Painting Problems – The exercising of colour sense

Author: Van James

Date published: Unknown

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(Reprinted with kind permission from Child and Man, Vol.24, No.1, nov 1989)

Have you ever heard the complaint, “Why do all the children’s paintings look the same?” If you’ve asked yourself this question after having viewed the work of students in the lower grades of a Waldorf school (the question rarely arises with regard to the work of the upper grades) you’re not alone. Why is it that particularly in grades one through to four the artistic work done in painting often appears so uniform?

In the early grades a class of children is asked to copy the same stories off the board, add and subtract the same problems and copy the same examples into their main lesson books, recite the same poems and sing the same songs. Yet painting the same picture somehow goes against our sense of free artistic expression. In painting, perhaps more than any other art, we expect to see the unhampered self-expression of the individual.

Imagine a singing class in which the students are allowed to create freely, each composing and singing his or her own song. This would of course be chaos. Choosing one song for the children to sing together gives them the framework within which they will develop gradually towards creative musical expression. Just as tones are learned by the regular practice of appropriate musical compositions, so too can the young child learn the color tones by repeated simple pictorial compositions. The painting lesson should be a quiet color-chorus where each child’s picture sounds forth within the harmony of the whole class.

What at first appears to be a class of all the same pictures reveals very different worlds when looked at more closely. The teacher can learn to see not only the temperament of each individual child but also various emotional conditions and certain disabilities. Imbalances in the child can then be worked on in a gentle, artistic manner by directing the child’s consciousness to simple questions of technique: lightness or darkness of hue, weakness or strength of pigment, wetness or dryness of paper, swiftness or slowness of working, mixing or separating of colors.

Though our passing glance might see the painting lesson as producing hopelessly similar work the teacher who knows his or her children finds striking visual evidence of the developing individualities in the class and their needs.

If the children aren’t having painting lessons to express themselves or to produce unique and individual works of art, then why are they taking painting as a subject? This question is perhaps best approached by looking at the very first painting lesson in first grade. (Kindergarten painting consists of setting an appropriate mood, instruction in the use of materials by example, and seeing that the ‘picture’ is not overworked. No formal lesson as to picture content is given.)




In Lecture IV of Practical Advice to Teachers 1, Rudolf Steiner recommends that the class teacher puts up a large sheet of white paper at the front of the classroom. The teacher paints a small “patch” of yellow on the white surface. Each child is then asked to come up to the front of the room one by one, and paint a small patch of yellow as well. Presumably a story would set the appropriate mood within the class, preparing the children for entering into the lesson. Once the students have all placed their yellow spots distinctly and with space between each one, the teacher then paints a swatch of blue next to his/her yellow. Each child then does the same. When about half the children have done this the teacher exchanges the blue paint for green, letting the remaining children place green next to their yellow2. The result is a page full of yellow patches, half of which have a patch of blue next to them, the other half having adjacent patches of green. Steiner then suggests that the teacher should say the following: “Now I am going to tell you something that you may not yet understand, but one day you will understand perfectly: What we have done up there, where we put blue next to yellow, is more beautiful than what we did down here where we put green next to yellow. Blue next to yellow is more beautiful than green next to yellow.”3

I have known a number of teachers both in England and America who have, in teaching this first painting lesson, been unable to say to their classes that “blue and yellow is more beautiful than green and yellow.” After all, this is quite a startling thing to say in the western world where it is taken for granted that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. Beauty has certainly become a subjective experience when art museums and galleries display splattered canvases and even piles of debris as the new standard ‘beauty’. How dare the teacher claim that “blue and yellow is more beautiful than green and yellow”!

Supposing, as adults, we do this first painting exercise for ourselves. Paint two yellow spots and surround one with blue, the other with green. If you have used a cool (lemon) yellow and a cool (prussian) blue, you will notice how brightly the yellow shines. Look carefully at the same yellow surrounded by green! It doesn’t appear to be as radiant. In fact the lemon yellow not only appears duller, it also looks slightly warmer, as though it leans more towards the active colors of the spectrum, orange and red. It is quite clear from simple observation that this occurs, but why? It is as though the green sucks the brilliance and shine out of the yellow. And, in a certain sense, this is exactly what happens. Green is a secondary color composed of two primary colors, yellow and blue. Because green has yellow in it already, it fails to show as strong a contrast to the pure yellow. Blue, being further away in the spectrum from yellow than green, it presents a striking contrast and actually enhances the yellow, as the yellow likewise enhances the blue. Goethe refers to colors next to each other such as yellow and green as ‘non-characteristic combinations’ and those a step further away, such as yellow and blue, as ‘characteristic combinations’. In the Goethean sense, Steiner is saying that yellow and blue is more ‘characteristic’ than yellow and green, which is a ‘non-characteristic combination’.

Goethe spoke of yet another combination, when one puts together colors that would be opposite one another on the color circle; these he called ‘harmonious combinations’, meaning that they embody more of the totality of the color circle. From this we could say that yellow and violet are more ‘harmonious’ than yellow and blue which are simply ‘characteristic combinations’.4 In his Theory of Colors, Goethe also describes the principle of polarity as it appears in the color circle. Besides the polarity of warmth and coolness in red and blue there exists the polarity of light and darkness exemplified by yellow and blue. Goethe had assembled this theory from observations of the phenomena of colors. What concerns us with regard to the ‘first painting exercise’ is:

1) colors adjacent to each other are ‘non-characteristic’, lack lustre and one-sided combinations, as seen in yellow and green;
2) contrasting colors are ‘characteristic’ in that they express a fuller range of the color circle, enhancing and making more vivid the quality of each color as with yellow and blue;
3) yellow and blue express the polarity of light and darkness within the color circle.

