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The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art

The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art
Written by Barb Rosenstock and Illustrated by Mary Grandpré
Published by Knopf in 2014
ISBN 978-0-307-97848-6
Grades K – 8
Book Review
Snapping cerulean points. Crunching crimson squares. Whispering charcoal lines.” Evoking equally the senses of hearing and sight, author Barb Rosenstock provides insight into the creative process of artist Vassily Kandinsky, an innovator of the style known as Abstract Art. This work of historical fiction, portrays Vasya as a “proper Russian boy” raised in an affluent household. But Vasya’s structure life is turned upside down when he is first given a box of paints. As Vasya mixes the paints, he hears a hissing sound, which soon swirls into a symphony of tones and colors. After his early experimentation with painting is discouraged, Vasya sets aside his paints and becomes a lawyer. “But Vasya couldn’t ignore the sounds of the colors signing to him in the streets of Moscow” and when, as an adult he hears (and sees ) the music of Wagner and Schoenberg, he moves to Munich and devotes his life to the study of art. There, “with his noisy paint box, Vasya Kandinsky created something entirely new – abstract art.” Kandinsky’s journey and unique abilities are vibrantly depicted by illustrator Mary Grandpre, who employs vivid colors and sweeping lines to depict the blending of sight and sound that results from the artist’s synesthesia, a condition in which one sense triggers another. Pallette changes from dark to bright parallel Kandinsky’s struggles to be true to and to advocate for his non-representational artistic style. An informative author’s note provides more information about the artist’s career, where paintings may be viewed, and synesthesia. Whether it is included in a unity of study on freedom of expression, art history, or sensory explorations, there is much to see, to hear and to discuss in this beautiful biographical picture book.
Teaching Invitations: Ideas For Your Classroom
Grades K – 3
Color. Extend a reading The Noisy Paint Box with primary grade students by further exploration of the concept of color.  This exploration can take many forms. You might start by examining Kandinsky’s use of color, asking children to identify dominant colors in Kandinsky’s paintings and to discuss their emotional responses to his art. Following this, ask students to identify favorite colors and to create color collages. Extend your exploration by reading additional books that feature color explorations, such as Laura Vacarro Seeger’s Lemons are Not Red and Green, Peter Reynold’s Sky Color and Joyce SIdman’s Red Sings From Treetops: A Year in Colors.
Grades 1 – 8
Kandinsky’s Life and Art. Learn more about Kandinsky by exploring the online resources and books listed below. Project images of Kandinsky’s paintings for students to observe and discuss. Explore the historical context for Kandinsky’s work and compare his art to other famous works of his time period.
Language and Sensory Explorations. In The Noisy Paintbox, author Barb Rosentock employs words to describe the auditory and visual sensations Kandinsky experienced and shared through his paintings. Reread the page that describes Vasya’s first painting. It begins: “Vasya painted the sounds of the colors. He spun a bright lemon circle onto the canvas. It clinked like the highest notes on the keyboard….” Identify and list the sensory and descriptive words from this page on index cards and then sort the words – are they verbs, adverbs, or adjectives? Reread The Noisy Paintbox, challenging students to find and record more descriptive words that evoke the senses. Add these to your listing. Then invite your students to revisit a piece of writing they are currently working on to add some descriptive language to enliven their writing.
Painting to Music. Kandinsky drew inspiration for many of his paintings from musical compositions. Play Wagner and Schoenberg for your students and invite them to paint in response to the music. Following this experience, introduce the books that illustrator Chris Raschka has created in response to jazz music, Charlie Parker Played Be Bop, John Coltrane’s Big Steps, and Mysterious Thelonius. Play selections from these artists so that students can paint responses to this musical style. Finally, invite your students to select a piece of favorite music and to paint in response to this selection.  Ask students to create a museum display card for their painting, describing the relationship between the music and art.
Grades 3 – 8.
Picture Book Biographies of Artists: A Genre Study. Gather together a collection of picture book biographies of artists (the listing below from The Classroom Bookshelf will get you started). Read the books with your students and closely examine the choices that the biographers have made about text and illustration. Which aspects of their subjects’ lives have the chosen to highlight? Do they focus more on the childhood or adult life of the artist? How are the artists’ mentors, inspirations, commitments, and styles presented? When examining the illustrations, discuss how the art of the picture book biography enhances the readers’ understandings of the artists’ lives and work. You might find it particularly interesting to note how the artists’ works are depicted in the book. Are they reproductions of the actual works or are they illustrators’ representations?
