Monday 18 August 2014

A Colourful Summer

This summer we went to the innovative and educational 'Making Colour' exhibition at the National Gallery. It is apparently part of their 'National Gallery Inspires' programme of exhibitions, which aims to take a fresh view of their paintings alongside special loans, and features world-leading research by Gallery experts. The draw in particular for us and our rabble of ten 0-8 year olds, was the theme of colour, which was refreshingly presented in both art historical and scientific terms. From 8 month old Culturetot, for whom the dark rooms with their glowing (at times backlit) exhibits were clearly captivating, through the toddlers who are learning about shades and colour mixing, to our science-mad seven year old, and arty eight year old, there was something to interest every child. There was also an excellent, well thought out, guide for the older children full of facts and activities to complete. For the younger children we printed and laminated a set of images from the National Gallery website in advance and sent them on an I-Spy of works through the rooms. This is such a perennially simple and successful activity for our two and three year olds that we use it every time we go to an exhibition at present.


Following a short introduction to the colour wheel and the concept of complementary colours (indeed Renoir knew exactly what he was doing when he painted a yellow boat on dazzling blue water), together our intrepid time travellers journeyed through a set of rooms which each celebrated and unpacked the history of a single colour. First blue: once enormously expensive due the difficulties of producing the paint from natural minerals - Lapis Lazuli was transported from mines in far away Afghanistan - it was consequently used sparingly and to designate importance. Culturetot in particular was mesmerised by the backlit glowing deep blue mineral on display. Finally someone discovered how to make blue artificially and artists such as the impressionists were able to use it with abandon. Then Green, a colour vulnerable to fading over time - that is why trees in old paintings can seem blue. And why do faces of icons often appear green? Apparently artists often used it beneath pink to achieve just the right shade, now visible as the top layer has worn away. Then yellow, wildly in fashion in the 16th Century, and Orange - created using a poison. Red: I remember cochineal food colouring. Traditionally this consists of thousands upon thousands of crushed insects. What scrumptious facts for our older children. Purple: luxury and all the rage with the Victorians. Then finally gold and silver; some real, some in fact just yellow paint.

The exhibition was both aesthetically successful and fascinating. The children all really enjoyed it and I'd highly recommend it as a valuable learning experience. One warning though (and PLEASE PLEASE do not let this put you off going, I'm just arming you in advance) but visiting the National Gallery with children is not at times for the feint hearted. In this exhibition, we were disappointed to find that some of the clientele was extremely stuffy. Whilst actually talking about the art, we were shushed by older women who clearly considered it their prerogative to ponder the exhibition in utter silence, and very inappropriately a guard actually interrupted my friend who was (ironically) reading the childrens' guide to her young and impeccably behaved brood to ask her to keep the noise down. Now squealing toddlers can irritate me as much as the next person and our children are not perfect angels, they are mobile and enthusiastic, they need to ask questions, they want to have fun, but - as I was reminded as I emerged from the gallery with silent steam emerging from my ears - they were actually on pretty good form that day and all left brimming with facts and favourite paintings. So, somewhat conflicted, I went to talk to the desk. I'm not a complainer and I'm from the hardier stock of museum goers, but even I felt shaken by the experience. Happily I ended up speaking to a member of the education team, who appeared mortified by the feedback. I was surprised to learn that this was in fact primarily an exhibition intended for young people, and where families were supposed to be welcomed. When I suggested that perhaps they institute a number of 'quiet' sessions and 'noisier' sessions throughout the day so disgruntled oldies can view the art in silence while the potential curators of tomorrow actually get a respectful look in elsewhere, this was rejected on the grounds that this exhibition is supposed to be a place families can feel welcome, all the time, full stop. I'm hoping my feedback made it back to the front line though. With a brilliant education team (which the gallery appear to have), but objectionable guards who didn't appear to have read the 'families welcome' memo, I honestly think some parents in our shoes could have been put off forever. So, should this ever happen to you, please don't be. Keep going. It's worth it for the moments your two year old says her favourite thing is to get on a train to London to look at paintings, or identifies with delight a familiar print framed on a wall that she wishes "to jump into".

