school students generally fall into a handful of stylistic approaches and genres. Similarly, the majority of artists who received awards from the American Watercolor Society contain realistic renderings or decorative abstracts with tightly controlled brushwork. It appears that much of art education is “discipline-centered” rather than “student-centered” [1] where “specific art object exemplars that have been so designated by individuals with expert status” [2] drive instruction. However, as art educator Karen Hamblen warned “focusing on what is deemed to represent the aesthetic heights of a culture could give students a distorted view of art and a view that has little resemblance to the world in which they live” [2].

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The German artist Emil Nolde” represented the archetype of the Expressionist painter and his creation” [3]. In a catalogue description of a 1940 watercolor painting by Nolde, Laura Klar Phillips wrote: “Nolde created images of unmatched beauty and poetry, [with] vibrant colors flowing into one another and saturating the page in fluid, transparent pools” [4]. She described the painting’s “extravagant, emotive displays of color” and the piece as evidence of Nolde’s “great technical assurance and expressive vigor” [4]. I had a similar reaction as I recently watched a group of my fourth and fifth grade students creating watercolor paintings.

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I was curious to see how my students would approach watercolor painting if given the freedom and agency to use the materials as they wished. One Friday afternoon I offered my students the option of watercolor painting during their independent learning time. Instead of requiring them to first practice a specific technique or “imitate visual exemplars by other artists” [5] I made a brief announcement, placed the materials on a table, and walked away.

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A group of students quickly gathered around and without any prior instruction picked up brushes, cracked opened the plastic boxes containing pans of watercolors, and began to paint. The children employed a variety of methods. Some held their brushes in tightly clenched fists; others gripped the brushes between their middle and ring fingers, a few balanced their brushes between thumb and forefinger. Brushes were wielded like sabers attacking the paper with frenzied precision. One student, her brush loaded and dripping with water quickly stroked a pan of Cobalt Blue then tapped the tip onto the paper creating a deep, thick pools which she blotted with a tissue, creating a mottled effect. A second student held her brush perpendicular to the paper and made deliberate strokes, forming an abstract branch-like structure. A third used both hands to spin a brush, handle upright, with the bristle end jammed into the paint. She then placed her face inches from the paper, and produced quick abbreviated strokes.

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The brushes were pushed, pulled, spun, swirled, dipped, flicked, tapped, whipped, and turned. Paint was dripped, dabbed, poured, puddled, stroked, swept, and scumbled. It felt as if I were watching a highlight reel of modern abstract art.  Some pieces were reminiscent of Kandinsky’s early abstract work.Others contained a pop sensibility. Here a Helen Frankenthalercolor field piece, there a Morris Louis stained work. An Adolph Gottlieb blotch suddenly bumped up against a 1960s era Larry Poons dot and dash piece.

I wish I could paint as they do.

Christie’s auction house estimated the value of Nolde’s painting to be between $300,000 and $500,000. It ended up selling for $698,500. One student gave me six paintings for free as she skipped out the doorway.

References
[1] Bullock, A.L. & Galbraith, L. (1992). Images of art teaching: Comparing the beliefs and practices of two secondary art teachers. Studies in Art Education, 33(2), 86-97.
[2] Hamblen, K.A. (1987). An examination of discipline-based art education issues. Studies in Art Education, 28(2), 68-78.
[3] Bradley, W.S. (1986). Emil Nolde and German expressionism: A prophet in his own land. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press.
[4] Phillips, L.K. (2012). Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Art evening sale November 7,2012. New York, NY: Christie’s.
[5] Lampert, N. (2011). Kindness in the art classroom: Kind thoughts on Stephen Rowland.  London Review of Education, 9(1), 119-121.

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