Friday, May 8, 2015

POST #85: Teaching Children How to Draw (and why you shouldn’t)

Every once in a while someone asks me to “teach art” to their children. Aside from the fact that my blood runs cold at the very thought of it, I tell them it’s a waste of money; they would be better off going out and buying art supplies. Children are natural artists up until the age of eleven or so when they get self conscious, sorting themselves into artists and non-artists based on their ability to draw in a realistic manner. The “good drawers” are ones who might profit from lessons after they reach puberty, but leave the others alone. You’ll ruin them.

As I may have mentioned a while ago, the first job I had when I got out of college was teaching art to 12-14 year olds in the Junior High Schools of the South Bronx (Purgatory). I had taken several courses in Art Education, very high minded and theoretical and I was up on the latest research in the artistic development of children. My “bible” was a book by a German refugee intellectual, Henry Schaeffer-Zimmern, called “The Unfolding of Creative Artistic Activity.” (I think that was the title; can’t find any reference to it on line) and I always began the semester with one of his favorite projects, something he called “Ducks in the Pond.”  Once  (and if) I quieted the class down, I would say in a hushed voice that I was going to describe a beautiful scene, and they were to listen carefully because they would be asked to draw it. My only requirement was that they work on it for a full twenty minutes (an eternity to a twelve year old), fill the paper and include everything I described. I gave out paper and crayons so they would be ready to start.

Here is how “Ducks in the Pond” goes:
It’s a beautiful sunny day and I am going for a walk in the park. I come across a path I have never seen before, follow it and find myself in front of a round pond. There are ducks swimming in the pond (maybe some fish too) and a fence around the pond to protect them. The pond has trees all around it. Maybe there are other people in the park, maybe benches, plants, maybe not. At the end of twenty minutes, I collect their work and tape everything up on the blackboard according to their different ways of “seeing.” My goal is to show that the visual (camera) way (the children who are generally considered “artists” by their peers) isn’t always the best and that some of the non-visual, design-oriented interpretations are far more successful. Often, the non-photographic interpretations are better at clearly describing the scene than the more visually accurate ones. I tape the class’ work up and it is immediately obvious that there is no “right” interpretation, but many different ones. Beauty (and art ability) comes in many forms. You can almost feel the collective sigh of relief from those who “can’t draw.” This class is going to be fun! Schaeffer-Zimmern illustrated his book with exquisite drawings done by children from various cultures and degrees of intelligence. He also used examples from past cultures that did not employ Western linear perspective. Not every child creates with a camera eye and it is important to value and encourage those who create works of art with their own, inner eye. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that art critics and historians recognized that not every work of art needed a vanishing point.



  1. I totally agree with you….I have worked with children of all abilities and never really teach them anything……I just give them the freedom to express themselves. If they have a problem technically I will step in and show them how to do something, but I never interfere with their creativity or vision…..The results are wonderful

  2. When I was a child,growing up in NJ in the early1940's, for reasons unknown,I got a
    scholarship to attend Sat.AM art classes at the Montclair,NJ Art, Museum, and
    I loved it..
    .We could interpret a scenario, as Renee has described, or paint a still-life,or, create something entirely out of our own heads. We painted in watercolor or tempera, not sure what.?
    But we had to mix our own colors from only 4 supplied-red,yellow,blue & white...squeezed from a tube.into small glass dishes. We painted onto large paper pads fixed onto an easel.
    How I wish I, or my parents,had saved some of those creations. I haven't thought about that, or how enjoyable it was, for over 70 years.....DGP