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Abstract Art With the Exceptional Child

Abstract Art With the Exceptional Child

One of my favorite projects to do with children is a painting project in the style of the American abstract expressionist Morris Louis. Although every child gets a lot of satisfaction in the process, this is especially fun to do with the exceptional student who has a physical, emotional, or mental impairment. For the home educator who has kids of various ages and abilities, this is great project to do outside, and it just requires a little bit of planning.

Morris Louis Bernstein was born in 1912 in Baltimore, Maryland. He grew up during the Depression, and he won a four-year scholarship to the Maryland Institute of Fine and Applied Arts. He worked on some federal arts projects and eventually moved to New York, where he changed his name to Morris Louis. He worked there for a while, studying the artists who abounded in that vibrant city, but then he moved back to the Baltimore area in 1947 and got married.

Louis loved to draw and studied the art of the surrealists and played around with less figurative (realistic) drawing, moving more toward abstraction. Louis took up a teaching post in the early 1950s and befriended other artists who were also exploring the new abstract way of painting. A trip back to New York to see the works of Jackson Pollock and Helen Frankenthaler became a turning point in Louis’s career. He saw that artists could use sweeping action and apply color to the canvas with a lot of freedom, without thinking that it had to “look” like something known; it was merely “felt.”

Although they were classically trained artists who had learned to paint with a small brush on an upright canvas, Morris Louis and his colleague Kenneth Noland decided to try some new techniques to get paint onto the canvas. After seeing Jackson Pollock splatter and drip paint on a piece of material on the floor, Louis tried pouring thinned paint on raw canvas held at various angles. He wanted to see where the paint would go and what it would do, without planning ahead of time. These became known as stain paintings, because the paint was thinned out like a stain and poured down the canvas and allowed to streak and run and flow. For more information about Morris Louis and to view his works check out this website.

After viewing some works by Morris Louis, you and your students will be ready to try creating some poured paintings! You can use liquid watercolors or acrylic paint that has been mixed with water to become a very thin consistency. I like to use the squeezie bottles that you can purchase at restaurant supply stores for condiments—or even those thin-necked ketchup and mustard bottles from a dollar store. Mix up at least six colors and place the paint in separate squeeze bottles.

Set up a painting area outside that is protected from wind. Lay down an inexpensive plastic tablecloth or tarp on the ground to collect the drips. I usually make use of a long, plastic, 6-foot table, set on its side on the tarp. The tabletop surface is then vertical and can be used as an easel. Use masking tape or painter’s tape to secure a large piece of sturdy white poster board to the top of the table. There should be no tape at the bottom or sides.

With several children, you should be able to fit a few pieces of poster board on one table—but not too close together! I like to work on at least a 18” x 24”for this project. Most of Morris Louis’s canvases were at least 7 feet wide and 7 feet tall, and some were quite a bit larger. The kids will appreciate more space to play!

The kids should wear old clothes or an art apron or smock. Here are the directions: Squirt out some paint at the top of the paper, by the tape line, and let the paint pour down the length of the paper. The student can overlap and blend colors by pouring in the same spot, or he can create a more striped effect by spacing the poured areas. The important thing is to let each child make the decision as to what color, and where.

For the exceptional child who may struggle with more figurative art, this provides a chance for non-brush painting activity, which is better for a child whose movements are often spastic. Also, for the exceptional child with focus issues, this kind of large activity painting provides a creative outlet without the extreme discipline of a project that requires finer motor skills and intense concentration.

Once the student has squeezed out an amount of color onto his “poured painting” to achieve the desired effect, the paint needs time to dry. It is best to leave the painting in place exactly as is for a few hours, outside. The thinned paint should easily wash off the table surface that was used as an easel, but I would not recommend using the squeezie bottles that had paint in them for any food product, once you are finished!

Another option is to hang all the wet paintings carefully on a clothesline with clip clothespins. Go back and make another poured painting at the tabletop on its side! I have found that students like to do several of these paintings so that they can explore different color combinations and pouring techniques.

Another option is to provide a spray bottle with plain water in it. After the colors have been poured on, the student can step away and spray the surface with a light mist of water to see what happens to the color. Or, conversely, mix up a diluted solution of paint in a spray bottle with a color not used anywhere else, and let the student spray that onto the poster board as a last step. The idea is to apply paint to the surface without using a brush and to achieve a wonderful explosion of color.

Morris Louis started off pouring his thinned paint in loose veils of color in the mid 1950s, but by the time he reached the next decade, his paintings were much more controlled. Long, even stripes of color on a field of stark white became the norm. Instead of poured paintings in which the pull of gravity is obvious, as the paint puddles at the vertical bottom, Louis planned his works horizontally or diagonally. Louis became one of the foremost artists in a small group known as color field painters.

Kids can express themselves very freely when they realize that they can just enjoy the process of putting down paint and not be bound to representing anything. This is why I love exploring abstract art for exceptional children as well as typical kids. Try it soon!

Pat Knepley has been drawing and painting since she was able to hold a crayon. Pat has a degree in art education, a teaching credential, and has taught art in Pennsylvania and California. In addition to being the master artist for the See the Light ART CLASS and ART PROJECTS DVD series, Pat teaches art and chorus at a charter elementary school in the Los Angeles area. Pat lives in a windy part of southern California with her husband and two almost-grown sons.

Copyright, 2012. Used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine, October 2012. Read the magazine free at or read it on the go and download the free apps at to read the magazine on your mobile devices.

Publication date: August 23, 2013