Painting Class: The Difference Between Kids and Adults

I start teaching children’s painting classes today at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. If you’re not familiar, CCS is a top-notch educational institution churning out incredibly talented artists and designers, including a huge pool of talent that’s recruited for the Big Three. The building I teach in, the Alfred Taubman Center is an impressive facility with dorms, an art supply and book store, a gym and a materials library (which I’ll be using in a few weeks when I teach fashion illustration).

One of my favorite aspects of teaching children is that there’s still time to make an impact. With adults, myself included, we’re too set in our ways. Our sense of improvement is hardly objective and is a tumultuous process. With kids and young adults, there’s still time to challenge and watch them accept new concepts. There are technical lessons I learned when I was very young that have stuck with me because I learned them the “right way” rather than trying to think I was good enough to just figure it out on my own. To my mentors and teachers, I’m terribly grateful.

Here are the five biggest differences between teaching and working with children and adults in the art studio setting.

1. Children aren’t afraid of color. Adults just think they aren’t. | The color wheel is engrained in my mind. No matter how many hues I use in my work, I’m constantly fretting over each color’s relationship to the one next to it, how it does or doesn’t activate. Kids worry about no such thing, or at least don’t tend to until their teens. They may even know that red is complementary to green on the color wheel but they don’t think twice about how to use it and what to mix with it.

2. It doesn’t have to fill up the whole canvas to be a brilliant work. | There was a news story once about a 4 year old girl who’s “paintings” were going for exorbitant amounts of money to so-called collectors. I scoffed at this idea. The parent and dealer’s (yes, you read that right) consensus was that she was an artistic genius because unlike most children her age, she filled the entire canvas with paint. Most children don’t have the attention span nor commitment to “finish” an entire plane, they said.

After long pondering, I think that’s a crock. Some of the most enthralling children’s work I’ve seen has more life than a German Expressionist painting and can be a painterly form of a singular figure. Adults finish their canvases because it’s to be expected. But rules are meant to be broken. See Dubuffet, Basquiat, Matisse…

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Tenors, 1985 |  Image: Artexpertswebsite.com

Which leads us to:

3. Kids take about half the time to do the same project. Adults have more concentration. | This should come as no surprise since we learn to focus and commit as we get older. There are exceptions to this rule but children under 8 generally do not work on a project, even a large one, for more than an hour. Adults have their notions, agendas and expectations. Those take a lot longer to work out on paper.

4. Adults take better care of the materials. Kids don’t. | This is probably largely due to the fact that adults pay for their art supplies and they realize how costly creating work can be. Kids push the bristles of the brush into the paper, they don’t wash their brushes well enough, they leave their brushes face down in the water. But hey, they’re kids!

5. Children and adults are both eager to learn, but in different ways. | Turns out that’s the universal reason for being in the classroom. But kids are more inclined to appreciate the designated amount of time to create and play. Some of them truly do want to learn technical methods (especially as they get older) but adults are more adept at following direction. Even if they digress back to their old habits later on.

Adults can learn a lot from kids and vice versa. I always get a schooling from my students whether I like it or not. Wish me luck!

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