Why I Do NOT Draw
On A Child's Artwork

Art Teacher, Marvin Bartel, Ed.D © 2006
to the 2010 page on this topic 
This update is posted 5/5/2016

I am convinced that there are many many ways to teach art that are far better than drawing on the artwork of a child. Teachers have argued with me about this, saying that drawing on the work is the fastest way to show how to do something.

I have found that there are many reasons that my students make what look like mistakes. If I correct them or make a suggestion, it sends a message that I do not care to find out why they did what they did. I have not bothered to learn about them or their motivations. When I make the effort to find out their ideas and motivations, I may find that my instructions were not as clear as I thought (a fairly common learning moment for me). At other times I am blown away by where a student is coming from. The outcome is not what I had envisioned, but when seen in the light of a students perception, it can be something quite insightful. Sometimes, it becomes clear that the student did not pay attention during instructions (so what else is new). While this is frustrating to me, for me to correct the work, can add to student confusion. If I start with a question, the problem can reveal itself and it gives me a chance to ask another student to help explain the assignment (reinforcement and review).

I have found that it is much safer if I ask an open question before I offer a suggestion or even think of correcting an artwork (Can you tell me more about this? Can you explain a bit more of what you wanted to show here?). Questions like this may help me get on the same teaching/learning page. Sometimes we can find options that are not so difficult, while still challenging the advanced students (some students are good at helping me explain teaching/learning communication problems).

If I correct student artwork (or offer a suggestion), I am admitting that I am a product centered teacher. I would rather be teaching the process of creating art. The process of creation does not originate in the teacher. It grows from within the student. I would rather see art that grows out of practice, out of experience, out of observation, out of student thought and choice, and out of individual student imagination; not from my preconceived notion of how the art product should look (as an artist myself, it is easy for me to solve their problems for them--but that does not give them the practice). As a teacher, I need to help manage the learning experience, provide focus and motivation, but not usurp the creative thought process.

Philosophically, I know it is best to find ways for students to learn seeing, feeling, imagining, interpreting, expressing, and thinking. I do not need to see certain expert predetermined looks in their artwork. I want to exhibit student artwork that shows that each student has had an independent say in something about how the work looks.

One way I do this is to include an "independent criterion variable" in every assignment. The independent criterion variable is like an artistic question or problem every individual must express in a personal and creative way (like individual creative branding) even though the assignment has other rather strict limitations. Cliches are prohibited in advance. If I correct it or touch it up, it tends to put my brand on something that should reflect choices and ideas originating with the the maker--not the teacher.

I hope this makes sense and gives food for thought. Let me know where I am wrong. Contact the author

a response to the above from an art teacher (retired)

(This) . . . has also been a source of debate for me. So I thought I'd like to share my thoughts.

I will say at 59 I can still see with clarity when my art teacher (3rd grade) stopped and drew on my drawing. My drawing was an scene with horses running in it (they looked like animal crackers with spots) but he drew what a "real" horse looked like right next to my pinto pony. I was shocked to "see" the horse be so different from mine, and although I no longer liked my horse something else happened.

For me, it was a real turning point in how I viewed my "art". I'd been happy making drawings from my head, but then I realized there was more to it than that. For me it began a quest to draw better and then finally to see better... so that my drawings improved to my satisfaction.

Process vs. Product:
But then what got my attention in your article was your comment about correcting or offering a suggestion to a student means you are a product centered teacher vs. process.

I taught art for 28 years, all levels ( 3 years to 18) in both public & private settings. My hope was always to promote process & creative thinking. Sometimes I drew on work, sometimes I had scrap paper with me for demo, and I'd like to think more times than not I asked my student how they wanted me to show them or help them. They would always tell me if it would bother them if I were to draw on their work, so I never crossed their wishes.

I also taught in inner city school and I believe sometimes kids just wanted the one on one moments even more. As I look back on my "style" I also see me often explaining to someone, why I did what I did... my thinking to the process. Which is probably another way I felt I was stronger at putting process first and "refrigerator art" a distant second.

So I guess I'm wondering out loud about being a "process" kind of teacher even if one "draws" on artwork. When I look over my career, I see the scales still tipping to process. Here's why, at the heart of my personal art philosophy towards others was always creating a safe environment to take risks, encouraging their individuality and always trying to find something positive in my students & their work.

thanks for listening.
retired Art Teacher from Michigan
- February 13, 2010

a response to the response

Thanks for your perspective and for sharing your experiences.

Clarification on "correcting or offering a suggestion to a student means you are a product centered teacher vs. process."

I should acknowledge that when I correct or offer a suggestion, there could also be ways to do it for the sake of changing the learning process. If suggestions guide processes, such as saying, "What angle to you see when you look at ths edge of the drapery? Can you hold out your arm and line up the pencil with this line, what angle do you see?" Such suggestions would be helping the student understand the process of sighting when learning to see a subject better. In the story below, my questions about process could also be catagorized as suggestions. I believe in questions, but an sceptical of giving answers. I am sorry this page may have more answers than questions. Please, if you doubt my answers, can you experiment enough to prove me wrong and let me know?
  --mb - February 13, 2010 and May 5, 2016

In another situation I had some 1st and 2nd graders making drawings of rabbits. We had borrowed a live rabbit in class for them to observe and study. One student asked me why her rabbit drawing looked like a cat. It was a front view and the ears were small and triangular. They were spaced fairly far apart.

