What are you painting?

When an adult notices that a child is drawing, it’s second nature to ask, “what are you drawing?” It just seems so obvious to our grown-up brains that a child has picked up a pencil to create an aspect of the world before his eyes.

But this is not the case.

In recent weeks, I have learned that it is actually a silly question, and that my four year old has the most sensible approach to art: grab a brush, find a canvas, ask for paint and get to work.  The span of time between asking to paint and putting brush to canvas is probably no more than two minutes.

Contrast this with an adult’s work process, which include the time taken thinking time, a pause for self-doubt, several moments of contemplation. No, the child is all about the sheer joy of experimentation, the feeling of paint on the brush, the brush on the canvas, the feeling of his arm as it sweeps the goo across the ever-so-slightly rough surface. He’s in the moment. He’s not worried about the end product and doesn’t think ahead, judge himself or wonder if it “looks like” the thing he’d planned. So when I ask him, “What are you painting?” I’m imposing my own values on him and his process.

I realize that this sounds like a namby-pamby way of saying that I am not actually teaching my child anything. But what’s wrong with that? The guy is FOUR. I don’t know that he’s going to be a realist. Or a cubist. Or an impressionist. Or any kind of -ist. What I do know, however, is that paint’s really gooey and feels really nice to slosh it about. And that he interprets his world through shape recognition, likes order (he sorts toys by colour) and is a big fan of outlines. He’s also got wicked fine motor skills, so watching him draw, with intense focus and in tiny detail, is pretty fascinating.

But I couldn’t help myself. I asked him, “That’s a great picture. What is it?”
“It’s a war of worms.”
“Wow! Really? Why are the worms at war?”
“Because they are different colours.”
“Do they need to fight, just because they are different colours?”
“Yes.”

So glad I asked.

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