It has become almost obligatory for children to have their faces painted at ‘events’. The art of face painting has become refined to the point of perfectionism. Well, that’s cool. It is magnificent to see the shimmering wonders that artists at festivals and themed days in shopping centres can produce. You can bet that every item about children at play in the East End Life will have a group of kids grinning gappily at the camera through their tiger faces.
It is this constant stream of inane and unimaginative photos of inane and unimaginative face painting that has driven me to the point of rebellion.
Adults invite children to flick through a snazeroo book of ‘ face painting for dummies- how to camouflage your children’ or their own portfolio of works prepared for an application as Head of Face Painting for the Royal College.
Just who are they trying to please?
I suspect that the parents are their target audience.
Parents control the purse strings and are more likely to dish out the dosh needed to get kiddie painted and thereby providing perfect photographic evidence to save until the child becomes an adolescent when it can be held up in evidence, in front of his or her spotty face while parent screams, ‘What do you mean we never loved you?’ at them.
No. all of this is just another example of the commodification of childhood. Another thing to buy.
This has nothing whatsoever to do with Playworking and even less to do with the playing of children.
As I settle down in an Adventure Playground with the body paint box, children start to queue up!
Even those who know me well switch their positioning and ask ‘How much does it cost Miss?’ (Miss? I was never a Miss even when I was not married I tell them.)
I want them to understand that this is just another loose part. There is a box of body paints that they can use on each other.
Mine are kept separate.
They can experiment with the wild sloshy colourings that are so exciting and outrageous. I will do something different. They quickly learn that I don’t do spider man, or what ever superhero is in vogue, (though I must confess to having flirted with Darth Maul.)
I was slow to understand what the shrewd business-people of the child entertaining industry have known for years, that a painting on your face is more enchanting to other people than to your self. You cannot see your face moving in strange colours and designs in an everyday way as other people can. Also, most face paints feel really horrid on the skin of your face, they smell strongly and are hard to clean off. It takes an age to paint a face to exhibition standards. And the cutest faces are invariably the tickliest. To master fine brushwork on a moving surface makes the perfectionist face painter irritable and thwarts their desire to recreate the Mona Lisa. One rapidly becomes very child
Why encourage long queues of children, who become impatient , who get bored and fractious, who build up their expectations of the adult controlled experience?
Why do it like this?
Play is about process not product .
Though a pretty or witty bit of painting is a fun by-product, to some extent the play value has largely gone by the time the work is done, unless the painting is in the service of a particular piece of play. (‘Paint a dragon on my arm. My mum‘ll think I’ve had a tattoo. She’ll go mad.’ ‘Hey, My mates initials are the same as mine can you paint them really big on our shoulders?’)
To paint swirling tendrils of vines growing up from a little toe to the knee, is a far more satisfactory experience than trying to paint a child’s face like an elephant and the child can watch the process and the result and who would have thought that and ankle could look like that?
‘Paint me as a Princess’, usually makes me feel very sad. Depending on the vibe I am getting from the child I will do cat-curl flicks at the eye corners and a bhindi, or mime a painting without touching the child and give a big ‘Ta Dah! You are a princess. Now, how do you want the Princes to be painted?’
So much depends on the child’s needs from that time of close quiet contact. I once agreed to paint a child as a lion because he needed an excuse to sit with me and tell me about his parents divorce. Perhaps he needed to think of himself as both as cowardly and as brave as a lion. But her certainly needed to intimacy. The softness of the sponges touch or the sensation of the tip of the brush leaving a trail of silver over your sun tanned arm is a dangerous and exciting thing. The sensuality and innocence of the relationship is rare and.. well.. touching.
So, the child who tilts her chin to the sky and asks, ‘paint the sun on my face’:
The boy who has been teasing a peer for weeks and weeks and all at once finds that they are holding each other still so as not to jab each other, and choosing colours for each others faces: the children who come back each year to an annual extended family party and asks you to do just the same as you did last year… (and you can remember too): the class of thirty in their last days together at primary school agreeing to have a two minute paint each so they can all share the craziness of their last school days with a mock permanent tattoo : the prettiest girl turning up at a party fresh from the dentists and brand new braces.. embarrassed and feeling self conscious, asks for a Paul Frank monkey on her arm, wearing braces, natch. And the boy who wanted his skin covered in bubble gum pink, still as anything while I painted… who threw his head back into the long grass when I was done and shouted ‘ I’m GAY’…..
…..All of these children trust to their choices and insights, and let the paint touch them far more deeply than the delicate surface of their skin that is the boundary between them and their wider world.