Watercoloring with children is fun and convenient, but working in acrylics can be quite a treat for both the littles and the adults. While the thick opacity and intense pigment makes acrylics much more daunting and nerve-wracking to watch small kids trying to navigate, if done mindfully, the collaborative process can be an inspiring, therapeutic experience. There’s nothing quite like working alongside an individual void of creative inhibitions, free from pre-conceived notions of what art is “supposed to” be. These bright, saturated paintings can also be beautiful works of legitimate art if you follow a few principles and guidelines.
The Space & Materials
Use smocks and drop-cloths
If you, your child, and your space are covered, then you can avoid any tense moments of cleaning up accidents, and allow yourself to drop in to the creative process.
Use a hard or thick surface
Don’t try to paint on paper that can’t handle too much water. Flooding is common with children, so avoid the trauma. Use a canvas or a board. I like to use old paintings from the thrift store.
Multiple water jars
Have a few different jars of clean water, since kids have the tendency to dunk brushes still full of paint into the rinsing jars and running to the sink to get clean water is lame.
Always wash & wipe
Keep your brushes clean between colors, and be sure to blot them on a rag after washing to avoid mucking up the colors.
Choose an image of inspiration
A reference image is nice to pull main elements from, even if you’re going to create a non-objective piece of art. The design principles and elements are usually already present in printed photography or art books, so you don’t need to rack your brain during the creative process, trying to unify the painting before your child gets bored.
Pick out an art or picture book and choose a few images that are fairly simple. For young kids, you don’t want too many colors or interlocking lines. Then look at the chosen photos with your child and have them pick which photo to use as inspiration for the painting. This way the child still has a choice in the matter, but you don’t need to bore or offend them with why some other complex image they chose isn’t prime material. Plus, you want to have fun making the art as well!
Limit your color palette
To avoid getting a ton of brown smeared all over the canvas (since kids usually want to use all the colors on the palette and all colors mixed = brown), limit your colors to 2-3. Preferably they will be two compliments and then either white or black. When the paint is nearly dry you can introduce another batch of colors.
Allow for silence
While it’s nice to explain the design elements and principles here and there, demonstrating your own technique in silence is equally, if not more effective. They will likely pause and watch you work and make mental notes about what they like or don’t like about your style. Freedom to simply observe can be more enjoyable than being instructed every step of the way, for both parties involved.
Before digging into the colors, point out to your child what the dominant features of the painting are, and how the canvas will be broken up by those features. If they are old enough, have them paint the darkest lines first which will act as lines in a coloring book. As they paint these lines, work behind them by filling in the shapes with color. For kids under 4-ish years-old, you may want to reverse the roles.
Bring in the Light
Point out where the lightest colors are and see if they agree where your next shapes of light will go. While they work on applying the light, help by blending to create mid-tones.
Cover the surface
Children usually see the world in symbols when making art, and without direction, their drawings often become line-drawings. Yet, they are often thrilled to see their work with colorful backgrounds. Throughout the process, make it a collaborative effort to cover up any canvas that peeps through.
Add the details
Dripping or globbing paint to add the detail prolongs the excitement of painting. Explore application techniques with your child using different sized brushes, amount of water, and speed. Using sounds to emphasize the movement of your brush is always fun too!
Bring it together
Instruction on contrast and balance is a bit exhaustive for young children, so take the final touches into your own hands— unless they express a desire to want to help. When you sense that your child is getting restless and is ready to be done, quickly add a bit of the darkest and lightest tones to bring out depth, and balance out the opposing corners. These final elements will really bring the piece together and make it more display-worthy.
Although the final result may not be a masterpiece, it will likely serve as a reminder of a great art-making experience. The collaborative mix of strokes and blended visions is an inspiring representation of what happens when the child-in-you mixes with the grownup-in-your-child.