A Look at Jame's World

    How I found a Diamond Tennis Bracelet and Saved My Marriage

    Sometimes I Cry Before I Paint

Scholarly Articles:

    Power and Control, Deferred Judgment and Praise.

    The Hidden Dimensions of Art



Daniel Smith Articles:

    En Plein Air Painting

    The Endurance of Bay Area Figure Painting

    True Grit






“A Look at James’ World”

By Bruce Klein

On April 6, 1977 the wheelchairs rolled into the regional Health Education and Welfare offices in San Francisco. Nearly, 100 protesters wheeled in. it was an historic event: handicapped persons participating in militant direct action.

At the same time across the Bay in Oakland, two kids taunted my friend James Chilton. James is retarded. His stigma is visible because he talks to himself. AT Creative Growth, where I work, his behavior is accepted because we love him. In the normal world James is taunted and humiliated.

The protesters will leave when their demands are met. In James’ case the remedy is not so easy. Only a massive change in cultural attitudes will change the quality of his life. Creative Growth is working for that change. It is a community based art program for the handicapped in Oakland. James is one of our artists.

He has benefited enormously from our program. Painting helps James repair his damaged self esteem .gives him a basis for self competency, provides him with an opportunity to increase his social competency, and helps him correct his history of failure through the self actualizing activity of painting

James’ painting first interested me because of the simplicity of their style. He had found a visual style to express his inner voice: stylized airplanes, clouds, and a sun, a unique sense of space; a strong design element, and a sensitive eye for detail. He had successfully reduced all the possible elements of painting to a few and set about mastering them.

Then I noticed the content of James world: picture of San Francisco, The Golden Gate Bridge, a Shriner parade, the botanical garden, cacti in the botanical Garden, Camping Unlimited – all content and quality of his life.

For six months James and I worked together drawing scenes of the Bay Area. One special project t was to visit places James would like to see but couldn’t visit alone. From those trips James would do a drawing. Sometimes he starts from the bottom and works Other times he puts in the sun first, and then his airplanes’ and works from heaven to earth. I have seen him put a horse in the middle of the page and fill the background in. In painting, he tends to do a sketch and then paint the image in until he is satisfied. He ponders his work a lot, talking to himself about what he is doing and why. He changes colors, carefully choosing and even mixing the exact color he wants. He will leave a painting alone for a week or two until he can figure out exactly how he wants to finish it. Sometimes he forget a work in progress or gives up and then, I’ll gently urge him to complete his work, never imposing my will but always by asking James whether he thinks his painting is done or not.

Often I take James into our counseling room, line up all of his work and ask him which he likes the best and why. Sometimes this interaction spawns new ideas. Sometimes it turns into a session with the tape recorder. With the tape, James has become quite free and expressive. Much of what he talks about is an index to the quality of his life: stories he saw on TV. incidents at his caretaker’s home, and accounts of where he had walked during the week, questions about why people treated him as they did. My problem became to break through this wall of material and get James to talk about his emotions. At times I despaired. Could he distinguish them, much less verbalize them? I wanted James to talk about the world he lived in. I wanted to get inside this skin and see the world from James’ eyes. Many times, too many times, I only got gripes and bitches. But every so often I hit pay dirt.

In the picture and comments on these pages, James talks about his painting and the world he lives in. They give us The San Francisco Bay Area as seen by an artist who happens to be retarded.

The first picture James ever drew was the barred windows of the institution where he lived. Here is what he had to say about these barred windows” Barred windows that were the first painting I ever did. Barred windows of the institution I was in. When I was a kid, I never had a chance to paint….painting opened up my mind to the world. When I was a kid I was put away in an institution. You don’t get to do nothing. Getting out was fine. Just to see the outside world.

What was the outside world James’ sees? In many trains there is the BART train (the Bay Area’s rapid Transit system). Bart is one of James symbols for freedom. Listen to James talk about freedom He talks about it in the context of a visit to San Francisco when he was institutionalized. ”Once when we were in Sonoma we took a bunch of kids to see the Christmas decorations in San Francisco. Our attendants’ said we couldn’t go on own. People would laugh at us and call us names. Things like that. You don’t get the freedom up there that you get on the outside. I got myself a job in a workshop and learned to ride a bus by myself and go where I want. It’s very important to be able to go where you want.”

Another painting by James is of a swimming pool. Listen to James talking about swimming. Imagine him standing up on the high dive, his toes curled around the end of the board. People are coming up behind him. He sees the people walking around at the edge of the pool. As he looks straight down, the water disappears. The distance down looks twice as far as it is. Listen to his pride in overcoming fear.

“I like to swim. I just like to swim and dive and swim a lot. And stay in good shape. You know what I mean? I want to go off the high dive. I’m not a fraidy cat. I’m a man now. It’s a high dive but I’m holding my head up like a man now.”

Another painting of James is a bus. There are two buses in James’ life. One is the Camping Unlimited bus. In the winter it takes James to the snow and in the summer it takes James to the forest. The other bus is the local AC Transit bus that takes James through the city. Not everything James sees in the city he likes. Here is James talking about the bus.

“You know when you go on public transportation… you’re not saying anything to anybody. I mean not all people but some people talk about you….laugh behind your back, and call you weird and all. That really hurts .Once these girls got off the bus, oh I don’t know here but these girls say” Oh there’s that mentally retarded dude and he’s acting weird and all” And they laughed. I don’t know. It’s just …you go have a good time being excited and they go and say those things.”

Being made fun of, being laughed at being taunted—these kinds of abuse happen often to James. When they do, James comes into Creative Growth with a little round lump on his forehead. James takes his frustrations with the world out on himself: he hits his head against the cement. When he talks to me about these instances there is darkness in his existence, a questioning so painful that at times I have no good answers for his anguish.

There also have been times when we can share joy. One such time was when James and I walked across the Golden Gate Bridge. Listen to James talk about why walking across the bridge was important to him.

“We were on our own. You know what I mean? I was getting all my strength for walking from my legs. I patted the cable holding up the bridge. It was cold. That was all right. I could take it. I wasn’t scared. I looked over the bridge. I knew the places where the guy jumped. I was thinking all kinds of things: the tunnel, Marin, the fog, the towers, the railings coming down, the people going by in cars, small cracks in the roadway. I wasn’t worried too much. I was on my own….You know what I mean?

James was isolated in a stat ward until a few years ago. The staff despaired of his capacity to function unattended. Few would have suspected the depth and breath of his creative potential. Today James is free….on his own, if you know what he means...

If you see us on the street, a thin haired pony tailed man with a short haired open faced friend who is talking to himself and looking at everything, come up and say hello. Sometimes everything is exciting.

How I Found a Diamond Tennis Bracelet and Marital Bliss

My wife and I married in Yosemite in the small valley chapel. Unbeknownst to me, my wife wore her sisters’ husbands’ mothers’ heirloom diamond studded tennis bracelet as something borrowed. It was beautiful. Later that wedding night, my wife said:

“Have you seen the bracelet”. No I hadn’t ,but soon I discovered my wife’s sister hadn’t asked permission of her husband to borrow the priceless heirloom , loaded with family history ,and irreplaceable. Panicked, we started searching.

Imagine, in the darkness 3 a.m. in our jamies flashlight in hand searching the trunk of my wife’s Jetta, the ground around the Wawona and, our room

“Great,” my wife said” Great, just seven hours married and already the marriage is ruined”

I still remember my wife sobbing as she threw herself on the bed. Crawling around our Wawona room I kept saying: “We’ll find it. I’m sure we’ll find it.”

Of course I wasn’t sure. Who knew where it was. After the wedding, we‘d explored the valley, gone sight seeing and had dinner out. If we didn’t find it, until the day we died, at every family gathering, Thanksgiving, Christmas, anniversies, casual Friday dinner, the gossip of the lost bracelet that ruined their wedding would haunt us. .

I could see my mother now whispering at the Thanksgiving table, talking to my auntie who would lean forward, pat my hand and say “ You poor boy” Pity was the look I got. I could hear the whispering for years, and feel the guilt.

Guilty until we die.

Of course I hated all this .Who gave a crap. It was a bracelet for god’s sake. Of course we’d replace the bracelet. Even if we were paying it off into our nineties. It was the difference between the east coast and the west. Between Berkeley and Yale. Between status, tradition, and freedom. Getting married was the important thing. Our love.

Over breakfast the next day, the consensus was our wedding was ruined. Or at least on life support. My closest friend excused himself and sped from Wawona down to the valley floor to start searching. My wife and I followed. Everything was to be kept quiet. While wedding joy blissed our families, fear terrorized my wife, her sister. and me.

