Spreading the word about Le Jeu De Peindre – in English!

The loooong text below was written as part of my masters level studies in international education.

I was asked to select and critically consider a pedagogical approach and situate it within a broader theoretical structure, illustrated with evidence from my own practice. I hope that anyone else interested in Le Jeu De Peindre who feels frustrated by the lack of material in English might find this useful. I feel very blessed to be bilingual English-French and to have been able to access this incredible philosophy, so I feel it is my duty as a mother-tongue English speaker to share my joy with the non-francophone, English-speaking community. I’d love to hear from you if you manage to read this and have any comments or questions! And if you use or share this document, thank you for crediting me:-)

N.B. Since writing, Arno has announced an online training course in English, running from end September-early October 2021! Let me know if you are planning to join! He has also copyrighted the term “Play-Of-Painting” in English, which differs slightly from my translation “Painting-Play”.

Le Jeu de Peindre: the untapped potential of a pedagogical approach which bridges established theories of learning and unlearning 


Section 1: Introduction

Section 2: The origins of Painting-Play and its major components

Section 3: Painting-Play as a pedagogical approach

Section 4: Painting-Play’s correlation with major theories and frameworks of learning

1) Art Education

i) General art education

ii) Self-expression

iii) Creativity

2) Learning through play

3) Learning for wellbeing

4) Learning for Global Citizenship

Section 5: Areas for further research

Section 6: Conclusion


Section 1: Introduction

I will first explain the meaning of “Le Jeu De Peindre” and continue by using the most widely accepted English translation. When translated literally, it becomes “The Game Of Painting” in English. However, the word-for-word translation does not convey the nuances intended by the original. Stern has expressed a preference for an emphasis on play (creative activity) rather than “game” (activity limited by educational and social objectives) (Frantz and Stern, 2018, p27). I will thus employ the term “Painting-Play” throughout my writing. 

I was an arts teacher in the French-speaking part of Switzerland for 20 years and subsequently trained with Arno Stern to become a facilitator of “Painting-Play”. This is my current practice in Singapore, where I run a studio called “No Comment”.  I intend to critically examine Painting-Play as a pedagogical approach by demonstrating commonalities with established theories of learning (and unlearning), whilst exploring the challenges and opportunities inherent in the approach and areas for further research.

In order to do this, I will first describe the practice of Painting-Play: its origins and associated theories, in particular those of Le Closlieu and La Formulation. I will then argue why it can be considered a pedagogical approach and offer explanations as to why it has not yet been universally recognised as such. In doing so, I will compare and contrast Painting-Play with other theories of learning. Along the way, I will provide evidence from my own experience as a visual art teacher and Painting-Play facilitator. To finish, I will suggest areas of future research. 

Section 2: The origins of Painting-Play and its major components

Painting-Play was invented by Arno Stern, a jewish German whose family fled to France in 1933. He began developing the “Painting-Play” approach when he was invited to serve as a youth worker in a home for war orphans in Fontenay-Aux-Roses, (just outside Paris) and it became his life’s work – rigorously researched and honed over the 74 years between 1946 and the present day. As early as 1951, he was designated an expert on art education and presented on an equal footing with Henri Matisse and Jean Piaget at the first UNESCO Symposium on Art Education (UNESCO, 1954). 

Le Closlieu

The word “Closlieu” was invented by Stern. It literally translates as “closed place”, but has been adopted by many practitioners in their own language. Stern began to create this unique studio by boarding up the windows in order to maximise limited painting space in the orphanage’s attic. Unintentionally, this served to shut out distractions (the surrounding town, weather, seasons, time of day, reminders of emotional and social pressures…) and thus allowed for a higher level of focus.  Having arrived at the orphanage directly from a Swiss refugee camp, Stern had not had the opportunity to pursue studies in art, education or psychology.  For this reason he felt in no position to direct, correct or analyse the children’s painting. He trusted their instincts and observed that despite the psychopedagogue director’s goal to conduct a study of the orphans’ self and family portraits, the prescribed topic which seemed “plus riche, plus vrai” (richer and more authentic) was the “dessin libre”: free choice drawings or paintings (Frantz and Stern, 2018, pp 50-51). 

