Do different painting materials affect the creation of children’s paintings? How might we increase children’s focus and motivation to learn, while also improving their creativity?
Researchers focusing on these very questions at the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (JAIST) have recently published the results of a wide-spanning study involving more than 650 children, revealing insight into improving fine art education for children.
Through various genres, styles, and even periods of art, media used to create paintings varies greatly. Delicate materials, such as crepe paper or fine brushes, tend to be the materials of choice when artists wish to produce a painting with fine details.
Rough materials, on the other hand, tend to result in rougher, more abstract lines. Complex and subtle interplay of the combinations of these materials allows for more varied and nuanced expressions, as well.
Researchers Lan Yu and Yukari Nagai confirm that children tend to use relatively few materials when painting, most of which are best-suited to representing fine detail, such as watercolor pens and colored pencils.
These finely detailed implements may be the ones chosen for the primary school classroom due to reasons of convenience, cost, and cleanup.
Nevertheless, these types of materials are most commonly used in realistic, detailed styles of art – and indeed, children who use these materials do tend to work in such styles of artwork.
Children don’t mix media often, and the results of this study indicate that children feel that it is difficult to do so. When they do mix media, it tends to result in uneven line thicknesses and color, leading to a final product worse than they had hoped.
However, despite the complacency that children and indeed teachers may feel with their comfortable and convenient painting materials, limiting the media used for creating artwork seems to result in disinterest, and robs children of the opportunity for growth.
This study raises concerns that using the same tools that painting students have always used, or avoiding combining tools with which they are familiar, may not produce the best results.
Luckily, the young learners in this study displayed positive attitudes toward trying new materials, indicating that teaching techniques involving new materials would likely be accepted. In fact, introducing new materials into children’s fine art education may produce clear beneficial results.
The researchers make clear recommendations to educators involved in fine art for children. According to the study, introduction of new materials would expand children’s repertoires, and could allow them not only to improve the visual effects of their paintings, but even to expand their creative consciousness.
The process of mixing different painting materials expands children’s creativity, and can also improve their motivation, resulting in increased ability to maintain attention on learning, a skill crucial both inside and outside the primary school classroom.
Finally, children should be instructed not only in the application and use of new media, but also how to manage object proportion using adaptive training exercises with multiple materials.
Parent-child relationships are among the most important factors that contribute to children’s’ adjustment and well-being (Gilmore and Meersand, 2014; Koehn and Kerns, 2016; Wang and Fletcher, 2016).
These relationships contain implicit aspects, which are non-conscious and non-verbal, in addition to explicit ones (Lyons-Ruth et al., 1998; Fonagy, 2001; Granot and Mayseless, 2001; Gavron and Mayseless, 2015). Both explicit and implicit aspects are central to understanding the dyadic dynamics and are implicated in psychotherapy processes and outcomes (Fonagy, 2001, 2015; Stern, 2004).
Visual symbolization has unique value as a channel of expression that can capture and express the implicit characteristics of relationships (Madigan et al., 2003; Goldner and Scharf, 2011).
Creating art together goes even further because it allows the presence of implicit representations of the relations in vivo. In addition, joint art activities enrich the individual and enhance a unique shared expression of every dyad, thus helping to create a distinctive dyadic narrative (Proulx, 2003; Gavron, 2011).
This paper explores and describes the therapeutic aspects of using art in parent-child psychotherapy, focusing on a unique and highly promising method of relationship assessment and intervention through painting – the Joint Painting Procedure (JPP).
In the JPP, parents and children create art together following a planned and structured process. Although this method and others (e.g., Proulx, 2003; Landgarten, 2013) have been used clinically for quite some time and have demonstrated promising outcomes (e.g., Gavron and Mayseless, 2015), we currently have only a preliminary understanding of the process by which joint painting such as that done with the JPP affects the relationship during a therapeutic session.
This paper presents the qualitative part of larger mixed-methods research that examined the impact of joint art creation on children’s adjustment. The goal of the qualitative study was to uncover and better understand the unique therapeutic aspects that such method allows and its potential to impact parent-child relationships.
