Teaching Art When Crayon is My Best Medium
- Wednesday, July 02, 2008
I am art challenged. I don’t do well at drawing, painting, sculpting, origami, or underwater basket weaving. But I do appreciate beautiful things. I understand that beauty gives me glimpses of the creative nature of God and the creativity He has given mankind. He could have made the entire world in black and white, but instead He chose to make the ocean thousands of hues of blue and my favorite peony an indescribably beautiful shade of pink.
I deeply want my own children to express themselves and have a chance to unleash their God-instilled creativity. To help them make beautiful art, I’ve had to look past my own fears. I’ve had to rely heavily on others for ideas and ways to teach. I’m learning how to give my children opportunities to create masterpieces (as judged by this very biased mother and author). Slowly, gradually, incrementally, even I have made beautiful art alongside my children.
At the outset, I came to understand that there are several aspects to art. It’s more than just making something out of nothing. Yes, there is the creativity aspect, but art also entails art appreciation (the study of pieces of art and their components), art history (putting art in the context of history), and actual instruction in technique. Any creative endeavor involves inspiration, to be sure, but often it requires effort to the point of perspiration, combined with proper technique.
To accomplish the instruction, I realized that I needed to commit myself to carving out a regular time in our school schedule for art. For several years, art didn’t happen because I didn’t make it a priority. Other years, we’ve devoted one afternoon each week to art. This I say with a lump in my throat, knowing things can get messy as we do art together!
I’ve gradually purchased art supplies, enough to now fill a large kitchen cabinet and two boxes in the basement. Occasionally I must add a specific item to our shopping list for an upcoming project, but for the most part, we have the necessary supplies on hand. Here’s an overview of what fills our art cabinet:
• markers and chalk
• art smocks (Dad’s old dress shirts work well when the sleeves are rolled up.)
• good colored pencils like Prang or Prismacolor
• card stock and construction paper
• tissue, vellum, and tracing papers
• good scissors (kid-sized and adult-sized) and an X-Acto knife for parent’s use
• watercolor and acrylic paints with decent brushes of various sizes
• oversized drawing paper (11” x 14” or larger)
• modeling clay
I mentioned leaning heavily on others’ wisdom to teach art. When my children were young, I began using an art series called Come Look With Me, by Gladys S. Blizzard. These books are meant to be read side-by-side with your child, no teacher preparation (or foreknowledge!) required. The parent reads a short artist biography to the child, looks with the child at a beautiful full-color reprint of a well-known piece of artwork, and then asks the open-ended questions provided by the author. The simple questions deal with the painting’s subject matter, perspective, color, line, and shading. Little by little, my children and I began to learn the vocabulary of an artist.
Parallel to that, we’ve drawn and painted. Using Drawing with Children by Mona Brookes, we systematically worked our way through two-dimensional and three-dimensional sketches. She suggests using bright colored markers and oversized drawing paper. Though written as a teacher’s overview rather than a lesson-by-lesson curriculum, it was adapted to our home setting, and the results gave all of us something to be proud of. (I’m working on developing a mom-friendly, lesson-by-lesson art curriculum based on our adaptation of her teaching techniques.) Yes, even this art-challenged mom drew alongside her children each week and sometimes surprised herself with her pictures.
Next, I began to purchase postcard-sized reproductions of famous artworks, because buying original paintings was way out of our price range and art anthology books proved to be almost as pricey, I learned from another mom that the cheapest way to “own” paintings is to buy postcard-sized reprints of them. Art museum gift shops often sell them, but what any museum sells is usually limited to works in their individual collection. On the other hand, Dover Publications prints whole books, the pages of which are perforated, full-color postcards of famous paintings from museums and private collections all over the world.
I picked one of the Dover books, tore the cards out, and began to show one postcard each week to my children. I’d then ask them the same types of questions as I had done with Come Look With Me. For example, I’d ask them, “What would you have named this picture if you had painted it?” or “Where must the light have been coming from to make those shadows?”
