Process, not Progress: What My Preschooler Taught Me About Art

"Painting is not fun." These were words exclaimed in exasperation, a response to my insisting that we paint this morning. Okay, every morning. It was a wake-up call. I had committed the mortal sin of art with kids:
I had been focusing on the product of creation rather than the process of creation. 
In my defense, I had only made what I thought were casual suggestions: "Why don't we paint this leaf that you found?" or "Why don't you paint something that makes you happy?" Open-ended enough, I thought. But, even in those statements there was a hidden clause: we had to make something.

It was the unspoken "something" that had hung in the air over our last few art sessions. A shapeless mold that her work has to fit into; shapeless, but a mold nonetheless. One time, as was my habit, I'd asked her what she was drawing. She answered, "Please don't ask me, Mommy." Maybe she herself had not decided yet.

Art with kids is about the process. The act of dipping your fingers in the paint is just as important—or even more important—than the marks the paint leaves of the paper. If not a single drop of color makes it to the paper (instead ending up on arms and legs, cheeks and noses), it is still a successful artistic exploration.

What a foreign concept to us grownups. Our entire adult (and all our schooled) life has been about producing, producing, producing. The new mantra now, of course is, practice makes progress. But even that presumes that at the end of the practice session you will have something to show for it.

Update: After posting this, I read an NPR interview with Erika Christakis, author of The Importance of Being Little, and it's too good not to share. In the interview, she says, 
A lot of the time, as parents, we are trained to expect products, cute projects. And I like to say that the role of art in preschool or kindergarten curriculum should be to make meaning, not necessarily things. But it's hard to get parents to buy into this idea that their kids may not come home with the refrigerator art because maybe they spent a week messing around in the mud. (Emphasis mine. Read the rest of the interview here.)
In my own artistic explorations, one of my mantras is "practice makes progress." As a hyper-critical ex-perfectionist, it's already a big step for me to seek "progress, not perfection." I look at my work and see where the strokes have gotten smoother, the color choices more confident, or even the practice more regular. But maybe I need to take it even a step back for my kids: to not view their work looking for signs of progress. There is hidden judgment in the words we choose to say. "I like the colors you used today," I'd say, or "Wow, that looks like a tree" (meaning, it looks more like a tree than the "tree" you did yesterday).

Common wisdom says, "Display your kids art! Show them you're proud of them! Put their best efforts on the wall!" But what of the efforts that are less than their best: a cat that becomes a dinosaur that becomes an expanding black hole in an effort to start over, a dot on a paper made in an experiment to see what a fingertip looks like when covered in ink, a shape that is unlike any shape ever named. These don't go on the wall, but does that make them less worthy of praise, pride, or satisfaction? Do we need to be proud of all our work? Is the work not worth doing if it doesn't make us feel something? Or if all we feel after is tired, was the morning wasted, the practice pointless?

Or, perhaps, the spirit of the act is enough, regardless of your art—or your age.

Reclaiming the Process and Making Art Fun Again 

I set up the paints and poured the water on them. Not in careful dabs with a brush—we made shallow pools of rainbow colors.

"Mommy, you're making a mess," she said, giggling.

"Today, that's the only thing we have to make."

We used the good envelopes. I had been saving them for a special day (for 8 years!), but perhaps in using them, this ordinary day would become more special.

We used the sticks we'd collected from our morning walk. I used mine one way. She used hers another. I tried not to teach her how to dip the tip in the paint to get “the best results.” She watched without a word; I watched her copy me. Unsatisfied, she tried another way, breaking her stick in half then using both ends dipped in different colors. I liked her way better.

We used our fingers. Then our fingertips. Then our hands.

She led, I followed. She showed me how to splatter, how to smudge, how to spread, how to splotch.

I showed her that Mommy can be teachable.

In the end, we did make something. We couldn't help it: we are makers. Out of the mess came some beautiful work and, yes, I will display them proudly.

But, she was off and running after she'd washed and dried her hands. Once the paper left the table to be dried, she was unconcerned with whether they ended up in the bin or the museum. I guess for her the something she'd made was space and time just for her and me. "I'm happy you're here; I'm glad we did this, Mommy." A thought worth framing.

A morning well-spent

The Art of Making Messes for Mess-Allergic Moms

1) Dress appropriately.
Nothing kills an artistic mood like the words "be careful." Those art aprons or smocks? Useless when your child considers her entire body her canvas. I have to keep relearning this lesson because, apparently, they don't outgrow this stage after toddlerhood.

Today, she wore a swimsuit, the perfect outfit for water and paint—and after-art washing up.

2) Have the cheap set ready.
Mommy's paints are off-limits—and that's okay. She's not in a place developmentally where she can remember to always clean her brush before she dips it in a new color; we're not in a place financially where we can buy new art sets weekly. Those are the facts. So for intentionally messy process art sessions, bring out the school-grade, child-friendly paints that she can dig her brush into or mix to make her favorite shade of brown.

3) Protect your surfaces.
A tablecloth saves our laminate floors indoors, or we paint outside on the washable tile. For peace of mind, test paint washability on walls beforehand, in case of splatter. I learned the hard way that food-color-based homemade paint doesn't always wash off.

4) Use small containers.
I like inexpensive sauce/dipping bowls. Preschoolers and toddlers will pour. It's almost a built in behavior. Don't have any containers available the contents of which you're not comfortable seeing all over the floor. It's up to you whether the kids get to make a puddle or a lake.

5) Manage expectations.
Before I had kids, I once wrote an article for Smart Parenting that encouraged moms to get dirty with their kids because the experience would be memorable and "worth it". And then I had kids and, ugh, found out I was the mom I was speaking to. I hate getting paint on myself! I don't like cleaning up messes. There's nothing magical to me about the feeling of goo on my skin.

But put yourself in your kids shoes; they're having the time of their life covered in 12 shades of purple, and you're constantly dabbing and wiping, and refusing hugs. Yes, I refuse hugs when my kids are sticky. Or I did, until I took a step back and saw myself and my daughter, and the look on her face when I'd tell her I didn't like being sticky. I might as well have told her that I didn't like her.

So, take a deep breathe and expect to get dirty. Expect the sweat and the hair in your eyes that you can't brush away because your hands are wrist-deep in glitter sand. Expect that you might find out what food-color and vinegar tastes like. Expect that whatever you happen to wear during an art session, stays the same color as the art session. Expect that your child will suddenly forget whatever rules you laid out at the beginning (it must be the paint fumes) and pour whatever medium you're using outside of the mat. 

Dirt, paint, sand, glue, they all wash off. Feel the catharsis as the morning goes down the drain. Enjoy the indelible mental photographs you've created. Then, with both of you now fresh and clean, ask for a snuggle. You've earned it.

Bonus Fun: DIY Watercolors

DIY Watercolors:
Posted by Skillshare on Thursday, February 4, 2016