The focus of the larger study was mother-child relationships, though father-child relationships are equally important (Carlson et al., 2004). Many researchers point out that positive and secure relationships with mothers support child adjustment and well-being in various aspects (Gilmore and Meersand, 2014; Wang and Fletcher, 2016).
We first discuss the centrality of implicit aspects of relationships and the distinct nature of parent-child art psychotherapy model, and then we present the JPP as a central method within such therapeutic model and its clinical potential leading to the main focus of the present study.
Implicit and Explicit Aspects of Relationships and Art Creation
Since the 1990s, researchers have begun to emphasize two aspects of human communication that occur simultaneously – the implicit and explicit aspects of a relationship. These two aspects evolve simultaneously in human communication over the years (Lyons-Ruth et al., 1998; Stern, 2004; Pally, 2005; Fosshage, 2011).
Explicit communication develops from the second year of a child’s life, when children begin to use language for communication. The explicit aspects of the relationship are conscious, declared, and belong to the spoken language (Stern, 2004; Pally, 2005).
The implicit aspects of relationships are connected to procedural and unconscious processes and can be expressed through a non-verbal manifestation such as art (Madigan et al., 2003; Goldner and Scharf, 2011).
Implicit expression represents a central and essential aspect of relations in general and of parent-child relationships in particular (Stern, 2004; Pally, 2005; Schore, 2012). Art-based therapy provides a significant and established way to assess and attend to the implicit aspects of relationships, especially in parent-child relationships when children are not yet adept in articulating what they feel and think.
Focusing on art psychotherapy, Bucci (2011) emphasized that verbal language cannot contain all aspects of communication between people and underscored that we need to attend to three levels of communication: verbal, symbolic non-verbal, and subsymbolic (Bucci, 2011, 2014).
The verbal level is related to language as communication and is expressed through a shared conversation during the therapeutic meeting. The non-verbal symbolic level of communication is expressed through metaphorical and visual images. The subsymbolic level of communication is related to expression through non-symbolized content, such as physical and sensory procedures, and through colors, lines, and shapes.
The processes of making art in parent-child art psychotherapy can simultaneously contain all three of these communication pathways (Markman Zinemanas, 2013; Gavron, 2015). But most importantly, the joint art-based expression during parent-child interaction in psychotherapy often uncovers a clear portrayal of the implicit dyadic interaction in motion.
Through the dyad’s behavior and creative expression, one can observe and get access to a new understanding of the implicit aspects of the relationship (Mitchell, 2000; Stern, 2004). Mitchell (2000) and Stern (2004), both central figures in relational psychotherapy, even defined the implicit intersubjective and real-time encounter of the parent and the child as a central port of entry into the implicit representations of relationships and hence into the capacity to change them (Mitchell, 2000; Fonagy, 2001; Stern, 2004).
In fact, often only through attending to the implicit aspects of the relationship is deep and crucial understanding of the parent-child relationship revealed (Pally, 2005; Schore, 2012, 2014). Moreover, often these implicit aspects are the target of change, and with their transformation and their becoming more explicit, the quality of the relationship also transforms (Lyons-Ruth et al., 1998; Stern, 2004). Such therapeutic processes are the focus of parent-child art psychotherapy (Gavron, 2013, 2015).
Parent-Child Art Psychotherapy
Parent-child art psychotherapy is a pioneering and innovative approach as part of the development of art therapy with children (Regev and Snir, 2014; Taylor Buck et al., 2014; Snir and Regev, 2018). It is a psychodynamic-developmental model that uses visual symbolization to express, communicate, and create change in the dyadic relationship.
The creative art-based interventions of this model enable the evaluation and treatment of the dyad, focusing on the implicit aspects of the relationship (Gavron, 2011, 2015). The parent-child art psychotherapy model that is discussed in this study grew out of the principles of Haifa dyadic therapy, which is a clinical model for treating relationship disturbances during childhood (Harel et al., 2006; Kaplan et al., 2011).
The Haifa model, which has a psychoanalytic-relational orientation, emphasizes the relationship between the parent and the child that is expressed and developed during the therapeutic encounter.