NASCAR had nothing on me driving down from Wawona to the church. The minister opened the church for my wife and her sister. I watched them crawl away from me on their hands and knees up the chapel aisle searching. In shock.., I stepped outside Looking across the road at Yosemite falls, I wondered why had this happened to us?

For reasons I will quite never understand, I thought: my wife must have walked up the pathway leading to the church. In my bridegroom suit, I got up, and on my hands and knees began crawling along the pathway. I really didn’t know what I was doing. But I found myself blade by blade searching the moist muddy grass leading to the church.

I must have looked pathetic. My best friend later said seeing me frantically crawling in and across the grass, he found himself filled with a great pity.
I knew nothing of this. I just knew everything was hopeless, and I must do something.

Then it happened.

A young couple with two kids came walking up the pathway toward the church. But just then, their youngest boy was giant stepping towards the church. For some reason, I saw his clod hopping feet moving in slow motion. The sole of his right foot was as big as the universe. It filled my entire visual field, like the Hindenburg dirigible collapsing on that doomed person scampering to escape its collapse.

And just then, I saw a faint glimmer, a sparkle in the wet grass.

That’s it I thought. That’s it

I must have exceeded the speed of light because my fingers were digging the tennis bracelet out of the muddy wet grass before the young boy’s foot touched the ground. He screamed. I screamed. He ran to his mother’s side. I held the bracelet in my hands like a demented prospector discovering gold. –laughing uncontrollably, all smiles, and wide toothed grins When I turned to his parents to explain, they turned away walking as fast as they could to their car.

What did I care? I had saved the day. Later, if and when the park rangers came to arrest me as a pervert, I could explain everything. We would all have a good laugh, and they would congratulate us on getting married.

When I put the bracket into my wife’s hands, the color came back into her face. Sunshine shown again. The wedding was saved and I found marital bliss.

At least for that night.




Sometimes I Cry When I Paint

“Sometimes I Cry When I Paint”


“Sometimes I Cry When I Paint” Tenaya says. Tenaya is four and gifted. “I like painting. I like painting because it’s beautiful. I paint things cause I want the world to be like that”

Kaila is timid. When she comes in the art room, she’s withdrawn and quiet. In four weeks she will be talking excitedly about her art with her friends.

Cliff stands crying. His art wasn’t in the art show. In two weeks when it is, he will run to me shouting” Bruce, Bruce I think I wow’ed em. I like this being an artist”

Today is Tuesday, and I am teaching painting at St. Vincent’s Day Home ion West Oakland. St. Vincent’s is a beautifully restored Victorian home providing primary day care services to 150 preschool children predominately from black and Vietnamese children from single parent families. I work there under a California Arts Council Artist in Community Organizations Grant.

These program beings artists into community organizations to heighten aesthetic perception improve problem solving abilities and nurture artistic creativity. In California this year there are 150 artists from painters to writers teaching classes in day, cultural and art centers all over the state.

My classes are small, four to seven students, last an hour each session and run in six week cycles. I teach nursery through kindergarten age children. Previously, I taught kids labeled delinquent in San Leandro and adults leveled retarded in Oakland.

I have journeyed with each group in the discovery of their own hidden inner voices. My first problem was to fain the children’s trust. The regular teachers helped me enormously. They shepherded me through my first meeting with the kids. Then I was on my own.

With some kids establishing trust meant lots of hugging and physical contact. For others, it meant limit testing. In one group. Trust meant winning over the natural class leader to this” art stuff” With some of the Vietnamese kids it means caring enough about their culture to spend time with them comparing English and Vietnamese words.

To the shyer kids it meant spending time with them and focusing on their work and writing down their words with their pictures. It meant letting them stand before the class and pointing out their pictures amongst the other work amidst our clapping. For children with pent-up anger it meant helping them find other ways to express their anger.

But for each, it meant caring enough to listen for their deepest needs.

“Read me the words”. Terrill says. It is Wednesday. We have been making books. Terrill is checking me out to see that I have really written what he said. Terrill is skeptical. I have to earn his trust: first, I must write what he really said and second I must not disapprove of the subject. His words: this is the house where me and my girlfriends lives who is kissing me on the lips all night long, and nobody can get in ‘cause we got the keys.”

Groans. Hands to their faces. Looking at each other, the entire kindergarten class falls silent. They are waiting for my disapproval. I write Terrill’s words next to his pictures. Terrill is five. He and the entire class have just discovered they can put things in pictures and in books they can’t tell adults directly. The effect is magical: soon all the mystery of their lives comes pouring onto their art.

When he learns he can put whatever he wants into books, Terrill fills his books with all the beauty of his life: houses with star chimneys, special rooms for him and his girlfriend, monsters that he alone controls, televisions that let you see inside people’s heads, a dandelion fixing to get mad and a tree that walks on two legs.

Making books has been a tremendous success. The children do drawings and I hand letter their words next to their drawings. In a few weeks we have developed a small children’s story book library. The children’s books are on a shelf where we can read them. This linking of words with images is important. It fosters language as well as artistic development.

But more importantly something extraordinary has happened with this project. Sham, a shy and nonverbal child began talking, Lastheka, who is usually withdrawn showed her books before the class. Others exploded upon the page both pictorially and verbally. One measure of the success of this project has been the humanizing effect it had on the lives of these children.

Monsters, monsters. Painting monsters is our latest project. From the public library, I bring a record of scary monster sounds: chains rattling, doors creaking, shrill screaming, and ghosts breathing heavily. In class, I set the stage: I turn down the lights, drop the blinds, set everyone up at the easels with plenty of paper for painting and turn on the record.

What happens I would not have believed. The kids explode. Everyone is painting monsters. There are screams and squeals. I turn the record up. All pandemonium breaks loose. The kids literally are so excited they can’t stand still. Children climb under the easels and kick the floor with their feet. Somebody wets his pants. But what monsters we get.

Monsters are important to kids. They are conduits for power and allow kids to express their fears. As some children paint monsters, their monsters become more and more abstract, finally ending in a swirl of colors and frenzied brushwork. Other children paint monsters who individualize into familiar images: little brothers who they resent, older children who are mean, parents who punish them. Some children talk about their monsters, what they mean and how they are created. Renée understands what he has done: “ The sounds helped me make my monsters. They come from inside my head. But once I was one of those monsters. At Halloween I scared everybody. I scared all the peoples. It was fun. The police saw me and they were scared. They thought I was a real monster. I showed them all my teeth and all my claws. They tried to put me in jail, except I hid in my house and took off my costume and that’s all”.

The energy in these exercises lead to others: making masks, writing stories about monsters or acting out monsters. What is important here is the connection between passion and painting.

Every other Friday we stage a “hands on” are show. The children’s paintings are hung at their eye level. The artist’s name is displayed above his work. A banner on the wall announces: The Art Show”. There are fruit juice refreshments. The children come in small groups with their teachers to look and touch the art.

At the first show the children entered in dead silence. They were unsure of how to act and were overwhelmed buy the sight of their work. Their teachers walked them around the art, discussing which work they liked and why, asking the children if they knew the artists from other classes and whether they could point out their favorite work. Several shows later,, all hesitancy vanished. Now in the school yard, you hear children discussing their art and the show. Every child’s work is displayed. To some, it is extremely important.

For some children it is the first time any adults has viewed their art seriously as an aesthetic experience. Cliff has seen his art praised and respected. Renee has learned that art can express inner needs. Rhonda has experienced the connecti0on between passion and painting. Richard learned that art can be powerful. Each in his or her own way has learned of the great mystery of art. How are can be wonderfully joyous, full of awe and surprise, depth and confusion, triumphant break troughs and humble surrender.

“Let me do it, “Richard says. “let me do it” I hand him the push pins. He hangs his picture upside down over Ninva’s. I explain why we don’t hang our paintings over another’s and ask him where else on the display board he’d like to hang his picture. We think out loud for a moment. He picks a small corner at the far end where he sticks eleven pins into his work.

At the end of the class as he’s going out the door, Richard yells “Bruce” pointing to the display board. He has the entire display plastered with his work “Check it out”
I see his body swelling with pride.

Power and Control, Praise and Deferred Judgment

Fostering creativity is a critical objective for most preschool art programs. Yet many teachers fail to understand how the social organization of their programs can facilitate creative processes, and reinforce the personal characteristics which research suggest are associated with creative performance.

This paper discusses how one preschool art program organizes four structural dimensions to create an environment which foster creative processes. These structural dimensions address the issues of power and control, praise, and deferred judgment.