Even though the rabbit was right there, she had not used the process of looking at the shape or size of the rabbit's ears. It was less surprising to me that she had not used the process of observing the negative space between the ears. Many non-artist adults seldom notice the size of negative spaces.

We had discussed the various parts of the rabbit, but she may have been distracted during the discussion. It would have been very easy for me to show her how to draw the rabbit's ears on another sheet of paper. Instead, I took her to the front of the rabbit and asked her if she had looked carefully at the rabbit's ears.

Looking and drawing gives the student a chance to practice the creative and transformative act of creative transformation of something from 3-d to 2-d. If I draw the rabbit's ears for her on another piece of paper, I have done the creative transformation and she only has to replicate it--not tranform it.

Naturally, when she made the effort to look at the rabbit's ears, she immediately noticed that they were larger and had a different shape. She erased the ears and drew them again with the knowledge that she was learning how to do it without being shown how to do it. We can easily forget that children often have not learned the basic process of observing. If I draw it for them, they will still not learn how to observe and transform. Students will develop learned helplessness and wish a teacher was availble to show her how to draw it. In this case, as is true for many others of any age, she had also not thougt to observe the size of the space between the two ears. Again I had to decide if I should tell that the ears on a rabbit are closer together than those of cat. Instead, I could ask her if she looked at how much space there is between the ears. Learning to look at the negative spaces offers another process that can lead to discoveries about their world.

We can direct instruct them in the thousands of drawing details by drawing them and allowing them to learn the shapes one-by-one by copying, or we can ask them a few questions that they can learn to ask themselves as they draw. Products are infinite in number. The self-questioning and observation processis infinite in effect. If I draw something for them, they get it one thing. If I give them a functional learning process, they get all things.

In the above story I used questions to build awareness of a basic processes of looking that we can artists use, but even though artists use them, many children fail to practice and learn them. There are several other drawing processes that I and other artists find very useful. With 1st and 2nd grade children I find that 'air drawing' practice vastly improves their final observation drawings. If they point to the edge of the thing being observed and slowly move their pointing finger or pencil in the air to draw the contour (edges) of the thing, the drawing on paper that folllows will often be more than twice as faithful to the things being observed. 1st and 2nd graders may still get the proportions wrong, but they begin to notice that they are becoming better at drawing.

Another life-long process to improve their drawings is to ask: "What did I forget?" I remind them that sometimes I ask this over and over again and each time that I look again I find something else that I forgot. This process works for all kinds of drawing. It works for observation drawing, but is expecially effective for drawinng from the imagination and from memory. This self-question even works for preschoolers when they are doing imaginary story telling drawing. If a class is drawing, I might ask if anybody forgot the texture, or I might wonder what would happen if color was added, would the color stay the same as it goes around the thing or would the color change. Would it get darker or lighter? Many things can be discovered or not, but more questions generally result in more discoveries. I don't dwell on missed discoveries. I just move on to other questions or rephrase the questions to see what happens. Giving more answers is less apt to motivate discoveries and more apt to produce learned helplessness while they wait for the next answer. Imitating my answer only works if they they have an identical question or situation. If they imitate my questions they will make more discoveries whether or not I happen to be there. Questions that call forth a process of thinking and/or looking often fit many different situations.

If I happen to have done a drawing of my own related to what they are drawing, or if I know of an artist's example of artwork that their work relates to, I refrain from showing my drawing or the artist's drawing until the student has completed and their own work. I do not mean it to be an example for them to follow. However, seeing mature work may offer new questions, discoveries, and inspiration. As I show an exemplar, I offer that every artist's creative work is different and I like it that the student's work is different than mine or the artist's. However, I enjoy seeing how other artists choose to do it, not to copy it, but I wonder why they did the way they did it. I wonder what they were thinking, or what they saw. I mention that I do not copy other artists work because it has already been done. Therefore, I do not need to do it, but I wonder why they did it  and what would happen if I had a similar reason to do it.

Contact the author and send an email if you would like to respond.  I will not print your name or email address unless you give permission to do so.

© 2006, 2016 Marvin Bartel, Ed.D. You may make one personal copy. If you wish to copy or publish any part of this electronically or otherwise, you must get permission to do so.  Contact the author

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to the 2010 page on this topic

How to Plan Art Lessons
A way for Students to Learn to Generate Ideas About Themselves
An Inside-Out Way to Teach Art (idea generation methods)
Creativity is lost unless it is taught
Can Creativity be Taught?
How I can Kill Creativity

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The Blinder Drawing Game 
How to Teach Children to Draw

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