When I was a kid, my parents shipped me and my sisters to a lodge for the entire summer. Kind of like summer camp without programmes and camp counsellors. Off we went the day after the last day of school and home we came on Labour Day.
Each summer, my mother would send me off with a lot of books to read which I usually inhaled and finished within two weeks. And I was almost always given a Paint by Numbers kit.
I don’t know if they still make them. [I hope not!] For those of you who have no experience of these kits. Imagine a box with a picture on the outside. Once the kit was completed, that is what our work was supposed to look like. Inside the box would be a stamped piece of white board, one or two not very good brushes and a collection of the requisite paints to complete the picture – every paint pot numbered to match the numbers on the white board. The object of the activity was to use the paints in the appropriate places to re-create the picture on the outside of the box.
I don’t remember ever finishing one of these things. I know that I would dutifully start each kit and diligently work on it each day. And I know how frustrated I got with each one. I used to wonder where to start – the top, the bottom, one side or the other, all the blue #12? Was there a correct way to do this? Once I started, I was so worried about going outside the lines. And what would happen if I put the brown #2 where the green # 11 was supposed to be? What would happen if what I produced didn’t look like the picture on the box? And then there was the frustration of not being able to complete whole sections of the picture because the colours would run together. The only way to fix that was to rub everything off and start again [but then I might run out of paint, heaven forefend!] OR wait a few days between each sitting and hope that the paint had dried before I continued.
All in all, Paint by Numbers was not a fun activity for me.
I know that I started each kit with the intention of completing it and I know that I never finished one of them. I don’t even know what happened to the kits when we returned home. Maybe my mother threw them out. Was there a great pile on uncompleted paint kits somewhere out there? I could not have been the only kid who didn’t finish the project.
What strikes me when I think of that painting kit is that it was supposed to promote creativity and artistic ability. But what is creative about following someone else’s vision of what a woodland scene would look like? What is creative about conforming to someone else’s definition of what art is? Where is the creativity in making something that does not come from your heart and soul and senses?
So, not withstanding the supposed goal of these kits, what seems to me to be the actual result? I do know that kids were not getting into stuff and getting messy and being boisterous and noisy and were focused on one thing. I do know that we were out of our parents’ hair for a while. I also know that we learned that precision was perfection, that creativity was meeting someone else’s standard. I do know that I rejected the idea that these kits were ‘art’. What was being created to me struck me as sterile and stilted and static. There was no life or vitality. I know that there was nothing of my own creativity in this kit.
Art and creativity is life and soul and personal response. And it can be messy. Yes, creation is ‘work’ but, as a very good friend reminded me recently, when that creation comes from vision, it is full of life and energy.
So, encourage your children to explore and create. And the sky may be orange and the grass blue and they may paint outside the lines and get messy. And they will enjoy the exploration and expression of themselves.
I wonder did anyone ever just do their own thing with their Paint by Numbers kit and totally ignore the picture on the box? What a concept!