Art without the mess

23rd January 1998 at 00:00
The sheer joy of learning through painting can be recreated by computers. Nicola Jones examines the latest in art software

The children are designing wallpaper. They have a selection of stamp pads to create their patterns and colour palettes in every hue. Slurpy noises can be heard as the paint is splashed around. But there's not a drop of paint on the floor and there's no cleaning up to do. This junior class is using Kid Pix Studio, a multimedia computer art package. All the pupils can concentrate on pattern making, whatever their artistic talents.

The program has hundreds of tools, including a whacky brush that allows children to pour patterns and objects across the screen. Interesting backgrounds are provided, as are sound and music effects. It is also possible to stamp letters or type text on to pictures - you can even paint with text!

Kid Pix Studio allows children to produce a moving slide-show of their artwork. It is a good way of displaying class work and would look impressive as an active display on parents' evenings. Sound can be added and, via a microphone attached to the computer, pupils could give a brief commentary on their work. The program is simple enough to be used by nursery children, but complicated enough to offer something to upper juniors. There is also a pack of teachers' resources, which contains suggestions for projects and supporting classroom materials.

One of the problems with computer programs is that paint effects are flat and untextured. But with Disney Magic Artist, you can almost smell the paint. In this new program, the oil paint goes on in satisfying twirls and the finger-painting tool smears a watery trail that looks so wet I have seen children touch the screen to check it. There are stamp tools for the less confident, with backgrounds, characters and props, but children enjoy making their own paintings and the program is useful for creating an awareness of different textures in drawing and painting. The program allows the pupils to keep their work in a sketchbook and display it in the gallery. Their work can also be mixed with music to make a slide show.

In a busy class, it is often difficult to give children as much time as they need. Help is at hand in the shape of Orly, a Jamaican girl who is the heroine of her own stories in the program Orly's Draw a Story. Pupils are invited by Orly to draw a picture which then becomes animated and part of a story for the children to watch and listen to. At various points, children are guided and encouraged by Orly, and Lancelot the frog, to draw a new character or object.

Children can't resist Orly's pleas to "Draw sumtin' hugely disgustin', beautiful or weird" as she sits on the edge of the screen commenting on the colours the child chooses and offering words of encouragement. The fact that children are drawing for a purpose offers a strong incentive and they get great satisfaction in sharing work with friends.

Good art programs can liberate children from the fear of making mistakes; their confidence grows and they become more adventurous. This confidence often carries into their traditional artwork. The use of computers in the classroom also raises some interesting questions - not least, is it art?

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