In the centre of Le Closlieu lay a table with an array of paints in ink pots. Over time, this became unified and sophisticated, taking the form of a “table-palette”. It now consists of a painted wooden table ensconcing 18 paint-dishes with corresponding brush sets and water pots and stores the larger paint pots below (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Arno Stern at the table-palette in his Closlieu, Paris (Stern, 2013, p.26)

Le Servant

When Stern left the orphanage after two years employment, he set up a studio in the centre of Paris where he could continue his newly invented career as “servant-praticien” of children’s painting. This is difficult to translate into English, given our aversion to the word servant. English speakers might be more comfortable with the term “practitioner” or “facilitator”, but the notion of serving is central to the role. 

It was in his first Paris studio that he added the element of Kraft paper covering the walls from floor to ceiling, for practical purposes. Over time, the surface became covered in a shimmering multitude of criss-crossing vertical and horizontal lines, as paint escaped the edges of the papers attached to the walls (Stern, 2011, pp 19-21). This has become a trademark of the Closlieu space (Figure 2).  

Figure 2: “No Comment”, Singapore (Shaw, 2020)

In order to correctly set up a Closlieu, additional conditions and materials are necessary, as outlined in Appendix 1. Around 200 Closlieu exist all over the world, almost exclusively in Europe (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Map of Closlieux around the world (Munteaunu, 2020)

La Formulation

Despite their very different contexts and life experiences – a small town orphanage and a bourgeois Paris studio, Stern noticed a surprising correlation between the children’s spontaneous, free paintings. The children newest to painting all exhibited the same gestures and forms along a limited range of developmental trajectories. The more dextrous painters exhibited a range of figures and object-images, which could be categorised as a limited set of forms. Fortunately Stern had kept, dated and named hundreds of his charges’ paintings and was able to go back and study them in detail. He discovered that all the paintings could be distilled to a set of 70 figures, which he eventually named “La Formulation” (Figure 4). 

Figure 4: Symbolic representations of the 70 elements of La Formulation (Stern, 2011, pp 138-139)

His passion and curiosity led him to seek more research on children’s drawing. There was a developing interest in the concept of “children’s art”, but no controlled, empirical study had yet taken place. So over the 1960s and 70s, he secured grants to study the innate drawing and painting patterns of unschooled children (and some adults) all over the world. His monumental body of documentation now encompasses around 500,000 archived and catalogued paintings and drawings created under strict conditions by people of all ages in numerous European countries, Afghanistan, Canada, Ethiopia, Guatemala, New Guinea, Niger, Mauritania, Mexico, Peru and the United States. (Stern, 2011, 2013; Frantz and Stern 2018) 

Stern’s archive seems to confirm the existence of a universally shared visual “language”. Stern has hypothesized in collaboration with the maternologist Jean-Marie Delassus and the neurobiologist Gerald Hüther that this primal and universal language is epigenetically pre-programmed and evidence of foetal learning (Dellasus and Hüther in Frantz and Stern, 2018, p28-29). 

However, La Formulation and the sense of self-knowledge, balance and wellbeing it derives may only be accessible when spontaneous, uninhibited self-expression is allowed to occur. He suggests that given society’s expectations in most every day settings (home, school, work), there are few opportunities for true spontaneity. The Closlieu is a safe space which feels different and separate from everywhere else, where the rigorous rules of engagement (Appendix 2) are defined, yet freeing, and thus it provides the ideal conditions for La Formulation to arise. 

Stern claims that La Formulation has been paradoxically endangered by the ascendance of art education, visual overstimulation and consumerism in today’s society (Stern 2011, 2013, 2017, 2019, 2020a; Frantz and Stern 2018).

Section 3: Painting-Play as a pedagogical approach

Painting-Play is clearly a practice, but is it a pedagogical approach in and of itself? It could be argued that over and above the obvious skill development in painting, Painting-Play’s learning goals include discovery through play; self-expression; mindful creativity; suspension of judgement and letting go of one’s inner critic; stress management; problem solving; self-confidence; self-control; resilience; empowerment; solidarity and an appreciation of human diversity. 

The above can be grouped into four broad learning goals:

  1. Painting skills
  2. Self-expression and creativity
  3. Wellbeing
  4. Global citizenship

21st century learning initiatives have only recently insisted that wellbeing and global citizenship be included in curricula as a standard expectation. Self-expression is yet to be acknowledged as a priority in mainstream education. 

Section 4: Painting-Play’s correlation with major theories and frameworks of learning

As alluded previously, Painting-Play relates to four major theories of learning:

  1. art education (including self-expression and creativity)
  2. learning through play
  3. learning for wellbeing
  4. learning for global citizenship

These themes are overlapping, but I will try to tackle each one in turn. 