In this paper, I describe my program, and outline the principles it’s organized on; then I discuss problems encountered in implementing it, and finally consider the implication of m experience for other professionals.

Program Description:

The program I taught offered two afternoon workshops and two mornings of small classes to a community preschool program. The institution where I taught was a beautifully restored Victorian home providing primary day care services to 150 preschool children. Like many highly centralized institutions, teacher alienation was high. Burnout, racist, disciplinary and promotional policy were unresolved issues between staff and administration. Classrooms provided a rich and diverse physical environment. Yet most teaching styles limited children’s affective relations were adults oriented and used punishment as a means of control. The half time art program houses in a separate building was crafts oriented, included teacher” influenced” art, and used prepackaged art projects.

The afternoon workshops I offered were self select, open for two hours and quite large. The small classes (4-7) children lasted an hour, ran in six week cycles and occured twice a week. To give the reader a sense of class activities, I describe one small class activity: painting monsters.

From the library, I bring a record of scary monsters sounds: chains rattling, doors creaking shrill screams, ghosts breathing heavily. In class, I sit the children down and set the stage. Next, I turn down the lights, set easels up, and designate one of the children as the monster. The monster goes over to the corner and waits in the quiet booth. The rest of the kids pretend they are watching T.V. and eating popcorn in the dark. I turn on the scary record and the child monster comes shrieking through the semi darkness. What happens next I could not have predicted. All Pandemonium breaks loose. Everybody screams. Children climb under tables. Somebody wets their pants but what monsters we get: Robbie paints 12 different monsters, each unique and each beautiful. Multicolored monsters full of passion. Uni paints the same monster again and again, each time more abstract finally ending in a swirl of colors and frenzied brushwork. Others paint monsters that individualize into little brothers they hate, or parents who punish. What children learn is this activity is that through art they can express their feeling and be respected. When they believe this, all the mysteries of their lives come pouring into their paintings.

In these classes, the central activity is creative self expression in the visual arts. All the classes are organized around four structural dimensions that foster creative processes. These are children having power, children engaging I meaningful behavior, children acting on norms legitimate into heir own eyes, and children functioning non estranged. These dimensions are taken from Robert Blauner’s Alienation and Freedom.Blauner used them to explain variation in alienation across four industrial contests. In this paper, they are used to pinpoint where structural elements affect personal creativity. In this section, I explain how art classes are organized around these structural dimensions.

Power: Giving Children Control

When a child enters the classroom, he usually has exploratory, competence, and power needs. In class the teacher respects these needs by letting the child control his immediate artistic processes and his immediate artistic environment.

Giving the child control over his artistic processes means letting the child choose when to come to art, what art project he works on, the means to accomplish it, the criteria for successful completion and the pace of the process.

Having control means the child can pace these decisions to suit his individual rhythms. If he wants to come to art, he can; if he decides to leave, he may. If he wants to shift art projects he can. If he has forgotten the steps in wax printing, he can ask for help. If the activity level in the room overwhelms him, he can withdraw to the room’s quiet booth. If he gets bored, he can shift to another activity.

Control also encourages individual style. Control gives time to experiment. Experimenting with the means and criteria for a successful artistic project encourages the development of those personality characteristics associated with creative performance.
For example, a child can follow his own curiosity, attempt different solutions to artistic problems; take risks without being penalized for being different, work independently or disregard teacher task suggestions.

Bt developing individual style and by learning he can pace his progress to suit his individual needs, the child develops a sense of himself ion the art room as the locus of causality(Deci.1981). In his art activities, he can see the effects that his thoughts, actions, and feeling have on his immediate artistic processes. Since the informational aspect in these activities is the positive reward, the child’s sense of competence and self determination in the classroom increases (Deci, 1975).

If the child has control, he also leans about the responsibility that comes with control. Not only must he clean up after himself, but he must come to art only when he really wants to. Once in the classroom, he must work on art and respect other classroom rules; non violence, respect for other’s artistic processes, and” responsible” behavior. Finally, although a child control his artistic processes, he also needs limited control over his artistic environment. In the art room, the walls are decorated with the child’s art. An eye level display board accessible to all children covers one wall. Children are encouraged to “pin their art up” Children can move chairs, tables, and shelves to encourage intimacy and solitary play. There are quiet spaces as well as communal tables. During story time, the room’s floor may suddenly become a sex alive with man eating sharks, or a line of chairs become a roller coaster. Magical as well as real transformations are an integral part of a child’s art experiences and provide a sense of control over his immediate environment.

Having power in the art room and over the artistic processes gives the child a chance to experience himself and to objectively be a person who is the locus of causality in his art.

Meaningful Behavior: Children Acting with Meaning and Purpose in Art.

If giving the child control fosters creative processes, increasing the meaning and purpose of art also facilitates creativity. How does this happen? While there is no simple explanation, the dynamics of information processing and arousal seeking are important initial sources for meaning and purpose.

From his research, Berlyne suggest that epistemic behavior arouse children (Berlyne,1960).Art activities are arousing i.e.. novel, surprising, complex, varied ,risky, etc. Since the child controls his artistic processes , he can vary the collarative properties of art stimuli, and via their information content, control his arousal level. For example, children love hot plate crayon drawing. As the crayon melts onto the hot plate, the children draw. The risk of burning their fingers focuses their attention. The uncertainty is exciting. Once instructions are given the activity’s complexity sustain interest. The novelty of the product, the attempt to control the medium, the excitement of mixing colors, the difficulty of the task challenge children’s problem solving capabilities. memoric skills, and artistic competence.

Another important source for meaning and purpose is increasing the quality and quantity of the child’s understanding of the artistic endeavor. How do I do this? First, I broaden the child’s understanding of the entire artistic endeavor rather than focusing merely ion the narrow artistic process. For example, the child can participate in art activities from setting up through doing art to hanging an show. The child learns to understand where his artistic activity first into his wider context. Secondly, by increasing the depth and providing new challenges to and skills for a child, the child’s understanding improves. For example, in framing a work, and in mixing paints, the child learns new skills. In a classroom where a wide variety of projects and artistic styles occur, a child understands he can try any technique he desires. He can also pursue a particular technique to any depth he wishes.

Often children bring their parents to look at their art. This facilitates another aspect of meaning: a child’s clear identification with their art. Monica not only recognizes her art as uniquely her own, but remembers each piece, and woe unto me if I inadvertently lose one. Her parents hand her art up at home, and take a keen interest in art, thus reinforcing Monica’s identification with her art.

Given the control the child experiences, and the completeness of his understanding, the child’s fearfulness is reduced. Few objects or processes ion the environment are strange or fear inducing. If they are, the child understands that he or her can ask about them or seek help. The art room becomes a place where the child can explore suspending fearful rules: a child can get as dirty as he wishes as long as he cleans up after himself. Emotional needs can be explored in the art room. Anger at a younger brother ,fear of the bully down the block , prejudice against black children, curiosity about sex, confusions about feelings---all these can be explored safely, and in a structured way that respects the child and his needs.

Widening children’s understanding, increasing identification with and sensitivity to artistic styles, reducing fearfulness, and exploring expression of and respect for emotional needs—all provide the child with new and increased sources of meaning and purpose in their art.

Legitimate Norms: Creating a Creative Environment

Creating an art classroom where children risk exposing their deepest needs, where little social isolation exists, where joy and a creative momentum occur is difficult. This creative climate is a function of at least three variables: (1) the teacher’s conception of art,(2) the classroom’s rules, particularly those involving praise and discipline,(3) the legitimizing of the effects of art.

In my conception art is a non competitive self expressive activity. In the art room, I encourage a diversity of artistic styles hoping to stress no particular style save self expressiveness. While I do influence children, I hope to avoid the situation where a teacher defines art representationally, and every child, in order to win status, favor or recognition, tries to draw representationally.

In my classes, status, power, and praise are equally distributed. For example, all children get equal chances to display there are in art shows. No informal favorites are allowed. When I find displayable works? I speak of them in descriptive rather than evaluative praise, and am careful to comment favorable upon some dimension of every child’s work. Praise is distributed not upon a zero sum game, but in positive degrees. For example, at the end of each teaching cycle, I meet with each child individually to task about and praise his artistic productions.

How the teacher structures classroom interaction as well as the general classroom rules is important. While I teach three class sizes, for brevity’s sake, I discuss only the smaller classes.

Before most small classes, I sit the class down for quiet time. During this time, I explain what activities are laid out, poll the kids for their interests, and let the final direction of the class results from the interaction between the kid’s interests and my art projects. At the end of most classes, I ask each child to pin up. point out, and talk about his art. Initially children were hesitant, but soon putting up art seems natural.

