Art Class: Self-Expression And Expanded Experiential Learning,By Sheilah Egan,With thoughts from Sallie Lowenstein

Given exposure and encouragement most children find art an expressive outlet. Often using colors and paints to refine their feelings and observations about their world, children’s imaginations are limitless and can be seen portrayed through extremely detailed drawings or paintings. I love hearing the stories that accompany pictures drawn by little ones. Once, while gazing at a many layered, all black circle, I managed to say to our young grandson, “So, tell me about this one.” He immediately launched into a long story about how a shark (his favorite animal at the time) had found a really deep whirlpool and was swimming down, down, down, to find the place that it had come from. His crayon making the action of the shark circling around accompanied each “down” and around in the whirlpool “that was also sucking him down, down, down.” The big black mess on his paper was a vivid expression of the curiosity and terror a shark might have felt caught in such a whirlpool. Later his mother told me that he had just realized that the water in the bathtub made a whirlpool going down the drain. Was he working out his own fears of “going down the drain” or just having fun drawing a story about his favorite animal? Art therapists can extrapolate lots of stories from drawings but that is not the real direction of this article. What we have been observing in recent school decisions to cut expenses by eliminating art and music has become a nation wide concern. There are social media campaigns for “keeping the arts” in school. “Keep music in the school” and “Keep art in the school” slogans are popping up in lots of places. Educators are hard pressed to deal with budget cuts and support all the programs that they know students need; but budgets should not be balanced at the expense of the students. Children need art.

Nine excellent reasons for keeping art in the school curriculum can be found in an article by Denise Reynolds at . She enumerates such things as:

  • The self-esteem developed by doing art and having the satisfaction of creating something with one’s own hands.
  • Enhancement of student achievement in academics and serving as an introduction to other cultures through art.
  • Development of skills, including manual dexterity, math, spacial relationships, chemistry, planning and sequence, and many other concrete developmental skills critical for success in education.
  • Persistence and patience can also be developed directly through art – often improving behavior in other classes as well.
  • Observation skills can prove invaluable in all of the sciences.

Art class, taught by a talented and dedicated teacher, can be a place of creativity and an outlet for emotional and intellectual expression as well as a dedicated learning environment.

On the other hand, many children find art class a less than positive experience. There are a variety of scenarios that undermine the excellent possibilities of the art class as an expanded teaching environment. Often children arrive at school without having been exposed to art supplies or having had any opportunities to try making their own art. Sometimes it is a lack of access to art materials or supplies suitable for children’s hands. Sometimes adults do not want to deal with “the mess.” Sometimes the child is self-defeating through perfectionism. “It doesn’t look like a dog. I hate it. I cannot draw. I will never draw again.”

And sometimes it is the art class’s approach to the entire subject. The following is part of an article by Sallie Lowenstein, artist and author of a variety of books for children and young adults. Ms Lowenstein has taught art to both children and adults. Her perspective often mirrors my own in how some children react to the “art class environment.” Schools, educators, and adults (parents and care givers) should be able to pursue the avenues of fantastic art experiences with children while avoiding some of the pitfalls Ms. Lowenstein describes below.

“In my experience, art in many schools has become a means of teaching kids a skill set rather than teaching them that art is an imaginative means of expressing how they feel. Further kids should be taught that when looking at art they can take emotional solace from other people’s expressiveness.
These are the flip sides of the same coin. Instead we basically give them “how to” instructions to reach a goal that can be “graded” or evaluated in a quantitative fashion. (Many school districts require grades in every class; thus teachers must make quantitative decisions whether or not they truly serve the students. Despite having to give grades, art teachers can emphasize to students the emotional side of looking at art and how it affects them.)

This is, in fact, the antithesis of what art is about. Some children are so innately driven by art that they pursue it despite the discouraging and frequently disparaging idea that there is one way to do a project, or
that there is a correct way to draw. But for many children their natural imagination and fascination with the visual world around them is so dampened by the mass production attitude of art in many schools, that by the time they are nine (or in my experience younger) they no longer like doing art. In addition, they feel they are terrible at it and are basically embarrassed by their efforts.