I’d take at least four to five weeks—meaning four to five postcards—to introduce my children (and myself!) to each artist. By that time, we could verbalize what “made a Monet a Monet.” We’d finish studying an artist by doing an art project which mimicked his style. Fortunately, another friend had recommended the book Discovering Great Artists by MaryAnn Kohl and Kim Solga. It’s the best art instruction book I’ve ever found (and I’ve tried most of the titles out there!), with a wonderful index to help this non-artist mother find projects related to the artist or artistic period we were working on. We’ve painted sunflowers a la Van Gogh, drawn portraits of each other like Norman Rockwell, and created still-life pictures like Renoir.
As we read about great artists, I noticed a pattern: Many of those artists practiced their art by imitating others’ works or “copying” something from real life. In the same way that I give my children a Bible passage to copy for handwriting practice, I could give them an historic painting to copy or a bowl of fruit or other household object to draw. As they practiced drawing and painting from these models, we used the same vocabulary we had learned from Come Look With Me and the postcard sessions: line, color, perspective, shading, etc.
Create Art Games
As we added a new artist each month or so, I was determined to help my children review past artists. I would show them previous months’ postcards to see if they could still name the artist or his period (Impressionism, Modern, etc.) based on stylistic clues in the work. For example, an Impressionistic painting will have large, broad, obvious brushstrokes as clues to its period. I’ll never forget seeing the fruit of this review in a most unlikely place: waiting to check out in a doctor’s office. My then 5-year-old daughter, Morgan, who could barely see over the counter announced, “Look, Mom! It’s Mary Cassatt!” Sure enough, there on the office wall was a large calendar with its upper half devoted to a typical mother and child painting by Mary Cassatt, known to Morgan by its subject matter and style. The office staff who overheard were amazed, and I left encouraged by my daughter’s growing eye for art.
Once you have studied three or more months’ worth of artists by using the postcard study method above, shuffle all the postcards and ask your children to group them by artist. Ask them what makes that artist easy to recognize and classify.
To make the game more difficult, show children a postcard painting you have not previously studied by an artist you have studied, or in an artistic style you have discussed. Their eyes should gradually develop this sort of discernment because you’ve taught them recognizable visual patterns in art.
Create a Home Gallery
Now that they’ve learned artistic vocabulary and know a few of the art masters, your children will have more confidence to “do” art each week. But where do you display their works once the front of your refrigerator is full? One suggestion is to purchase a small table-top easel for each budding artist in your family. Found inexpensively at local craft supply stores, easels can be hinged or fixed; wooden, clear acrylic, or more decorative metal. Find an empty table top or dresser where they will all fit. Mount artworks on thin cardboard or card stock for durability so they don’t curve while upright. Voila! You now have an art gallery for the children to proudly display their finished works. Get in the habit of rotating your works. You can even assign one child as the curator responsible for your art museum.
Another display idea is to choose a large empty wall in your home to use as a gallery. In one of our homes, our gallery was the stairway wall leading down to our basement. We hung up artwork—very informally—with pushpins. Now we’ve devoted a large wall in our kitchen to kids’ works, displayed in matching frames. (Make sure your frame is at least 11” x 14”—large enough to accommodate a piece of construction or drawing paper.) Our children rotate their favorite pieces as often as they’d like, but only one favorite can be displayed at a time.
Next, we’ve given all our children an oversized accordion-style portfolio for keeping their work. Purchased at an office supply store, these light cardboard portfolios have a flap which stays closed with an elastic strap. Our children are encouraged to keep their 20-25 favorite pieces in it. Occasionally, if it gets too full, I ask them to sort through its contents and throw some items away. This strategy keeps the refrigerator clutter to a minimum.
Finally, when all else fails, we take a photo of a child holding his artwork and throw the original art away. The pictures can be printed and included in an end-of-the-year school binder for future memories.
We’ve had opportunity for our children to display their artwork at a local nursing home. The “exhibition” was organized by the nursing home’s activity coordinator and was for the benefit of its residents. My children loved picking their favorite piece, then mounting and framing it for display. About a month after the drop-off date, the activity coordinator invited student artists back for an afternoon of snacks and a chance to see their pieces on display in the nursing home’s large living room. We mingled with residents, showed them our works, and then took our artwork home. This would be an easy event for a homeschool co-op to coordinate.
