How to extend a first encounter with charcoal through reggio-inspired provocations

Over the course of a few weeks I noticed that whenever I found Althea (3.5) at the art table she had a black crayon in her hand. She always asked for the black tempera paint and was intent on mixing her watercolours until they transformed into a dark muddy shade. I reflected on how I might extend her interest and decided this was the perfect opportunity for a first encounter with charcoal.

I set out some rough A3 watercolour paper with some cold pressed charcoal and let her explore the new art medium, focusing on the process, how the charcoal moves across the textured paper and smudges and blends.

Following on from this first encounter with charcoal I searched Artsy.net, a wonderful online database of galleries, exhibitions and artists, for a provocation (something to provoke thoughts, discussions, creativity and new ideas) to inspire our next encounter with charcoal and expand on Althea’s interest in black and white artwork. I came across Nuances of black and white at the Elmarsa Gallery and decided to use a piece by Omar Bey called Piere, 2017, which is actually a wire structure against a white backdrop.

What to consider when choosing a provocation for young children

When choosing artwork for a provocation I try and ensure that it is relatively abstract in nature. With young children I find that there’s a real urge to replicate and when a piece of art is very realistic there is tendency towards frustration and defeat when their own work doesn’t look like the original piece. For the same reason, I never draw for my children. When we work together with art materials I let them lead and I mimic their movements.

How to open up dialogue about the provocation

Sometimes the best thing you can say is nothing. I gave Althea time to really study the artwork. The great thing about doing this online on an ipad is that you can easily zoom in and out on certain details. I try not to point out anything specific and focus on asking open ended questions. In this case I simply asked “what can you see?” and repeated her own answers back to her.

What to focus on

With young children I tend to just let the child choose the focus. We talked about the shapes inside the large circle and what they looked like, but Althea was drawn to the circle itself. In this case I suggested we try drawing the circle as a starting point. If she had shown a lot of interest in the shapes that resembled hands and people then it may have taken a different direction entirely. We could have drawn around our hands or studied our profile in a mirror and taken it from there.

As it turns out when you draw a big circle with charcoal it’s really easy to smudge it with your hand, this was a wonderful way of exploring the charcoals capabilities for blending and this was the enduring focus of this episode of learning.