In these classes, children can arrange the furniture to encourage intimacy or foster individual or group work. If noise levels disrupt a child’s creativity, he can ask for them to be lowered. As momentum builds, this “charged” atmosphere motivates other children. If outside interruptions interfere with a child’s creative processes, they are quickly isolated.

Finally, the teacher legitimizes the effects of art. As a child points out his art and talks about it, he hears his friends and teachers talk about his art. When these behaviors are legitimized by his teacher,. The child begins to take on a new identity as an “artist”. These new feelings and behaviors are further legitimized and solidified but the art show.

Once a month, I stage as art show were children’s art is displayed on easels at children’s eye level. Two children from each age group have their work displayed. Children come in small groups (4-7) with a teacher to look at and discuss their art. Punch and fruit are served. Every child gets a chance to have his or her art in the show. For each child who has work displayed, I make an “Artist of the Week” award. These non competitive awards help legitimize and solidify the child’s public identity as an artist. Children talk with one another about their art in the art shows, and look forward to the next show. For many children this is the firsts time anyone has cared enough to take their art seriously.

If having power, acting meaningfully, and interacting with little social isolation increases a child’s interest in art, how does self expressive painting increase creative processes?

Non Estranged Behavior: Self Expression Through Self Expressive Art

In the classroom, art activities range from individual finger painting through group murals, drawing, and painting to clay production and story telling. In a representational activity like drawing, most young children who attempt to draw people get waylaid by performance or production problems. The performance characteristics of this task are beyond the child’s developmental capabilities. By letting the child control his immediate artistic processes, and by stressing individual self expression, artistic skills like optical accuracy, fine eye hand coordination, depth perception and perspective, which many preschool children lack are minimized. Qualities like imagination, epistemic motivations, and emotions are maximized. The child’s art experience is thus prefigured for success.

When he enters the classroom, the child faces this problem: what are the relevant dimensions of art as an activity” The child with a positive history of self-expressive activities in art has no trouble blossoming. Children from stricter classrooms or family networks go through an exploratory period. How these and shyer and more withdrawn children become involved in art is seen most clearly in children with a history of failure and other directed styles of problem solving.(zugler,1970) These children “scan” the environment for “clues” to the relevant dimensions of art as an activity. They find no formal or informal hierarchy of praise, status, or power for any particular stylistic solution to the art problem, except self expressive solutions. In the history of these children trusting their own impulses, thoughts and decisions for problem solving has gotten them into difficulties. When asked to trust their own solutions, these children try a variety of strategies to avoid trusting their won solution .i.e. disclaimers of ability, rebellion, limit testing, diversionary tactics, imitation, reversals to previous praise winning solution, etc. In the art room trusting one’s own solution is reinforced.

In the art process at a psychological level, the child begins to experience his won impulses, needs, feelings and ideas as be validated. He enjoys the rich sensuous nature of finger-painting, or the bending, folding and tearing of collage materials. In risk taking, the child heightens his arousal and focuses his attention. In story telling he can explore disturbing life experiences. With puppets, he can be a parent who punishes, or kill a little brother he hates. At other times, he can communicate joy, wonderment, or mystery. Houses can have star chimneys. Televisions can let you see inside peoples’ heads. Trees can walk on two legs. In talking about art at group time, the children can explore why it hurts when someone makes fun of his art work. In trial and error problem solving children learn to explore their ideas, take risks and work independently, or develop perseverance. Other art experiences teach hew skills or help develop limited aesthetic sensitivity.

These diverse motivations fulfill many dimensions of the child’s personality. Sooner or later, this factor plus a host of others (high teacher expectations, a warm caring environment, peer modeling) encourage even the shyest child to trust his own experiences as solutions to artistic problems, When he does, almost any solution is reinforced. Since art at this stage can be done in five minutes, the child has an opportunity to receive massive short terms positive reinforcement for his actions. Soon self expressive art seems natural.


Several problems arise when creating this supportive environment. One issue is the relationship of this classroom less supportive environments particularly other classrooms and family networks. Another issue involves whether extrinsic motivations may undermine intrinsic ones in art. Finally the twin questions of introducing critical standards to children and of performance breakdowns with children exist.

This art environment occurs about 8 hours a week for the average child. What is the relationship to and effect of less supportative environments upon these experiences? In my experience children learn to discriminate situations specific behaviors. The art room becomes” magical” To facilitate the transition between environments, I often sit the children down for a quiet time when we talk about the difference between the art room and their regular classroom. Some teachers help reinforce these distinctions. When a child has made particular growth, I discuss his progress with his classroom teacher, suggesting ways to incorporate this child’s growth into their classroom. With parents who throw their child’s art in the garbage, I may do consultations, or use the art show as a educational device. In general I do what is within my power as a teacher to blunt the effects of less supportive environments. But realistically one’s power is limited.

Another issue involves the risk that extrinsic rewards may undermine intrinsic motivations. There is a danger that some children will produce art work for expected praise or to be in the art show rather than solely for intrinsic gratification. Both theoretically and practically, this is a difficult issue. In my experience when a child paints for the art show, the teacher must examine why this particular child acted as he /or she did. Some children scribble a picture because they don’t want to miss being in the show. When told everybody gets a chance, they work differently. For other children helping them become aware of their accomplishments through extrinsic praise leads naturally to maintaining intrinsic motivation rather than undermining them Still other children are limit testing when they scribble off sloppy work for the art show. They know they can do better. If handled honestly and sensitively the teacher can use this experience to move this child deeper into self expressive art. When children learn that everyone get in the art show, painting solely to get in the art show declines. Since praise as a reward is equally distributed, children don’t perceive art as a means to rewards which they can control hence less undermining occurs. Deci(1981) offers evidence that praise doesn’t set up instrumentalities , but reinforces competence, and that the impact of extrinsic motivations varies with the characteristics of the reward( information aspects vs control aspects) and subject characteristics(sex, past experiences).

A similar difficulty arises around introducing a self critical standard to children. In the program children have control over the criteria for successful completion of a painting as well as actual judgments of when it is finished. Rarely do I make critical suggestions. With preschool children I feel in general that detailed critical discussions are inappropriate. One exception is when a child’s work suddenly falls off. Then I inquire into what has happened and why. Another centers on stereotypical formulas for representation i.e. bunny rabbits, etc. Here I try to influence children to utilize their self expressive capabilities, but leave the discovery to their own standards ti them. Some children appear to understand aesthetic issues in an adult sense, but as issues appropriate to their mental age levels. Freeman’s (1980) work illuminates these issues experimentally and cautions against reading into young children’s work aesthetic concepts and criteria that aren’t there.

Finally, some children cannot maintain control once given it. Performance breakdowns occur. In my experience, a child’s performance may break down in many ways and for many different reasons: a child may need help, fail to understand how to use watercolors, or spill paint. He may get in fights, wish to leave, or cry or no apparent reason. Some children depend upon teachers excessively or demand individual attention, and have difficulty starting. While performance problems are legion, most in my experience fall into three classes: classroom management, production or individual problems. As a teacher I respond to each of these individually and contextually. The context is the classroom’s structure of social relations bounded by specific classroom rules (no throwing paint), the children’s coping styles(impulsive vs aggressive) larger social issues(sexism, racism),the limitations of size, materials, and physical setting(large numbers mean less time per student) and my teaching style(adult vs child oriented).

Individually, I respond within these contexts parameters through my teaching style. For example, a shy child may need direct reinforcement (Namori, what a mysterious blue in your drawing), then social reinforcement to a peer (Betty, you and Namori sure enjoyed drawing together), and finally identification and clarification of effects by noting them to the shy child (Namori, look at that lovely smile you certainly liked showing your art). Or an aggressive child many hoard supplies to ensure his control over the pace of his task. By pointing out the consequences of his action (You know Jataubi, when you won’t share the glue Nickie can’t work on her collage), and structuring a question that suggests an alternative action ( Do you think there is a way you two could work out sharing glue?), the teacher helps resolve thee problem. For a poor problem solver who gives up after his first try fails, the teacher needs praise(Bobbie, that glue didn’t hold because it wasn’t dry, can you think of some other way to hold these two airplane’ wings together?)

My impression is that if a teacher remains sensitive to and copes with these performance problems the child’s control over artistic process and over the immediate artistic environment will encourage initiative, risk taking, and independence—personality characteristics often associated with creative achievement (Godale, 1970).

While the characteristics I have been making are drawn from on particular example, I hope that by systematically addressing the complexities of running a program, and the reality of working with children, I have convinced the reader of their validity for a wider range of situations. In particular, I wish to discuss the implications of my experiences for parents, art programs and research on creativity in preschool children.

