Getting the best from your art easel

As an artist working in early years settings, I am often literally drawn to the art easel. But in working with many centres’ art areas, I have come to wonder if the artist easel as a creative resource is being used to best effect. Why are some easels full of engaged children experimenting with marks, colour, and ideas, while other easels stand unused? If art easels are unattractive and uninviting, we run the risk of putting children off from using them. Here are some tips to ensure that children get the best use out of this piece of equipment.

Location: Placement of the art easel within the classroom is extremely important. If you notice that the children are avoiding it, move it to another area. Sometimes moving a familiar piece of equipment into a different area can re-engage the children. Consider the lighting of the easel; is it in a dark corner? Also, think about its positioning: is it in a thoroughfare? Is there enough room to stand back and admire your painting from a distance? Is it in an area that is already busy with other equipment such as sand and water trays? Is it in an isolated and lonely area?

“It is necessary for the teacher to guide the child without letting him feel her presence too much, so that she may always be ready to supply the desired help, but may never be the obstacle between the child and his experience.”
- Maria Montessori

Paper: Consider carefully the paper available for children to use at the art easel. Papers that are too shiny do not take paint well. Coloured sugar papers are too absorbent and tend to dull the colours, especially when using ready mix or powder paint. Consider offering a variety in size, shape, and scale of the paper, for example, long strips of paper, squares, triangles, and circles. I have often found that a good quality white cartridge paper offered in different shapes and sizes encourages the children to explore different types of marks whilst still offering a choice of painting surfaces. Black paper and sheet plastic with acrylic paint offer interesting alternatives. Sometimes children can find it difficult to pull out a single sheet of paper from underneath shelves on easels (sometimes they don’t even realise it is there), so I often place a table adjacent to the easel with a selection of paper on top. Suitable papers with easy access will attract children and help them to become independent users.

Paint: Often paint supplied at the art easel is the wrong consistency. Paint may thicken through water evaporation over time, and should be checked frequently. If it is too thick, brushes become clogged. If it is too thin it will run down the brush or run down the paper attached to the easel. To ensure good consistency, simply make a painting yourself. If it is frustrating for you to use, why expect the children to use it? Also, the paint colour should be kept pure. Inspect the clarity of your easel paint daily. Yellow should be yellow and not a muddy, brownish yellow left over from yesterday’s paint. When a child approaches the easel they should find it set up as if at the beginning of the day, even if they’re visiting at the end of the day. So you need to consider how you maintain and staff the easel throughout the day.

Colours: For variety, try offering a choice of shades, for example, a light and dark green. Consider how your colours harmonize. Sometimes limiting the choices can promote new explorations and insights. Experiment with hot and cold colours, metallic, fluorescent and a range of hues in blues, yellows, or greens. Even better, involve the children in mixing the paints. Store the mixtures in clear containers on an adjacent table or trolley, so children can select their own colours from a greater range. I often place images on the easel showing for example the range of hues of blue in an ocean wave, as a provocation.

Containers: Paint containers at the art easel can be either limiting, or enabling. Traditional paint lids with holes often prevent the child from seeing inside the container. Even the semi-transparent ones turn painting into a ‘lucky dip’ activity. Some children will paint around the lid to reveal the colour, which then dries and flakes back into the paint. It can be difficult for children to aim the brush into the hole in the first place and, in my opinion, the hole does nothing to help them learn how to use a brush. For example, they need to learn to wipe the brush on the container edge to prevent paint from dripping. So review the reasons why you are using lids with holes. If it is only to prevent spillage, use smaller amounts of paint in the containers. Look for clear containers with screw-on lids that can easily be replaced at the end of a session to keep the paint fresh.

Brushes: Good brushes are crucial in determining that children have a quality experience at the art easel. There are many types and qualities of brushes available. I always opt for synthetic or nylon brushes (they often have white hairs). These brushes have a flexible, rather than rounded, point. A few flat-headed brushes are also useful. Some brushes are solely designed for watercolours and are inappropriate and cumbersome to use with powder paint. Test brushes for yourself so that you as educator are familiar with their feel and can determine which ones are most suited to your choice of paint. Brushes do not last long if soaked in water or left in paint for long periods. Bristles will bend and the flexible point of the brush will become damaged. It is always best to wash brushes at the end of each session; it doesn’t take long, and your brushes will last much longer. Regularly check the quality of your brushes and throw out damaged and stiff brushes.

Role of the educator: The importance of proper supervision of the art area can hardly be overestimated. To support creativity without interfering should be the goal of the educator at the easel. All too often, we badger children into telling us what their painting is about, or offer empty comments such as ‘lovely’, ‘beautiful’, or ‘nice’. We can learn and understand what the painting is about by observing carefully, interpreting what we see, and sharing our experiences with other educators to gain a deeper insight. The questions and comments we offer to the child artist must be carefully considered. I prefer to draw them into a dialogue about their work rather than asking a direct question. For example, “I like how you have placed the yellow next to the red,” “I like how you have painted those swirling lines,” “I like the colours you have chosen to paint,” are comments that show the children you have found a meaning in their work that is not purely based on visual realism and representation. Too little educator interaction can also put children off from using the art easel, so we need to carefully find a balance.

To summarize, the most important consideration is to always think why you select the paint, materials, and locations for your painting equipment. Often we do things out of habit or because it has always been done that way, and this may have nothing to do with the experiences of the children. So why not have a look at your art easel, make a painting yourself, and ask yourself what works, what doesn’t, and what changes you need to make. 

Debi Keyte-Hartland is a freelance artist and has worked on a wide range of art based projects and residencies, in education, health and community settings. She has developed exhibitions, reminiscence projects, and participatory and celebratory visual arts projects and has worked with all ages of adults and children. She now trains, develops, and facilitates creative arts projects across Birmingham and surrounding LEAs.