This story arose out of a writing group exercise contemplating the colour blue. It hooked into my almost rabid disapproval of an advertising campaign by a certain television content provider which strongly implies that the creative messy play of children, through which they learn about the world, should be discouraged by plonking them in from of a television screen, mainly for the convenience of parents.
“Jenny, what are you doing?” I hadn’t seen or heard my three-year-old daughter for at least 15 minutes, and knowing her quick quirky mischievous mind, that could mean all sorts of things, most of them not good.
“Noooothing,” came the pseudo-innocent response.
Uh-oh. I almost ran the short distance to her room, just recently painted a cheery yellow. Part of a colour revamp of the whole house. Well, it had been a cheery yellow. Jenny had gathered the leftover paintpots and had splodged handprints of every colour over one wall, smearing them together here and there in mud-coloured patches.
My temper was about to flare, but just in time I remembered the session on anger management from a course on emotional intelligence to which a friend had shepherded me, after declaring me the equivalent of an emotional vegetable.
I sat down on the floor beside my paint-smeared daughter. “Hmm, that’s certainly colourful, but I’m not sure I like the way some of the colours have smudged into each other. What were you painting?”
“A butterfly,” she stated firmly.
“Oh, butterflies are beautiful. A picture of one would certainly look good on your bedroom wall. But I think we have to start over. You’ve tried all the colours now. Which is your favorite?”
“Blue!” came the instantaneous response.
“Yes, blue is a beautiful colour for a butterfly. Shall we move your chest of drawers to find a clean bit of wall?”
Jenny nodded enthusiastically. Luckily, the piece of furniture in question was one of those flat pack things made of lightweight fake wood, so it was not difficult to move.
“First we need to clean your hands, though, so that the colours already on them won’t dirty the pretty blue colour.” Off we went to the bathroom for a rather messy clean-up. I closed my mind to the state of the basin, the floor tiles and the hand towel. Something to worry about later.
Back in the bedroom with our clean “canvas” before us, I asked Jenny to bring me her pencils, “We’re going to make a pencil outline of the butterfly first, so we make sure we like the shape before we start painting.”
Jenny came back with a selection, bouncing in excited anticipation of our joint project. I chose the softest one to make refinement of Jenny’s butterfly shape simpler. We decided on the size of the butterfly and on how high and wide its wings would stretch, marking the spots with pencil dots on the wall.
“Now you stand back a bit and watch as I join the dots. Tell me if you think I am not doing it the way it looks inside your head.”
I drew the outline, following the marks on the wall. Jenny stood behind me, slightly to one side. As I glanced back at her to check her reaction, I saw that she was smiling broadly and nodding vigorously. Obviously, I was doing a good job.
“Shall I fetch my paintbrushes now?” she asked, as the pencil butterfly outline on the wall was complete.
“Oh no,” I laughed. “That would be so boring.” And make an even bigger mess, I added ruefully in my mind, visualising streamers of blue paintbrush dribbles over the entire room.
“So how are we going to paint it blue?” Jenny puzzled.
“Like this.” I poured some of the bright blue paint we had used to create a statement wall on the patio, into an ice-cream tub. We usually kept a stack of empty ones in Jenny’s room. She loved to use them in her make-believe play. “You started off with hand painting, so let’s do your butterfly that way, too.”
Jenny pouted. “But then I’ll smudge them, like the others, and you’ll be cross if I spoil our picture.
“Don’t worry. I’ll help you make sure that you have just the right amount of paint on your hands. Then you won’t dribble or smudge on the butterfly.” I took her little wrists in my hands. “Open up your fingers wide.” Then I dipped her outstretched palms into the blue paint in the ice-cream tub, one at a time. I used a handy doll blanket – not one of Jenny’s favorites – to wipe off the excess paint. “Do you want to start on the outside of the wings, or on the inside?”
“The outside.” Clearly Jenny was quite decided on how the job should be done.
Without the dribbling from too much paint, her blue hand prints against the yellow wall actually looked rather good, I thought with some surprise. Within seconds I was as engrossed as my little daughter, and in what seemed like very little time, our butterfly outline was filled with small neat blue hand prints.
“We should sign it with your name so that everyone knows you painted it,” I suggested. Jenny had just learned to write her name in big wobbly capitals. “Grown-up artists usually sign their paintings at the bottom, so write it here.” I pointed to a spot near the skirting board, but still high enough to give her space to crouch down and hold the pencil at a comfortable angle.
Jenny wrote with a concentrated frown on her forehead and the pink tip of her tongue protruding from her lips. While she wrote, I fetched one of her paintbrushes. Once her name was boldly printed on the wall, I dipped the paintbrush into the blue paint and painted carefully over her letters. “That way your name won’t rub off,” I explained. “There, I am adding today’s date under your name so we’ll always know when you painted your butterfly. Grown-up artists do that too.”
We stood back to admire our work in its complete form. “It’s beautiful,” Jenny breathed, her eyes big and round in wonder.
“Yes, it is.” I had to admit that I felt rather proud of the outcome, too.
Together we closed up all the open paint pots to make sure that Jenny would not be tempted to exercise her artistic urges any further. “Just remember that you’ll have to help Daddy fix the first wall with your…” With effort, I bit back the word ‘mess. “… with your first tries.”
To my surprise, Jenny nodded vigorously. “Can’t leave it like that,” she declared solemnly. “It doesn’t look nice next to my beautiful blue butterfly.” She threw her blue-smudged hands and arms around my neck and planted a huge damp kiss in my cheek. “Thank you, thank you, Mommy.”
As we carried the paint tins back to the garage, I thought back to that course, to which I had been dragged along reluctantly by a friend who I had secretly thought to be excessively influenced by touchy-feely trendy ideas. I smiled as I inwardly thanked her that that, just this once, she had been right.