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Turned on by Turner.

Painting in elementary school is often limited to tempera creations, which tend to crumble and flake off the paper. Some teachers venture into watercolor but find inherent difficulties in this medium when used with young children. All of us have found our own ways of coping with the problems of teaching tempera or watercolor painting, but few have ventured into other painting media with young children because of toxicity and the difficulties involved in the use of solvents.

But there has been a real breakthrough in this area--water-based oil paints. I used water-based oils for the first time with children a year ago and am absolutely sold on them. Children in grades four and five were thrilled. The water-based oil paints are AP-non-toxic and have all the qualities of a real oil paint, yet when watered down can be treated as watercolors, as in washes, wet-in-wet effects, etc. The children soon discovered that they could mix the colors on their papers, paint over "messed up" areas, wipe off mistakes with a rag, use paint thick like toothpaste, mix an unlimited number of colors, and on and on. Cleanup is easy: simply throw away the makeshift palettes (e.g., Styrofoam meat trays) and wash the brushes in warm water. The only drawback for the children was that they could not take their works home right away, but needed to wait for them to dry--about a week.

Because water-based oil paints come in tubes, the first task was to set up twenty-five different palettes. I asked ten responsible children to help with this task while the rest were encouraged to do some preliminary sketching. I showed the helpers how to squeeze a little bit of one color by pressing lightly on the bottom of the tube. Each one was then given a color to dish out. When all the colors were on each palette, these were distributed along with brushes, rags, some jar lids for mixing paint, and water. We were ready to paint on heavy black 14" x 18" (36 cm x 46 cm) paper.

The artist we used as master teacher was Joseph M.W. Turner. I showed the children a number of reproductions in which Turner's unique treatment of light was obvious. Then we concentrated on his painting, Burning of the Houses of Parliament. The children were excited by what they saw in the painting, and it was easy to shift the discussion from description to esthetic qualities. The expressionistic color treatment of the fire and smoke, which overpowers the structure of buildings and other detail, was easily grasped by the children. We also talked about the importance of the bridge in the composition, how it leads in a dynamic diagonal to the center of the action--the fire itself. Turner certainly turned on the children.

Before the children were allowed to paint, we lit a candle and called out the names of the colors we saw in the flames. We looked at a newspaper clipping of a big fire in Baltimore. Then the students painted their own fire scenes. The children were intensely involved, mixing on palettes and paper, structuring buildings and, of course, fire engines and fire fighters. Yet it was amazing to see how much time they spent simply on the fire and smoke. They discovered wonderful new techniques, such as stippling with their brushes (tempera and watercolor tend to get too wet for that). They used rags and fingers, and scratched with the back of their brushes into the wet paint. They could hardly wait to share their discoveries with one another and with me. Just about everyone was so involved that we ran out of time and eventually ran out of red and yellow paint. (I replenished the palettes as needed.) But we did not seem to run out of energy. Whether it was Turner or the oil paints, I don't know. Both the process and the products were truly amazing.

Plans for a Lesson on Turner

Lesson objectives: Expressionistic treatment of light/fire; contrast of light and dark; experimental use of water-based oil paints, such as strokes, thick/thin quality of paint, on-paper mixing.

Master painting: Joseph Turner, Burning of the Houses of Parliament.

Motivation: Lighting a candle, newspaper picture of a fire.

Materials: 12 three-quarter-ounce tubes of water-based oil paints, flat easel brushes of various sizes, water, rags, 18" x 24" (46 cm x 61 cm) stiff black paper or tagboard.

Time: Two hours plus.

Vocabulary: Joseph Turner, expressionism, palette.

Ruth Aukerman teaches elementary art in Carroll County, Maryland and in the Young People's studio of the Maryland Institute, College of Art, Baltimore, Maryland. Photography: Karen Carroll.
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Title Annotation:Joseph M. W. Turner's watercolor works help to educate elementary school students on art
Author:Aukerman, Ruth
Publication:School Arts
Date:Mar 1, 1991
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