  1. Art Education

Painting-Play is not art education, but it overlaps with elements of art education, such as painting, self-expression and creativity. Before looking at self-expression and creativity, I will examine how it relates to general art education. 

i) General Art Education

Stern wrote: “I distinguish between Panting-Play and painting art. Painting art belongs to the artists. Painting-Play belongs to everyone else” (Stern, 2015 and 2019).

Although Painting-Play looks like art making and undoubtedly develops painting skills, it is not to be confused with art education. According to Stern, art is the subject in a dialogue between an artist and an audience. Painting-Play does not create a product and does not require an audience (Stern, 2019). In fact, prior teaching and learning in formal art class settings may have to be unlearned in order to fully immerse in the Painting-Play process. 

The facilitator serves the participants, contingent to their needs – specifically not taking on the role of a teacher or instructor. Painting-Play could be described as being autodidactic, for “learning can only be facilitated: we cannot teach another person directly” (Rogers in Office of Learning and Teaching, 2005, p. 9). Painting-players need no prior knowledge of La Formulation. It will naturally emerge as they play without extrinsic motivation or expectations.

Good practice in contemporary art education is thought to cover a wide range of techniques, media, skills, history, trips to art galleries, visiting artists, creativity, design and opportunities for self-expression. However, many art classes are thoroughly prescriptive and repetitive (earning the label “cookie cutter”). Children are urged to draw neatly, colour inside the lines, render images as realistically as possible, copy famous masterpieces or the teacher’s own work. 

The act of suspending judgement is the greatest challenge of Painting-Play. In formal art education, assessment, evaluation, grading, comparison, competition, certificates, awards and exhibitions are the norm. These become motivating factors for some children and adults, so in the free and non-judgemental setting of Painting-Play, some people initially feel uncomfortable. Aiming for perfection, to “get ahead” or to “be the best” in other contexts may mean that participants have a harsh inner critic. Regular practice in Painting-Play may gradually soften the inner critic’s voice and help to develop a trans-disciplinary growth mindset (Dweck, 2008). 

Modern day teacher-training and parenting manuals promote positive reinforcement in order to instil good behaviour and attitudes in children. Thus even those who are open to the concept of unguided and un-judged self-expression may have to unlearn the habit of seeking or giving praise for paintings in the Closlieu. Some people are sceptical about the concept of prohibiting praise in Le Closlieu, but as a former art teacher I have experienced the following:  1) The crippling dependence on a teacher or parent’s approval that well-intentioned praise can create. 2) The discouragement of the student who is not praised. 3) Children’s innate understanding that indiscriminate, blanket praise is worthless.

Stakeholders may be put off by the lack of educational capital or tangible product, given that no techniques are taught; paintings don’t have to be “finished”; paintings are kept and archived by the facilitator and there are no exhibitions. “If you don’t let us take the paintings home, then what is the takeaway?” one puzzled parent inquired (Parent, 2020). Justifying Painting-Play’s learning goals and theory as worth paying for may be particularly challenging in some cultures where enrichment activities are centred around academic, sporting or artistic “success”, as defined by performance and competition (Troman, Jeffrey and Raggl, 2007).

Stern refers to “parasites” (Stern, 2019) he observes in participants’ paintings. Techniques such as perspective, shading or cartooning may have been learned in formal art classes, online tutorials or elsewhere, but they are distinct from the spontaneous self-expression of La Formulation. After some practice, these “parasites” tend to disappear in Le Closlieu because participants begin fully tuning in to their natural mode of expression, free of interference.

ii) Self-Expression

Painting-Play could be said to nurture both self-expression and creativity. Stern would probably agree with the distinction and definition given by Strickland: “The former is as necessary as breathing; the latter is the interface between self-expression and the outside world” (Strickland in a foreword by Smit in Craft, 2005). 

In the Closlieu, participants are encouraged to paint whatever they feel compelled to paint. Non-judgement and the lack of fear of how others might react allows for self-expression to flow uninhibited. Carl Rogers observed that  “significant learning occurs in an environment where threat to the learner is reduced to a minimum” (Rogers in Office of Learning and Teaching, 2005, p. 9).