For parents, the importance lies first in allowing their child’s artistic development to unfold on its own terms rather than measuring it against developmental norms or particular conceptions of art. Secondly, parents can facilitate this by giving their child his own [physical space to make and show art. For example, a corner in a room, or a section of a room wall for displaying art. Finally, parents need to examine their family communication networks to ensure that their network allows their child significant emotional self expression.

For art programs, the major impact is the program administrators evaluating their own programs along the dimensions listed. Many programs profess self expressive ideologies but the hidden agenda of their practice undermines it. Central to implementing a program like the one described is administrative support. In my experience lack of administrative support severely restricts a programs impact. Administrators must openly support creative teaching styles, and provide structural opportunities for implementing change. Classroom teachers given support will successfully meet the difficulties discussed, Teachers without support need to assess, given their constraints, which of the program components they can competently implement. My assessment is that of all the components, giving a child power, and intervening when performance breakdowns occur are criticality important. Small programs where teachers function as administrators, and with no separate art facilities, need to adapt the dimensions to their resources.

Implications for research include the possibility of using alienation theory for understanding diverse settings from assembly lines to art environments. My personal observations lead me to believe that much recent literature on preschool children’s cognitive capacities vastly underestimate these capacities. In particular, Piagetian notions for strategies of drawing are as inadequate as notions from information theory for adequately explaining the complexities’ of children’s visual creativity. Finally, my impression is that children’s emotional and aesthetic sensitivity is much greater than previously supposed.



Berlyne, D.E. Conflict, arousal, and curiosity, NYC, McGraw-Hill, 1960.

Blauner, R. Alienation and Freedom, Chicago, IL. University of Chicago Press, 1964.

Deci, E.L. Intrinsic motivation and personality, In Staub , E. (ed.). Personality: basic aspects and current research. Englewood Cliffs N.J. Prentice-Hall, 1980.

Deci, E.L. Intrinsic motivation. NYC, Plenum, 1975.

Freeman, N.M. Strategies of representation in young children, London. Academic Press, 1980

Zigler, E.F. and Harter ,S. The socialization of the mentally retarded ,In Gioslin, D.A. (ed.) Handbook of Socialization Theory and Research, NYC, Rand McNally, 1970

The Hidden Dimensions of Art

Art programs typically stress that art raises levels of self-esteem through creative self-expression. School curriculums use art to improve cognitive learning and problem solving abilities. Yet many programs overlook the hidden dimensions of art: the social dimensions for fostering program goals. In a program with preschool children I have been using four social dimensions of art to heighten aesthetic perception, improve a child’s artistic creativity and nurture their self esteem.

These four dimensions are children having power, children acting on norms legitimate in their own eyes, children functioning non estrangedly, and children engaging in meaningful behavior.( Blauner, 1964)

My art classes are small, last an hour, and occur in a separate art room. I teach three days a week in six week cycles. The central activity is creative self expression in the visual arts: painting, printmaking, bookmaking, and sculpture. I work side by side with children explaining art projects as well as offering guidance and encouragement toward self expressions. The classroom has easels, low tables, and a series of self select art activity modules. In these classes, I attempt to help children discover inner voices, to journey with them in the delicate shaping of their own human individuality. Each dimension we discuss fosters these goals.

Children Having Actual Power

Children need power. How often do we hear children say: “Let me do it. Let me do it” These words indicate important needs for self competence, and mastery. In the artistic process, giving a child control means letting the child control four decisions: choosing the art problem he works on, the means s/he uses to accomplish it, the criteria for successful completion, and the pace of the process.

Children vary in their response to having control over any one, some or all of these decisions. For example, Robert is very sensitive to stimulation. The viscosity of the thick paint, the quickness of the brush across the paper, the visual excitement of bright colors overloads him. Given control, he loses control of pacing. His vulnerability is such that he must choose at activities that don’t overwhelm him. With other decisions, he copes beautifully. Jaraubi initially withdraws until he figures the stimulation out, then his resilience, intelligence, and delight in the sensuality of art, evokes inventive manipulation, and explorative curiosity.

When the skill sets of a particular art activity are beyond a particular child, he may lack coordination, or strength, or have difficulty with a particular concept. Having control means the child can pace the artistic process to his individual needs. He can stop and ask for help. He. like Robert, can assess his resources, and abandon an overwhelming activity for the one that he judges, he can successfully complete.

The development of individual style also demands control over the artistic process. Control gives time to putter and experiment. Pressure to paint cannot become excessive. If he does not want to do art, he may leave. He may simply need the day off. In the art room and in art activities, children need control to see the effects of their actions in their immediate artistic process. This enhances their self esteem.

If the child can control his artistic process, he also has responsibility for parts of it and for his classroom behavior. In the classroom, there are limits. I discourage teacher influenced art., the use of prepackaged art projects, and avoid an excessive crafts orientation to art activities. I also set limits on classroom behavior. Roughly, non violence, an interests in art, and “adult” behavior. For example, Brian is very aggressive, and once while limit testing, I had to dismiss the class until he cleaned up his mess. Afterwards, Brian was so enraged that he say outside the art room and glared. In a few days, we were friends again. Setting limits is as important as granting control in the lives of children.

Finally, children need to know that they can participle in the decision to come to art. If a child asks me during lunch if he/she can spend extra time in art, I try to arrange it.

In the classroom, I do prefigure the art activity by offering a planned activity. As a professional painter, I share with children the joy and mystery I find in painting. But, I am very open to particular class day needs, and do share the process of activity selection with children. The final direction the activity takes is typically a result of the interaction between the kid’s interests and idea and my guidance.

If a child needs control over (and responsibility for) the artistic process, he also needs limited control over the immediate artistic environment. He needs, for example, to decorate the art room walls with his art. And have an eye level display board for his art. I allow the children to arrange the physical space to encourage intimacy, solitary play and social interaction.

Having actual power over the immediate conditions of the art room, and over the immediate process gives children a chance to see themselves as persons who effect changes in their lives.

Children Acting with Meaning and Purpose in Painting:

Meaning and purpose have their origins in part within the dynamics of information processing within the child, and in part within the relationships pf the child to the artistic environment.
Epistemic behaviors arouse the child (Berlne, 1960). Children need to find art novel and exciting. Their intellect needs challenge. They enjoy complex art activities as well as uncertainty and risk. For example, with hot plate crayon printing nursery through kindergarten kids draw with crayons on a hot plate covered with aluminum foil. The crayon melts into a wax residue. The risk of burning their eager fingers focuses their attention.

Crayon printing is complex. Complexity sustains a child’s responsiveness ( Unihel and Harris,1970,Arkes and Baykind, 1971). If the child can follow the activity from setting up the hot plate through the actual doing of the work to the pasting of the finished print in the book for display, the fractionalization of his understanding is reduced. Understanding the entire process also gives the child a picture of where he fits into the whole process. When he sees his work on the display in the art shows, he recognizes it as uniquely his own. This preserves the relation between the artist and his product. Having power, and a no fractio0nalized understanding reduces fearfulness, and increases security. Children understand most artistic processes going on around them. If they see someone doing something they do not understand, they know they can try it. Trying many activities broadens their understanding and raises the range of their particular artistic skills. If power increases a child’s sense of competence and if meaningful activities nurture his/her self esteem, the last two dimensions we examine improve a child’s sense of social competency and helps raise their level of self actualization.

Children’s Norms, Social Isolation and Being an Artist

In my classes little social isolation exists. As children paint, laughing, joking, sharing develops. Children look at and comment on each other’s work; excitement builds over book making. Wild enthusiasm occurs over painting monsters. Special projects nurture friendships and mutual cooperation.

This climate for open communication (Gatewood, 1975) is a function of three variables: 1) the conception of art, 2) the reinforcement of the impact of art, 3) the legitimizing of their activity. Since I view art as a non competitive self expressive activity, and no” pecking order” develops over which child best fulfills that particular image of artistic development. Everyone is an artist and is equal. Informal favorites’ and status hierarchies are thus avoided. Sennett and Cobb (1972) comment on the impact of these hierarchies on children

The teacher can reinforce the impact of art on children in several ways. On a one to one basis, a judicious use of praise fosters dignity. At the end of each teaching cycle, I meet with each child individually and review, talk about, and praise his artistic production. As one child said:” Boy, I didn’t know I could do that much”. Finally, every child’s work is displayed in the art show.

