On art education & teaching art to children

Q: We live far out in the provinces in Okayama prefecture. I think I
might buy the book, “The New Drawing on the Right Side…” for myself
for now. Do you ever do workshops in other parts of Japan? (hint,

I notice your realistic drawing courses are for ages 8 and up. What
do you teach in your expressive art courses for younger kids? Is
there a text you could recommend for teaching kids 6 to 8? Do you
think it’s detrimental to teach 1st and 2nd graders (who are still
learning to write correctly) how to draw cartoon pictures, for
example, simple line drawings of a dog or an airplane? At age five,
my dd insists that I show her how to draw things. She is quickly
satisfied if I show her a simple gimmick and frustrated if I show her
anything too complicated. Her drawings are very creative and
fanciful, and she can tell you long stories about what is going on in
the picture. At this stage, she just wants parts of the picture to be
recognizable to others. I would really appreciate hearing your
thoughts and opinions on this subject. 

— E. in Okayama

A: I’ve found that children love to look carefully at things and can draw wonderful detail when given a chance. If they just learn a shortcut symbol, they stop looking, and there goes their drawing ability, just like that. One very interesting experiment you can try is to ask your children to draw their pet or favorite toy from memory. They will draw a rather symbolic cartoon-like shape.As they draw, ask them how many claws and whiskers does their cat or dog have, how exactly does the ear connect to the head, what shape is the nose, how many tail feathers does their pet bird have, and so on. You will see a look of shock on their faces as they realize they have no idea. Then have them draw a picture while looking at their pet or toy. They will really look carefully, since they have become very curious to see how many whiskers, etc there are. I’m sure you will be very surprised at the difference between the two drawings. You might try it for yourself, as well. Can you draw your own face or your child’s from memory, faces you see every day??

I once attended a conference for elementary school art teachers and the participants were given an exercise similar to the one above. The leader wrote words on the board like lion, giraffe, elephant, cat, dog, carrot, maple leaf, etc. We had to draw them. Then she had us draw a plant of our choice, step-by-step, from seed to the finished product be it fruit or flower. It was a big revelation to realize how much we look, but don’t see.
What amazed me most was that the kindergarten teachers in particular, just drew simplistic cartoon characters, very much like one expects 5-year olds to draw. That’s when it hit me! Do children really draw that way naturally, or they just copying the way the teachers draw? If that’s the only exposure kids get to drawing, no wonder they can’t draw anything else.

Last year an 8-year old girl took my class and later her mother brought a drawing of a tulip the girl had done in school. She said all the other children had done typical tulip symbols, but her daughter had carefully looked at how the leaves curved and the petals curled at the edges. It was a beautiful drawing of that particular, unique flower, not a stereotyped tulip shape. She was so impressed. In the US, some teachers use drawing to teach geography, biology, and other subjects. When you draw something you remember
it much better that if you just look at it or take a photo. It also improves concentration a lot.

Just giving children calm, uninterrupted time to draw, without judging or criticizing or feeling they have to “produce a product”, is so important these days, when everyone is constantly being bombarded with noise and unending activities. If kids could just learn to enjoy drawing and painting for it’s own sake, and be able to draw or paint what they like, that will stimulate their imaginations and enrich their lives. Learning to see is the key to drawing and painting.

— Kristin

Below is a very interesting article by Dr. Betty Edwards, on the importance of teaching drawing to children.