Each painting-player creates individual paintings, never collaborative works. Painting-Play maintains learning within the Vygotskian Zone Of Potential or Proximal Development, because La Formulation is accessed appropriately as the individual develops. Equally, the painting-player accesses this language at his/her own pace and scale. Paintings can be revisited in subsequent sessions and grow infinitely large, effectively allowing painting-players to manage their own learning for mastery. As Erikson said, “The playing adult steps sideward into another reality; the playing child advances forward to new stages of mastery” (Erikson, 1950, p222).

iii) Creativity

In “Is it possible to teach – or even define – creativity?” Ward states that most parties agree that “creative people are good at generating ideas, digging deeper into ideas, open to exploring ideas and listen to their ‘inner voice”’ (Ward, 2017). Painting in the Closlieu, could be likened to an infinite visual brainstorm, where every idea is valid. Concepts, scenes, symbols and structures can be revisited cyclically.

Stern refers to everyone who paints in his Closlieu as “les enfants du Closlieu” (children of the Closlieu), irrelevant of their age. The multi-age setting and playful non-judgemental process help adults “stay in part a child” (Piaget, 1962), retaining their child-like mental agility and creativity.

The term Mini C creativity (Kaufmann and Beghetto, 2009) refers to learning and meaning making in everyday life; the connections we make between phenomena we encounter, such as sharing understandings of Bruner’s spiral curriculum through the process of symbolic representation (Paley, Crawford, Kinney, Koons, Mendoza, Knight and Price, 2011) or painting a picture in the Closlieu to show new learning. (Figure 5). 

Figure 5: Closlieu painting (ecology and community) (Frantz and Stern, 2018)

I hope I have demonstrated that substantial unlearning of general art education is required in order to take advantage of the learning for self-expression and creativity that Painting-Play offers. 

  1. Learning through play

After more than a century of theorising, but very little scientific evidence, play, defined by Brown as “any kind of purposeless, all-consuming, restorative activity” (Brown, 2009) is finally being empirically proven to be “the single most significant factor in determining our success and happiness” (ibid.)

Unguided play is a balancing and indissociable counterpart to painting in the process of Painting-Play. Thus Painting-Play is rooted in the pedagogical approach of learning for self-expression, creativity, wellbeing and global citizenship through the means of play. 

Winnicot succinctly captured the connection between creativity, self-expression and play: “It is in playing, and only in playing, that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self” (Winnicott, 1971 p72-73). 

Play can be broken down into types, such as locomotor, pretend, social, object or language play (Smith and Pellegrini, 2008). In Painting-Play, participants play with colours and elements of La Formulation. Barring the addition of a “painting-play” type, I would argue that play in Le Closlieu falls under the category of language play (La Formulation as a language).

Playing with visuals allows for alternative meaning making and internalising of new concepts. One recently publicized example was George Monbiot’s niece exhibiting her developing grasp of ecology (Monbiot, 2020) through an expansive work painted during Covid-19 lockdown, which exhibited multiple elements of La Formulation and was reminiscent of paintings seen in the Closlieu. (Figures 5 and 6).

Figure 6: George Monbiot’s niece’s ecology painting (Monbiot, 2020)

Vygostky wrote, “In play a child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behavior. In play it is as though he were a head taller than himself.” (Vygotsky 1966/67, p16 in Bodrova and Leong, 2015) He seems to be suggesting that play is the most effective route to positive growth and achieving one’s potential. In the Closlieu there is a literal levelling of the playing field. 

In another respect, Painting-Play is also similar to “parallel” play seen in young children, when they play with the same materials within the same space, but not collaboratively (Parten in Smith, Cowie and Blades, (2009).

  1. Learning For Wellbeing

According to Naci and Ioannidis, the term “wellbeing” is used to refer to feelings of vitality, alacrity, satisfaction, accomplishment and fulfilment” (Naci and Ioannidis, 2015), in short pleasure or happiness.

Asked about the purpose of Painting-Play and La Formation, Stern has said: “When I am asked what I am giving the child, I answer: pleasure. They look at me: “Is that all?” As if pleasure was not fundamental! Pleasure is vital” (Frantz and Stern, 2018).

La Formulation is thought by Stern to be an expression of experiences that occurred during the pre-language stage of life, i.e. from the womb to around age two. Without access to La Formulation, Stern has said it is like someone has ripped out the first chapter of our life story. Expression of La Formulation may provoke a sense of satisfaction, self-actualisation and empowerment.

There is an element of epicurean kinetic pleasure when painting-players first interact with the appetising paints, plump brushes and sumptuous paper, but the more lasting pleasure would be better described as eudaimonia – a sense of flourishing or wellbeing through self-realization or “the actualization of human potentials” (Ryan and Deci, 2001, p143). 

