Today on Explore Modern Artists, we’re taking a close look at the work of American Artist Jasper Johns.
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.
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
Jasper Johns. White Numbers. 1957. Museum of Modern Art. Encaustic on Linen. 34″ x 28 1/8″.
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:
- What’s going on in this picture?
- What do you see that makes you say that?
- How did the artist organize the numbers? Are they in order or random? What do you see?
- 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.
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.
As we peeled them, my daughter wanted to sort them by color.
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.
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.
And then we painted. I offered her three different brushes and we talked about which one she preferred (foam brush).
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.
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