rationale for the limitations. If a student persists, I also tell them that I can accept student
proposals that violate the limitations if they propose things that are at least as creative and
as difficult as the thing I assign. They must also convince me that they are not simply
repeating a previous successful pattern.
I often use introductory practice related to the new requirements. These warm-ups build
skill and confidence without showing examples. I avoid examples becuase, like showing
answers in advance, it is most likely to reduce the need to prcatice creative thinking.
Hands-on warm-ups can include experiments that lead to self-discovered results.
Student teacher, Paul Kuharic, discusses a composition
assignment created by a high school student. Students are
restricted to using their own cut paper shapes to develop an
original abstract composition. Compositions are to illustrate
assigned design concepts discussed prior to the media work.
In this photo Mr. Kuharic was student teaching art at
Washington High School, South Bend, Indiana, USA
Judith Harris, in The Nurture Assumption, reviews lots of evidence taken in tribal
societies. She concludes that imitation is our natural way to learn. Village children are
given over to the care of slightly older children. By imitating slightly older children, they
learn to survive and thrive. Many of us have experienced astounding successes by
imitating a very successful example for an assignment or task. There can be lots of
natural success when we imitate successful examples. This is why I am not surprised to
see the popularity of copy work in art classes. However, when we examine imitation as a
learning form for today's world, it may be an instinct that is no longer appropriate in the
changing environment we live in today. It is a good way to learn traditional things, but is
not a way to foster creativity. Imitation is not a way to learn critical thinking.
Imitation and copy work is not a way to foster an innovative spirit in our
It is urgent in today's world that our students become critical thinkers with strong values.
Imitation as a learning style is very limited to accomplish this goal, and when we employ
imitation in teaching, we must point out its limitations and we need to supplement it
immediately with approaches that require innovation, problem solving, and a critical
When we learn by imitation, we tend to become complacent. Not only do our students
fall into “another one of those” mentality, we as teachers often fall into “another one of
those” projects, lessons, or units of instruction. We may say, “If copy work works well for
Chuck Close, who works from photographs, it should work well for us.” Not all
repetition and imitation is bad, but repetition and imitation is certainly not creative.
Unfortunately, imitation is very habit forming.
Many people, when faced with any kind quandry, immediatly look for an expert to
imitate, to follow, or to copy. In too many casese, these people have developed problem
solving habits that lack confidence in their own ability to bring any life experience or
judgement to the situation. This tendency to follow like sheep allows policital leaders too
much power to manipulate a majority of citizens to accomplish their own ends. History is
filled with tradgic examples of populations that have followed leaders without bothering
to think through the ethics or the consequences of what they failed to imagine.
I find that repetition has its merits for the sake of certain types of skills practice.
However, we need to be clear with ourselves when we are promoting skills practice. Skill
alone is not fostering creativity. Skills practice is very useful for the production of art, but
skill by itself is not good art. By skill practice, I would include such things as learning to
do observational drawing or raising a clay cylinder on the potter's wheel. Some art
teachers use copywork, obvious imitation, because they think it develops skill. Imitation
is instinctive and results in lots of "monkey see - monkey do" learning, but does nothing
to encourage or require creative thinking. Imitation teaches other people's ideas and
techniques. Imitation does not teach much thinking. If we want to use imitation to teach
creativity, we must find ways to imitate the thinking habits of highly creative people. This
by the way, is a great way to learn to stop imitating.
Copywork is very common in some high school art classes. I have not met many art
teachers that claimed they were teaching creativity when they had students busily
copying pictures from magazines, although some claim the students are being creative
because they are required to make some sort of modification. Copywork is often
rationalized because it appears to be building skill. Furthermore, many students are
Too often, I see copywork becoming a crutch. Copywork is a form of artistic selfpoisoning addiction. It develops dependency because the student notices that their other
work looks inferior to their copywork. Copywork becomes a "feel good" addiction
because is requires less effort than working form real observation or experience. The
main skill being learned is, how to copy. Very little thinking is required and few real
skills are learned. The part of the brain used for copywork is probably not the same as the
part of the brain used to render a drawing from a real object or person. It is one step
removed from being a passive spectator. The term "couch potato artist" comes to mind.
I recently asked an art teacher how he taught drawing. He said he did some drawing up
front and had the students draw the same things. Obviously, this art teacher is not an art
teacher and has not learned how to teach children how to learn to observe. They are not
learning the skills needed to observe from life and they are not learning creativity. They
are learning to copy a teacher, which is not much different than learning to copy from
another artist or from a photograph. Would it not be much better to use this class time for
actual observation and rendition skill development? Good art teachers know how to teach
real observation. Those who haven't bothered to learn how to teach observation skills
might be called "pseudo" art teachers. Who needs them? It would be cheaper to hire a
supply clerk to assign copywork.
