In one of my favourite books on children’s art (the second edition of Rapunzel’s Supermarket – it’s not changed, but has an extra chapter to the original), Ursula Kolbe writes:
“At first very young children paint just a patch of colour.
For beginners, learning how to get a brush out of the pot, onto the paper – and not somewhere else – and back into the same pot is often challenge enough. They may stick to one colour and ignore the rest – a beautiful blue by itself, for example, can be wondrous to a young toddler. On the other hand, some toddlers use three or more colours and manage most of the time to keep them separate.
Children realise early that a mark can stand for something. Initially they find meaning rather than set out deliberately to create it. ‘Snail,’ says Chris (23 months) pointing to a spiralling line that he’s made by chance with his brush. It’s one of those rare moments that allows an adult to witness how very young children see meaning into marks they’ve made. With one word Chris tells me he recognises the similarity between his marks and his memory of a snail’s shell.
As with drawing, it’s a special moment when children find they can make a line go around and return to its starting point. This enclosed shape can stand for anything. Gradually children add other lines and place smaller shapes inside it.
In time they begin to explore the entire painting space on the paper. They make short strokes, dots and irregular patches, often filling in spaces between marks. They discover how to make new colours by mixing, and many delight in creating separate areas of colour close to each other but not overlapping. Many make patterns by repeating marks in rows or in a circular fashion….
The shapes of human figures are similar to those in drawings, but they may be less detailed. Children know far more than they represent in their paintings, and often omit features if they have insufficient space on the paper. As children mature, their figures no longer appear isolated but in relationship to each other and to surroundings, such as houses and trees. They begin to use a line at the top of a painting to depict the sky and a line along the bottom to depict the ground.” (p.54)
Kolbe also makes suggestions about interacting and guiding, for example:
“If children want comments, try affirming what they have done – for example, I see you’ve made the blue change into green! Alternatively, you might ask: What’s happening here – would you like to tell me? Or comment on the amount of time spent. Depending on the particular child, five, ten, twenty minutes or longer of concentration is a considerable achievement. You’ve spent a long time on this! is a comment that pleases serious painters.” (p.55)
“I want to paint a crocodile/fire engine but I don’t know how – help me! In this situation try to analyse with children what it is they want to do. It’s very helpful to break down a task into steps. Which part would they like to start with first? The head? The body? The wheels? Sometimes looking at an actual example, pictures or a model may help.” (p.55)
“I don’t know what to paint! A good answer to this plea is: Try out the colours and see what the brush can do. Then, when you’re ready to make a painting, you can have a fresh piece of paper. You’ll find that ideas invariably flow once a child interacts with paint in a relaxed manner.” (p.55)
Ref: (italics in original, bold blue emphases mine) Ursula Kolbe (2007) Rapunzel’s Supermarket: All about young children and their art. Second Edn. Pippinot Press: Byron Bay, NSW.