Self-Discovery, Transformation, & Face Paints

Face paints have never been a particularly favorite art medium of mine. When teachers offered face paints to the children in other classrooms, I have to admit that I cringed on more than one occasion. I was reminded of carnival booths where children were painted up as superheroes or with glittery butterflies across their cheeks. Fun? Yes. A worthwhile activity? I’m not sure the reasoning for offering face paints to children was ever grounded in an interest beyond fun, so what could be the value in young children painting their faces without any other particular reason?

Recently, however, my opinions of face painting have changed.

This Halloween, Mike and I used some face paint to create a ghostly effect on his face for a Halloween video effect we were making. We left the face paint in our bathroom, where Greysen found it the next afternoon. I explained to her what it was and demonstrated it for her by painting a nose and whiskers on my face.  She asked that I do the same on her. I meowed, and that was that.

A couple of days later, Greysen woke up from her nap while I was cleaning the tub. I finished up while she occupied herself at the sink. Usually she just brushes her teeth, so when I turned to see her painted face, I was quite surprised.

She had used the black face paint to darken her nose and draw lines across her cheeks to represent whiskers. “Cat,” she declared.

Over the next few days, Greysen asked to use these face paints again and again,  always choosing the black paint stick and always recreating the cat face.

I wondered and watched her play in hopes of figuring out whether this play was about transformation or exploration; that is, was Greysen using these paints to become a cat or was it more about using the paints, and this was her script for using them?

To support her fascination with these paints, Mike and I stopped by some Halloween stores hoping to find some additional face paint sticks at after-Halloween discount prices. Alas, the weekend after Halloween was too late. We did finally find a set that included several colors at Michael’s.

To test the transformation hypothesis, the next time Greysen asked to use the face paints and she had already begun to paint herself, I painted my face to resemble that of an owl using simple lines.  I hooted, and she responded, “owl.” I asked if she wanted an owl on her face. She did not indicate a preference either way so I let it go.

We took the paints into the bathroom and I asked if I could wipe the black paint she had already applied off of her face so that she could have more space to paint, which she was okay with. I watched and waited to see if she would attempt an owl or something else.

She drew one long arc from her eyebrow upwards across her forehead and laughed. This line was significantly different both in placement and in style then the marks she had been making over the last few days. She then said “tummy” and drew on her torso. She said “back,” and drew there as well.

Aha! Exploration. She was drawing on herself, identifying her body parts as she went along. This was in sync with her play recently, as she has begun to make comments of self-awareness.  I walked away after Mike came to take over, satisfied that she was using the paints out of an interest in herself, as well as the look of the paint on her body.

A little while later, she walked into the bedroom, where I was in the dark nursing Moon at the time – I was still painted as an owl. She pointed to me and said, “Owl sleeping.”  Aha, transformation! Or, could it be both?

Greysen paints her face nearly every day now, and most days she will paint mine as well. She seems quite satisfied and deliberate with her marks and so, respectful of her work, I leave her face unwiped as we go about our day, including out on errands. Though she encounters many puzzled expressions and looks very unkempt by the end of the day with smudged black marks across her face, I am determined to respect her interest and artwork by leaving her face painted until her bath time.

Exploration and transformation? How else can I support her interests? I’m beginning to think that there may be a long-term project emerging from this play.

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