Raw Talent Seeing the Full Picture
As appearing in The Australian, 23/8/2005

By Glynis Quinlan

Colour theory and composition for kids? An innovative art program in NSW is making Picassos out of pre-schoolers, writes Glynis Quinlan

NESTLED away in a small rural village on the NSW mid-north coast, three and four-year-olds are turning out artworks that children more than twice their age would be proud of.

These junior artists from tiny Eungai Pre-School are creating paintings and drawings which astound those who know them.

In the process, their new-found confidence and enhanced learning skills are unwittingly challenging Australia's underlying hands-off approach to teaching visual arts in the early years of education.

The pre-schoolers are part of a program called Kids Are Raw Talent, which has been developed during the past three years by Eungai Pre-School director Suellen Stubbs. As far as she is aware, it is the only one of its kind in Australia.
``It came about because I had a group of four-year-old boys who were as ratty as anything because they were ready for school and weren't being extended,'' Stubbs says.

Stubbs, a painter and sculptor, says she wanted to foster the children's artistic abilities by adapting some of the training she had received. Rather than just giving the children a paintbrush and leaving them to it, she taught them how different colours are made, how to draw shapes and how to observe their subjects.
Children also look at colourful pictures from storybooks and discuss how the pictures were created, breaking them down into their different components. They are taught art terms such horizon line and the difference between background and foreground.

The children are shown how to give their paintings definition by using a black marker, and are taught the rudiments of colour theory. They mix all their own colours from primary colours (using blue and yellow to make green, for example), using an acrylic paint which can be kept thick to give the texture of oil paints or watered down for use as watercolours.

Paintbrushes range from very fine to thick and the children may also use leaves, bark, sponges, cotton reels, crayons, chalk and plasticine in their creations.
The children's paintings are mostly bright and vibrant and their subjects tend to reflect their interests: trucks, fairies, birds and animals. Unusually for this age group, the paintings also show good perspective and their subjects are easily recognisable.

Five-year-old Jarrah Martin's first paintings had lots of colour and meandering brushstrokes but lacked form. One year into the KART program, his paintings not only clearly portray their subjects but also demonstrate considered use of colour, shape, pattern and perspective. A recently completed painting is a Chinese scene with a girl and a panda.
``It has good colour and the perspective is right,'' Stubbs says. ``The little girl stands out quite amazingly.'' It is surprising how much art instruction the children retain, Stubbs says. ``And every single area they develop is also developing some other area like language, science or maths concepts.

``Little boys who wouldn't sit down for five minutes will now sit down for an hour. Their self-esteem is just amazing. They are much more confident and they are keen to have a go. I don't think people realise that once they're shown a few things they can take it from there and do anything. We are giving them the key to unlock their imaginations and the tools to develop their own creativity.

``We're always taught not to teach them art, but they don't develop anything else on their own so it makes sense to give them the tools to do this as well.''

Stubbs's thoughts are echoed by Felicity McArdle, senior lecturer in early childhood at Queensland University of Technology. She says the preferred method of teaching art to young Australian children has been to teach them nothing at all.
``For the most part, the practice is either to leave them alone and don't teach them anything or to give them 20 sheets of Easter bunnies and get them to stick tails on them,'' she says.

McArdle traces Australia's non-interventionist approach to the publication of a best-selling book, Art for the Child Under Seven by Frances Derham, in the 1960s.
The Melbourne-based author -- writing towards the end of a long career as an artist, teacher and art lecturer -- was reacting against the rigorous and structured approach to children's art which had existed earlier in the century.
Derham was a committed proponent of the value of self-expression and strongly encouraged opportunities for young children to take part in the visual arts. She advanced a detached approach to teaching art.

``She advocated a strictly removed attitude about interaction with young children and their art, and indicated that adults should not question a child about the ideas expressed in the art works. She damned all kinds of copying, trivial examples and teacher-led activities,'' McArdle and colleague, Barbara Piscitelli, co-wrote in an article published in the journal Australian Art Education.

Despite other schools of thought doing the rounds in Australia since then, McArdle says the Derham approach is still the predominant one today, with early childhood teachers reluctant to teach art, low expectations of the artistic abilities of young children and copying from books frowned on.

``Copying is a really good learning tool. Then you can build on it and turn it into your own work,'' she says.

``They don't realise that you need the tools and they'll help you to be more creative. The kids get disappointed after a while when nobody helps them.''
McArdle believes one of the reasons the non-interventionist approach has been sustained for so long is that it is very attractive to early childhood teachers who have little knowledge of art.

However, she says most teachers want to do their best for the children: ``If they realise that it's something they should be teaching, then they will.'' McArdle says that becoming skilled in art can be spectacularly important to a child's future development. ``It's important to think of art as a language. If you're denied that language, you're denied a very powerful means of communication. Children in arts programs tend to do better academically,'' she says.

A Sydney-based early childhood and gifted education consultant, Cathie Harrison, agrees on the importance of visual arts in early education. ``In drawing and painting children make their thinking visual,'' she says. ``It gives children another way to express what they learn.''

She feels that Australia's non-interventionist approach is changing -- albeit not everywhere. Harrison says that while some people still believe that a child's natural expression should evolve without a teacher's intervention, others are challenging those ideas and are looking to provide the ``scaffolding'' to assist young children in the visual arts.

``It's helping them to become more visually aware, rather than drawing from a memory in their heads,'' she says.

Harrison attributes the perceived change in thinking to the successful model provided by the Reggio Emilia approach in Italy, which, she says, has a more constructivist point of view. The Reggio Emilia approach to pre-school education was developed by schools in that city after World War II and has attracted worldwide attention among educators for its collaborative approach to education and its emphasis on children's many symbolic languages, including drawing, sculpture and writing.

Among other things, children are encouraged to discuss and revise their drawings until they match their expressed intentions. Pre-school children are also encouraged to draw or paint from observation, as well as imagination.
Meanwhile, back at Eungai Creek there's a desire to help children in other parts of Australia experience the benefits of the KART program.

``I wish to goodness I'd had that kind of input when I was younger,'' Stubbs says. ``I'd like to see as many kids doing it as possible.''

Stubbs has developed a KART workshop to train childcare workers to teach young children how to observe, process and complete artistic projects.