Several years ago I was honored to have a visiting Chinese Scholar in one of my college
art classes. He is a university English teacher in China and was here as part of our
exchange program as a way to improve his conversational English. After class one day
we were talking about teaching drawing to children. He shared that in China the teacher
taught drawing by drawing on the chalkboard to show the children how to draw each
thing. He illustrated it with a stereotypcial cat symbol starting with a circle, adding
triangle ears, ending with the whiskers and curved tail. I am sure that this is changing in
parts of China, but philosophically, a society that values conformity above indiviual
creativity and choice making probably should teach drawing as a series of prescribed
symbols rather than teaching actual observation, thinking, feeling, and interpretation
My own first grade teacher was quite competent in drawing from memory and
imagination. She had been taught to create a large drawing with colored mural chalk. We
were each asked to copy her picture with our crayons. Her pictures, as I recal them,
reminded me of stereotypical calendar landscape scenes of places we dreamed of visiting.
Copywork is very common as a learning method among self-taught artists. Their
definition of art is somewhat simplistic. They are seduced by the look of art and do not
understand the creative aspects of the process. They are producing within a very limited
realm. To them, if it looks like art, it must be art. Untutored artists do not notice their own
mistakes. They may feel that there are mistakes, but they cannot identify the mistakes. As
a result, their work may be charming, naive, and quaint. It often looks creative by default.
When these artists start working with a teacher their artwork often appears to get worse
and worse. Many get totally frustrated and turn away from their "art". When they are
taught to recognize their mistakes they loose the joy. See footnote 5 for some ideas to
succeed with self-taught artists. Of course some self-taught artists do not copy. Some are
Repeated practice is essential to learn skills. Practice makes things easier, builds
confidence, and enhances quality. Similarly, review is essential to learn facts like
artist names, the look of their style, vocabulary about art, and so on. These are important
aspects of learning art, but they are not as useful in today's world as the ability to be
critically aware, inspired, innovative, and responsive problem solvers. It may be
gratifying and entertaining to reach a virtuoso level of performance, but
without critical thinking and creative strategizing, it is a hollow victory.
Showing many examples at the beginning of an art lesson is called "image flooding". In
theory, image flooding shows many good examples in fairly rapid succession. Typically,
the images come from the teacher's collection of previous years' student work, from art
books, slide collections, reproductions, the Internet, and so on. Teachers depend on the
theory that students do not have time to take in enough information to copy. However,
sometimes the examples are posted in the room as reference materials to help focus the
students on the assignment. Additionally, many teachers, knowing that art is also
supposed to be creative, tell the students not imitate or copy any of these works. They are
careful to explain that they are showing examples to clarify the assignment, but not to be
copied. On the surface, this seems like good teaching. These teachers often get excellent
evaluations from their students and their students do fairly well in contests. Students like
it because they can "see" what is expected and image flooding gets decent predictable
There are several issues with image flooding? Some art teachers have become quite
addicted to this seemingly natural way to show the "look" of the expected outcomes. Yet
when pressed, they cannot explain any real rationale for the assignment. They cannot
define the problems being presented. They are inarticulate. They may even say, "Art is
non-verbal." Indeed, as Suzanne Langer contends, ". . . the import of an art symbol
cannot be paraphrased in discourse."4 (p 68) This is true enough. However, teaching art is
very verbal. Langer is extremely verbal. Yet, teachers who fail to explain verbally what
they are attempting to teach still think of themselves as art teachers. I am not saying it is
impossible, but fostering creativity is hard to do unless the teacher understands the nature
of artistic creativity well enough to be articulate about it. Therefore, teachers that use
image flooding as a substitute for the clear articulation of issues and concepts will seldom
succeed in fostering creativity. The nature of imitation is too powerful as an instinct, and
too much the opposite of creativity. The instinct to imitate can easily overcome our
instinct to imagine - which can take a lot more effort.
The second issue I see with image flooding, is the lack of creative integrity that is
fostered in the learner. As a student is easier for me to be just creative enough to make the
teacher think I am being original. This teaches me to borrow and recombine things in
devious ways so nobody will recognize who I am mimicking. In true creativity I would
have to bring something into the mix from my own life experience. Image flooding does
not require this and does not foster this. Image flooding shows me examples from other
lives so I need not bother with my own life. In the end the art is also less mine and more
other's. True creativity happens when intuitive imagination brings forth the
previously unknown and unimagined. Clever combinations of imitated ideas might
look creative, but are they? As a learner, I am even being deceived about the nature of
The third issue I see with image flooding is that students who might otherwise be
naturally creative will find it much harder to access their own rich store of subconscious
experiential store of experiences and ideas. Even highly creative students can be insecure
and very suggestive. Once we an see an image or an idea, it starts to cover up our own
ideas that were trying to emerge. These outside images from other artists become
insistent tunes impossible to shake. In this way image flooding actually drowns
(suffocates) individual creativity before it has a chance to swim on its own.