Neurobiologists refer to pleasurable experiences and enthusiasm as “fertiliser” for brain development (Hüther, 2006 in Frantz and Stern; Stern 2018).

Painting-Play encourages resilience characteristic of the growth mindset theory developed by Dweck (Dweck, 2008). There is no right or wrong way to play on the paper and every experience of Painting-Play is part of an individual learning process which empowers the painting-player to accept, explore and own their unique voice of self-expression. 

Art and play are two of the human activities said to consistently produce the enjoyable and motivating state of Flow: “a state of mind when consciousness is harmoniously ordered and they want to pursue whatever they are doing for its own sake” (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002, p. 6).

Flow is witnessed daily in the Closlieu, because Painting-Play provides the ordered structure, attainable goal, instant validating visual feedback and the freedom from distraction required to pay attention to the task at hand – to the point at which normal perceptions of time can be altered. I have observed painters including very young children of three or four years old express shock and dismay when their Flow is interrupted at the end of the 90 minute session, saying “Already?!”

Planning for Mini C creativity and Flow in a learning environment caters for Bottery’s “Child-Centredness” code in The Morality Of The School (Bottery, 1990). This helps to illustrate the ethos of care (Warin, 2017) which pervades Le Closlieu space, thanks to the facilitator simply paying close attention, offering uncomplicated gestures of support and respect and modeling this attitude for others in the space.

Those with experience in art therapy may draw similarities to the beneficial psychological effects of Painting-Play. However, the two domains must not be confused with one another, since Painting-Play does not seek to analyse the paintings in any way. To a trained and conscientious Painting-Play facilitator, the objective, personal and unspoken observation of the emanation of La Formulation and the wholesome pleasure that self-expression derives for the players is sufficient assessment and analysis. However it may well be a perpetual challenge for some people to resist analysing the paintings or being curious about their significance.

  1. Learning for global citizenship

My definition of  global citizenship in the Closlieu is a practice of inclusion that values diversity and embraces equality for all painting-players.  

The brightly lit, colourful but windowless Closlieu epitomises Loris Malaguzzi’s concept of “the environment as the third teacher” (Edwards, Gandini and Forman, 2011). The paint traces which build up on the wall attest to a historically established community of practice. 

Learning in the Closlieu is experiential and process-based, situated within a context where non-judgemental observation, emulation, mutual support and egalitarian participation is part of the practice. In this way, it is akin to Buddhist meditation and mindfulness practice within a sangha. 

Creating an inclusive, egalitarian society can be implemented as a practice, in that one needs to regularly interact with a wide range of diverse humans in order to “learn about the true diversity of the human condition” (Ulmer, 2017). Joana Wachu, a spokesperson for disabled rights, phrased it as the concept of “wanting to see and be seen” (Wachu, 2013). Subliminal, tacit or overt notions of superiority need to be unlearned. No one is more advanced, skilled or correct in the Closlieu, despite differences in age, experience, background and perspective.  

“Everybody can play in the Closlieu. Everybody is able to play. No special gift is required. Nobody is disabled or prevented. It is really a pleasure which everybody can enjoy” (Stern, 2015). For people with disabilities, “accessibility is really an issue of safety” (Franklin, 2020). In this respect, the Closlieu is philosophically a “safe” space. It is up to the facilitator to ensure that it is also physically safe and accessible. 

New scientific research suggests that elements of ecosystems, particularly when left undisturbed by humans, help one another to flourish. Plants, fungi, insects and animals communicate and work together, as could humans (Wohlleben, 2016; Stern, 2018). Painting-Play engenders this spirit of cross-generational and cross-cultural alliance and solidarity. This contrasts with habitual learning settings where grouping by age, setting, streaming, comparison and competition are the norm. 

Despite the formal Closlieu setting, Painting-Play shares many traits with informal learning, given that there is no explicit teaching or grouping involved. The multi-age context encourages lifelong learning, where both adults and children can be role models for one another.

Painting-Play can be likened to indigenous somatic knowing, where the entire body, mind, spirit and emotions are activated (Merriam and Kim, 2008, p76).  From a bodily kinesthetic point of view, the facilitator reminds players to slow down; stand squarely facing the paints or the paper; dip the brush in the water, then the paint; mix colours with their fingertips etc (See Appendix 2). There is a sort of Closlieu “dance” as participants move between their paintings and the table-palette, respectfully making space for the other players. 

