Drape Yourself in Color!

  • Children icon Age: 0 to 8+
  • Clock icon Time: 1 hour+
  • Leaf icon Materials: Large piece of paper, canvas, bed sheet or dropcloth; various art materials (e.g. chalk, markers, oil pastels, watercolor and tempera paint, colorful objects from nature); various painting tools (e.g. paintbrushes, sponges, natural objects)
February is Black History Month, an annual celebration of achievements by African Americans and a time for recognizing their central role in U.S. history. This year’s theme "African Americans and the Arts" highlights the many contributions Black Americans have had on the arts, cultural movements and more. 

At Tinkergarten we know that artistic expression and creativity are critical skills—not only for artists or musicians, but also for kids as a way of thinking about and being in the world. Introducing kids to the work of diverse artists helps kids to see the infinite possibilities for how and what they can create and provides models for how they can remain creative throughout their lives.

In honor of this year’s Black History Month, we share this activity inspired by the work and techniques of Sam Gilliam. Considered to be one of the great innovators in abstract impressionism, Gilliam was known for his large-scale paintings created with poured paint that stretched from the walls or ceilings of exhibition spaces.  

As featured in our February Activity Calendar, in this activity, kids take inspiration from Gilliam's work as they create large-scale, colorful art.

If you do not yet have your free copy of the February Activity Calendar, download it here.

The Guide

Step 1: Get inspired! 

Look at images of Sam Gilliam’s artwork with kids. Ask kids what they notice about the colors of his art. What is special about the way the art is hung? What does it remind them of or make them think about? How does his art make them feel?

Step 2: Set up a space to paint.

Gather an old bed sheet, large piece of paper, canvas or a drop cloth. If you can, bring your canvas outside and lay it on the ground. Or, set it up on the floor inside in a space where kids can get a bit messy and create. (Tip: Place a drop cloth or tarp underneath the canvas to protect floors from paint. It can also help to have a wet washcloth close by for wiping hands.)

Gather a variety of art materials can can use to add color to their canvas, such as chalk, markers, watercolor and/or tempera paint. You can also offer natural materials with pigment, such as berries, beets and colorful spices!

Step 3: Invite and Create!

Start by offering one type of art material to give kids plenty of time to explore the medium. You may want to start with dry materials like chalk, markers or oil pastels, and then gradually offer wet materials that kids can layer on to the dry materials, like paint or natural materials with pigment (e.g. berries, beets, and colorful spices). 

Offer kids a variety of different tools they can use to transfer color onto the canvas, such as paintbrushes, sponges, leaves or sticks (or even hands!). You can even invite kids to try Sam Gilliam’s technique of pouring pant onto the canvas! 

Support the creative process by sharing what you notice about the techniques and materials kids choose. Marvel at how the canvas transforms throughout their play. 

Step 4: Revisit and Add.

Often with kids’ art-making, we consider the artwork to be finished once kids are ready to move on to another activity. Yet, artists like Sam Gilliam create their artwork over a period of time, adding and iterating over the course of weeks, months or even years. When kids are ready to move on, set the canvas aside to dry. Later, set it out again with art materials and invite kids to layer on more color. 

If you can, take a photo of the canvas after each play session. Look at the photos together to notice how the canvas has changed over time. Ask kids what colors they might want to add next and what materials they would like to use next time. 

Step 5: Hang your creation.

Once kids have decided their masterpiece is finished, find a spot outside (weather permitting) or inside to hang it. Welcome kids to give input on how they would like to hang their artwork (e.g. on a wall, above their head, draped like curtains). Use rope, twine, clothes pins or other tools to hang the canvas. How does colorful fabric make the space feel? What kind of play could it inspire? Could it be a night sky to camp out under? A hibernation den? A castle? A backdrop for a play or puppet show? A cozy nook for story time? An addition to an art center that inspires even more creativity?

Step 6: Share your creations.

Take photos and share your creations with friends, making sure to include the name of the artist who inspired them. What a wonderful way to honor Sam Gilliam for his contributions and get friends more curious about creativity! If you do share them publicly, be sure to tag #Tinkergarten. We'd love to cheer on your creative process!

Why is this activity great for kids?

This kind of free, wild and messy play enables kids to develop their senses, which research shows enhances brain development. Letting kids get messy early on also predisposes them to being comfortable with messy thinking later in life. The ability to think freely and push the limits of a situation is exactly what helps kids build creativity and solid problem-solving skills. Revisiting and adding to their artwork gives kids a chance to test out new ideas and techniques. Finally, introducing kids to the work of diverse artists helps kids to see the infinite possibilities for how and what they can create and provides models for how they can remain creative throughout their lives.

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