Dr. Betty Edwards
April 1993

A recent article in an art education journal seriously posed the
question, “Might it be a good idea to teach students how to draw
realistically?” The authors cited various studies but reached no
conclusive answer to the question. I could pose a question of equal absurdity:
“Might it be a good idea to teach our students to read fluently and to write correctly and well?” In my view, the obvious answer to both questions is, “Of course it’s a good idea.” These are the basic skills
required if progress in learning is to follow.
The reasons that art educators ask such a question about realistic
drawing go back a long way to the 1920’s and ‘30’s and the
advent of “progressive” education. Reacting to the somewhat rigid academic art instruction of the early 1900’s and reflecting the advent of “modern” art, leaders in art education decided that teaching children how to draw realistically endangered their “natural creativity” and their ability to “express themselves”. Out went the baby with the bath water, and to this day many art educators are fearful of teaching children how to accurately depict their perceptions. This is not to say that classroom teachers
don’t ask for such depictions. They frequently urge children, in fact, to “Draw a picture of your family”, or to “Draw what you saw at the
circus.” After a lesson on Native American life, teachers may ask children as a homework assignment to draw a picture of an Indian family gathered around the campfire at night.
The problem is that drawing from memory or from imagined image is
extremely difficult, even for a trained artist. For children who have never learned even basic drawing skills, this is an impossible task, tantamount to asking a child who can neither read nor write to compose an essay on a given topic. Very young children plunge into the assigned drawings, nevertheless, and adults everywhere are charmed by the naive compositions of early childhood. Up to about age seven or eight, children also are charmed by their drawings. But all too soon comes the so-called “crisis period” in art education. Children become dissatisfied with their naive productions.
They want to be able to “Make things look real”, as they put it,
and they come to despise their efforts at drawing.
At this point, art teachers’ fear of “spoiling creativity” (and I
must add, of revealing their own inability to draw well, since most were educated in the same system) causes many teachers to simply avoid the issue.
They are sympathetic to children’s distress and say, in effect,
“Never mind, there are other ways to enjoy art.” They show reproductions of paintings and ask questions about the works. They begin to ply the children with mediums and materials? “fun stuff” like papier mache for mask-making, carved vegetables for printmaking, paint blown through straws, mosaics made of seeds and spices, Eskimo igloos made of tongue depressors, feather headdresses of colored tissue paper, scratch board made of crayons and ink.
The list is endless, and an art teacher’s storeroom is  characteristically packed to the rafters with often bizarre materials.
Meanwhile, children are trying on their own to solve the problems of
drawing realistically. Most adults can remember trying to draw the sports car or the Viking ship, seen in perspective, or the rearing horse seen in foreshortened view, drawing the image over and over, trying to get it right, so that things looked real. But all too often the attempts failed, at least in the child’s eyes, and soon the child comes to the sad conclusion, “I can’t draw.” This child grows up to be the adult in our culture who claims to be inartistic and, it often follows, uncreative.
Ironically, even though many art teachers avoid and disapprove of
realistic drawing, a few children do learn to draw well, perhaps by chance or perhaps from parents who know how to draw. These children are singled out as the class artists, the ones who have talent for art! For children who can’t draw, this makes things worse and reinforces their conviction that they could never learn to draw, since an added requirement for “artistic talent” now compounds the problem. For these children, the solution is obvious: “Give it up. Don’t try.” They then buy into the teachers’ solution of messing around in mediums and materials and agree to call that activity “Art Lessons”.
An analogy may clarify the situation. Suppose teachers were to decide that it is not a good idea to teach children how to read and write because doing well would spoil their creative use of language. (There is a parallel: in their naive use of language, young children produce charming metaphors and analogies that later disappear with the acquisition of language skills.)
Teachers would encourage continued use of naive metaphors and give lessons on creative ways to combine letters to make patterns or encourage accidental combinations of sounds and letters, but would never burden children with learning the “difficult” skills of reading and writing.
If one or two children in a class did learn to read and write by chance
or from a parent, they would be singled out as “talented in language,” and the other children would decide that they were untalented and probably could never learn. The teacher would say, “Never mind. There are other ways to enjoy language. I’ll read you a poem and we’ll talk about it.
Then, we’ll make up a nice game with words…”
This could never happen, of course, because we perceive language skills as too important to be turned into child’s play. Conversely, we perceive perceptual skills to be unimportant and, in fact, even a bit scary. Parents, especially parents of boys, are often not displeased that early fascination for drawing disappears, out of fear that their son might grow up to be a starving artist rather than a thriving doctor, lawyer, or merchant chief.
