Painted Black


This Rabbit Hole asks: are kids being unnecessarily singled out as black sheep?

When I was in kindergarten, my parents got a worried call from one of my teachers. This wasn’t the first time. It probably wasn’t one time of only two. This particular time it was because they were concerned about a new artistic direction I had taken. They were worried that, like the dysfunctional narrator in the Stone’s song, I was refusing to paint in any colour other than black.

(Boom, boom, boom, boom. Boom-tish, boom-tish, boom-tish, boom-tish…)

Instead of seeing my colour choice as an exciting new direction in my artistic output, they worried that it was a sign that things weren’t right at home.

It's easy to understand why they were concerned. Google the words ‘children’s drawings’ and ‘black’ and you’ll find a whole bunch of websites that say, for kids:

Black often is an indication of depression or feeling hopeless or restricted. Red may indicate anger or aggression...

...and so on. But there are just as many that modify or counter this by saying its all about context—the child’s life experiences, their temperament, the subject matter of their drawings and paintings, and so on. In fact, one study says quite the opposite. A paper by Gulbro-Leavitt and Schimmerl (1991) contradicts the received wisdom that painting in black equals disturbed kid. In fact, they found the opposite, saying that depressed children were more likely to use lots of bright colours in their drawings than children who weren’t depressed.

It makes me smile thinking back on me as a kid only painting in black.  What a little genius I was—so dark at four and a half. Even my teachers were talking about who this brooding troubled savant was.

The dark moody and mysterious thing was an affectation that I would later try to cultivate as a teenager without much success. I guess by then I didn’t seem so much mysterious as just troubled.

But at four and a half, I don’t remember being troubled. In fact, I felt quite happy, and it was genuine. I loved school. I loved art-time. It didn’t take much for that to change, but in the first few years I loved going to school.

I remember my first day of primary school vividly. They used to let your parents come and hang out for the day. I remember walking into class and they gave me a bunch of sticks of coloured Play-Doh and a Masonite board to roll it on. By the time I got there, the room was full of kids already at work. I took my materials and found a desk and immediately set to work. I was so absorbed in the task I didn’t even notice my mum was there until she said something over my shoulder. I can’t remember what she said, but apparently I turned around and looked at her with narrowed eyes. I couldn’t understand why she was disrupting me. I mean, we didn’t spend that much time together at home—what did she want?

She asked if I needed any help, probably feeling a little useless and uncomfortable standing there amongst the other mothers and their kids, and self-conscious that her own child, the new Michelangelo of silly putty, didn’t seem to notice she was there. When she retold the story to me years later, she said, “You smiled and said chirpily, ‘I’m ok mum. You can go’.” And, slightly confused, she did.

I remember working happily twisting the sticks of Play-Doh into ribosomes of colour, and then working them into other shapes—a snowman, a car. These new works were a totally new direction from those of my black period, but art is all about working with what’s in front of you. I just worked with what was there and was intensely happy to be in a room full of other kids busy at work too. It didn’t matter the outcome. It didn’t matter the materials. Someone gave me some Play-Doh and a board to roll it on. I didn’t ask questions. I didn’t second-guess.

Last week, my friend’s four and a half year-old daughter came for a visit. Her dad was in another room, getting their stuff to go, and I looked up at some of her drawings on the fridge and absently said, ‘Oh, you’ll have to do some new drawings for the fridge sometime.’ His daughter didn’t look at me, just got up and left. I thought I’d said something wrong until I found her moments later in my study, sitting at my desk with coloured pencil in hand, patiently waiting for some scrap paper. I had meant next time she came around, but she took what I said seriously. ‘Pictures? Yep, I got pictures. What do you want?’

My absent comment made her and her dad an hour late for their next thing, and now there are some drawings of her toys and some abstract pieces hanging on the fridge.

Aesthetics over anesthetics

I look back on me as a kid only painting in black fondly. I have great feelings of nostalgia towards him because, unlike me, he creates without thinking. I wonder what happened to him along the way.

I was talking to a friend of mine about the arts, creativity and education one day, and later she sent me this talk by British education reformer, Ken Robinson.

In his talk, Robinson says our inherited paradigm of education is far too narrow, relying primarily on memory and analytic reasoning and ignoring all else, especially the arts and creativity. And so, Robinson argues, all around the world, we have education systems that anaesthetise children and rob them of their capacity for creative thought.

His reasoning is so well-argued that I won’t spoil it here, but my point, or the vague area where my point might be hiding, is that I look back on that kid—me, refusing to colour in anything other than black—and think it’s funny that my teacher took my monotonal aesthetic as a sign of disturbance, not a precocious sense of taste. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticising my teacher. Picking up on these things and asking questions shows that she was someone who cares deeply about children’s well-being. But, by the same token, we also need to be careful not to pathologise kids who show a preference for a particular style of seeing, creating and being.

The thing is, kids just make—they don’t care about conventions for the simple reason that they haven’t encountered them yet—just as much as they haven’t been railroaded and coerced into seeing things in a particular way–right or wrong, good or bad, white or...

Boom, boom, boom, boom. Boom-tish, boom-tish, boom-tish, boom-tish…

Anyway, watch Robinson's talk. It's well worth the eleven and a half minutes it takes to watch it. (Much better than the three minutes you’ve already spent reading this.)