If I refrain from showing exemplars, how do they know what I want? Hmm? An an art
teacher, I now get to teach art. Part of teaching/learning art is learning the art of idea
development, enhancement, and truth finding. When students are given instruction in idea
development I do not have to show them examples from famous artists, I do not have to
ask them to reinvent or cleverly disguise things that others have done - to make "another
one of those". They can take real life experiences from their own lives. I can encourage
them to develop these into art forms.
Once students tackle an assignment creatively, they will naturally be curious to see what
experts have done in the past related to the problem they have struggled to solve. When
studying a master, they will not only be interested in seeing the end product, but they will
be open to learn about the master's creative methods. We do not only study the look of the
work, we try to figure out why the artist did it that way. In this kind of problem solving,
students find historical evidence from research to confirm ideas about the creative
methods used. If we want to foster student creativity, we can teach the art history as
a review and reinforcement of the art lesson - not as a pattern for the art
We can also teach art history as a discrete body of knowledge without using it as example
work for a particular creative problem. While this may not directly practice creativity, it
still gives students knowledge about and appreciation for the creativity of other artists. It
may still provide good information about creative processes and methods used by artists
to achieve the artworks we are studying.
For those interested in integrated learning, students can also be encouraged to begin with
art about their own experiences related to a concept. After doing the artwork, they can
study similar concepts in science projects, social issues, and so on. When working with
kindergarten children in a religious education (Sunday School), I might start with a
discussion of various ways they work as helpers in their families. Then basing their work
on these experiences, they create drawings. This is followed by a story from a religious
text that tells about how somebody was a helper in the story. I do not use art to review
other subjects. This makes art into a mere tool to help remember something else. This is
not creative and it would not be in keeping with my understanding of art.
Of course other school subjects come into the artwork with integrity when students
become knowledgeable and deeply concerned about issues related to other subjects.
Some very creative social issue artwork could emerge when students experience things
like prejudice, pollution, drug overdoses, drunk driving, and other things they and friends
HOW TO TEACH WHEN WE DO NOT USE IMITATION?
I believe we should show the great examples as part of the review process after the
students have had a chance to apply their own creativity.
By not showing examples in advance, I as the teacher, am forced to think and articulate
ideas and assignment goals better. I have to become a teacher, not merely an audio visual
expert and supply clerk. I am obligated to provide preliminary practice sessions. They
know what I want if the practice sessions give them methods used by creative people to
develop their ideas. I need to explain goals in terms the students can understand. I need to
ask questions to verify that they they are thinking and that they understand. For related
thoughts, see Planning to Teach Art Lessons. Ultimately, every lesson is less product
oriented and more for the purpose of learning the process of artistic creativity. --- to top
Creatively productive people use a number of methods that teachers can learn from.
Many make lists and sketches of possibilities. As an artist, I often use drawing as a way
to “develop” an idea or solve a problem. I believe students can learn to do it also.
Students should do focused "playing around" with an idea. Visually creative people use
thumbnail sketches as their lists. These lists and sketches are extensive and often include
options that are directly the opposite of a conventional solution. Students who can
quickly make long lists are fluency gifted. Students who can make lists with items that
are unique and unlike those of other students are gifted in flexibility. Sometimes we see
who in my class has the most ideas that are not listed by anybody else. Giving them
honorable mention points is a way to encourage them. Highly creative individuals keep
tinkering with the ideas in their lists and sketches. Fine tuning is encouraged.
When I give an assignment that starts with list making, I have them first work
individually. Then I might ask them to form groups of three or four. Generally, I try to use
grouping criteria to get as much diversity of skill, interest, and background as possible in
each group. Using a group of diverse experts is known as synectics. Students may not be
experts, but they are each encouraged to contribute from their unique experiences. I want
them each to present their ideas to the group and ask for help adding features, new ideas,
and so on. I want them to take each others listed ideas and add them to their own ideas to
see if still more or better ideas develop. In today's world, most tasks require complex
solutions that only collaborative efforts can achieve. Beginning in elementary grades
students can learn to be collaboratively creative learners and teachers of each other.
After significant effort to get long lists, fine-tuned ideas, and so on, they are asked to rank
all ideas according to several criteria. Criteria depend on the project, but they might sort
them from innovative to common, from simple to complex, from beautiful to ugly, from
useful to non-functional, from durable to temporary, from precious to cheap, and so on.
This link describes a class process for getting ideas for artwork using The Conversation
Research shows that highly creative people mention more opposites when taking a free
association word test.2 This tells us that they have learned not waste time with the
conventional solutions. They find successes when they look at things up side down,
inside out, and from back to front.3 To understand beauty, it helps to experience ugly.
