How to teach art when you think you aren’t an artist

  • “Oh, no, I can’t even draw a straight line.”

    That’s the response many people give when the topic of art comes up. The thing is, art is not about drawing straight lines. And if you need one, you can always find a ruler.

    Teaching art can be intimidating if you aren’t comfortable with your own artistic knowledge or skills. But it doesn’t have to be. Maybe you can’t draw a portrait of a person, but many artists never focus on such precise tasks. Look in any art book or visit any art museum – the pages or the exhibit rooms will be filled with pieces of artwork that are unexpected, imprecise, sometimes even uncontrolled.

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    Art is about expression, and how different people use that ability. One artist sees the world in watercolor; another in pencil; another still in sculpture; another still in metalwork. Art can be a mixture of nearly any mediums, including found objects, fabric, and collage. Quilts are art. Graphic novels are art. Murals – and sometimes graffiti – on the sides of buildings are art. The definition is wide.

    But how do you teach art to children, who often are disappointed if their artwork doesn’t look like they think it “should?” And how do you teach them about artists if you aren’t one yourself?

    The same way you teach history, or English, or math. First, you learn it for yourself; then you guide them, step-by-step, toward understanding.

    The famed Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko – yes, he of the large, block-shaped color fields that magically pull you in – thinks children are natural artists. He is very familiar with the task of teaching them; he was an art teacher for more than 20 years at the Brooklyn Jewish Center, with students from kindergarten to fifth grade.

    “These children have ideas, often fine ones, and they express them vividly and beautifully, so that they make us feel what they feel,” he wrote in The Scribble Book, dozens of pages of notes that he hoped to transform into a book one day. “Hence their efforts are intrinsically works of art.”

    Rothko said that children pick up art as easily as they learn a song or a story. The biggest challenge is to keep limiting thoughts out of the classroom. He would set up his students’ workspaces before they came in – art supplies at the ready – and simply let them start working when they arrived. No assignments, at least not at first; he believed that children often try to hew so closely to a “desired” result that they won’t express themselves as freely. Without those expectations, they thrive.

    “Unconscious of any difficulties, they chop their way and surmount obstacles that might turn an adult grey, and presto!” Rothko wrote. “Soon their ideas become visible in a clearly intelligent form.” In this way, he could see a student’s own style of expression developing, whatever that might be. And for Rothko, this expression was more important than strict technique.

    Fine, you say. I get it. But you still haven’t helped me know how to teach it.

    “Teachers don’t have to be pro athletes to teach PE or be professional mathematicians to teach math,” writes Nancy Jang, a teacher with more than 20 years of teaching experience, for Scholastic.  “As teachers we are asked to give guidance, lay a foundation for future work, and give them the tools and experiences they need for traveling the road of education to get where they want to go.”

    From a classroom perspective, that might mean introducing students – depending on their ages – to art vocabulary, such as line, shape, hue, shading, tint, and value. It might mean introducing them to the color wheel, and then giving them the three primary colors of red, blue, and yellow paint, and showing them how to mix other colors from there.

    Some tips from Jang:

    • Be an example; don’t talk negatively about your own work in the classroom. If your students hear “this isn’t very good” coming from you, it will alter what they think about their own work.
    • Read The Dot by Peter Reynolds, a story about a young student in art class who “can’t” draw. The teacher tells her to “Just make a mark and see where it takes you,” and the resulting dot on a piece of paper does indeed take her on a fabulous journey.
    • Be brave. Have the courage to try something that’s out of your comfort zone.
    • Don’t look for “the best” work in class. Banish words that label art as good or bad. Find other adjectives to describe your students’ work: creative, expressive, original, colorful, intricate, powerful, whimsical, and so on.

    Rothko would agree with those tips, and add a few of his own:

    • Do draw the connection between song, dance, storytelling, and art for your students.
    • Don’t worry about academic art training. That can come later if they’re so inclined.
    • Do show pride in your students’ work. Stage an exhibition in the hall, for instance, with name cards just like in a museum.
    • Don’t start with the Masters – Leonardo, Renoir, or the like. Instead, start with modern artists, which tend to be freer and more expressive, and will show a child that all art is not “perfect.”

    Terry Joyce is passionate about children learning art and helping teachers learn to teach it. She teaches art in K-8 schools, and teaches teachers how to approach it in the classroom in Dominican University of California’s Online Professional Development course, “Teaching Art to Children: Giving Teachers the Tools to Teach Fine Art” (EDUO 9940). The course covers the following:

    1. An Introduction to Art, which explores why people make art, and what makes an artist;
    2. The Element of Line, which studies various forms of lines and explores artists Wassily Kandinsky, Elisa Kleven, and Piet Mondrian;
    3. The Element of Color, which explores – through children’s books – primary colors, secondary colors, tertiary colors, complementary colors, warm and cool colors, and the color wheel;
    4. The Artists, which explores the styles of Vincent Van Gogh, Georgia O’Keefe, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso;
    5. Instructions for Art Activities, which includes instructions for completing 13 art assignments, which you can then teach to your students.

    Throughout the course, Joyce uses books and online searches for artists to illustrate her points. At the end of the course, students take with them a teaching outline, a glossary, and the instructions for the art activities. The course is worth three semester credits/units in continuing education, and is self-paced and online. To learn more about it or to register, click here.

    Photo credit: iStock photos