Why I Never Draw a Child's Artwork
(more thoughts)

to original 2006 page on this topic

Art Teacher, Marvin Bartel, Ed.D © 2010

As teachers we all do the best we can to be as helpful as we can, as we understand it. Every child certainly differs. I have enjoyed working with students in many situations and have certainly made my share of mistakes and successes. What I write is what I have found to work best for me. I try to figure out why it works, but this is always open to exceptions. The exceptions depend partly on our view of our goals and partly on the circumstances each student brings to the table.

My conclusion about not drawing on the student work grew out of stories from students about how they felt when their teachers took over their work. I have also discussed this with teachers who are not convinced by my rationale. In general, they feel that drawing on the student work is the most direct and effective way to help students see the way to see and do something.

From my perspective, I feel as though I have failed if I need to resort to giving the answer in such an obvious way. To me, it is like teaching math by handing out a sheet of problems for the students to solve, and then filling in the answers for the students who cannot do it on their own. Yes, the memory parts of their brains begin to learn answers to specific problems, but the problem solving parts of their brains is not being coached very much. If I were the math teacher, I might try giving them some slightly easier problems that require the same kind of problem solving skills. Math teachers would also have other ways to teach the needed problem solving skills rather than simply supplying the answers.

When I was a kid in rural Kansas, we did not have art teachers in school. When I was in grade six, my eighth grade cousin ordered a correspondence art course. He showed me how the correspondence school teacher graded his work by placing a tracing paper overlay on his work. His correspondence school teacher drew on the tracing paper to show him how the work should have been done. To me, this seemed like a helpful, but kinder system that did not directly violate the student's ownership of work. When I became an art teacher, I used tracing paper sometimes as a last resort. I first tried other ways to help students learn how to look at things. In grading work, I used a lot of post-it notes in order to ask questions without writing directly on the student work. By asking questions I hoped to get them to notice things that they had not considered.

If you learned to draw on student work from your own art teacher, I am sure your teacher had only the best of intentions. We are instinctively helpful, and we do what we believe to be the best that we know. Of course in every situation there are several alternative ways to help. As teachers, the more experienced and creative that we are, the more alternatives flash through our minds at every teachable moment.

I notice that many second and third graders want to progress out of their preconceived internalized images. However, they do not understand how to practice effectively to learn to draw better from observation. I know I would have benefited from better drawing instruction in first, second, and third grades. I know that I failed entirely to learn piano keyboard skills as a child. I had no instruction in how to practice. In college I took piano lessons, but it seemed much harder than when my children learned how to practice while younger.

For drawing, I like to bring in actual animals. Rabbits and chickens (not roosters) are easy and safe. Nearly no children have allergies to these. Every kid seems to instinctively respond to live animals. A live animal is always inspirational. I seldom see motivation problems. Once they learn observation approaches while drawing animals they become more confident and willing to sit across from their friends and practice drawing each other and/or make use mirrors with which to practice self-portraits. The senses of touch, sound, smell are all employed to learn shapes, motions, textures, and so on. I find that drawings are better and more expressive when we experience the subject more intimately. Living subjects offer so much more sensory experience options than artificial things made from plastic. I recently spent a few weeks working in a new school in Brazil. For educational reasons, they already had an animal in every classroom. Needless to say, I was more than happy to use the animals as subjects for drawing and modeling practice.

Moving subjects are naturally disconcerting for children to draw. I explain that this is practice. Every time an animal moves, I encourage them to immediately start a new line and draw as much as they can. When the animal moves again, they start again so that they get a jumble of lines on their practice papers. As is, these practice drawings turn out to be wonderful lead-ins to a discussion of how cubism was invented to show motion by Picasso and Braque. Studies have shown that the artists were going to see movies (when they were first invented). In response, their own paintings took on similar qualities and they invented cubism.

Other good subjects are toys, sporting equipment, musical instruments, living flowers and plants, and so on. I have kids arrange them according criteria I share by asking them questions such as: "Do you like to show overlapping? Which things to you want in front and which should be in back?" The questions are used to build compositional concept awareness. In order for the practice to be useful, they have to become more observant.

Children also benefit by learning to objectively look at the subject and not at their paper so much. I see first graders that make amazing drawings if I occasionally have them practice drawing by looking at the subject more and looking at their paper less. We use a blinder on the pencil for practice sessions and they learn to see things much more carefully. Once they practice all the edge lines of an object, they can put the blinder aside and redraw the whole animal or object from observation. Of course I could still draw it better and show them that they made a few mistakes, but I would much rather be the expert that helps them learn to become expert at seeing in order to draw correctly themselves. This is a matter of observation practice.

The overall principle is that I rather teach them how to see all things better. I could try to teach them what all the separate images are supposed to look like (like I draw them) by drawing my ideas on their pictures. I feel it is better that they learn that they have the power to learn to see how anything looks without the need to be shown how things look by an expert. In the end, I am impressed that every child has a personal and unique drawing style. When they make what looks like a mistake, I might express some curiousity and ask some questions, but it is hard to know what is a mistake unless I know what is intended. An important part of classroom discussions about the work affirms what is uniquely expressive in each drawing, painting, etc. Students need to be affirmed, not corrected, for experimenting with expressive ideas in their artwork.

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

© NOTICE 2010, Marvin Bartel, Ed.D. 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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