Build in lesson time to practice with materials so that beginning mistakes are not
mistaken for creative ideas. Comfort and some mastery of processes and materials allows
for more creative rendition of new ideas. Artists often find inspiration as they start
manipulating the materials. It is natural to get visual ideas as we work with visual
materials. Picasso said something to the effect that art is two percent inspiration - not
knowing when inspiration would occur, it was important for him to be in the studio
Practice with materials may lead directly to a creative final product. Many artists, do not
believe in preplanning. They are inspired the process itself. The enjoy interacting with the
materials and the visual and tactile experiences that emerge as they work. This approach
is especially appropriate for certain styles like abstract expressionism where the action of
material manipulation is often a major portion of the content and concept of the work.
Put more emphasis on process rather than product? When we show an end product in
order to help explain something, we risk that students will not be challenged to think
creatively. We may want them to be creative, but by our actions they believe we care
more about the product than whether they learn how to think. Why should students be
creative when we are showing answers rather than presenting problems? There are good
ways to explain problems without showing answers. Color mixing can be used as
creativity practice by asking students to experiment with colors. They can be led to
discover how to combine colors form new colors. It can be learned as a problem finding
and problem solving process. In contrast, many teachers post a color chart in the room to
show how colors are made. Then they ask students to mix their own colors. Posting the
answer does not give students the impression that creative thinking is expected.
To teach process, we avoid posting charts that gives answer unless the students
themselves have invented the charts. I might ask them to do experiments to figure out
how to mix a color that will match a color that they select on a spot on a still life object I
have placed on a table in the room. I like to select things from the garden or produce
market that have colors unlike any of the student's paints. Their paints for this might
include only primaries and neutrals. Their experiments needs to consider hue, value,
intensity, lighting, and color temperature. As in math, you could ask them to show each
step in the search rather than just the answer. False starts and incorrect guesses are okay,
but not correct. Real experiments often result in wrong answers at first. Each step could
include a few notes about how it was done. In the end, a small color chip can be attached
to the actual still life to see if it disappears. Unlike math, there are many ways to
approach this problem. When math is involved in an art project, I like to see the same
answer derived in at least two ways. This not only encourages creative thinking, it is
In a reverse of the above color matching process problem, students could experiment to
create the most contrasting color to use as the background color. Now the end product
becomes more subjective and individualized. Colors have several contrasts including hue,
tone, temperature, and saturation. With an open option for how to produce contrast,
students will make discoveries in some proportion to how much experimentation they are
willing to do.
In another vein, color experiments can be compared to look for relationship that evoke
certain emotional effects such as anger, love, sweetness, tartness, and so on. In one
process centered assignment I ask students to represent the relationships in their own
family by using abstractly shaped pieces of painted paper that they paint and cut. When
finished, another student unfamiliar with the family being represented has to attempt an
interpretation. For the sake of privacy, the class is assured in advance that literal
explanations would not be asked for or allowed. Since no families are perfect, a followup assignment can be a variation on the first where an imagined idealized family is
composed by the same method.
Some additional ideas on teaching students ways that artists generate their art ideas is
included in The Secrets of Generating Art Ideas: An Inside Out Art Curriculum.
Openly reward unusual and innovative work. Even when it is crude, I try to acknowledge
the innovative part of student work. If I want creativity, I have to be a bit stingy with high
grades for derivative work just because it is skillful and has a professional look without
any originality. My rubrics do not include: following directions, or neatness. Neatness is a
style that may or may not be appropriate. Following directions may be important, but
some of the most creative outcomes are produced by perceptive creativity that can see
that some rules are less important than a good solution. Most of the greatest scientists and
many of the greatest artists are those that found established rules to be wrong.
W e can develop more games, assignments, and even tests and formal assessments that
give points for unique responses while not counting points for answers that somebody
else gives? Bonus points could be given for high quality, beauty, expressiveness,
usefulness, artistic importance, correctness, truthfulness, and whatever else is deemed
important. We need to stop giving so much credit for redundant facts that everybody
Consider the tone and nature of responses to student ideas
Students often need encouragement and reassurance. They get ideas and begin to doubt
their own ideas. Students who ask about a new idea need encouragement. I say to try it see what happens - even when I think the idea will fail. I might enthusiastically say, “It
would certainly be worth a try. If it doesn't work you will still learn from it and you may
even get a better idea.” I might offer a story about a similar option or a variation on their
idea that can be used for comparison, but generally it is best to get them to follow their
Use common everyday experiences and issues that students are very familiar as content
assignments for art. Familiar content allows for more challenging artistic processes.
