I spent the last week of March in Prescott, Arizona, as artist in residence at Skyview, a unique charter school based on Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences. That means every student takes art and music.
I call my workshop Drawing is Seeing. The title states my approach in simple terms. Drawing helps us observe things around us and see them for what they are, what they really look like. Drawing is a kind of thinking. Appreciating the beauty around us and being able to incorporate that into our thinking seems like the most priceless of gifts.
It was not so simple to adapt this idea to such a range of ages and skill levels—kindergarten through 8th grade. Still, I learned a lot about how to do that, and in most cases the kids exceeded my expectations of what they could see and draw. I also saw ways I could help them overcome some common drawing issues that everyone has.
Don’t need to draw? Not an artist? Don’t want to be one? Even many artists can’t draw in this post-modern world, and that is fine for them. Yet learning to draw is learning visual intelligence–that’s another way of saying creative thinking. There is good evidence that drawing helps develop thinking of all kinds, especially mathematics, physics, and engineering. I see fundamental drawing skills as an antidote to balance the overly left-brained, ie. verbal and logical side of the brain, which is encouraged by a generally test-score-based school system.
I brought my mandolin and, in between classes the art teacher, Von Holland, got out her fiddle and we played simple folk tunes. That made for some pleasant transitions from wherever else the kids were coming from and set the mood for drawing. I thanked the students after each class for drawing with me. I sincerely felt that we were working together, I was getting something back from them, and I was learning too.
I began on a more fundamental level than most art teachers do. Learning to see lines and proportions and shapes. Since improving drawing and seeing skills supports any projects they will do later, this sort of workshop can fit in with any existing class plan at any point in the school year. I use time-tested techniques that an observational artist knows, but seem like secrets to most people, even some art teachers.
Besides paper, I only use three tools: a very hard pencil, like a 2H or even 4H, for the guidelines–those that you see with your mind’s eye. These are basic shapes and some connecting lines. The hard pencil lines are almost invisible and can be erased later. Next a very soft pencil, like a 4B or even black felt tip for the final lines, drawn over the guide lines. To keep things simple I only use lines. If the drawing and the proportions are not right, nothing you do later with tone of color will fix it. It’s drawing fundamentals. It works for anyone from a young child into old age. It’s something you use for life.
The last tool I show them is an eraser. It can be a “pencil eraser” which can act like a drawing tool itself, or a larger one for bigger corrections. I see nothing wrong with erasing–after all we are learning to think and see, which is a process of adding and subtracting until it gets closer and closer to what we want.
For the 5th graders and above, I suggest they get a personal sketchbook. These kids, being high functioning, already had sketchbooks. I show them some of my own and explain that if the house was burning, my sketchbooks would be the first thing I would save. (After all living things were safe, of course.)
I’ll share one final example of how the energy spent teaching can come back to you and be so rewarding. After the last day of school, I came in the next morning to have “office hours,” inviting kids to come talk to me, show me their other work, or ask questions. Damian, a third grader brought in some drawings of rabbits he was working on. We resolved some questions about how many toes they had and how to show one body part is in front of another.
Later Von told me that Damian was a terror in kindergarten. I found this hard to believe. But “art saved him.” said Von.
A week later, when Von was using some of the drawing techniques we had introduced during my stay, she was connecting some circular guidelines together to form an animal’s torso using her soft and dark pencil. I had warned the kids, when doing this, to pay attention to how the curves flow over the circle guide-lines that form the bodies, otherwise your drawing looks kind of like a snow man.
Damian called out, “Be careful of the snowman effect, Miss Von!”
The Prescott Daily Courier came to Skyview and observed one of the first/second grade classes. Their article came pretty close to capturing the essence of the event.
Prescott News and Arts monthly “The Noise” also did a short article.