Steiner was well aware of Goethe’s observations on the combinations of colors. So why does he use the word beautiful in connection with color relationships? After observing the more subdued character of yellow with green, one might be inclined to say that yellow and blue are ‘truer’ to each other because they fulfill each other more than yellow and green do, but why more beautiful.”

This leads us to the question, ‘What is beauty?’ Steiner certainly did not intend to say that yellow and blue are prettier or that we should like this pairing more. He suggests that beauty is an objective fact, which can presumably be taught and learned.

Consider the definition of beauty as formulated by the Late Medieval scholar Thomas Aquinas, “For beauty there are three requirements: First, a certain wholeness or perfection, for whatever is incomplete is, so far, ugly; second, a due proportion or harmony; and third, clarity, so that brightly colored things are called beautiful.”

We may not exactly agree with such a characterization today, but it is interesting to see what Aquinas comes to: wholeness, harmony and clarity. Don’t these characteristics agree with what can be observed in the example of the first painting exercise? The yellow-blue relationship represents more of a wholeness of the color circle, especially since they are both primary colors. Yellow and blue have a harmony of both color tone and light and dark balances. Yellow and blue, through their relationship, reveal a higher level of clarity or brightness of color. Certainly Thomas Aquinas would agree with Steiner that yellow and blue is more beautiful than yellow and green.

In the end, the question we are left with is: does an objective beauty really exist? Is there an objective occurrence of the beautiful when one relates one phenomenon to another? If the teacher answers no to an ‘objective beauty,’ then it is obvious that he/she would find it difficult to say one thing is more beautiful than another. The class can enjoy the encounter with color and the creative process of painting. If we can say yes to this question because of what we observe to be true in the colors, then we introduce the first lesson in aesthetics at the same time as giving the first painting class. This plants the seeds for a ‘sense of beauty’ at an early age, completely within the realm of the feeling life, within the pictorial. “This will sink deeply into the child’s soul,” Steiner suggests.

What is noteworthy here is that the children have no problem with the statement, “Yellow and blue is more beautiful than yellow and green.” It is only to our adult thinking that this smacks of preference or prejudice. The child will accept what the teacher knows to be true, providing the teacher really knows it.



Something else that we as adults, as teachers, often have difficulty with is helping children to live into pure color in the first, second and third grades. In these early years, the children should not be drawing with paint, but painting with color, producing color forms rather than illustrating things or objects with lines. They should be true abstract expressionists, non-objective, non-figurative color purists. This playing with color is difficult for our adult consciousness to consider as substantial enough. We like to see the things of the world clearly focused and in all their detail. The young child does nor necessarily need, nor is he/she nourished by exacting details of the physical world. If first and second graders practice the painting of simple colored areas, patches side by side, surrounding and overlapping each other, they will be developing their ‘color-sense’. Colors are a living language in Nature and the equivalent expression of emotions in sentient beings. The painting lesson is an opportunity to develop the organ of the feeling life. It is via the feelings that archetypal relationships of color meeting color are encountered and savoured. Faculties for qualitative measuring, weighing and balancing develop in the soul. This is an educating of the feeling life, of the heart forces.

Steiner was very direct in regard to his position on this: “It is very damaging for later life if we impart perspective to a child before he has had a kind of intensive color perspective. The human being is inwardly alienated in a terrible way when he becomes accustomed to quantitive perspective without first acquiring the intensive, qualitative perspective which lies in colour perspective.”5 This “intensive, qualitative color perspective” must be provided for in the early grades before the children develop a longing to capture three-dimensional space in their pictures. Color dramas, color conversations, can easily engage the children without figurative images, if the teacher can prepare for them by way of imaginative story content. The ‘reversible exercises’ are particularly directed to the development of colour perspective faculties.6

Numerical relationships are often referred to as problems. Every color combination should likewise be regarded as a problem in the sense of relationship or ratio. Color problems are also social problems. They deal with elements, qualities, beings, if you will, that act in definite ways upon each other. The painting lesson should be a time for color problem solving. It can be a place for learning the language of the soul and nurturing the ail-too underdeveloped sense of color.
[Note from 1989: Van James is presently involved in the Spring Valley ‘Waldorf Institute’, in the Teacher Training Program. His teaching experience was in the Honolulu Waldorf School.]


  1. Practical Advice to Teachers, Rudolf Steiner Press, 1976. (Formerly entitled Practical Course for Teachers).
    2. Though Steiner speaks of placing the blue and green “directly next to” the yellow, experience would be equally effective, if not enhanced, by surrounding the yellow by the blue and by the green. (This would also lead more naturally into the next painting lesson where one could have the children do individual paintings of yellow surrounding by blue.)
    3. See No.l
    4. Theory of Colours Johann W. von Goethe. M.I.T. Press, 1970. (Eastlake translation.)
    5. Die Padagogische Praxis vom Gesichtspunkte Geisteswissenschaftticher Menschenerkenntnis, Rudolf Steiner. Rudolf Steiner Verlag, Dornach 1977.
    6. Kingdom of Childhood, Rudolf Steiner. Lecture IV, August 15, 1924. Rudolf Steiner Press.


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