Exotic or strange content promotes more copywork of "references" because students are
forced to use preexisting pictures instead of direct experience and observations. The ideas
that grow out of experiences can be substantially more meaningful. Experiences are
different for every student. Each student has unique family rituals, customs, heritage, etc.
Creativity flourishes when we are intimately acquainted with our content. My most
creative work happens when I am open to my immediate surroundings.
Many students come the art teacher and ask for suggestions related to their work. How
can art teachers avoid becoming the “know it all” that takes ownership of the student's
artwork? What are some thinking questions we can ask? How can we reassure them that
there are several ways to do it? Art is a search. Art with integrity grows from an honest
search. Students will become more creative if they can feel they are the true owners of
their work. We can even hope that students will learn how these questions are formulated.
It may eventually be possible for the teacher to ask, "What are the questions?" The
student will say, "Oh. Yes. I know what to try."
Consider answering questions with questions about experimentation
Art and science have many commonalities, but the one I often fail to use is probably the
most basic and important of all - the scientific method. The scientific method says that
questions must be answered experimentally and the results are repeatable.
Art students have often asked me to give them a suggestion to improve a work in
progress. Many times my ego and my pompous personality have simply prompted me to
blurt out an answer. I have given my recommendation without even thinking that this was
actually a teachable moment. My students learned dependency. Too often I have been
the dependency facilitator. Had I been thinking scientifically, I might have ask the student
to design a small experiment.
Yes, the scientific method takes more time in the short run, but if a student learns that
they can design experiments to solve their own problems, they have learned not only the
scientific method, they have learned one of the important components of artistic thinking
and artistic behavior. Ultimately, time is saved because students have learned to figure
out how to answer their own questions. They are empowered.
Teaching habits are powerful and subtle. Answering questions in the studio class gives
me such a feeling of power and is such a hard habit to break. As an artist, I am generally
more clever than the student - what an ego trip! During the Dark Ages science was a set
of teacher answers. Progress was made when the scientific method began using
questions and experiments to check on old answers and discover new answers. We came
out of the dark ages when real and careful observation replaced copywork. In science,
nothing is assumed to be true because a teacher says so. Too often my art class was taught
using Dark Ages dogmatism.
Art teachers ask me why should we teach students to reinvent the wheel. Good question.
Is the making of wheels more important than the ability to invent the wheel? For
educators interested in the formation of the mind, learning how to think always trumps
knowing an answer. The color wheel may be important, but it took my caveman mind
two decades of teaching to figure out that it is much more important for students to invent
the color wheel than for them to copy it. Now I never show a color wheel before students
have experimentally learned to manipulate and observe color concepts.
Be careful with the transition if you have been a very "giving" teacher that loves to give
advice and suggestions. Students will wonder why you are suddenly not as forthcoming
with easy answers. Some may resent having to think and make more choices. Your new
willingness to teach thinking is generous, but can be misinterpreted as "selfishness with
information". Reassure them that the best way is a way that comes from their own
efforts? Help them design experiments so they can find the solutions themselves instead
becoming dependent on an expert (the teacher)? Understand that as a teacher, it may feel
less powerful not to give a wise answer and magical solution for every compositional
question. In the end we know it is most powerful to be able to empower others. top of
ARE SKILLS A PREREQUISITE TO THINKING AND CREATIVITY?
Many teachers have argued that skills and knowledge are essential prerequisites for the
production of art. This belief leads to lots of “another one of those” art assignments with
no requirement for innovation. I believe it is much better to include both innovation
criteria as well as skill and knowledge criteria. This can sometimes be done concurrently
and sometime alternately. It may be helpful if students are told when they are simply
working at “rehearsal” and when they are being asked to “perform” creatively. Most four
and five year olds are naturally creative, but very immature in their skills development.
At this age we all understand that it would be ludicrous for us to insist that they be
proficient in skill before they are allowed to be expressive.
So, at what age do children loose their right to be expressive? Unfortunately, it happens
without us trying. Typically, many third graders experience a “crisis of confidence”. It
happens in art if nobody has helped them develop any observational skills. Without
instruction, only a small percentage of children are naturally motivated to practice
drawing enough to master observational accuracy.
Art teachers are of different minds as what is needed when children begin to notice that
they have little or no drawing ability. Unfortunately, some teachers say, “Don't worry, I
can't draw either.” Instead of teaching the importance of drawing, they devalue it. They
give art assignments that look like art, but require no particular ability. They imitate, they
copy, they follows step-by-step assembly instructions, and so on. These teachers are
actually mere supply clerks. Along the same lines, some art teachers show formulas from
books on “how to draw a tree, a face, or a human figure”. These methods do not teaching
drawing competency. They teach dependency. Few children complain because they
naturally enjoy imitation and they are mildly rewarded by pretty products. There is no
way for them to know that good art teaching could help them with methods that actually
teach them how they could learn to draw anything by helping them practice standard
Too many children as well as adults confuse drawing and creativity. Many people with a
poor self-image in regard to drawing, also feel that they are not artistic. They feel they are
not talented. They might also feel they are not creative. Being able to draw does not
automatically make one creative and does not make one an artist any more than the
ability to use a camera makes a photographer into an artist. Drawing is a skill. Drawing,
just like photography can be done artistically and it can be done creatively, but not all
drawing is art and not all drawing is creative. So while there is a close connection
between drawing, art, and creativity, it is not always connected.