But a closer look shows the irrationality of this fear. After all, love of
language might produce a starving poet!
To revive the teaching of perceptual skills, then, requires several
fundamental changes. First, we must persuade parents that these skills are important for thinking, just as learning the skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic are important for thinking. Both are a form of cognition. Perceptual skills are basically learned through the arts: seeing (drawing), hearing (music), and movement (dance). Verbal/numerical skills are basically learned through the three R’s. These two fundamentally different forms of cognition enrich and inform each other and together produce an educated, perceptive, and creative individual.
Second, art educators must re-embrace the basic skills of their field,
that is, seeing and drawing, thus joining their colleagues, who have never given up regard for learning the basics of music (scales and chords) and movement (position and basic steps), to say nothing of basic reading, writing and arithmetic. To this end, art teachers must learn to draw? it sounds absurd, I realize. Can one imagine a classroom teacher who couldn’t read, write, add or subtract? or music and dance teachers who couldn’t play
scales or demonstrate basic steps? But indeed this dilemma of art teachers who can’t draw well is endemic in art education today for the reasons outlined above and must be remedied.
   Third, teachers must integrate perceptual skills with language and mathematical skills. This means developing ways to transfer seeing to learning: how to see edges (where one thing ends and another begins); how to see spaces ( what lies between objects); how to see relationships (what are the constants and how do parts relate to these constants); how to see lights and shadows (what is known? in light and seeable, and what is still unknown? in shadow and unseeable); and, in sum, how to perceive whole configurations and how the parts fit together into congruent relationships.
At present, teachers attempt to teach these skills, often in indirect
ways that may or may not be successful with all students. I recommend direct instruction of these important ideas by means of teaching drawing, accompanied by direct instruction on how to transfer perceptual skills to other subjects. Students need the experience of actually perceiving negative space, for example, or of comprehending the meaning and importance of edges.
Fourth, educators must separate perceptual training from special-career training in the arts. After all, we do not teach language and mathematics skills with the ultimate aim to produce poets and particle physicists. A few individuals will in fact go on to those career specialties, but for most students the basic skills are essential across a wide spectrum of professions and activities. We need to change our view of the arts to fit this wider view.
A recent conversion of the Getty education philosophy is most welcome.
For some time, the main stance of the Getty group was: “ Art must stand on its own as a discipline that is valued in its own right. Art is not to be in the service of any other subject or discipline.” (1982)
In February, 1993, at a Getty-sponsored national art education
conference, the Getty group made a much-needed turnabout to a firm declaration that “Art facilitates the learning of other disciplines
(1993).” One of the principal speakers, Charles Fowler, presented the
following point of view: “…if the arts are to attain greater stature in
education, the arts education community will need to move beyond promoting ‘art for art’s sake’ and clearly convey the importance of
‘art for general education’s sake.’ ”
But the fundamental problem with the Getty approach to the visual arts remains: direct instruction in the basic skills of drawing is omitted. This omission means that children can never progress beyond naivete or beyond a kind of false abstraction. They can only become viewers, analysts, and critics of the work of an elite group designated as Artists with a capital A. To return to my previous analogy with reading, in a comparable situation
teachers would ask children to hear, analyze, and criticize great works of literature but they would never teach children to read by themselves or to write about their own ideas.
In public education today, there are myriad entrenched beliefs. I have outlined above two of the most entrenched of the beliefs held by the bureaucracy of art education, that learning to draw dooms creative expression and that, absent a genetic talent for art, no amount of teaching can produce real skill in drawing. These views persist despite centuries of art history that present clear evidence to the contrary. My own decades-long efforts to demonstrate that perceptual skills in drawing are eminently teachable, learnable, and valuable in general cognition have already been largely met with ridicule, rejection, or, simply, silence from the art education leadership community.
American educational effectiveness is in a disastrous decline.
Endeavors to repair the situation must necessarily view all entrenched beliefs with a doubting eye and, where necessary, bypass, reverse, and revise current practices and beliefs. As new educational entities arise, such as the entrepreneurial Edison project, perhaps among other changes the old ideas about drawing will give way at last to a new/old view that learning how to see things differently by means of drawing is educationally valuable.

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