It also emphasizes the developmental stage of the child, as a part of the child’s context and ecological system (Harel et al., 2006). Furthermore, the Haifa model focuses on the development of mentalization, which is an emotional-cognitive ability that helps to understand the self and the other in terms of mental states such as emotions, intentions, and wishes (Slade, 2005; Kaplan et al., 2011; Tessier et al., 2016).
These core characteristics of the Haifa dyadic model are also central in parent-child art psychotherapy. Yet parent-child art psychotherapy also intentionally prompts creative processes, using art materials within the art therapy room (Gavron, 2015).
Creating art in parent-child art psychotherapy takes place in a number of ways: sometimes the child creates and the parent observes, sometimes the partners create alongside each other, and often the parent and child make an artwork together (Gavron, 2011; Snir and Regev, 2018).
The visual symbolization in the parent-child encounter that comprises the artistic product and process enables a unique meeting space for communication and self-expression. While often parents communicate verbally and children express themselves through play, the artistic symbolization facilitates a unique way of being together.
In particular, making art together as in the JPP, which is the focus of this study, invites a unique setting with great therapeutic potential. Using playfulness and imagination during joint art creation often leads to the formation of a unique narrative of the dyadic relationship and enables communication that is not often conveyed verbally (Proulx, 2003; Rubin, 2005; Gavron, 2015).
Despite the existence of clinical insights arising from joint art creation during parent-child art psychotherapy (Proulx, 2003; Wadeson, 2010), we currently do not understand what the exact dynamics of these processes are and how they evolve.
Hence we lack a more explicit model of the interpersonal processes experienced during the therapeutic process and how they unfold and develop. This is the focus of the present study, which used the JPP to shed light on such processes.
The JPP – Assessing Parent-Child Relationships
The JPP is an art-based assessment and clinical intervention that focuses on implicit aspects of the parent-child relationship. It comprises a structured five-step process in which both partners paint on the same paper, first working separately side by side and then painting together on a shared area of a single piece of paper.
In the first step, the parent and child are asked to use a pencil to mark a personal space on a shared sheet of paper. Next, each partner paints inside his or her personal space using gouache or tempera paints. This is followed by an instruction to paint a frame around the painted space and then to paint a path from that frame to the frame painted by their partner.
In the fifth and final step, the parent and child are asked to paint the rest of the paper together. After painting, the parent and child look at the painting with the therapist, discuss the shared experience, give the painting a title, and create a shared story about the painting. Following the administration of the JPP, the researcher or the clinician completes a structured protocol sheet that describes in detail every step of the dyadic procedure.
The JPP evolved from parent-child art psychotherapy, as well as from a long history of art-based assessments (Gantt and Tabone, 1998; Betts, 2006; Harel et al., 2006; Gavron, 2013; Schoch et al., 2017).
The basic assumption of the analysis of the joint painting is that diagnostic information is embodied in the way in which the work is done, in addition to the symbolic content in the artwork. The emphasis is on how people paint and not just on what they paint (Gantt and Tabone, 1998).
Indeed, the JPP analysis refers to the formal elements that exist in the joint painting, assuming that these elements give information about various implicit aspects of the relationship. At the same time, reference is made to symbolic content such as images and metaphors (Gavron, 2013; Gavron and Mayseless, 2015).
Many of the current art-based assessments are focused on individual painting and the internal representations of the painters (Betts, 2006). Even when drawing as a tool was used to assess relationships, such as in the use of family paintings, only the separate perspectives of the two partners were assessed (Madigan et al., 2003; Goldner and Scharf, 2011; Kim and Suh, 2013).
Over the last two decades, extensive clinical literature has also discussed joint painting, as employed to understand family relationships (Kwiatkowska, 1978; Rubin, 2005; Wadeson, 2010; Landgarten, 2013). These joint painting tools contribute to the evaluation of the implicit dimensions of relationships in vivo, as they actually occur during an interactive, often therapeutic, session.
Hence they provide a very important and significant way of understanding relationship dynamics. However, these tools are not yet often empirically tested (Betts, 2006).
The creation of the JPP reflects a formal and research-based consolidation of such clinical insights and hence provides access to an evidence-based, art-based tool for assessment and treatment (Gavron, 2013; Gavron and Mayseless, 2015).