Another year, a local homeschooling mom and I took the exhibition idea one step further. On behalf of our county’s Christian homeschool association, we rented the upper level of a local restaurant for a Saturday afternoon “Art Open House.” Families in our co-op were given a registration deadline, asked to pay $10 per student artist, and provided with invitations that they could distribute to family, friends, and neighbors. Each child had an 8-foot long table on which to display his or her artwork. We had a menu of finger foods and drinks available, with instrumental music playing in the background.
The Art Open House lasted three hours. At its mid-way point, a local Christian watercolor artist taught a brief lesson to the budding artists. She was gracious enough to visit with each of the participants afterward and let them show her their works. She did no judging or critiquing, just provided encouragement. We had a little bit of everything on display: wire sculptures, 3-D models, mosaics, paintings, pencil drawings, even playdough and Lego creations. Overall, the exhibition was very well-attended and a good experience for the children.
Art Across the Curriculum
I’ve gradually learned to tie our artistic endeavors into our other schoolwork, like literature, history, science, and even Bible study. We’ve drawn pictures from adventure books to illustrate literary terms like “conflict and resolution,” and we’ve created 3-D character masks to highlight a biography’s main character. We have placed artists’ images on our family’s historical timeline as we’ve learned about the American Revolution. We soon plan to make our own paper to document our study of ancient China (the Chinese invented paper). Sketching the life cycle of a butterfly or a frog or drawing the hydrologic cycle would be a great enrichment for science. The kids have illustrated scenes from the book of Revelation as a way to “notebook” our Bible reading. This sort of hands-on, multi-disciplinary learning is something my children really look forward to, and it seems to produce lessons which they remember for years to come.
A visit to a local art museum can reinforce the art vocabulary you’ve been learning. Even if a small museum nearby doesn’t contain Monets or Picassos, use your newfound “eye” to discuss the works. Be on the watch for traveling exhibits in nearby cities. A 340-piece Norman Rockwell collection just opened at an art museum about an hour and a half from our house. We’ll plan to study the Norman Rockwell era (which includes both World Wars) along with his paintings and illustrations, and we’ll imitate his works before we go visit in order to maximize our trip.
Or how about a visit to a major art museum, such as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Art Institute of Chicago, as a great culmination to a year’s worth of art studies? On a trip to Chicago last year, we loved our visit to the Art Institute. It was so large that we could only view one or two galleries during our visit. And don’t forget to ask about student discounts for homeschoolers, or better yet, whether the museum ever offers a free admission day!
(Just a quick note about visiting museums: not all the artwork that you might come across is “family friendly.” It’s not as easy in a museum to avoid artwork you might not want your children to view as it is when you’re studying at home with resources you can screen before using. If this is a concern for your family, you may be able to do some research about the museum ahead of time and find out what types of artwork they have on display.)
Fine Arts vs Applied Arts
While the fine arts are intended primarily for beauty, the applied arts have a functional purpose or “utility.” A painting hanging on my bedroom wall looks lovely but isn’t necessarily useful (fine art), while a handmade Raggedy Ann doll may be beautiful, but it’s primarily intended to be a toy (applied art). My toddler’s crayon drawing is a one-of-a-kind work of art, but so is a blueprint, which serves a building team as a step-by-step guideline for the construction of a home. That’s why architecture is an applied art.
As a family, we are gradually and simultaneously branching out from our study of fine arts into more “useful” applications of art. This process has come about for two reasons: the joy of creating something useful, and my children’s discovery of God-given gifts and abilities as they mature. As they have developed interests, we as homeschoolers are free to pursue and develop those interests.
• Crafts: We’ve used seasonal how-to craft books to add spice to unit studies. Projects like leaf rubbings for science, paper making for history, and dioramas for literature have been highlights of some of our units. I’m grouping them with applied arts because of the knowledge gained while doing them.
• Architecture: We’ve tied a basic study of architecture into our other subjects. We’ve used a K’Nex toy curriculum to study bridges as a physical science project. We looked at Greek architectural features in downtown libraries, courthouses, and government offices while studying ancient Greece. (It was fun to hear my little ones pronounce—and even differentiate—details like Corinthian, Ionic, and Doric columns.) Victorian-style buildings, often found in nearby restored urban neighborhoods, can be linked to an Anne of Green Gables literature unit.
