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Keeping Art Simple and History Alive

  • Jennifer L. Padgett M.Ed.
  • 2014 6 Jun
Keeping Art Simple and History Alive

Keeping history alive can be achieved by taking the time to examine both the artists and the historical events portrayed in the various genres of art. Of course, for those of us who are not art history majors, teaching these subjects simultaneously can be overwhelming. Still, we cannot overlook the responsibilities of running a household, the never-ending attempts of staying “caught up” with the basic core subjects to, most typically, a multi-aged group, as well as the extracurricular activities and appointments that can disrupt the flow. It is certainly understandable why many of us push both art history and the possible corresponding projects by the wayside.

Before explaining some practical ways to teach art simply, it is crucial to understand why we, as parents, should teach this creative subject. Critiquing and studying both the artist and the art teaches children keys from the past, creating each child’s individual historical timeline.

1. There is no doubt that critiquing art promotes abstract thinking. Children begin to think more figuratively by looking at the symbolism revealed through colors, styles, media, and clues within work.                                  

2. Artwork does evoke a variety of emotions in the observer. Though subtle, art is a “silent” form of communication; it teaches lessons of the past and provides insights for the future.                                    

3. Learning about art provides a creative outlet for children to explore their talents and feelings in regard to the arts, not to mention the fact that it gives them a break from other schoolwork.                                          

4. Acquiring the skills of analyzing and interpreting art can inspire future photographers, graphic artists, book illustrators, and cartoonists.                                                                                              

5. Incorporating art history into your homeschooling schedule can be as informal or as formal as you desire. For our family, art and the exploration of it has been driven primarily by what is being read in both the literature and social studies units.

Example 1

My oldest child was reading a biography about Benjamin West, who came from a simple Pennsylvania family during the colonial times; he became a self-proclaimed artist. After reading an excerpt from West’s biography, we discovered that Mr. West used to pluck the tail hairs from his cat to make paintbrushes; he also asked local Indians to teach him how to make paint from riverbed clay.

These facts intrigued us and spurred us on to do a quick Google search about him. Before long, we had uncovered a rich history—including the discovery that even though West was considered “unschooled” and a horrible speller, the famous Benjamin Franklin was the godfather to West’s second son, and this artist served as a historical painter for King George III. His painting subjects consisted of scenes from colonial times, British Royalty, and Old Testament Biblical accounts; he had quite a diversity of painting subjects.

While the above art lesson was informal and certainly not planned ahead of time, I have also had success using Diana Waring’s Ancient Civilizations & The Bible. In each chapter of this Biblical history, Waring has an Art Appreciation/Arts in Action section that is parent-friendly and has a plethora of artistic ideas that can be modified for any age group. The next three examples of incorporating art into history were inspired by this curriculum.

Example 2

After studying God’s creation and the flood, we searched online for Edward Hicks’ Noah’s Ark. Because the ages of my children are 12, 8, 6, and 3, we could not get into an advanced figuratively based discussion. However, I did ask some thought-provoking questions:

1. Describe what you see in this picture.                                                                                                                        
2. Why do you think Hicks used such dark, gloomy colors?                                                                                      
3. Had the flood occurred yet? What clues in the artwork answer this?                                                            
4. Do you think the style of artwork is appropriate for this Biblical time?  Why or why not?                            
5. Do you know what folk art is?                                                                                                                      
6. What do you know about Quakers?                                                                                                                  
7. Do you think this artwork is simple and would be acceptable according to the Quaker religion’s perspective about art?

At this point, I showed my children some other folk art samples, and we briefly discussed Edward Hicks’ life as both an artist and Quaker minister. Because my 3-year-old loves to be part of the learning, I decided to allow my kids to sketch Hicks’ Noah’s Ark and then paint it. My youngest was given finger paints and attempted to draw her own version of the ark too.

Example 3

Art is not just portraits but can also be artifacts. After studying ancient civilizations, we researched about The Royal Standard of Ur. Interestingly, this artifact was created with colorful, mosaic tiles. Though I tried to explain how challenging mosaic artwork is, I knew the only way my kids were going to gain an appreciation for this type of art was to complete their own mosaic art project. The downfall was, however, that I didn’t have any colorful tiles. And so, each one chose a symbol found in an ancient civilization: a pyramid, a jug, the Tower of Babel, and a house. From there, my children sketched a basic outline of what they thought the symbol would look like and began to glue their tiny pieces of brightly colored cardstock onto our examples of antiquity.

It did not take long for us to discover that it could take several attempts of cutting each individual piece of paper, or tile if you will, to fit inside the outline of the sketch. The discussion of how these people chipped away pieces of tile to make the detailed faces on The Royal Standard of Ur was definitely a phenomenon worthy of respect.

Example 4

The Tower of Babel has always been a fascinating topic—especially when looking at the diversity of cultures and languages and how they developed. It seemed fitting that my daughter, who was born in China, would want to research the earliest Chinese civilization and how this language began to emerge. My youngest son, who had seen pictures of clay cuneiforms, chose to research the Sumerian civilization.

After doing some research about these cultures’ pictographs and how they created these clay tablets, we decided to make our own clay. Though we did not have dull reeds to create the impressions, the challenges of trying to duplicate this earlier writing and make authentic, sun-baked clay was still an art lesson in itself.

Sometimes the best teaching moments are the spontaneous ones. Academics are extremely important; nonetheless, studying and experimenting with art is equally important and liberating for a child too. Connecting art to the culture and history that your child is studying will not only enrich his other learning experiences but will readily motivate him to at least become aware of the ultimate goal: to become a self-directed, lifelong learner of both the arts and history!

Jennifer L. Padgett, M.Ed., has been a secondary educator in the fields of writing and literacy for eighteen years. When not homeschooling or teaching a night class, Jennifer is pursuing her passions of adoption advocacy and freelance writing. Though her writing blog is under construction, one may read more about her family’s latest adoption journey at

Copyright 2012, used with permission.  All rights reserved by author.  Originally appeared in the June 2012 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine.  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: June 6, 2014