Vygotsky said that we become ourselves through others (Vygostky, 1978 in Murphy, Doherty and Kerr, 2016). “Non-western” philosophies of education, such as Native American communal approaches to learning (“we are, therefore I am” (Merriam and Kim, 2008, p73) and African Ubuntugogy based on kindness and humanity (Nafukho, 2006) testify to the importance of inclusive education for the wellbeing of each individual, plus the greater goal of social harmony.

Painting-Play’s multi-age groupings and resultant conversations align it with the social constructivist model of learning. As Ramsey writes: “Play, while it cannot change the external realities of children’s lives, can be a vehicle for children to explore and enjoy their differences and similarities and to create, even for a brief time, a more just world where everyone is an equal and valued participant.” (Ramsey, 1998, p31)

Big C creativity (Kaufmann and Beghetto, 2009) relates to transformations in society and culture, for example the invention of the internet; coping with Covid-19; mitigating or reversing climate change; the Black Lives Matter movement or Stern’s development of Le Jeu De Peindre and his discovery of La Formulation. The Big C creativity inherent in Painting-Play aligns it with Bottery’s code for Social Reconstruction (Bottery, 1990) which, understood in its broadest sense, is the learning for peaceful co-existence and social cohesion at the core of global citizenship. 

Section 5: Areas of further research 

Can La Formulation be considered a language in the Vygotskian sense? Stern calls it the “mother-tongue” of the Closlieu (Stern, 2019). La Formulation could be classed as one of the “hundred languages of children” (Edwards, Gandini and Forman, 2011) (and adults for that matter), but does it overlap with Gardner’s concept of “linguistic” intelligence? Certainly Painting-Play develops participants’ spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligences, but there is room for more discussion on the subject of the appropriateness of La Formulation’s labelling as a “language”. 

Where is the published empirical evidence? Stern has written dozens of books and articles, given conferences and trained hundreds of practitioners from all over the world. He has been interviewed, photographed and referenced in numerous national newspapers, magazines, journals and blogs in an array of languages. In 2019, he was honoured by UNESCO and the Sorbonne (Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2019a and 2019b). However, this body of work has never been shared in its fullness, apart from on screen during live training sessions. Also none has been shared in English, the language required for global recognition, apart from a portion of his website, a handful of magazine articles from the 1970s, one youtube video with English subtitles and some more recently opened Closlieu websites and blogs belonging to his trainees. The documentary “Alphabet” (Wagenhofer, 2013) and more recent short videos (Stern, 2020b) show him in the archive of paintings created in his Closlieux over generations.

The empirical evidence demonstrated by these paintings brings into question commonly accepted conjectures in prehistoric art analysis and human psychology and raises many other questions about hitherto accepted understandings (Frantz and Stern, 2018). L’Institut de Recherche en Sémiologie de l’Expression (The Semiotics of Expression Research Institute) was founded in order to share and discuss Stern’s knowledge of La Formulation with prehistorians, biologists, anthropologists, geneticists,  psychologists, neuro-physiologists and others. These collaborations are still in their infancy, but his findings suggest that some of this collective knowledge may have to be reframed if not unlearned.

Stern is convinced that La Formulation is the key to connecting with our pre-language self and he may well be right, but he has not yet published enough in English or made enough allies in the wider scientific world to convince the masses.

Section 6: Conclusion

I hope that I have been able to demonstrate how Arno Stern’s Jeu De Peindre can be framed as a pedagogical approach, by providing some background and examples of how it relates to other theories of learning. It is yet to become mainstream and like all epoch-changing ideas, recognition and acceptance may take time. Parallels can clearly be drawn with more familiar paradigms such as art education, learning through play and learning for wellbeing and global citizenship. This essay attempts to build a bridge towards a broader collective understanding of the potential of Painting-Play in a lifelong journey of learning and unlearning. 


Alphabet (2013) Directed by: Erwin Wagenhofer. [35mm film] Austria: Prisma Film and Germany: Rommel Film.