The ability to draw a likeness may seem to be a natural gift or talent for some, but it is
actually acquired by practice. Like anything else, some acquire this skill faster and easier
than others, but everybody learns it through practice. Nearly everybody can learn to play
piano with a good teacher and faithful practice. Nearly everybody can learn to read and
write with a good teacher and with faithful practice. The same is true for drawing. These
are skills that are easier for some and harder for others. The ones who learn easier and
without a teacher in our culture are thought to be talented, but they still learn by practice.
We now know that observation drawing can be learned by anybody at nearly any age.
Drawing is not dependent on talent, but for many, drawing is dependent on knowing how
drawing is learned. Natural propensity is not essential for drawing any more than it is for
reading. Many elementary classroom teachers, if asked by a child for help with a
drawing, will be told, "Don't worry about it, I can't draw either." Would that same teacher
say every say, "Don't worry about it, I can't read either."In our culture we have become
absolutely dependent on reading, but only marginally dependent on the ability to draw.
This cultural bias that fails to see the basic need to learn drawing helps produce
substandard creative thinking ability in the general population.
You can survive without knowing how to read, but reading is extremely helpful. You can
be creative without knowing how to draw, but drawing is extremely helpful when doing
creative work. Researchers have found that careful visual observation drawing is done in
the right hemisphere of the brain where intuitive and creative thinking occurs. Rational
thinking, on the other hand, happens in the left hemisphere of the brain where the trite
schematic drawings are stored in the brain (childlike stick figures, triangle nose images,
etc.). This may indicate that observation drawing practice develops the intuitive part of
the brain. This may be true, but if not, their are other basic reasons to learn drawing in
order to be more creative.
Drawing is an extremely useful, if not essential tool used in creative thinking. Drawing is
very helpful to most students and adults in the development of all kinds of creative ideas
and in problem solving. Imagination means visualization. Learning to draw develops the
portion of the brain that visualizes. Visualizing is used in all kinds of creative planning
activities including charting, graphing, mapping, planning structures, planning
communities, and design of every kind. Creative workers employ drawing and
visualization to check out many scenarios before they make decisions.
While planning a creative project, drawings are constantly being modified and refined.
Creative planners have learned to expect the drawing process to bring out many new
ideas that would have been missed otherwise. Drawings allow creative collaborations
with non-drawing participants whose creativity is facilitated by the drawings. Drawing
for a creative worker is a dynamic conversation with the plan and the other stakeholders.
The drawing talks to the designers and the designers responds with new variations until
the best possible outcome is realized.
I once visited Don Reitz in Wisconsin after he had added an sizable addition to his house.
Don was on the art faculty at the University of Wisconsin. He is a very creative potter and
sculptor whose work is very expressive, but I do not believe he draws things before
making them. The clay itself is his drawing material. He does very expressive work by
responding directly to the material. Drawing first on paper would probably deflate his
enthusiasm for the actual creative work. When he decided to have workers build an
addition to his house, he decided to try the same approach. When the excavator came,
they walked around, looked at the site, and decided where to dig, and so on. Everything
worked out fairly well with a nice two story addition to his house. However, fairly late in
the project they could not find a good place for a staircase between the two floors. To
solve this, he had a fairly small spiral kit installed. Had he used drawings, he may have
noticed this in time to create a more elegant solution that would allow easier and safer
transport of furniture to the upper level.
Drawing is not merely a medium of creative planning. Just like clay is the immediate,
expressive, and vital "drawing" medium for Don Reitz, drawing on paper can also be a
vital, expressive, and creative end product for may artists.
When art teachers teach children how to learn observation drawing, they are facilitating
creative thinking in many other areas of their lives. When we teach expressive drawing,
we are engaged in actual creative thinking and acting. Children need to learn both. Every
scribbling child is being expressive almost without knowing it. Observation skill practice
can begin fairly young, and at least by grade one. Expressive work should also continue
to be nurtured.
