This is a useful post for anyone teaching art to children. I share a few ways to look for the positive aspects in children’s work and how to move them on to the next step. Whether you are an artist or not, it is important for you to be able to see forward one step ahead of the pupil so that you can give them the right guidance. It is not always easy for non-specialist teachers to see the small improvements in a child’s art work. I hope to give you some advice here.
I’m going to focus on practical examples of children’s work so that it is very clear what potential the work has and how it could be improved.
Clear and attainable steps
Below is an example of a child who really struggles with drawing, finds it difficult to follow through instructions and is quiet, making him an easy person to overlook in lessons. However with a little bit of teacher attention and very specific advice he was able to improve. Let’s take a look at his work.
Above is his first drawing of a snake, he was lucky enough to see and feel a live snake and take photographs of it but struggled to know where to begin when drawing it.
The advice I gave here was firstly, to have a look at some photographs of snakes and capture the curves in their body even more. The second piece of advice was to look at how curving the lines that go across the snakes body will give an impression of 3 dimension.
You can just see some squiggles and a snake drawing (above) I have done on the side of his work to demonstrate how to tackle the snake. Some teachers disapprove of drawing on children’s work, however I strongly believe that if it sketch book work, it is important for the child to have your demonstrations available for their own future reference (you can always initial them). This should be different for final pieces which I would never draw on.
‘Blow it up big’
The brown painting was the first one done and although it displays some lovely paint mixing (I only gave them primary colours to produce these browns) it lacks informed detail. This drawing was based on direct observation of an insect sample and you can see that the legs were ‘too difficult’ to draw so they’ve been only half drawn.
The advice I gave here was to pretend to be a magnifying glass and ‘blow up’ the leg. I demonstrated how legs are made up of segments of different shapes and thicknesses and I advised using charcoal or graphite instead of paint which requires more complex skills.
The leg drawing is a success and the child’s understanding of it is far more detailed, apart from the fact that it looks pretty cool to have such a strange looking, huge hairy leg across the page. (The fact that legs are made up of different sections can be transferred to humans too!)
No rubbers & Use notation
Ever been in the situation where you look at a child’s drawing and think ‘Gosh, that’s better than I could do’? I have…
What do you say then?
Secondly, I ask them to pin point the aspects of the drawing that they feel need adjusting.
(If they’re not sure which bits need improvement then ask them to imagine if they had a rubber, what would they rub out?) Notice the word adjusting, not which bits are mistakes. There are no such things as ‘mistakes’ in art, just things that need adjusting, changing, exploring, developing! Ask them to pretend that the work in front of them is someone else’s and that they need to give them some advice. Children can be very insightful. If they’re struggling, then ask them questions that guide them towards better ‘seeing’, looking, exploring, developing.
Open questions like, what does it remind you of? how does it feel? which part is bigger, this bit or this bit? How many times does this bit fit into here? Which bit is thinner? What effect does this part have on the rest of the picture? , Etc.
The drawing above is by a different child to the first two, he identified correctly that the foot is ‘strange’ but he hasn’t said why it’s strange. This could be one of his next steps-to ‘blow up’ the foot and begin to understand its shape in more detail. I would also ask him to ‘blow up’ a leg-just one leg. You might then ask him questions that help him see for himself that the legs of the horse are too thin.
This example directly relates to example 3 because a child may have a fantastic grasp of one particular technique of drawing but may be less able at another. There are many ways to draw, paint, sketch and you can ask them to capture movement, lines of balance, outlines, silhouettes, shadows, negative spaces, colour and so much more.
My advice here after I saw the initial line drawing at the bottom of this photo was to try capturing the movement of a man riding a horse. We used what I like to call the ‘slinky’ style. You draw movement lines first and then alter your ‘slinky’ over them to make fatter/thinner areas. How close together you make the spirals of your ‘slinky’ will show more or less movement. (The analogy I use to explain ‘slinky’, was those metal spiral toys that you can put at the top of the stairs and it ‘walks’ down).
Give homework with clear instructions
Asking children to do art homework is not only a great way to introduce a new topic, but a fantastic way to see unusual members of your class engage with homework where they normally don’t.
For this homework I was quite specific. I supplied them with the paper (not all parents appreciate the need to buy their children art materials), I asked them to draw a rainforest animal first using lines, then notate it. Then draw just the part they found hardest to draw and ‘blow it up’ big. Of course you could ask them to find out a fact about the thing they are drawing too.
Try scribble drawing!
The above drawings are a good effort but you can see she is struggling. The legs are like twigs, she is unsure of the shapes, and her lines are nervous and bitty.
The advice here is to hold the pen at the very end, don’t touch the paper with the wrist and do a scribble drawing. Scribble more when there is a dark patch and less when there’s a light patch. Don’t take the pen off the paper. You can even get the child to do it with their eyes closed. Very nervous drawers benefit from this exercise because they have to let go and stop trying to control everything.
When there are no rules and creativity is left very much up to the child, then other aesthetic factors come into play. Balance is important, in monochrome art works the balance is between the darks and lights. A good way to get children to see this is to show a balanced piece of work as being balanced on a scale (use your hands), then show work that has a very large area of light or dark on one side only and show them how it is unbalanced. Ask them where their eyes automatically go when they look at the picture. Often our eyes are attracted to the part that is not balanced first. (Of course contemporary art makes use of this but at this stage they need to learn to see and balance their work first)
The two examples above brilliantly demonstrate how balance is so important. The first shows a fantastic eye for detail, however he could have got carried away with the detail and filled the whole illustration with tiny detailed pattern. However the balance between the plain dark black, the white and the detailed pattern make for a beautifully balanced and intriguing illustration.
Pick out big shapes
This is an amazing example of where a child took on board the advice to pick out the big shapes of the toucan. I demonstrated how the beak can be used like a kind of ruler with which you can measure the rest of the body. She then had a go herself, you can see the improvement in the proportions from the first pencil drawing to the second painted drawing. (She did a pencil drawing first and then painted it.)
Shading, Tone, Light
There is something so accurate and refreshing about this drawing and I would be tempted to leave it as it is. However in order to show you how it can be moved on I will include it anyway.
The hair and hair line needs more tonal variation, in fact in general there is limited tonal variation. I would do one of two things here. Firstly you could give a child different contrasting pencils like an 4H, 2B, and 6B and get them to experiment freely with the difference between them. Ask them to do a shading block where shading starts lightest and gradually gets darker and darker.
Secondly you could ask them to experiment with using white chalk on black paper and simply pick out the light areas. Older year 5/6 children might enjoy shading the whole of their paper with a thick graphite stick and then using a putty rubber to rub out the lighter areas. This can be graded to different shades of light and dark.
Of course you could ask a child to pick out the nose, eye, ear and just concentrate on that. If you’re not sure how to draw it yourself then perhaps you can find an online tutorial/U tube clip that talks you through how to draw it and you can all learn together. Here’s a brilliant one for noses.
There’s plenty more that could be explored as a result of this portrait, shading, contour drawing, mouths, lips, light source and shadows, bone structure, the skull, facial proportions.
Peer assess & Group work
The following example shows part of a group piece of art work. Different children worked on the same piece in rotating pairs. Each time a new pair came to the work they would naturally asses the work done before, as long as you facilitate this process it can be very positive and productive. Children learn to be constructive with criticism and asses their own abilities in order to determine how they can improve upon the work of previous pairs. There are complex skills needed for this process and it is fantastic for raising children’s maturity levels. I don’t suggest that every class or age group of children will take this process and run with it so it may need to be used with discretion.