Today on Explore Modern Artists, we’re taking a close look at the work of American Artist Jasper Johns.

Explore Modern Artists with Kids : series of projects on Tinkerlab

For the art historians out there, Jasper Johns is technically a contemporary artist, but the piece that my four-year old and I looked at falls into the time-frame of modern art. I spent years working in modern and contemporary art museums, but love this kind of art because it breaks rules, the materials are often surprising, and the work is often as much about ideas as it is aesthetics.

Explore Modern Artists with Kids: Jasper Johns

I flipped through a 20th century art book in search of something that would appeal to my preschooler and had a feeling that Jasper Johns’ White Numbers would do just that. My daughter is obsessed with writing letters and numbers, which helped her dive into this project, and ultimately made it her own.


  • Image of Jasper Johns’ White Numbers
  • Washable Tempera Paint or Acrylic Paint (FYI: acrylic paint will stain clothes so wear a smock or nothing at all)
  • Paint brushes: Flat, Foam, Make-up sponges
  • Paper Plate
  • Stick-on foam or paper letters and/or numbers
  • Foam core, wood panel, canvas or other substantial surface to paint on
  • Paper to cover work area

explore modern artists: paint like jasper johns

Jasper Johns. White Numbers. 1957. Museum of Modern Art. Encaustic on Linen. 34″ x 28 1/8″.

Art Looking

Begin with a short discussion about the artwork. Try to use open-ended questions, although this can be more difficult with preschoolers who are just getting their bearings with vocabulary. These are some of the questions I used:

  1. What’s going on in this picture?
  2. What do you see that makes you say that?
  3. How did the artist organize the numbers? Are they in order or random? What do you see?
  4. What colors do you see?

Through this line of questioning, my daughter was able to figure out that Jasper Johns created a random series of numbers in rows and columns.  She concluded that Jasper Johns may have been trying to confuse people with his meaningless series of numbers.

peeling stickers

After about five minutes of this, we talked about the materials that we would use, and I asked N if we should use numbers, letters, or both. I also asked if we should use the same palette of paint as Johns. She chose to use numbers and letters, and requested “all the colors.

preschool jasper johns

As we peeled them, my daughter wanted to sort them by color.

explore modern artists: paint like jasper johns

Despite Johns’ neat rows of numbers, N also wanted to place her’s randomly on the board “to confuse people.” And then she walked all over them to make sure they were stuck down properly.

explore modern artists: paint like jasper johns

We added paint to a paper plate.

This whole activity was set up on the floor, which I highly recommend as it gave N a lot of freedom to move around.

explore modern artists: paint like jasper johns

And then we painted. I offered her three different brushes and we talked about which one she preferred (foam brush).

explore modern artists: paint like jasper johns

We worked on this together and she really enjoyed the camaraderie. When the painting was dry we hung it up to enjoy. The foam core buckled a bit as it dried, which is something to consider if you’re thinking of hanging this in your home. Wood or canvas would be a far better choice.

More on Art Looking

If you’d like so tips on how to look at art with kids, you can check out one of my more popular posts: Five Easy Steps for Talking with Children about Art.

I’m also a huge fan of an in-school program called Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), which helps children build visual literacy and critical thinking skills through the process of looking closely at a work of art. A facilitator sits in front of a group of children and leads an interactive discussion about one work of art. I’ve led many of these discussions myself, and the energy around these conversations is palpable. To see VTS in action, there a some great videos on the Visual Thinking Strategies website. 

More from Explore Modern Artists



  1. Oooh Rachelle, I LOVE your project! How marvellous. Love how tactile it is and the final result. Brilliant. Makes me want to have a go with my kids right away!

    So pleased you are co-hosting!


  2. I LOVE this and hadn’t seen his numbers picture before, so you and your lovely daughter have introduced me to something new! I’m loving this new series and so excited that mine is just about old enough to join in independently too!

    • I’m loving this series too, Anna, and wouldn’t have been able to do this with my daughter 3 months ago. Cakie is almost there!

  3. What a fantastic idea! This looks like so much fun!

    Also, thank you for including the themed link-up–so many good ideas!

    • Thanks, Kristin! And I’m just glad that Maggy thought this idea up and asked me to join her. We didn’t know how many ideas would link up, and the turn out is amazing!

  4. that’s absolutely wonderful! I love the whole process- very cool

  5. I love Jasper Johns. When student teaching (ages ago), I had first graders create a project very similar to this. We first painted a colorful background and then added cut out construction paper stenciled numbers. Love your take on Jasper Johns.

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  7. WOWW this is fantastic! I love the colors and all your youngsters ideas! Very creative thanks for the inspiration

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