Without deliberate drawing instruction, only a small percentage of children learn to draw
because most children lack the instinct to keep drawing on their own as soon as their
critical sensitivities outpace their observation drawing skills. Only a few people would
learn to read and write without teachers. Most would give up without teachers or parents
to coach this learning. In such a culture, we might say they that most people lack the
talent to read and write. That in fact is the culture we now have in many communities in
regard to observation drawing. Children do not learn how to learn drawing because they
do not have art teachers or they have art teachers who do not know how to teach drawing.
In the US about 40 percent of the elementary schools do not have art teachers. This
important mind development is missed and much creativity is missed when this tool is
abandoned during our development.
Art teachers need to help children begin to make visual comparisons and represent them
in their drawings. I use lots of open questions that remind children to observe more
carefully. I do not draw in front of the students because it encourages them to copy my
drawing and they still do not learn to observe. I go over to the thing being observed and
carefully point out how to notice things. I ask them to practice drawing in the air while
observing before committing pencil to paper. Students are asked to notice contour, size,
texture, value gradations, proportions, and every kind of relationship in the thing, person,
or animal observed. I ask them to use a pencil at arm's length as a sighting device to
compare sizes, angles, and so on. I often encourage the use of touch, and include smell,
taste, and sound as motivation and when experiencing the world. I avoid copy work,
formulas, and drawing tricks. I do not give answers, but encourage experimentation and
exploration to find answers. I provide aides to observation including viewfinders to frame
compositions and pencil blinders (a square of tag board with the pencil through it) to to
hide the paper and encourage looking at the thing being observed. When mistakes are
obvious to the student, I encourage another line before erasing the mistake. "Don't nix it
until you fix it." Sometimes three or four tries are needed, but this is learning. The
purpose of practice is to make it easy and to make it better.
Drawing is learned with regular practice. A few minutes of drawing practice time
becomes a classroom ritual for every art class session. Art is much more than drawing,
but there is probably nothing more basic than drawing. Observation and expressive
drawing are the descriptive and expressive reading and writing of the brain's
visual development. The brain's visual development is basic to the brain's
facility to imagine, to do visual scenario making, and to be creative.
Therefore, teaching observation and expressive drawing is a basic part of
Drawing is but one part of art. But even in drawing, creative art teachers realize that
drawing is not a series of learned rules about standard subject matter. Creative artists
are not concerned that a cow from certain angle can be drawn by combining five triangles
in a clever way. Much of good drawing is actually the product of seeing and
observational ability. It is a mental acuity learned through practice. Instead of learning
rules, copying standard images and proportions, students need to be shown how artists
actually look at their world and the things, animals, and people in it. Teachers need to
walk over to the thing being observed and explain how to look at it--not show some
standard way that it should look in a drawing. I do not demonstrate drawing because I do
not want students to learn to copy my drawing. I go the thing being drawn and move my
finger according to the way I see the thing. I show how to measure to get honest
proportions from observations--not from other people's pictures. Drawing is learned by
learning to observe proportions by visually measuring from actual people, animals and
objects – not by copying pictures that other observers have created. Drawing is learned
by noticing tonal changes as lighting changes. Drawing is learned by learning to see the
relative size, clarity, and brightness of near and distant objects.
Expressive drawing, painting, sculpture, and so on grows out of intense and extensive
experimentation with materials and processes, by working slowly and deliberately, by
working fast and spontaneously, by combining the methods, and then attending to the
results, not by learning any rules of drawing. Imaginative drawing is learned by making
many lists or thumbnail sketches of ideas that grow out of experiences – not by copying
another artist's surrealistic images. Creativity is learned when learners find out that their
risks bring rewards. Formulas imply a safe answer. They encourage sticking with safe
systems rather than taking the risk to learn how to learn a new ability.
In the US, even the National Standards of Art Education do not list observational drawing
as an essential ability or standard. Observation drawing is apparently seen as optional for
those who enjoy it. What would happen if writing and reading were considered optional
for those who enjoy learning to write and to read? “That's okay, I can't read either” is not
commonly heard in the classroom. Too many children shy away from art or find little joy
in it because they suffer under the illusion that they are not talented. This is because they
have never been exposed to a few simple methods used to practice observation drawing
and overcome their childish methods of rendition. Observation drawing teaches us that
we can truly trust the truth of our own observations more that what others tell us about
Drawing from memories and experiences is a second source of
inspiration for drawing. Preschool children who have progressed beyond the
scribbling stage, nearly always draw from their experiences. Teachers and parents can
encourage and enrich creative self expression and creative thinking habits of young
children by asking them relevant open questions (questions with multiple correct
answers) while they are drawing. If we want to encourage creative thinking, these kind of
questions never suggest or dictate, but they help and encourage children to think of more
ideas to include in their work. More of what they know becomes visible in their
The work is also more creative and richer when the experiences themselves have been
enriched. For example, if a child has visited a zoo with a caregiver who actively discusses
the animals with the child, she is apt to make much more creative artwork related to this
experience than another child who visited the same zoo with a passive caregiver.