The JPP is accompanied by a validated manual that includes seven scales: individuation and autonomy, intrusion, mutual recognition, role confusion, motivation for relationships, emotional expression, and expression of implicit anger and aggression toward the other (Gavron, 2013, 2018).
The manual describes the scales and includes descriptions of phenomena that characterize each level of every scale. The scales relate to the painting process and the final product, as well as to behavioral phenomena observed at each stage of the process (Gavron, 2013, 2018; Gavron and Mayseless, 2015).
In order to transform a clinical art-based assessment (the JPP) into an evidence-based assessment tool and validate the manual, three steps were taken:
(1) assessing inter-rater reliability between three judges who rated twenty dyads according to the JPP Manual,
(2) examining the correlation between explicit aspects of relationships (from validated relationship questionnaires) and implicit aspects (from the JPP), and
(3) predicting children’s adjustment based on the implicit aspects of relationships (as assessed by the JPP), beyond the prediction of explicit aspects of the relationships (as assessed by questionnaires and reported by mothers and children) and beyond the effects of the child’s temperament (Gavron, 2018).
In its original version, the JPP has mainly been used for evaluation of the therapeutic process at various points with the following clinical goals:
(1) understanding the child’s internal world and relational representations within the context of interaction with the parent,
(2) learning about the potential for growth and change in the dyad, as reflected in the continuous process of the joint painting, and
(3) identifying and focusing treatment goals relevant to the dyadic relationships. As clinical observations have demonstrated the benevolent therapeutic value of the JPP, it has also started to be used as a clinical intervention tool (Gavron, 2015). Yet, we currently have only rich clinical experiences that attest to the unique and often benevolent dyadic process that occurs through the JPP and we lack a deeper understanding of the distinct aspects of this process and how it unfolds.
In what follows we present findings of the qualitative part of larger mixed-methods research. The objectives of the qualitative study were: (1) to understand and to shed light on the distinct dynamical process regarding parents and children during the JPP and (2) to apprehend how the JPP impacts and transforms the parent-child relationship and how such change evolves during the therapeutic session.
The findings of the current study uncover and facilitate better understanding of the unique therapeutic aspects that the JPP allows and its potential to impact parent-child relationships. The findings depict the dynamics of the implicit aspects of the parent-child relationships during the joint painting, which the study particularly focused on understanding. It appeared that the JPP served as a powerful intervention demonstrating the extraordinary potential for development and transformation in the parent-child relationship.
One of the main innovative discoveries of this research is the transformation process that actually occurs during the JPP. It is known that the JPP allows access to various characteristics in the parent-child relationship and supports implicit and explicit communication, as well as self- and shared expression (Gavron, 2013; Gavron and Mayseless, 2015).
In this study, we realized that through the JPP, a new transformative aspect of relations emerges and enables new and different modes of communication and interactions. The joint creation during the JPP seems to invite an encounter different from the usual one in the everyday dyadic relationship.
This special meeting expands the usual repertoire of communication and creates the transformative processes. This implicit and explicit dialog in motion leads to meaningful learning about new ways of being together (Tronick, 2003; Stern, 2004; Fonagy, 2015). The JPP creates positive reconstruction of various elements of the relationship.
It is important to note that these changes occur even without the therapist’s intervention – through the continuous process of the joint creation and the implicit aspects of relations and the subsymbolic communication that this joint creation allows.
The ongoing mutually that evolves while creating together, construct implicit moments of meeting (Lyons-Ruth et al., 1998; Stern, 2004) that could lead to a change in the relationship. As seen in our findings, such a meeting can occur through different modes of communication (Bucci, 2014): through a common rhythm or movement while painting, through the meeting of shapes and colors, or through a shared image.
Such a moment seemed to evolve when Gili and her mother accidently met with their paintbrushes loaded with a reddish paint. This was an implicit sensory meeting through color and touch, which apparently led to the painting of the container. It appeared that this container was a representation for their unique shared closeness in a synchronized way.
Another major finding of the study refers to processes or conditions needed in order for this transformation to evolve. Several such processes emerged as part of the JPP: (1) pleasure and fun, (2) mutual bidirectional effect, (3) development and evolvement of the relationship, (4) mutual regulation, (5) mentalization, and (6) mutual recognition.
