What I’ve Learned About Teaching Art

(photo of me in my natural environment taken by Craig Morrison at the Oasis Skateboard Factory)

I’ve had the privilege of teaching art in a variety of environments – from still life oil painting at the college level, to combining art with science and history in a museum setting, to guiding highschool students through creating a comics anthology. Through these very different settings, I’ve found a list of constants that, when I keep them in mind, help me deliver the most enjoyable and effective art education for my students.

One of my core beliefs is that art is, at the heart of it all, something a student must teach themself, and that a classroom, workshop, or camp that wants to teach art is actually responsible for creating an environment and offering projects that facilitate that self-driven learning.

With that on the table, here is the pantheon of truths that, if I can hold on to all of them, help me create that learning environment:

  1. Almost no one is inherently unable to draw. Additionally, everyone can improve at drawing. With the wealth of “traditional” media, digital tools, and thousands upon thousands of years of art history with which we can map the possibility space, it seems obvious that if someone wants to make art, then they absolutely can.  If they want to draw, then no teacher should ever, EVER tell a student that they “can’t.” The teacher’s role is usually to take a student who already secretly believes they can’t draw and help them see both the breadth of possibilities and the potential within themselves to improve whatever skills they start with.
  2. Drawing is not always about making a beautiful image. The obsession with one kind of “good drawing” creates an artificial limit on who is allowed to draw. Sometimes being an art teacher is about expanding a student’s definition of art as opposed to pushing their frustrated and dejected pencil along a path towards a narrow goal. The reality is that even within pop culture we see so many gorgeous kinds of art! Beyond that, aiming superficially as an artist for a particular surface result will almost always create lesser work than creating an understand of underlying processes and theories that helped the “good art” come into existence.
  3. Drawing can teach new ways of seeing. Observing with the intent of drawing can transform how a person perceives the world. So much of teaching art is teaching visual literacy, the literal act of reading meaning within visual input, whether that’s a still image, a film, a building or a natural landscape. When you motivate students to read visuals by providing them with new ways to understand creating visuals, you jump start their investment in visual literacy.
  4. Drawing can help us think about things differently. Thinking can shift along with modes of seeing – what is a structural way of thought? What is a compositional way of thought? When you teach art, you must teach a student to look at things holistically and in granular elements – besides just enhancing thought processes moving between the two states, you can get much more discovery in the analytical and planning modes of appreciating and creating artwork.
  5. Drawing from reference is as educational as reading. Learning to examine visual reference closely creates a new kind of literacy – visual literacy. Drawing from reference, especially with guided or motivated questions to be answered, can create an opportunity for modes of analysis that students don’t get to otherwise use. Developing visual observation and creating a practice of looking both closely and holistically can create a layered understanding of the subject. Even students resistant to traditional still life drawing processes can find benefit in using drawing to answer self-guided questions.
  6. Learning by making art is a valid mode of learning. Making art can be a mode of learning that both alternates between input and output and creates a sense of ownership/agency in both modes. The hands on creative process is a kind of guess and check system that can be designed carefully to allow students to make a wide variety of types of decisions, and teaches them to create goals and investigate what processes will best allow them to achieve said goals.
  7. Competition with each other or with some imagined ideal will deflate artistic potential. An art classroom cannot have winners and losers based on “quality” of final piece. Art education will benefit more students if it is process oriented. Quality, even in straightforward skills based art education, can still be subjective, and unless it’s an aggressive battle Royale for some exclusive prize, the intent of any art programming is not to find the single best but to encourage each student to improve. So don’t be a dick about it.
  8. Art is a product of restraints. Material, process, time, subject or conceptual restraints allow for a kind of focused play. Giving students free reign is in itself a huge challenge of self direction, goal setting and prioritization. Making some of those choices for them gives them a chance to focus their own learning.
  9. Materials change the kind of engagement. Diverse materials allow for diverse engagement. Just as subject matter can affect a student’s personal investment in a project, the material or method of art making can change their engagement. Changing between drawing and painting, reductive or additive sculpting, stenciling or stamping, will not only change the tactile experience of art making but will affect the modes of thought used to make creative choices.
  10. Venue or audience transform art. Pressure to show, and to whom, can change students self imposed limitations. Defining an audience will change and add pressure to art creation. This can help students hold themselves to a higher standard, but can also frighten or overwhelm them. Audience needs can be a useful limit or influence on the direction of an art project, but audience pressure needs to be modulated to the response of each student.