Alongside the exhibition, the wonderful Usborne books (in collaboration with the National Gallery) have brought out an original and fascinating children's Art Book about Colour. Like the exhibition, and so unlike so many other art books for children, this title is captivating and can be read from cover to cover. Brimming with scientific and historical facts, and packed full of famous as well as less well known images, it explores 15000 years of colour in art. What do colours mean? How are they made? Why do some colour combinations work better than others? How have artists achieved optical illusions and interesting effects using colour? Though the culturebabies are still a little young for some of the content, the images are wonderful, and I learnt a huge amount from the book which I could then begin to relay to them in simple form. I'd recommend this book any day as an extremely valuable addition to a child's art library. Another gorgeous book dealing with colour is Prestel's large and high quality The Great Art Treasure Hunt: I Spy, Red, Yellow, Blue by Doris Kutschbach. This clever and simply stunning book has been a resident on our breakfast table on numerous occasions. Taking one painting per double spread, it offers a number of items and/or colours to spot in a large spectrum of styles and themes of art and is really effective propped up on the table as a prompt for conversation and focus - particularly during the trickier dinner episodes with my reluctant eater of a toddler. It's one of the most useful books we own on art for children. There's also a handful of other great books we have discovered on colour in art. A great board book for younger children is Baby Einstein Van Gogh's World of Colour by Julie Aigner-Clark. It cleverly introduces each of six main colours to children through six of Van Gogh's works, complete with simple questions for them to consider and short quotations from the artist. Likewise, I Spy Colours in Art, is part of a series we particularly love, which makes a game of finding items and themes through great artworks. Other winners for toddlers are Eric Carle's The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse, Susan Goldman Rubin's Andy Warhol's Colors (both reviewed here) anWow Said the Owl by Tim Hopgood. 
Over the last year we have done a number of simple and fun activities and experiments on the theme of colour, primarily using home-made busy bags or equipment. Here are a dozen of the best:

1. Colour Sorting with pairs of coloured images and felt rectangles:

(I also did another busy bag version with pairs of coloured shapes cut from felt - two each of triangle, square and circle in each of six colours, which can also be used for creating patterns and images). These simple packs were perfect for 18 months to two years.

2. Colour Sorting Busy Box:

This activity was created from a range of materials from each of six colours, with a felt rectangle base mat of each colour. I used felt shapes, feathers, buttons, pipe cleaners, pompoms of various sizes and coloured wooden clothes pegs. These were all then packed up and contained within a small portable box. This was of most interest to Culturebaby between 21 and 30 months.

3. Colour and Shape Pairing Button Box:

These have been played with from 21 months, when I created them, and they still interest Culturebaby.

4. Learning about colour mixing with food colours:

This was our first simple lesson about colour mixing. We read the book Posey Paints a Princess by Harriet Ziefert and then we took food colours in the three primary colours. We had fun changing the colour of the water with a pipette and then experimented to create other colours by mixing these. There are some great, and more complex follow on activities out there on the internet which we will use in the future.

5. Colour Gradation Paint Swatch and Peg Sorting Activity: 

I covered this in more detail in this post: This activity is perfect from around 2 and a half when a toddler knows all their colours and needs to move on to shades. It is also a great way to practice fine motor skills.

6. Colour Palette Matching using Tate Paintings:

This game was created using this brilliant Tate quiz: Print the clues, laminate, and there you have a great ready-made activity for colour palette and shade matching for slightly older children. This worked well for 3 to 8 year olds, but is great fun for adults too.

7. We're Going on a Colour Hunt (we're going to catch a green one...):

This simple activity involved collecting a specified number of items of a certain colour from around the house - good for numeracy and observation skills. You can go on to create a colour corner or display with the items and do nature versions.

8. Colour Matching Ribbons and Playdoh Activity:

We created this for a 16 month old as part of the Summer Love Books Exchange and you can see this activity here.

9. Introducing Watercolours:

My Dad is a great watercolour painter. I was always in awe of his ability to capture gorgeous little details of landscape in his sketchbook when I was a child. A few weeks ago he gave Culturebaby her first watercolour lesson. She loved exploring the effect of water on the paint and concentrated really well.

10. Playing with Colour:

We love colourful wooden toys, especially traditional stackers, pegs, beads and nesting toys. Great for a whole range of necessary toddler fine motor and cognitive skills.

11. Pom Pom tweezering, fine motor practice:

12. Threading colourful beads:

And of course you can never beat a trip to see some colourful and exciting art in the flesh, and even better when this can be handled or the toddler is invited to be part of the creative process as we were at the Royal Academy's Sensing Spaces Exhibition. We loved Matisse and we'll be going to see Mondrian and Malevich shortly as part of our continuing exploration of colour and shape. We'll report back...

Gallery Oldham
Sensing Spaces at the Royal Academy
Kusama at Tate Modern

Disclaimer: We were sent copies of The Great Art Treasure Hunt, Posey Paints a Princess and The Usborne Art Book About Colour for review purposes. All opinions are entirely my own. 

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