Questions to Ask a Second Grade Painter
or to Ask a Second Grader about a Painting in a Museum

by Marvin Bartel 2012

biography of author --- also see: Questions to Encourage Creative Thinking

A reader from California wrote:

I have enjoyed reading your site. There is so much information. I would like to know if you have written or can direct me towards an article that I may read about what questions to ask second graders when looking at a painting. Are there certain books you can recommend? I know there are so many ways to approach this with students. I would like to know what you would do.


My response:

Good question. Questions show our interest and motivate continued creative thinking. I favor open-ended questions (those that have many possible answers), avoiding those with right and wrong answers and avoiding yes/no questions.

There are two ways to respond. I am first answering as though you are looking at a painting that the second grader is painting or some that she has painted. If you are asking about a painting in a museum or gallery visit, see below.

This page link has questions for the schematic age.

If your second grader is a bit more advanced than the schematic stage. Questions are similar to those one might have in a conversation with a friend. I might say, "I like this part right here because of the way the colors mixed together." After beginning with an affirmation, I continue with an open-ended question to reflect my curiosity and my own interest in learning from the child. I give a specific reason that I like. It may be something the child has done by accident or on purpose. It might be, "How did you decide on the colors to use here? or-- Did you already know how these colors go together to make this color, or was it a new discovery?" Some questions are very specific to what is in the painting, but in almost any situation I can ask the child, "Can you tell me about this part of picture?" "How did you think of this?" "What part was the most fun to paint?" "What was the easiest?" ".. most challenging?"

Their answers are often followed with questions that build on what they say. This helps them think of a way to make the painting richer in information. For example, there are questions that continue the story, such as, "What do you and this dog like to do together? I wonder how you would paint that. Do you remember when you and dad …….. (ask something that relates to the picture). Is there any space left on the paper in case you wanted to add that?" While the child is working, questions can be used to call into awareness the things that the child already knows, but has not thought to include it in this painting. We call it, making passive knowledge active (from Lowenfeld by way of my instructor who studied with him - his book listed on the right).

This age likes to socialize with friends. I might ask about games they play together. I avoid being critical with my questions because I know they will continue to work more if they are made to feel good about their painting. Of course, it is important for me to explain what I think is good about it (not empty praise). Some of the best students come to resent praise that is redundant without being helpful.

For finished paintings, I like to see two similar paintings together that the same child has made. I can ask her to tell which she likes better (always being positive) in regard to particular attributes of a painting. I often agree and ask for a bit of an explanation for what they liked better. I could say, "As we look at these two paintings, in which one do you like the sizes better--or the colors, or the textures, or the shapes, or the expressions, or the skies, or the overlapping, or the balance, or the way things seem to go back, or come forward, and so on?" The same two paintings can be compared on 20 different attributes and one will be better in some ways, and the other will be better in other ways. Sometimes these questions help a child become aware of all kinds of things that were never consciously considered while painting.

Use common sense, and refrain from pushing the conversation too long. If the child gets distracted or bored, it has gone on too long. I am there to coach and affirm, not to push or dictate. One or two questions is often enough to notice the most important things that have happened. The questions depend on what can be discovered in the particular things you are discussing.

Questions to ask when looking at the painting of an artist

When visiting a museum, there are many approaches. Of course there are many styles of art and may purposes for paintings. Obviously, the realistic painting of a queen might suggest different questions than a landscape painting. An abstract action painting would have different questions than those for a painting by a minimalist who produces very quiet and cerebral works.

We are all more interested when we have a choice of which artwork we want to look at. If I am in a gallery or museum room, I like to ask the child to choose which artwork to talk about first. What follows are a few examples of questions I use.

  • Why do you think the artist painted this? What makes you think so?

  • If you were in the painting where would you be? How big would you be? What color? How would you be feeling?

  • Which parts of this painting seem to go far away and which parts seem to come very close? How did she do that? How do you think the artist made it seem to go back or come close?

  • What kind of day do you think the artist was having? How does the painting make you feel? How did the artist paint it so we would feel that way? Was it the color, or what was it something else that the artist used?

  • How would you act out something is this painting? Can you make your body into this shape in the painting? How would your arms and legs be? Do you want to try it now?

  • Can you see the brush marks? Can you tell how big the brush was? Did the artist use the same kind of brush for the whole thing? Was anything else used besides brushes and paint?

  • If you were allowed to change something about this painting, what would you change first?

------the end for now -------


These books could be helpful.

Studio Thinking by Lois Hetland (2007) It comes out of Harvard University's Project Zero. It stresses the unique aspects of studio art learning--not to support academic learning, but to offer what academic learning fails to provide.

Encouraging Creativity in Art Lessons by George Szekely is very good on creativity. This one is out of print, so check libraries first. Used ones are available, but at times they are rather pricey. At other times they are very reasonable. Keep checking. Every art teacher should read it at least once.

Pink, Daniel. H. (2009) Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us. Penguin Group, New York. Drive is written for business. I believe that children benefit from many of the same things, including autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

I was originally motivated to use questions by Creative and Mental Growth by Viktor Lowenfeld. It is very old, but used ones are available. Your library may have it. It covers the developmental stages in art. My own instructor, Dr. Phil Rueschhoff, was a student of Lowenfeld. Dr. Phil told us about making passive knowledge active. He said he learned this way of questioning form Dr. Lowenfeld.

Five Minds for the Future (2007) by Howard Gardner.
Gardner is best known for multiple intelligence. In this book he says why we all need the disciplined mind (we have some kind of experitise), the synthesizing mind (we can put appropriate knowledeg together to solve problems), the creating mind (we can see when old solutions are inappropriate and we can create new solutions), the respectful mind, and the ethical mind (we know and do what is good).

The author invites your comments and questions.  Contact the author
If you are an art teachers interested in doing some research on creativity, on learning to draw, or on the relationship of art and learning to think, or some other issue, send me a note.  Click here for a list of issues of particular interest to the author.


Hetland, L., Winner, E., Veenema, S., & Sheridan, K. M. (2007) Studio Thinking: The real benefits of visual arts education. New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia U.

Pink, D. H. (2009) Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us. Penquin Group, New York

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Drawing to Learn DRAWING  (an online book of eight drawing lessons--including questions)
Questions to Encourage Creative Thinking
Creativity Killers
in the art room

Conversation Game to generate creative ideas for artwork
Teaching Creativity

Creativity Links
How can we teach Idea Generation?
Teaching for Transfer of Learning
Transfer of Learning helps develop a Synthesizing Mind. When we bring learning from one lesson to the problems of another lesson we are practicing the same process used when bringing together disparate learning from many areas of our lives together to solve a problem.

Art Education Home Page
Lessons, and
many other resources for teachers and parents

by Marvin Bartel, Ed.D. Emeritus Professor of Art, Goshen College

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biography of author