On a group level, the tactics are different. Before many classes, I sit the class down for a quiet time. During this time, we often pin up art. The first time the children watched wide eyed in wonderment. As I pinned up their art,I talked about the mysterious color in this one, the wonderful shapes in that one. When I was done, I asked each child to point out his/her art and encouraged them to talk about it. Each time a child did this, we clapped. Soon, putting up art seemed natural.

In class I allowed no emotionally disparaging remarks about another’s work. When it happened, I stop and ask the child about his remark. As the creative momentum builds within each class I work very hard to maintain the “charged atmosphere” around exciting artistic activity. A charged atmosphere helps motivate children. Small “face to face” groups encourage intimacy. No outside intrusions are allowed to disrupt a child’s creative momentum. Internal disruptions are quickly isolated and dealt with.

While social isolation is discouraged, space for “solitary play” is encouraged. A special booth in the classroom allows solitary play. Children can arrange the chairs and tables to encourage intimacyof foster work or individual art projects. Strom and Singer( ) discuss the merits of solitary play.

Finally, the teacher legitimizes the effects of art. As a child talks before class about his art, shows his art in his class, and hears his teachers and peers talk about his art, he begins to take on a “public identity” as artistic. These new feelings and behaviors are legitimized and solidified by two further activities. : one, by having his art displayed in his art show, and the other by receiving an art award. For example, when Steve entered my art class, he wouldn’t talk. He is very intelligent and sensitive. When overwhelmed, he withdraws. Talked to directly, he wouldn’t talk.
T talk. But talking into a tape recorder, intrigued him. The gadgetry caught his attention. Soon he was talking into the tape recorder and listening to his voice played back. Every class he immediately went over to the tape recorder. After playing his tape before the class and seeing the other kids laugh and clap, it was easier for him to talk in class. Soon his intelligence led him to be a class story teller. This provided him with new social skills. A new sense of his self esteem developed. These skills changed his vulnerability patterns, and allowed him to develop new coping skills. At the art shows, he displayed his books and talked about them. We set up and took down the show. Afterwards, he said to me” Bruce, Bruce, I think I wowed’em I like this being an artist” When he took his award home, his mother put it up on the wall. They framed his art., for the next week, his head remained in the clouds. If these three social dimensions can promote control, commitment and meaning in a child’s life, how doe the very act of painting nurture his or her creativity and growth?

Self Esteem and Self Expression: Actualization through Art:

Two factors increase a child’s ‘probability of success with art. 1) the general natural endowment of every child with artistic abilities(Russell,1956)and 2) the conception of art as an individually self expressive activity.

With his generous native endowment, most child possess the artistic skills most artistic tasks demand. In self-expressive art, a significant proportion of these can function at a high level aesthetically without mediation through a child’s limited verbal and cognitive capacitates. In my classes ,this use of imagination and epistemic motivation available to most5 children is maximized Use of artistic skills like optical accuracy, fine eye hand coordination depth perception, and perspective which most children lack are minimized. Individualized stylistic solutions are encouraged. Social reinforcement occurs for self expressive solutions. Most children possess the artistic skills necessary for these solutions, Thus the classroom experience is prefigured for his success.

When he enters the classroom, the child faces this problem: what are the relevant dimensions of art as an activity? Understanding how a solution is discovered is seen most clearly in children with a history of failure and other directed styles of problem solving (Zigler, 1970). These children” scan” the environment for “clues”. If a teacher asks them to” paint monsters”, these children all try a variety of strategies to avoid trusting their own solutions,i.e. disclaimers of ability, r rebellion, limit testing, diversionary tactics, imitation, reversals to previous praise winning solutions, etc. In the internal experience of the child, trusting his own impulses, thoughts, decision for problem solving is difficult. Understandably so. his previous experience has shown him or her that trusting them leads him or her into difficulties.

In the art room, however trusting his own solutions is reinforced. Sooner, or later, a host of other factors (high teacher expectations, a warm caring environment, modeling, and mothering) encourage the child to trust his own solution. Almost any solution he chooses receives positive reinforcement. Since a painting at this age level can de done in five minutes, a child has an opportunity to receive massive short term positive reinforcement for his actions. These repeated successes soon overwhelm his past history and old problem solving patterns.

In this process, the child experiences at a psychological level his own impulses, needs, feelings and ideas as validated. He enjoys the rich sensuous nature of art making. He uses using ingenuity to problem solve particular art projects, manipulating, adjusting, and restructuring materials, He symbolizes disturbing life situations. Constructive use of fantasy and daydreams occur. He or she paints live events to communicate joy and wonderment. In trial and error problem solving, he learns to prolong his concentration and his efforts at solution in the face of frustration. He or she discovers new facets about him/her self. Finally, through talking about art and observing other’s art, he heightens his aesthetic sensitivity, sharpens his visual perception and learns to limit personal involvement while viewing other’s art. These psychological dimensions help make art self fulfilling for many levels and dimensions of his or her personality structure. Some levels the child knows about consciously, and can talk about. Other dimensions plug the child into art below his conscious awareness.

A host of other variable interact to complicate future growth. Development issues arise. Peer group pressures assert themselves. Plateaus are reached. Backsliding occurs. But growth occurs and occurs with most children.

In short, our conception of are, every ones generous natural endowment, the massive short terms reinforcement in art, combines with a sup portative caring environment to reverse a child’s negative patterns of coping a, heal wounded areas of vulnerability, and teach new skills. At a psychological level, the child enjoys art, finds it exciting, can concentrate without problems, is disappointed to end the art activity, and feels him/herself learning about and expressing his inner needs.

In summary, the impact of these four dimensions of art-children having actual power, children acting on norms legitimate in their own eyes, children engaging in meaningful behavior, and children acting non estranged—can help children rebuild damaged self-esteem, give a child a basis for self competence, and correct a history of failure through the self actualizing activity of art. Understanding their impact will enrich art programs and deepen a child’s art experience.

En Plein Air Painting

The bear stood panting over my sleeping girlfriends’ head. I screamed. She screamed. Startled, the bear stepped back just as the first rock struck its flank. I started banging pots and pans.

Bierstadt was right, I thought, the sky has that astounding reddish glow. For twenty years I thought that color was romantic bs. But there it was: the sky behind Cathedral rock just like in one of his paintings.

In winter standing at dusk in the snowy field below El Capitan the snow flury gently falling on my shoulders, I thought there was nothing more beautiful than this. I am the luckiest man alive.

Antidotes like these make en plein air painting both joyous and at times frustrating. Most en plein air painters never encounter bears but many paint in our national parks. The beauty of nature both seduces and inspires us. If you love the outdoors, you’ve discovered one important answer to the question: How do you start painting landscapes outdoors? First, you must love being in nature.

Nature could be as near as your backyard, or as remote as Yosemite’s wilderness. I

Beyond loving the outdoors, what else do you need to start en plein air painting and what supplies do you need? The answers are straight forward and simple: first gather information, then just do it. Let me explain.

First, gather information.

Google en plein air. In .21 seconds, you get 6,150,000 results. Bing, how to paint landscapes .You get 22,000,000 results. Oceans of information. You tube videos, blog demonstrations, Amazon book recommendations, adult schools offering classes, workshops with local artists –all are available. Many landscape painters have sections on their blogs where they discuss how to start. Read some gathering information . Check your local public library. Peruse the instructional cd’s and books on landscape painting. Next, explore your local community resources. Get adult school catalogues as well as local junior or state college course offerings. Check the yellow pages . Call a few people listed as artists seeking suggestions. Query your artist friends or artist networks about how to start landscape painting.

Once you’ve explored you resources, and picked suggestions what seems helpful, pause for a moment. Take a moment to ask yourself :how have I learned other complex skills? Like swimming or driving. How do I learn best? Think about your own track record for acquiring skills, particularly if you have learned other artistic skills like drawing, figure painting, or pastel work. How did I acquire them? What helped me ?

With that in mind, you can begin. Some will read books and follow their instructions. Others start with classes. Or private teachers. Whatever works tempered by your sensitivity to your learning style.

Let me illustrate how to start by detailing my example.

How I started: I was in the 10 items or less checkout lane at the old Co-Op in Berkeley.

“You paint?” the checker said. I pushed my peanut butter, tofu and bananas forward.

“How could you tell? I said. He pointed to my big ben overalls splattered with paint. We started talking. His name was Henry. He told me he painted landscapes en plein air. The guy behind me impatient and feeling entitled pushed my items over the scanner and slapped his steak down like a 100 dollar bill. He looked at us like we were rude pheasants.