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Appendix 1: Inventory for a Closlieu

A room measuring 22-36 m2

Fluorescent ecological strip lights (daylight effect)

Pavatex or similar woodfibre panels on the walls (in order to be able to pierce with thumbtacks)

90 gr Kraft paper pinned to the walls


18 500ml pots of plant-based non-toxic gouache paint

18 ceramic dishes with lids

18 water pots 

Water bucket (for cleaning brushes which have picked up other colours of paint)

Jam jar lids (for mixing new colours)

Commode (for storing paper at a height which a small child can reach and storing the jam jar lids)

18  no. 6 brushes

36 no. 2 brushes

300 10mm thumb tacks

67 x 50 cm 120 gr offset white paper

50ml glass syringe

Self-inking date stamp


Horse shoe magnet attached to a wooden pole for easily picking up dropped thumb tacks

Pouring spout (attached to an old wine bottle for adding a layer of water to preserve paints from drying out in dishes and to fill up water pots)

Dinner/dessert knife (for adding paint to dishes from pots and mixing paint)

Step ladders, stools and steps

Rag cloths (for cleaning knife or wiping paint drips)

Short and long term storage facilities eg portfolios, racks and shelves

Appendix 2: Painting-Play rules of engagement

Arno Stern requires new painting-players of all ages to visit Le Closlieu and ensure they have a firm grasp of the concept before signing up for a year’s worth of weekly sessions (allowing for school holidays). He requires participants to commit to an entire year of weekly sessions, such is his conviction that time and repetition is required to access La Formulation. (Some participants in Arno Stern’s Closlieu have been attending since they were children and have been painting in the Closlieu for the past 50 years.) 

The first session is very scaffolded practically speaking: 

  1. The painting-player takes a piece of paper and holds it up to the wall where they would like to paint.
  2. The facilitator pins the top of the paper to the wall, while sending the painting-player to fetch two thumbtacks for the bottom edge. 
  3. The facilitator shows the painting-player how to stand squarely facing the colour on the table-palette, dip a brush first into the water and then into the paint, then take the brush to paint on the paper.
  4. If necessary, the facilitator corrects how the brush is held, making sure the grip is comfortably in the middle of the handle for optimal control. 
  5. The facilitator reminds the painting-player to paint gently, not in a hurry, taking care of the brushes. The facilitator makes sure that any brushes replaced carelessly are noticed out loud for all to learn how important it is to take care.
  6. Painting-players are encouraged not to paint over the thumbtacks, so must call out to the facilitator in order for him/her to remove them with his/her knife and replace them appropriately.
  7. Drips are discouraged and caught by the facilitator’s knife or cloth upon being summoned by a painting-player needing “rescued”.
  8. Brushes which have picked up other colours during painting are washed in a larger bucket of water before being replaced on the table-palette.

This routine is de-scaffolded over a period of time appropriate to each Painting-Player to offer support instantaneously only when needed, for example:

Providing a ladder, cushion or stool, usually without being asked, for painting-players whose paintings have progressed upwards or downwards (usually by adding papers to an initial one).

Children are especially keen on climbing the ladders however and may simply want to paint at a height. 

Moving thumbtacks.

Attaching new papers.

Mixing new paint colours on demand. Painting-players use a special technique to mix new colours, by dipping one index finger gently in a colour then the other index finger in another colour and touching and circling the fingertips to mix the colour on the ends of their index fingers. 

At the end of the 90 minute session, the paintings are left to dry on the wall and are then date stamped, named, catalogued and archived by the facilitator. They must not be photographed by the painting-players or taken home, but can be revisited by the painting-player or shown by the facilitator to a friend or family member upon request, without the painting-player present. 

Months and months and months

It’s been an eventful 9 months since my last post. High time to take stock of where I am with my Arts At The Heart and “No Comment” Painting-Play business in Singapore.

My gorgeous red-doored studio in the old fireman’s house on Bukit Timah Road was a very happy home for 6 months. I was allowed groups of up to 5 according to Singapore Phase 2 Covid-19 regulations and that worked perfectly for most families, small groups of friends, solo parents and kids and other mixes and matches. I was able to witness the birth of over 1000 uniquely expressive paintings and watch the bare walls fill with the signature Closlieu criss-cross of colours. Pure joy!

In November 2020, I was thrilled to start offering Painting-Play four days a week after school plus one early morning “sunrise session” as a cross-curricular activity at Dulwich College Singapore. Faced with the logistical challenge of having no specially designed Closlieu room to use, I used poetic licence to create a mobile safe space with a similar womb-like and other-worldly feeling to that of the classic window-less, kraft-papered Closlieu: eight wheeled pin-boards covered in kraft paper arranged in a circle around the table-palette, nestled between banana trees, pandan and ginger in the school roof garden. Fortunately a gazebo and electric fans give us shelter and a breeze to endure the heat and occasional shower. In lightening storms, we wheel the whole lot to the lunch hall.