The context of pleasure and fun in the JPP appears to be significant. Play and creativity, which are voluntary actions for their own sake, enable pleasure, reward, and satisfaction (Schore and Marks-Tarlow, 2017). The playful art-based process allows for the presence of two points of view in a creative way at one point in time (Benau, 2009).
Pleasure and fun are connected to Regev and Snir (2014)’s findings about the main facets in parent-child art therapy that facilitate positive feelings in the relationship. These pleasurable feelings create a common ground for the mental processes that follow.
Mutual bi-directionality occurs when both parent and child affect and are being affected by the other’s behavior (Harach and Kuczynski, 2005). The act of painting together provides a space for positive reciprocal exchanges and for implicit negotiations of matches and mismatches between them (Paschall and Mastergeorge, 2016). Harach and Kuczynski (2005) indicate that often such positive reciprocal exchanges occur in the context of play, which is similar to the fun and often joyful and autonomous process of the JPP.
The reciprocal process entails some intimacy and companionship that often include shared laughter, shared pleasure and common understanding (Harach and Kuczynski, 2005). This co-creation therefore provides an opportunity to step out of the traditional hierarchical relations and engage in intimate implicit interactions that foster closeness and companionship. Together these experiences often lead to development and evolvement of the quality of the relationship during the JPP.
These processes often facilitate mutual regulation, which evolves through the sensory and tactile component of the shared art-based experience and has a mutual effect on both partners (Hinz, 2015).
Tronick (2003) argues that mutual states of regulation teach the dyad how to be together in different contexts and support a synchronized state of co-creativity. Schore and Marks-Tarlow (2017) state that non-verbal symbolic representation, such as play and the arts, facilitates emotional regulation function because it arouses a variety of feelings that enact regulatory boundaries. The mentalization process occurs within the JPP in a non-verbal and sensory way, and at the same time the partners can verbally address the process (Bat Or, 2010; Bucci, 2011).
The state of mutual recognition emerges as a continuation of the relational processes and enables expression of each of the individual in the dyad as well as shared expression, while being in a close and mutual relationship (Benjamin, 2005; Gini et al., 2007).
The capacity to recognize the other as distinct from oneself and to respect the individuality and uniqueness of the other while retaining closeness and togetherness is a complex and highly rewarding dynamic in a relationship (Benjamin, 2005). Its creation and sustenance becomes a token of positive and benevolent relationship.
Most of the processes described here have already been discussed in the clinical and research-based literature as important facets of the parent-child relationship (Slade, 1999, 2005; Schore, 2014; Fonagy, 2015; Tessier et al., 2016; Schore and Marks-Tarlow, 2017). However, the current study uncovered that these processes are connected to each other and revealed how they evolve throughout the joint painting in order to create transformation in the relationship.
It appears that most of the dynamic processes described in this study need to occur in order to create the transformation. One process may lead to another, and if one or more aspects are missing, such as the pleasure part or the bidirectionality effect, the transformation would probably not fully evolve.
Another important finding of this study indicates that the JPP contains both explicit and implicit aspects of communication at the same time and allows for various ways of being together, such as having an implicit experience and also having a shared discussion between the partners (Isserow, 2008; Taylor Buck and Havsteen-Franklin, 2013). As appearing in the interaction of the dyads, the implicit art-based processes often led to verbal discussions, which are important in parent-child communication in middle childhood (Gilmore and Meersand, 2014).
The tangible and visual expression of the relationship in the product itself and in the process of producing it allowed parents and children to look at the representations that were created and to verbally discuss them (Bat Or, 2010). In this way, the explicit communication appears to integrate and articulate the implicit evolving processes (Bucci, 2014).
This study sheds light on how the creative encounter enabled by the JPP uncovers profound and often hidden dyadic processes between parents and children. Such knowledge of the intricate and often overlooked implicit aspects in the interaction can help clinicians, parents and researchers in their efforts to understand parent-child relationship in the therapeutic interactions. The findings of the study underscore the significance of the use of joint artmaking as an important tool in parent-child art psychotherapy and in parent-child psychotherapy.