Watercolor Children
by Helen Hegener - July/August, 2002

As a writer I work with the precise meanings of words. Control and mastery are important when one is trying to convey an idea, an emotion, or an experience. Realizing many years ago that writing was a very controlled activity, and seeking an alternative which might help me loosen up my thinking and perspective, I turned to watercolor painting. I’ve always loved the free and easy look of a good watercolor, the translucent hues and deep layers of color, and I’ve occasionally even wished I’d spent the last 40 years playing with paints instead of words. But taking heart in the knowledge that it’s never to late to start doing something you love, I took up learning to paint with watercolors a few years ago.

While preparing for a recent trip to Alaska I tossed in my watercolor tools and one of my favorite books, Gordon MacKenzie’s The Watercolorist’s Essential Notebook (North Light Books, 1999). While MacKenzie’s work comes close to the kind of painting I’d love to become good at, and his writing style makes everything clear and easy to understand, it’s a larger book than I normally select when traveling. This particular trip was to be a short, fast one; I was traveling light, with only my computer and a small backpack. I’ve read the book dozens of times already, so I was a little puzzled - even as I packed it - as to why I selected it for this trip. The reason was to be found in the book itself. It was intuition at work.

It was several days into the trip before I finally reached for MacKenzie’s book, thinking I’d read what he had to say about capturing the evasive quality of light on water. But as I read I kept making other connections. His writing had me thinking of children and families and learning instead of painting. Confused, I started playing with his writing in my mind, substituting words, translating meanings. What was I seeing here? And why?

In his introduction MacKenzie writes “…Watercolors are not recommended for those who are unwilling to relinquish the role of ‘master.’” He counsels that the would-be artist become, instead, “a partner in the process” of creating a painting. Hmm. That seems true of homeschooling. He goes on: “In this medium you must be willing to play the role of both patient director and alert stagehand, while the pigment and water are free to perform their magic. Try to push this medium around, and it quickly loses its charm, its transparent radiance and its life.”

Hmm again. How often have we advised parents to act as facilitators rather than directors of their childrens’ learning? I know I’ve often written that learning happens best when the learner is encouraged rather than instructed. These were interesting parallels: the comparisons between what MacKenzie was telling me about painting and what we’ve been telling parents about homeschooling for 20 years. MacKenzie explains “…Unlike a book of rules that tend to close our minds, this is a collection of principles, concepts, and general information designed to expand the creative process.” He writes that much of his material is based on “common sense, visual perception, and your own innate sense of design.”

I’ve often written that homeschooling is based on common sense, parental perception, and one’s own innate sense of what one’s children need. MacKenzie goes on: “We all embrace an individual sense of what ‘feels right’ that also seems to reflect an unconscious universal consensus.” This made sense to me when I thought about how new homeschooling parents almost instinctively know how to teach their kids to read, or how little advanced mathematics is really necessary.

MacKenzie advises, “The hardest part about this is believing in your ability to do it. The second hardest part is shutting off that little left-brain voice that says ‘This is stupid. It won’t work.’ It takes courage to step into the unknown and trust what you find…”

How many times have I written those very words to parents worried about whether or not their children will ever learn to read? It takes courage to step into the unknown. And yet just as MacKenzie advises me to let go and trust the process of water and paint and paper, so I’ve often advised parents to let go and trust the process of children and exploring and learning. If letting go of a little paint and water takes courage, how much more courage must be involved when one knows the letting go will affect their child’s future?

MacKenzie says one should listen to their intuitive sense, but cautions “This is a major challenge, because it means trusting and believing in your own good judgment.” This is also something I’ve written about many times in relation to homeschooling. In fact trusting their own judgment is often the first major hurdle many new homeschoolers face. In How Children Learn, John Holt wrote: “All I am saying in this book can be summed up in two words: Trust Children. Nothing could be more simple, or more difficult. Difficult because to trust children we must first learn to trust ourselves, and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.”

In painting, as in homeschooling, there’s no reason to set off unprepared, and MacKenzie advises planning ahead, having a general idea where you want to go, and wisely counsels that you must “accept destinations that are not quite the way the brochure describes them but nevertheless quite acceptable.” In other words, be aware that your darling daughter might decide to become the captain of a charter fishing boat!

Gordon MacKenzie writes that it always amazes him how people will travel great distances to his workshops and pay hard-earned money for materials and instruction “…just so they can study the effects of drying water.” He continues, “Along with a little pigment and manipulation, that’s about all that’s happening with watercolor. Think about it.”

I did think about it, and I came to the realization that it has always amazed me that people will travel to homeschooling conferences and workshops and pay out hard-earned money for materials and instruction just so they can study how to live with their children. Along with helping them learn about the world around them, seeking understanding, and building a framework for continuing to learn and explore throughout one’s life, that’s about all that’s happening with homeschooling. Think about that.

©2002 Helen Hegener and Home Education Magazine

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One Response to “Watercolor Children”

  1. VTR1000 lady says:

    TL;DR; but you have pretty images.

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