At the end of December, the old fire station and all the little houses were definitively reclaimed by the Singapore Land Authority , so I moved out, taking the archived paintings with me and temporarily re-homed them…in my own home.

In January 2021, I started substitute teaching at Dulwich College Singapore in Early Years and Junior School, which kept me busy while I reassessed the rental situation and realised just how lucky I’d been to have my first Closlieu in such a characterful and affordable little red house!

In February, after Phase 3 was announced, I was allowed to welcome up to 8 people at a time to the school roof garden Closlieu. The school leadership recognised the benefits of Painting-Play and helped me to be able to offer places to staff for free as part of their staff wellbeing programme. Unfortunately due to Covid, we were not allowed to include Early Years in the CCA programme, but I was delighted to have eclectic multi-age groups including Year 3s, 4s, 5s, 6s and 7s (aged around 7-12), Year 12 (aged around 17) and staff.

April saw the grand opening of my long awaited private studio. Where in the densely packed metropolis of Singapore had I found an overlooked space? A spacious room with a view that had previously been reserved for VIP visitors to my local area?? My own guest room after all! The silver lining of having no family and friends to visit us here is that our unused guest room makes the perfect Closlieu.

Now here we are in May 2021. Weeks of worries over being able to renew my work permit in Singapore were put to rest last week. I would be allowed to stay until 2024 if I wanted to! We have just wished our Muslim friends a Happy Eid and heard today that Singapore is moving backwards towards circuit-breaker-like rules on Sunday 16th May: No social gatherings of more than two; working from home wherever possible… No news about schools and CCAs yet. Suspense…

However, I take heart that back in May and June of 2020, I had teamed up with Pam Guneratnam at KitaReka in Kuala Lumpur to offer online expressive art facilitation. I am hopeful that this model could be a way to continue creating safe spaces for non-judgemental painting and drawing – for the benefit of my current clients and beyond.

It’s clear that every increase in cases and subsequent tightening of Covid regulations provokes a spike in anxiety in people of all ages. Arts At The Heart and “No Comment” is a meaningful part of the tool kit we all need for resilience, stress-management and hope in these testing times.

In 7 months time, our family will be returning to Switzerland. One of the most pressing items on my To Do list is to find the perfect person to adopt my baby business and help it grow into the confident grown-up business it deserves to be.

I am already interviewing some highly skilled, experienced and passionate candidates and feeling optimistic that Painting-Play has a great future ahead in Singapore – one that I will continue to support in every way I can.

This summer has been a multi-age Painting-Play-fest!

What a joy it has been to serve these wonderful people of all ages, all walks of life in the “No Comment” Closlieu. For the majority of them it was their first time trying Painting-Play, but they took to it like ducks to water. Since it’s a brand new and quite alien concept in Singapore, I’ve been hosting “discovery” sessions. I know Arno might not approve of a Closlieu taking bookings for less than an entire year(!), but I hope he would understand that in the context of Singapore this really is a necessity. Lots of these one-time sessions are leading to longer-term bookings of 5-7 weeks… Baby steps headed in the right direction!

The first Closlieu in Singapore has landed!

Against all Covid-19-related odds, “No Comment” Painting-Play studio opened on 14th July 2020 – the first and only Closlieu in Singapore!

I’m allowed to welcome 5 people at a time and I leave an hour between each group to deep clean and disinfect (and archive the paintings). It’s been such a blast already, more than 70 painting-players and almost 400 paintings later! Phew!

Here are a few glimpses of the journey so far…

A Trace Of Pleasure

Stuck in lockdown, unable to launch my dream Painting-Play space in Singapore as planned, I took a breath and some time out to playfully translate an extract from Arno Stern’s “Une Tracée De Plaisir”:

“Painting can be an art, but it can also be playful.

And play nullifies

The notion of talent; the obsession with success; the dependence on an audience.

As play, a trace is left for the pleasure of it, for its own power and purity.

The trace is enough in itself.

Leaving a trace is a fundamental and essential act; a tangible creation.  

The act of leaving a trace resonates deeply within the person.

No other activity is as spontaneous.

No other activity eludes teaching to this degree.

No other activity procures such immediate pleasure.”

(Le Closlieu – le Jeu de Peindre et la Formulation, 2013, p.139)