Finger-Painting: It's Not Just for Kids Anymore

Finger-painting provides an environment where people of all ages and abilities can experience the joy and freedom of self-expression.

Posted Updated
Cathy Downs

If you were born during the last 70 years or so, you probably have childhood memories of sitting at a little table, dipping your fingers into thick, brightly colored paint and noodling your way around a sheet of smooth, shiny paper. These paintings were usually formless squiggles, blobs and lines created from a child’s carefree lack of inhibition.

But finger-painting isn't just for children.

North Carolina native Ruth Faison Shaw developed a finger-painting method that provides an environment where people of all ages and abilities can experience the joy and freedom of self-expression. This self-expression can even be healing when there’s a need or desire to be healed, according to Bryan Carey, a practitioner and teacher of the finger-painting technique pioneered by Shaw and founder and director of the Shaw School and Studio in Durham.

Finger-painting was a long-forgotten art form used by ancient peoples in North America, China and Europe when Shaw reintroduced it to the world in 1931. Born in 1888 in Kenansville, Shaw taught school in the U.S. and Europe and opened the Shaw School in Rome in the early 1920s.

One of Shaw’s students, Leonardo, was the catalyst for her discovery. Shaw gave Leonardo a bottle of iodine for a cut on his finger and sent him to the bathroom. When he didn’t return, she found him smearing the iodine on the bathroom walls. Shaw chose to see the mess as artistic creativity.

Shaw and her students spent the next five years experimenting with various materials to create a nontoxic substance children could use. She had her formula patented, and a variant is still sold today.

Shaw’s colleague, John Thomas Payne, an artist-psychologist, learned Shaw’s methods and philosophy and carried on her work after she died in 1969.

Carey met Payne in 1985 at an exhibit of Shaw’s paintings and felt an immediate connection to her method. He apprenticed with Payne for seven years, then spent another seven years studying Shaw, her artistic vocabulary and method.

Shaw's Philosophy, Method

Shaw taught life principles through finger-painting, Carey explains. The art form is a philosophy in action, he says, and she based her technique on the natural cycle of life.

“It teaches that we live in a world of cause and effect: first, preparation; second, creation; third, completion,” Carey says. “It’s a cyclical process — by cleaning up, we prepare for the next phase."

Shaw’s method involves the whole body in a dance she described as opening the doors of imagination. She used an elbow-high table and taught students to put one hand behind their back, letting their whole body – not just their fingers – move the paint around the paper.

“Finger-painting is about the movement, and through the movement is the realization of the freedom of expression,” Carey says. “In this process, you paint what you feel in addition to what you see.”

Carey describes the paintings as picture-story records. “First, the picture is created; then a story is written about the picture,” he says.

Titling the painting and writing a story tells something about the person’s inside struggle, joy or fear, explains Jennifer Falchi, Carey’s protégé. For children, and even adults, listening to the story and displaying the picture validates the feelings represented in the painting, she says.

A Healing Art

Shaw recognized the therapeutic qualities of finger-painting to help children and adults express their emotions when words are not enough. Carey and Falchi hold workshops at state and nonprofit agencies that help adults and children with mental illness or emotional challenges.

Finger-painting is a catharsis for people with mental illness because they work with the past, the present and the anticipated future, Carey says. Falchi also notes that finger-painting can help children and teens settle down within five minutes. There’s an interesting connection between the physical act of touching the paint and connecting with something important inside themselves, she says.

Aileen Clougherty, a teacher at the Central Park School for Children in Durham, says her kindergartners loved Carey’s demonstration last year. “They were very excited watching the colors mix and feeling the different textures,” Clougherty says. “It was great to see how the textures were created.”

Clougherty points out that finger-painting uses many senses. “Children are very tactile beings, and they explored the paint. They forgot the paper, and at one point, some of them ran the paint up their arms,” she says. In fact, she says, the children were more interested in the process than the finished product.

Finger-painting also has a spiritual component. Carey says that, like yoga, finger-painting is a physical and spiritual opening up that helps you transcend and reach a different place within yourself, allowing you to explore body, mind and soul.

The Rev. WonGong So, of the Won-Buddhism Meditation Temple in Chapel Hill, participated in a workshop led by Carey last summer. “Finger-painting can be a way to build rapport and connection with yourself and others, exploring feelings without words or language,” WonGong says. “Even a beginner can jump in and explore and express their creativity.”

She believes that finger-painting has great potential for spiritual and psychological healing. “It’s a good activity to boost self-esteem to fully express yourself. You can do it over and over again and see what different things come out,” she says. “It’s a very good way to see how you’re feeling about yourself and about your expression of it.

“Beyond your current feelings and emotions, eventually you may find a way to express your true self through this finger-painting meditation,” she adds.

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