“ Look ”, Henry said to Mr. Entitled . Then, he smiled to himself, and turned to me. “ Look,” he said “I’m painting Mt. Diablo next Thursday .You’re welcome to come”
Next Thursday I was on my hands and knees painting before Mt.Diablo. I didn’t know landscaping painting from beans What I realized later was I had just stumbled onto a tradition, and into my life’s work. Henry, and his friend, Terry St John, and his friends , the Segrists, were the remnants of the Society of Six. Their direct hands on plein air painting suited me just fine.

For me, painting en plein air with friends was an almost perfect match. Beyond painting outdoors. What hooked me?

What hooked me was several particular challenges of painting outdoors.

Two stand out: first, the race to capture light effects before they disappear, and second, the attempt to complete a painting on the spot in 3 or 4 hours. Both encourage quicker decisions ,bolder risk taking, lessen procrastination. and demand detailed observation. Skill beginners like me particularly needed. Like gestures, short sessions guarded against preciousness and obsessing while still allowing for touch ups in studio. Painting in repeated short sessions gave a beginner like me enough experience to learn and discover my skills and then raise their levels. If challenges like these under the contingencies of changing weather focus rather than frustrate your creative processes you might like en plein painting.

Two other aspects ,neither unique to en plein air painting helped me learn how to paint landscapes. They might also help you. and you might find them useful When I started, I had no idea what my landscapes might look like. I just painted. Just painting with committed artists provides experiences classroom learning can’t. Demonstrations are often canned. In classroom you rarely actually see your artist teacher risking it doing their own work. Watching serious artists paint landscapes right next to me gave me a chance to watch them work. Their successes inspired me. Their failures humanized them, and helped demystify the processes involved in making pictures. Temper tantrums happened,, arguments occurred, everyone sometime forget their favorite colors, stupid mistakes are par for the course, but you keep on trying. Watching I thought, there was hope for me. It exposed me to a broader sense of how different artists’ creative processes work—with all their individual strengths and warts.

Moreover, right off, the comradely helped . They encouraged me to dampen my expectations and critical standards and just paint. Early on I was encouraged to always find one or two things I liked in each painting rather than critically trashing them. A nurturing comradely isn’t unique to plein air painting, but with a little selective effort you can create it for yourself.

Nurturing helped the first rush of talents that were at my finger tips to bubble up. Of course I couldn’t see these abilities. Early standards or aesthetic goals are often teacher influenced, or art hero driven. Henry in particular was always looking over my shoulder and yelling at me to stop. When I was about to paint over some bit of beauty cropping up from my own developing aesthetic. On the other hand, if I was obsessing over something, stuck in a pity pot or just staring, I’d be encouraged to quit thinking and start painting. The simple fact of painting under a time constraint, being encouraged, and painting a lot helped.

So buddying up can help. It’s not essential part of en plein painting. Many artist paint alone. But en plein air painting can lend itself painting with friends. If only to share gas expenses. Typically, with others very quickly you will figure out who you want to paint with and who you don’t. Who you can learn from and with. Who is always trying to influence you to paint like them. Who knows all the answers but can’t paint any of them.. Who loves the activity and who is painting by formula—whatever that formula might be. Out of these trial and error painting experience you might develop friends who you trust. .Such friends can keep you painting even when you aren’t motivated Or when life thrown you curves.. And life will. Out of these groups, one or two friends develop into trusted friends and critics.

Stumbling into a Tradition

I stumbled into the Society of Six. Dumb luck. But this lead me to Goya, Matisse. Cezanne and into the whole history of painting and of landscape painting. Awareness of these larger traditions form the cultural backdrop against which we paint and out of which we grow ,reinvigorate these traditions and define ourselves. Studying a lot of landscapes builds up a reservoir of color use, compositional devices, possible brush work ,etc.. Bits and pieces of famous paintings pop up in your mind as you’re trying to capture the fleeting sensations of the landscape you are painting. How the Fauves painted tree branches entering shade. The compositional devices Ferdinand Holder uses painting the Swiss Alps might work with Glaciers Mountains. Plein air isn’t only about capturing immediate sensations, or the juicy materiality of paint but also about your relation between yourself and what’s going on in your mind as you paint. Reacting against, using, and enriching these traditions grows you as a painter. The society of Six helped my work.
Finally some practical tips.

When you plan to go out, develop a check list. Before trips, even short ones I develop a check list, and check off my list religiously. Running out of my favorite color when I need it can kill a great afternoon. I also carry extra back up supplies(clothing, food, first aid kit) as well as having triple a for car emergencies To develop your list I would google the internet and read a variety of en plein air blogs.

Most importantly : always be safe. Take a newly charged cell phone, gps, tell friends where you’re going, and when you expect to be back. I carry mace (or pepper spray) for dogs, bears, and low life’s. I once argued with a bear over who owned my backpack. That was stupid—he won . Just this year a experienced photographer in Glacier got mauled to death by a grizzly. Being naive about personal safety only leads to tragedy. . I feel compelled to mention this, and I hope it isn’t perceived as sexist. Most of my women painting friends go out in groups and come home well before dark. They miss a lot of beautiful light, but in the Bay Area when I live, I think they’re being prudent. Painting alone in isolated spots towards dusk can be dangerous period. Remember, when painting the most important rule is Wolf Kahn’s follow your brush.


I just stumbled upon a friend. In my case, it was just dumb luck. I hadn’t read any books on landscape painting, much less thought about landscape painting. I just took a risk, and discovered I loved en plein painting,and then painting more generally.

But some practical advise could have made things easier.Here a small cluster of practical things you need to think about.

The most important rule: always be safe. Take a cell phone,gps,tell friends where you’re going,and when you expect to be back. I carry mase(or pepper spray) for dogs, bears, and low lifes. I once agrured with a bear over who owned by backpack. That was stupid—he won easily. Just this year a experienced photographer in Glacier got mauled to death by a grizzly. Being naive about personal safety only leads to tragedy. Before trips, even short ones I develop a check list, and run through my check list of things to do and to take religiously just before I leave. For example, I have back up art supplies in my car. Running out of my favorite color when I need it can kill a great afternoon. I also carry extra back up survival supplies as well as having triple a for car emergencies I strongly recommend check-lists. I feel compeled to mention this, and I hope it isn’t perceived as sexist. Most of my women painting friends go out in groups and come home well before dark. They miss a lot of beautiful light, but in the Bay Area when I live, I think they’re being prudent. Painting alone in isolated spots towards dusk can be dangerous. Again always be safe.Sunglasses, bug spray, painting umbrella are also recommended.

I use roofers knee pads because I like to paint kneeling on the ground. Most use a van gogh type easel.If you do, I recommend a sand bag to weight them down in the wind. There is no mystery or magic to l


here is no mystery or magic to landscape painting. Your mindset is in the long haul more important than your natural talent. If you think you might like landscape painting, take a moment and ask yourself how have I learned other skills? For example,, to drive, to swim, to acquire new complicated skill sets.? Do I like being outdoors in nature?

In the beginning turning down your high expectations and critical standards is often important. Why? Because typically, these standards are well beyond our painting skill levels. I recommend painting 100 landscapes before becoming too critical .With each one find one or two things you like about your work before you trash it critically. Most beginners are overly critical and under appreciative of their own work. Ask them to tell you about a particular painting and they list four or five things they dislike before mentioning if they can one thing they like. Moreover since our early standards are typically favorite teacher or art hero driven, we often don’t literally see our own developing unique aesthetic sensitivity. Typically, we paint right over it.

This brings up a third important tip. Buddy up. Find a congenial group of painters to paint with. Not only for safety in isolated locations but for morale and comradely Think how a commitment to a friend keeps you exercising even when you aren’t motivated. How a friend can help keep you on a diet. Painting peers can keep you painting when life throws you a curve. And life will. I go out with friends often and regularly Usually out of these groups, one or two friends develop into trusted critics. This can be tricky. Here are my criteria: this person must be honest but not brutally so. Criticism isn’t masochism. Two, they must not be trying to get me to paint like them. Third, their suggestions when tried mustyou’re your view,improve the work..

Finally ,for the practical needs: what do you need to take?

This varies depending upon where you’re going, who you’re going with, the weather,whose driving,etc.

The most important rule: always be safe. Take a cell phone,gps,tell friends where you’re going,and when you expect to be back. I carry mase(or pepper spray) for dogs, bears, and low lifes. I once agrured with a bear over who owned by backpack. That was stupid—he won easily. Just this year a experienced photographer in Glacier got mauled to death by a grizzly. Being naive about personal safety only leads to tragedy. Before trips, even short ones I run through my check list of things to do and to take For example, I have back up art supplies in my car. Running out of my favorite color when I need it can kill a great afternoon. In my truck, I carry extra back up survival supplies as well as having triple a for car emergencies

So I recommend check-lists. I feel compeled to mention this, and I hope it isn’t perceived as sexist. Most of my women painting friends go out in groups and come home well before dark. They miss a lot of beautiful light, but in the Bay Area when I live, I think they’re being prudent. Painting alone in isolated spots towards dusk can be dangerous. Sunglasses, bug spray, painting umbrella are also recommended.

