The absolute freedom of paper and paintbrush

April 2016

A visit to Arno Stern, the inventor of painting play.

Born in Kassel in 1924, Arno Stern has been living and teaching in the French capital since the end of the Second World War. That is where he established painting play in which people can participate from childhood onwards. The creative writing and literature teacher Melanie Hoessel visited him at his painting room in Rue de Falguière, Paris.

Melanie Hoessel | Arno Stern, what should I imagine painting play to be like?

Arno Stern | Look, here we have a closed room without any connection with the outside world. Nothing penetrates this room which belongs to the outside world and nothing leaves this room in order to play some role in the outside world. What a child expresses here is not shown anywhere else. It is not intended for others. Painting play includes a specific range of instruments: paintbrush, paint, paper and drawing pins to attach the sheets to the wall.

MH | What happens during painting play?

AS | The child goes to their sheet which is attached to the wall and starts to apply paint with their brush. In doing so, they experience themselves in the midst of the group; that is something very important, this equilibrium between what is common and what is our very own. The child creates a trace.

MH | What precisely is the nature of this trace?

AS | Traces have always been created in the history of humankind. But they always served to communicate something. The artist creates a work. They expect their work to be received. Here there is no recipient and no expectation but only a Self experiencing itself. This makes the child’s drawing fundamentally different from art. People think that children depict something which might be intended for others, that they are inexperienced artists who have not yet reached fulfilment. If a child were to intend to create a work of art they would no longer be playing freely but performing.

MH | What distinguishes a trace from a painted picture?

AS | The trace that is created here is part of a universal fabric which I call “formulation”. It is the disregarded ability of each person. Something that is not supported anywhere and which therefore atrophies to a greater or lesser extent. As their aide in painting play, I try to guide the children in such a way that this ability is re-awoken in them. In order to do so, I have to be aware of formulation in order to be able to respond without preconceptions, without thinking the child wants to communicate something or there is some secret message contained in what they express. Formulation can be understood as a language with its components and processes.

MH | What precisely is formulation?

AS | You see, formulation is the only way that organic recollection can express itself. Something has been lost in us that we cannot regain through memory. Every person can remember back to their childhood at most to the time when they were two years old. It is important to know that we do not possess a conscious beginning. We have no feeling of our own in this respect. Memory comes from thinking, but recollection means penetrating into our interior and that is the secrete of formulation. It is the function of organic recollection. When we experience formulation we find our way back to our beginning. Then we can experience what we have felt since we have existed at all.

MH | How do the children react to painting play?

AS | You have to find your way into painting play. The children are mostly dissatisfied after the first painting class. They are not allowed to take the paintings home and there is no assessment of them. They make an effort but are not rewarded for their work. There is of course talking in the painting room but not about the pictures. The strict arrangements here do not correspond with what children are used to today, who do all kinds of things except concentrate. Today there is painting, tomorrow cutting out, the day after craft work. Always something new. But after a few painting classes the children begin to feel at ease. Thirty years ago, the children still played when they came into the painting room. When I look at paintings which were created up to 1980, they still reflect abundance and enthusiasm. That has been lost. Today the first question is: what should I do? The child doesn’t play at all. They are waiting to be told what to do.

MH | Is play the crucial factor?

AS | Yes! Children have to discard their taught knowledge like poison to recover. In earlier times it was a matter of course that children played. When I was in the desert, for example, or met children for whom the use of a pencil and paintbrush was completely new, it was nevertheless quite natural for them to pick up the brush and create a trace.

MH | How can painting play help to find the way back into play?

AS | A hundred-and-fifty years ago, drawing lessons were introduced. Teachers wanted to teach children how to see. But children observe a lot more than adults. When a child comes here to the painting room for the first time they know immediately where the drawing pins are to hang up the pictures. They see that right away. And we are supposed to teach them how to look at things properly? Children had to learn proportions and anatomy and perspective in drawing lessons. That was a bit of a strain for them. In the painting room there is no target to be achieved, no expectation. Here there is only the experience of ourselves amid others who are all completely different. The children find their way back to their ability to play. That is one of the main tasks of the painting room today.

MH | How did your work start?

AS | At the beginning I had no concept. I was interned as a refugee in Switzerland during the War. When the War came to an end, I returned to France and I was offered a job in a children’s home for war orphans. I knew nothing about working with children. My job was simply to keep them occupied. I found pencil stubs and waste paper and so I set them to drawing and saw how much the enjoyed that. Then I gave them paints and was overwhelmed by what I saw. Two years later, I prepared a room. This room was closed because it had to take many children and the sheets had to hang on the walls for reasons of space. I boarded up the windows to obtain more wall-space. That is how I set up the painting room and it was not until much later that I noticed that the work in the painting room was quite different. I tried to find out why that is so. The safety and comfort of the room allows us to find our own trace.

MH | How does attending the painting room agree with lessons in school?

AS | School starts with the concept of instruction and I reject that. Children today are no longer childlike and that is a tragedy. But increasing numbers of people are recognising that. When I spoke about painting play 20 years ago I was still attacked. That has switched completely although I still say the same things that I said 30 years ago. Today people are moved because they know that something has to change.

MH | What has to change?

AS | When we develop an idea of how things might be different they won’t change. We have to start with the child, with life. Schools have this idea that they want to take the child somewhere. They create an expectation and guide the children in that direction. What I do in the painting room cannot be transferred into school and yet it is important that many people who are working specifically in schools should find out about it. The child is not inexperienced, not unaccomplished. You should have a bad conscience when you prescribe to a child the way in which they should do something. That is the beginning.

MH | You advocate that children should not attend school but should acquire knowledge outside school.

AS | What is provided by school separates parents from their children. The children live in school and the parents live in the office and what do they know about one another? That they go somewhere in the morning and come back at night. That isn’t a relationship. The danger exists that the generations become divided. It is not natural and we do not have to put up with this evil. We have to change our thinking, our view of things. We are the heirs of the colonial era. People thought they knew more and could do more than the others and had to teach it to the others. That is not true.

MH | And we have to start with the children?

AS | Absolutely. Free dance and making music together and painting play should form the basis for the life of all children. Paper and paintbrush represent absolute freedom. Everyone can do it, this kind of play knows no restrictions. And the joint activity is never at the cost of the other. Painting play should be allowed to take place at every school as an addition to the school provision in order to provide a balance, to lead children back into play. We have to give children back their play.

Training is available at the Arno Stern Institute for those who want to develop the skill to work as a painting play aide. Information at:

Melanie Hoessel asked the questions

About the author: Melanie Hoessel is a creative writing and literature teacher, author and co-worker of the Anthroposophical Society in North Rhine-Westphalia.


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