  11. Art is most interesting when it leaves the comfort zone of its creator. This can only happen in a classroom where students feel safe to take risks. Art, even when the subject matter is utterly anonymous or benign, can be a hugely risky-feeling process. Even the act of making art in a classroom environment can feel frightening; if we want students to fully engage, and to take the artistic risks that allow them to learn, we have to spend class time making the classroom into a safe space for the students. This probably needs to be it’s own post so I’ll leave it there for now and come back and expand upon it in detail in future.
  12. Subject engagement transforms art. Students with something to say about their subject may push themselves farther. Caring about the subject can be a blessing or a curse for a student – deep subject investment can drive problem solving around how best to present it in the artwork, while deep subject investment can also overwhelm a student with self imposed pressure and even a large dose of imposter syndrome. Therefore it can always be useful to intersperse self selected subject matter with “boring” or at least not emotionally significant subjects, to relieve some of the pressure and allow students to instead respond to the process alone.
  13. Ownership of a process will empower students. Whether they’ve designed a process, built their own materials or set their own goals, agency gives students investment. One of the most exciting things about art is that students have a lot of potential control and thus ownership – they will always be making choices, and those choices are potentially exciting because they directly affect the outcome. You can increase this sense of ownership or investment in the class by facilitating student-made materials, like sketchbooks or mark-making tools; or by facilitating student-led exercises or challenges or projects.
  14. Demos will guide what others make and must be done carefully. Demoing can empower and at the same time overwhelm or impose limits on the viewers. Demoing must be designed to specific goals of each assignment. Eg: if you want students to use surgical techniques to explore value, or depth, or composition, whole you absolutely have to demo the technique didactically, you need to be careful not to be didactic about the results you want in relationship to the subject of exploration. Showing a wide range of potential approaches can help in classrooms where students can handle large info dumps, but often it’s better to demo the technique, get them trying it out without further instruction, and then redirect then to the topic of exploration as stage 2.
  15. Material potential can power a room. Art supplies can be motivating all on their own. Getting excited about them can make it safe for the students to get excited as well. There are many different supplies available to teach art with, and trying different ones can add a lot of excitement to the room even if your topic of instruction is narrow. Getting excited about materials can change the mood of a classroom entirely.
  16. Criticism must engage with the student’s goals or it will work against you. Setting goals, and then reflecting on them, is key to art education as so much of art is self directed. If you then ignore that setup and approach critique without listening to your students’ internal direction and goals and at minimum acknowledging them, they will not find your critique constructive. This goes for young children all the way to adults – you need to be in dialogue with them.
  17. Open discussion and open ended questions will always help. Once you’ve found a way to make the classroom a safe space, group discussion powered by open ended questions can open everyone’s mind up to broader possibilities. One on one conversation also benefits hugely from open ended questions and encouraging students to reflect and investigate their own process and practice.
  18. Letting students share their learning is important to help the class grow beyond your own limited experiences. Students will often still feel in competition with each other, so instituting non-competitive collaboration and sharing will be important to minimizing classroom tension. This can be demonstrated first with art games and developed into collaborative processes on more serious projects.
  19. You can never clarify the instructions enough. Always repeat yourself, be prepared to repeat demos, have a written list of instructions and delegate helpers. Breaking projects up into stages can help with detailed instructions, but always show an overview first. Art is overwhelming and there is no process so simple everyone is automatically good at it. Accurate following of a process will often help students who are unsure of themselves prove themselves to be competent and your job as the teacher is to make sure they have everything they need to do that.
  20. Techniques are best remembered when students use them to solve specific problems. Show how applicable to different problems a technique is during demos. Be prepared to reteach or to teach new techniques whenever students hit a wall. Encourage them to reflect over the techniques they have at hand to see if there’s a new way to use one that could solve their problem.
  21. Art is mostly learned by doing. Material literacy is gained only through material exploration. If you spend too much time talking/demoing before they get to try the materials the enthusiasm can fade. If you have a student who is frightened of doing it wrong, the most important thing is to make a safe space for them to do it wrong, because that’s the only way to eventually do it right.

These are all best case scenario tips – and while I’ve tested them all to know they work, it’s still hard work to keep everything in play in every classroom. I’m hopeful that having this written list will help me, and maybe by sharing I can help others as well.

Art is a privilege to teach, but I believe it is incredibly important for everyone to get to learn it, in a safe environment where the effects of an art practice can be the most beneficial.

Are you teaching a creative subject? What are some techniques or core values you bring to your classroom?

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