I use roofers knee pads because I like to paint kneeling on the ground. Most use a van gogh type easel.If you do, I recommend a sand bag to weight them down in the wind. There is no mystery or magic to landscape painting. Your mindset is in the long haul more important


The Endurance of Bay Area Figurative Art

Rejecting the dominance of Abstract Expressionism, a group of San Francisco Bay Area artist returned to figurative painting during the 1950’s and 60’s—but with a twist.

These former non- objective painters still worked in a generally abstract style, but included human figures and other more realistic elements. As Elmer Bischoff said”,Abstract Expressionism was “ playing itself dry” I can only compare it to the end of a love affair”.

Bischoff, David Park, Richard Diebenkorn, and Jim Weeks formed the core of the first generation Bay Area figurative artists. Their students-Joan Brown, Bruce McGaw, Nathan Oliveria, Theophilius Brown, and Paul Warner—carried on or transformed their figurative tradition. Many of these artists worked or studied at the San Francisco Art Institute, the California College of Arts and Crafts, and the University of California, Berkeley. The book Bay Area Figurative Art 1950-65 by art historian Caroline Jones is perhaps the best chronicle of this movement.

Like many others I came to u C Berkeley to study with Elmer Bischoff and Joan Brown. In the courses I took with him, Bischoff’s emphasis was on keeping your painterly process open, on finding your painting’s subject matter through the act of painting and on letting the painting lead. These ideas continue to characterize my practice.

Once during a portfolio review in his office, he picked out a painting I thought of little value.” That” he said “was a gift. Put it up in your studio and look at it until you can see why I find it is beautiful”. I thought he was nuts-a great teacher, maybe, but a little off his rocker. I was interested in painting the figure. He had picked an abstract piece that I hadn’t even brought in for review, but had used to wrap some figure studies. So I put it up. Looking at it every day for months, I finally began to see the piece’s beauty and realize it had a certain kind of presence that I couldn’t make happen, or force to happen. That experience ultimately led me to understand that for me, my highest aesthetic level was reached not through conscious meticulous control of media and of the creative processes but through simply starting out with a blank canvas and seeing what happens.

In my studio, I’ve tacked up this Bischoff quote: What is desired in the final outcome is a condition of form which dissolves all tangible facts into intangibles of feeling” This serves as both a goal and reminder.

Joan Brown did something similar for me. I wanted to paint but was terrified I had no ability. I brought in a stack of drawings, hoping she’d look at them and say” Yes, you have ability. You can be an artist”. I was on my hands and knees laying them out on the floor, afraid to get up and turn around.

I was sure she was going to say,” You poor slob, you don’t have any ability. Quite wasting my time.”

Instead, sensitive to what was happening, she said:” You don’t have to do this. You don’t have to ask anyone to certify you.” I may be misquoting her, but what Joan Brown did was to give me confidence and help me trust my own deepening sense of my own abilities.”

In teaching adults, children and the developmentally disabled<I have attempted in my own way to pass on these lessons. Many beginning students in some way question whether they have ability, and many students over control their creative processes trying to ensure successful outcomes. What Joan Brown, and Elmer Bischoff did for me, I try to do for them.

Drawing the figure has been an on and off thirty year preoccupation initiated by my love of the figure drawings of Bischoff, and Diebenkorn. For years, like many others, I did poor imitations of their drawing style. Finally, by limiting my means to charcoal, by treating the figure n isolation, and by focusing on structural concerns, I have found my voice in drawing.


True Grit

Cezanne wandering Provence. Matisse painting with stomach cancer. Wayne Thiebaud at 87 up at 6 a.m. painting, taking a tennis break, then continuing after lunch. All images of commitment.

In explaining such commitment, we cite genius, driven by hard work, and burning desire. But for most of us, commitment is more difficult, more a daily struggle to find our way and our voice.

Success, gaining recognition, getting into museums as well as marriage, kids, cultural support or lack thereof can hinder or help our commitment. In the web of these pressures, we stumble forward, one brush stroke at a time hoping for wise life and career decisions.

We look for help and a little hope from our fellow artists. Here are some hints I personally found helpful and students said helped them.

Advice from Wayne Thiebaud and Max Beckman.: SHOW UP! Thiebaud said:” I was an illustrator. You worked 9 to 5, five days a week.” Beckman after being asked how you paint great paintings, wiped his brow and said” Sweat”, meaning hard work. Showing up day in and day out not waiting for inspiration. Why? Because showing up increases the odds that you’re in your studio trying. In trying, you’re upping the odds that in the processes of art making, in the actual activity you’ll stumble upon things that keep you committed.

”Showing Up” is really code for a strong work ethic. Logging in long hours, persistence, taking responsibility, being willing to admit to and learn from mistakes form the core of a that work ethic. Where do these characteristics come from? Initially, your family, often a mentor, ultimately from your own sense that if you lack them, you need to learn them.

Another bit of advice comes from Elmer Bischoff and is echoed by Wolf Kahn: “Let your paintings lead” and “Follow your brush”. On my reading these an morphisms mean: remain open. Don’t constrain your art-making by trying to impose your will on your creative processes or creative products. The aesthetic you want may not be the one that develops in your work. The compositional devices in your head may not be the ones developing in your painting. The processes of painting are grounded in our being not i our conscious awareness.

Terry St. John , a Bay area landscape painter has an example that illustrates these anamorphisms .In landscape painting you have three focal points: the landscape before you, the canvas in front of you, and what’s inside your head. If you focus too strictly on what’s before you, you get narrow academic realism. If you focus too much on the developing canvas, you get empty formalism. If you focus too much on what’s inside your head, you get sloppy expressionism.

Painting is a dialogue between all three. A dance between these poles. It is more like broken field running for a quarterback in football. In practice, the team learns to execute the plays perfectly. In reality, you hike and things go astray. The skill lies in getting yardage out of chaos. Bischoff says pay attention to the developing canvas. Kahn says remember to trust what’s going on inside you. Neither are discounting the other aspects, but both are reminding us that art-making is grounded in our being not our conscious awareness. Creativity remains mysterious.

But how does following these aphorisms lead to increased commitment?

The answer is simple: they help you identify what engages you in your art-making processes.

Generally speaking, the more you are plugged into these processes, the more likely you are to stay committed. For example thick buttery paint excites me. I love paints’ viscosity and translucence, the way colors mix on canvas, the speed of a brush over gessoed and sanded canvas, how brush strokes release or trap feelings. These things plug me into painting.

More cognitive aspects also attract me. Curiosity and control drive my art making. Control over problem finding, the means used to solve them, and the criteria for a successful aesthetic solution give me a sense of fulfillment and self-actualization. Curiosity or “what if” situations also intrigue me. How one brushstroke can suddenly open up a painting, or create light effects I couldn’t have planned. Painting into fear can suddenly deposit me at beauty or clusters of new directions: thought, hunches, memories, and images, insights into color, compossiton or light effects. But small repetitive tasks bore me. I can’t stand to paint from rule like a particular color theory.. Mystery, risk, and surprises all attract me.

These are my cluster of aspects. Each artist has his or her own clusters. Doing what deeply engages you in your art making and creating art processes that incorporate those aspects anchors your commitment.

One final bit of advice: sooner or later most everyone gets stuck: a painting block, a rich vein runs dry, tragedy comes your way, or you paint yourself into a corner. The need for renewal and change is natural and healthy.

When faced with such situations I do several things. I surround myself with the most committed and serious artists I can, even if only in my imagination. I draw strength from the great traditions of painting. I think about earlier in my life when I changed successfully, and try to figure out what helped me then in order to use that knowledge to help me now.

Remember commitment isn’t a one time decision, but a process. Needing renewal. What engages you at twenty may not at 70. Personalities mature, or fail too. New materials emerge old ones disappear. Historical opportunities open, or close. Patterns of creativity change over a life cycle. Clifford Still painted one image over and over. Titian blossomed early and late. Matisse slowly and methodically grew learning though each new art movement. Diebenkorn and Scully mine one deep vein for 170 plus paintings. Who knows what your pattern will be?

Who knows what gifts your commitment might give?

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© All images and writings copyrighted by Bruce Klein, 2008