Understanding Synesthesia. Learn more about synesthesia by exploring the resources linked below. Begin by watching Steffie Tomson describe synesthesia on NOVA’s The Life of the Scientists. Following this viewing, ask students to list questions that they have about synesthesia and its implication for the people who have this ability and the implication of understanding the condition for medical research and scientific understanding of brain functioning.
Artistic Style Movements. Help students to develop an understanding of artistic style movements over time by reading a range of picture book biographies of artists from different time periods, including, for example: Leonardo, Beautiful Dreamer; Claude Monet: The Painter Who Stopped the Trains; Just Behave Pablo Picasso!; Colorful Dreamer: The Story of Artist Henri Matisse; and Fabulous! A Portrait of Andy Warhol.  Recruit the support of your art teacher to expand students’ knowledge and to make an illustrated timeline of artistic style movements that reflects students’ learning.
Critical Literacy
What Counts as Art? Who Says? Do a Duet Model reading (see our Teaching with Text Sets entry of The Noisy Paint Boxand A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin. Compare and contrast the lives of artists Horace Pippin and Wassily Kandinsky. Ask students to discuss their social and cultural backgrounds and the impacts of these on their artistic careers, noting both similarities and differences. Use the stories of these artists as a launching point for an inquiry based around the questions: What counts as art? Who decides? Ask your students to discuss criteria for evaluating art – what questions should we be asking of a work of art? You might want to interview a local art teacher, gallery owner, and artist to develop a more informed discussion.
Further Explorations
Online Resources
Barb Rosenstock: Author’s Website
Mary Grandpre: Illustrator’s Website
Book Trailer
Wassily Kandinsky
The Telegraph: The Man Who Heard His Paintbox Hiss
The Guggenheim Musem (search for Kandinsky)
Kandinsky at the Tate Modern
Teacher’s Guide to Kandinsky: The Path to Abstraction at the Tate Modern
NPR: The Life and Work of Wassily Kandinsky: Lecture by Dr. Christopher With
MoMA: Kandinsky
Art Institute of Chicago: Play a Painting
YouTube: 1926 Footage of Kandinsky Painting
Neue Galeria: New York: Past Exhibitions: Kandinsky
New York Times: When People See a Sound and Hear a Color
Boston University: The Synesthesia Project
APA: Everyday Fantasia: The World of Synesthesia
NOVA: The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers: Steffie Tomson: Synesthete
TED Blog: Synesthesia On Demand
ArtsEdge: Teaching Students to Critique.
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Byrd, R. (2003). Leonardo beautiful dreamer. New York: Dutton.
Christensen, B. (2011). Fabulous!: A portrait of Andy Warhol. New York: Henry Holt.
Dorling-Kindersly. (2009). Children’s book of art. New York: DK.
Flux, P. (2002). Wassily Kandinsky. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Library.
Johnson, S. (2008). A is for art: An abstract alphabet. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Maltbie, B.I. (2010). Claude Monet: The painter who stopped the trains. Ill. by Jos. A. Smith. New York: Abrams.
Natasha, W. (2009). An eye for color: The story of Joseph Albers. New York: Henry Holt.
Novesky, A. (2012). Georgia in Hawaii: When Georgia O’Keeffe painted what she pleased. Ill. by Yuri Morales. New York: Harcourt.
Parker, M.B. (2012). Colorful dreamer: The story of artist Henri Matisse. Ill. by H. Berry. New York: Dial Books.
Rainmondo, J. (2008). What’s the big idea?: Activities and adventures in abstract art. New York: Watson-Guptil.
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Raschka, C. (1992). Charlie Parker played Be Bop. New York: Orchard.
Raschka, C. (1998). Mysterious Thelonius. New York: Orchard.
Rascka, C. (2002). John Coltrane’s big steps. New York: Atheneum.
Razcka, B. Name that style: all about isms in art. Minneapolis, MN: Millbrook Press.
Reynolds, P. H. (2012). Sky color. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.
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Seeger, L.V. (2012). Green. New York: Roaring Brook Press.
Seeger, L.V. (2004). Lemons are not red. New York: Roaring Brook Press.
Sidman, J. (2009). Red sings from treetops: A year in colors. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Tonatiuth, D. (2011). Diego Rivera: His world and ours. New York: Abrams
VanCampen, C. (2007). The hidden sense: Synesthesia in art and science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Winter, J. (2012). Just behave, Pablo Picasso! Ill. by K. Hawkes. New York: Arthur A. Levine.

Erika Thulin Dawes About Erika Thulin Dawes

Erika is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former classroom teacher, reading specialist, and literacy supervisor, she now teaches courses in children’s literature, early literacy, and literacy methods. Erika is the co-author of Learning to Write with Purpose, Teaching with Text Sets, and Teaching to Complexity.