• Technical Drawing and Drafting: These are both closely related to architecture. We realized that our oldest son is very right-brained and artistic, and I knew I couldn’t develop his gifts on my own, so I turned to the books in the Complete-A-Sketch series by Melvin Peterman of Insight Technical Education. With subtitles like “Orthographic,” “Isometric,” and “Perspective,” they sound very intimidating. However, I’ve found them very easy to use for an age range as broad as 5 to 13 years old. The author says that “The unique approach of Complete-A-Sketch allowed me to teach my children to draw what they see....(and) to clearly present their ideas to others.” I agree with his assessment. My children have learned to use a straight edge tool and create complicated renderings, and it has given them confidence and techniques to use in their own designs.
• Graphic Design and Animation: A couple of years ago, my son decided that he wants to become an animator when he grows up. Two years later, it is still his desire, and together with my husband, he is actively pursuing that interest. They have attended an animation seminar at a children’s museum and emailed questions to a current animator on the staff of the San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival. Now they are learning the computer programming behind current animation techniques, using a software program called MicroWorlds and a curriculum called Computer Science Pure and Simple. For Christmas, my son received a clay set complete with animal armatures (skeleton-like models) to fashion into suitable characters for his future movies. He understands that sketching, drawing, and a basic grasp of movement are all the bases of animation. Similarly, my oldest daughter shows an interest in graphic design, the visual representation of an idea or message. While she may not call it graphic design, we’ve found it accessible for her to pursue at home these days. Making brochures, newsletters, posters, and homemade greeting cards are all easy for her with computer software like PrintMaster.
• Interior Decorating: When we needed our children to switch bedrooms in our home for space reasons, my daughters got a chance to redecorate their new room. We gathered fabric swatches, paint chips, and magazine clippings the way an interior designer would put together a storyboard. We hauled the new pillow shams into countless stores, looking for bulletin boards, lampshades, and throw pillows to match. It was a great opportunity for them to learn homemaking skills like keeping a budget and creating a cozy home, as well as a great art lesson in colors, texture, and using 3-D space for furniture arrangement.
• Fiber Arts: Not as prevalent as in past generations, sewing, knitting, crocheting, embroidery or cross-stitch, tying fleece blankets, and making latch hook rugs are arts in which many homeschoolers still excel. We’ve emphasized one or another of these occasionally, often after a friend or grandparent has given my children a kit (complete with supplies and instructions) as a gift. The finished products are objects in which my children take great pride, and they love to give them as gifts.
• Photography: Give a child a disposable camera, and you’ll be amazed at the photos they take! The things that are important to them, and the three-to-four foot height from which they take pictures, provide a different perspective on life than my adult eyes can see. Use a camera as an opportunity to teach your children about light and shadows, composition, subject matter, perspective, and point of view. Once the photos are developed, hang them up in their bedrooms or use them in scrapbooks.
• Scrapbooking and Paper Arts: The recent boom in the arts of scrapbooking and handmade cards are an excellent opportunity for lessons in texture, the color wheel, layout, and proportion. Classes and materials are available in most areas through paper supply stores, independent sales representatives, and even public libraries. Preserving memories is definitely a useful applied art. Its extension into homeschooling, called notebooking or lapbooking, is also a useful way for children to track their own learning in a beautiful, artistic way.
As I look back over our past seven years of art instruction, I’m pleased to reflect on our artistic growth and the many beautiful pieces we’ve managed to create. God has definitely shown Himself strong where I am weak. As the mother and “art teacher,” I’m no longer intimidated to try to express myself artistically, whether I’m using a crayon or acrylic paints. And as image-bearers of the heavenly Father, the Creator, may my children and I join with generations of God-followers who have created beautiful things to the glory of God.
Matthew and Melanie Hexter are blessed with five children whom they thoroughly enjoy. They live in Howard, Ohio, where the four seasons provide a changing backdrop of beautiful scenes. Melanie does most of the teaching, including art, but fortunately Matthew is more than capable in two other fearful areas: music and computers.
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