I would much prefer to see a child interpret a dinosaur or a rainbow with their own creative slant than to draw it how everyone else does, or how a teacher tells them to draw it. Children can learn skills their whole life through, but they can never get back their imaginations or confidence in themselves as artists once it is damaged. And, practicing artists do notwant to have their work look like each others’–they want their own voice.

Many of the expectations that school curriculums have are often misguided. Their goals require small finger coordination that really comes when it will come. It can be encouraged by many different means: by working puzzles, building with legos, smashing play dough or clay, sewing cards, etc. But those things are not what art is about. Art is about learning to see and using what we see to make expressive visual creations that speak to others emotionally, thus offering a bridge between human experiences.
Art is so intuitive and so personal that the idea of making it formulaic is almost anti- art.

Give a child good supplies and turn them loose. Explain what a collage is, spread out a wide range of materials (ribbon, sandpapers, colored papers, wall paper, fabric, etc.) and let them go. If it’s a mess, at least it’s their mess, but the results will probably astound you. I once had the kids collect all kinds of boxes, cans, pipe cleaners, twigs, pieces of wood, piano wire, paper, old books, etc., etc.–and asked them to make flying animals. When we were done we had filled an entire all-purpose-room’s ceiling with an incredible flying zoo. Another time I took in fabric markers, all kinds of colors and patterns of fabric and had every child make a square for a quilt. Not one square was the same, but boy, when I sewed them together was that an amazing quilt. In each case, the children were beaming with pride!

Instead of boxing the child in with specific instructions, give a child free range and materials and you may find that they will be artists before long.

Good supplies are really important to children because of their lack of small finger coordination. A good brush and paint with a lot of pigment will help alleviate their lack of coordination and not frustrate them.
Good colored pencils give them endless hours of pleasure because they, again, have a enough pigment to satisfy children.

Materials-keep in mind that art supplies often are not regulated or labeled.

RULES: Always cover cuts with band aids and NEVER put any art supplies in one’s mouth. Adults read all labels carefully and research all products to be used by children. I have found that establishing the rules and providing the best materials I can, gives youngsters the power to succeed as artists on their own.

For young fingers:

  • Good artist’s brushes – at least “Descent” and in a range of sizes.
    “Pointy ones make small lines-big ones make big lines faster.”
  • Cake tempera paints – such as those by Dick Blick Tempera Cake (starter set of six with tray), Prang, Alphacolor Biggie Cakes, or other “cakes” which are easy to wash off when the colors are all “mished” together

For older students (8 up):

  • Pentel markers — come in sets and the colors are dense and rich
  • Koi Water colors – come in tubes – easy to control (like gouche but easier to use)
  • Derwent Colour Soft Pencils – 12 colors would be basic starter set, a wide range of colors is available
  • Caran D’Ache – crayons and water color crayons — artist quality”

Quality materials prevent frustration … just as having the right tools makes any job easier and produces a better result.

The fact that good supplies are not “wasted” on children is an expensive idea for some schools to consider but there are many reasonably priced materials that do provide the instant density of color that is very satisfying. Money is wasted on poor quality crayons that require a great deal of pressure and hand strength to even get a circle drawn. I know that I have been frustrated with waxy crayons that do not work well no matter what kind of paper is available. There is satisfaction and encouragement in letting one’s hand sweep across a page leaving a swath of color behind. One more swath might be just the thing to make the first one into a field of lavender.

Using quality materials and allowing children to really explore various areas of art should provide unique opportunities for learning at multiple levels. Applying skills garnered in art class should improve other areas of the curriculum while building overall confidence, stimulating critical thinking, encouraging creativity and self-expression. Appreciation of all art forms would give students better skills for using visual clues to help understand the emotions, cultures, and ideals of others.

Lowenstein, Sallie. “Remarks to Educators.” Borders. Gaithersbury MD. 1998.
Used with Permission.

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