Make art, add Randomness!! working with kids

I don’t usually work with kids. But I had the pleasure of creating a couple of public events lately where visitors are invited to help color in the art, and this naturally seems to turn into a kid-centric activity. Everyone had a grand time, and got to play, and got fun photos of friends and family doing the coloring. Here I’d like to share my thoughts on how to make this work well as both activity and art.

A piece I envisioned for Somerville’s Starting Over Festival (an Arbor day event dreamed up by Greg Cook) was a series of urban animals made of primed scrap plywood, to be colored in by visitors at the event, and hung as temporary park decoration for the rest of the summer season.

Concept sketch for Starting Over Festival
Primed plywood animal ready to paint

  1. People (grownups) do better and feel less pressure when coloring in a coloring-book style thing. They don’t have to make the grand design decisions, they can just contribute and have fun.
  2. Kids (small ones) do not color in the lines. They are randomness generators! The results can be fun and unexpected.
  3. BUT: Left at it too long, the smaller ones will overwork and overmix the paint.
  4. Too much randomness doesn’t leave you with a coherent enough product.
Participatory painting at Starting Over Fest, Photo by Greg Cook

So the event went like this: Bring coloring-book style animals; Some adults color. Some larger children plan and execute some interesting more freeform stuff. Smaller ones are unleashed and create randomness, having a grand time! When the paint was used up and the event finished, the pieces were a cacophony of interesting lively brush strokes and color combinations that I couldn’t have come up with on my own. Randomness generator!

Kids painting, one of many versions of the piece that happened throughout the day.

After the event was done, I decided to go back in and finish the pieces a little, as a design exercise. How to keep the lively brush strokes, the immediacy, while pulling the whole piece back into a coherence that would keep delighting park visitors as a public art installation?

Finishing touches to the animals back at the studio

Starting with the most appealing areas of the kids’ painting, I also walked back a few of the overworked areas using photos of the larger kids’ designs, which had been covered over later in the day. Then I added back in SOME (but not all) of the black lines to give the shapes some more definition, and act as a unifying element that ties all three pieces together stylistically. This provides them with a more finished look when seen from a distance.

The finished pieces preserve the spirit of what the kids were doing, highlighting various of their most successful contributions from throughout the day, and providing a satisfying finished look that they were unable to on their own. Overall I rather like this method!

Finished animals installed in the park


Finished coyote on the park rear fence