Painting Emotion: Abstract Expressionists for a Day (April 2014)

For this project, my Art Club students (aged 5 – 7) had a go at being Abstract Expressionists. I asked the children to think about how they might paint emotions. We started by naming some different emotions – happy, sad, angry, excited, scared – and discussing which colours we would use if we were painting a picture of them.

How do certain colours make us feel? Some children said blue was a happy colour. Others said that yellow and orange made them feel happy. Some said pink was happy because it was their favourite colour! Everyone agreed that bright, light colours were happier than dark, dull colours. Suggestions for sad colours were beige, grey and black. For anger, red was a popular choice, with black and grey also being mentioned again. We also talked about different types of lines we could use to represent different feelings – zig zags, curving, straight or curly – everyone had their own ideas on this!

I could have shown the children examples of paintings by some famous painters such as American Abstract Expressionist, Mark Rothko, or contemporary British painter Howard Hodgkin, but I didn’t want to influence their mark-making in any way. Instead I simply gave them watercolour paints and paper, before introducing some classical music to help them get in the mood.



I started by playing Vivaldi’s joyful concerto, Spring, from The Four Seasons. It had the desired effect! Everyone was smiling while they painted the feeling of ‘happiness’.



There were lots of furious faces and vicious paint-strokes during Verdi’s ‘angry’ Requiem: Dies Irae.



I chose Rimsky Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee to get everyone feeling ‘excited’ and the children painted with flamboyant energy, splashing and spattering the paint!



Next, I played the Jaws film theme to scare them all into painting ‘fear’.



However, I think the children most enjoyed painting ‘sadness’, accompanied by the painfully miserable Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber. Everyone pulled frowning faces and looked thoroughly depressed while they were creating their ‘sad’ paintings!



Finally, I played a tranquil, dreamy piece of music – Sant Saen’s Aquarium from Carnival of the Animals.


This was a fascinating project to try with such young children. Some ‘got’ it straight away, while others took longer to get their head around the concept of using colours and marks to express feelings. At the very least (and, actually, more importantly) I think all of the children enjoyed and benefited from the freedom to paint without any constraints, whilst experiencing some of the most powerful, moving and emotive music of all time.

One comment

  1. Thank you for this fantastic lesson! I am going to try it with high school. Providing music samples really saved me time because I don’t know music that well. Thanks again!
    J, Phoenix AZ

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