Drawing from the imagination is a third and particularly creative
source of inspiration for drawing and other other artwork . Young children
have a strong instinct to imagine which seems to decrease rapidly as they go through
school. We cannot say for certain why the imagination seems to decrease so much as
children age. We do believe that constant pressure to have come up with one right answer,
to copy things in workbooks, color in other people's pictures, and similar activities all
conspire to discourage creative and imaginative divergent thinking and problems solving.
Learning of experiment with art materials in order to see how they create their effects is a
good way to encourage creative and imaginative thinking and counteract some of the
stultifying influences of becoming cultured and trained to conform.
Drawing and other artwork is inspired by three sources that enhance our creativity. They
are observation, experience, and imagination. Lesson that are based on rules, copywork,
examples, and demonstrations are less apt to encourage creativity. This is not to say that
there are constraints. Good teaching has many constraints and limitations in order focus
thinking and ensure creativity.
Should Art Teachers Teach the Visual Elements and Principles of
Some teachers feel that the visual elements and the principles of design are the basic
structure of art. It is thought that if we teach the basic structure, art will happen. That was
a modern art idea developed during the 1930's. Hmm? I'm sorry, but art has turned out to
be a bit messier than that. I do believe the elements and principles still have some utility
for artists. However, they are too limiting and simplistic. They fail to acknowledge
content, symbol, meaning, and untraditional ways of being artistic. Every artwork is
different and there is no simple system that covers everything not yet imagined. If there
are any final equations, computer programs, verbal pronouncements, or whatever, that
give a final definition to art we will have witnessed the final implosion of truth, beauty,
In the meantime, there is little harm in working at definitions and tentative rules so long
as we also agree to live with uncertainty and change. Rather than teaching the elements
and principles as predetermined truth, a teacher interested in fostering creative thinking
might be well advised to ask students to experiment in ways they might postulate and
arrive at compositional principles on their own. Just as education is better when we learn
invention than how to make previously invented products, it is better to learn principle
finding and verification rather than learning principles determined by dead experts at
another time and place. It is very creative to ask students to define a set of principles that
can be used to assess their own work. It is creative to ask students to figure out how the
old standard elements and principles might have been determined? As in life, if there are
rules, they are more likely to be things like: pay attention, make comparisons, verify, be
skeptical, look before you leap, and so on. The traditional design principles can guide, but
not determine the process, and they certainly do not determine the art product.- top of
Teach creativity by giving TIME FOR THE CREATIVE PROCESS
As an artist I spend lots of time contemplating next projects - sometimes months or years
before doing the project. For me, some sketching is a good way to focus the issues and
get this process started. Additionally, much of this brain work seems to be subliminal. My
mind can be working on things behind the scenes. Every part of daily experience has
potential for an art project. This kind of homework is no work. When I actually start
working I have a gathered lots of new insights - some recorded and some without
knowing it. As an artist, I am not merely a knowledge worker, but a mind worker. It is not
merely what I know, it is what I can now do with what I know.
In organizing the sequence of mind training and creativity training lessons, are there ways
to ritualize and focus advance preparation, discussions, questions, and sketching sessions
that promote thinking, looking, more sketching, dreaming, and idea development for
lessons that are coming in the future. Are there ways to encourage and reward the keeping
track of art ideas that come to mind at unexpected times? When I leave my studio
my hands-on work is interrupted. I may even leave because I am
experiencing a block, but my mind keeps working - my homework is
continuing with the expectation that my mind will inform me of the
next move. Good teachers prepare their students so that when their students leave the
classroom their minds are prepared for homework that is no work. They expect to get
ideas at unexpected times. This is homework that is no work in the traditional sense.
Good teachers understand the surreal powers of subconscious minds, of imagination, and
of creative thinking habits.
The creative process includes preparation, incubation, insight, elaboration, and
evaluation. Classrooms that include preparation, incubation, and insight
might need to juggle two or three projects at once. What are the class
rituals and concept questions that get the wheels turning so that dreams and imaginations
are ignited. I have often been tempted to use shortcuts such as showing examples of other
art to get quick inspiration and information as a substitute for relevant self-referential
thinking. But what are the ways to define artistic challenges in ways that to give the
students the courage to develop and express their own ideas?
This takes time. It means practice sessions, question session, and list making rituals.This
means setting aside time that is days or weeks in advance of the actual production to get
students focused and thinking. It means programming their minds to do the subconscious
incubation homework that helps bring insight to the table when the production starts. We
know that homework works best when we develop rituals of accountability and when we
make a point of rewarding successes. What are the classroom rituals that give credit and
honor to the students when they show evidence of subliminal ideas that have been
recorded and brought to class and infused in their creative work? How often do we take
class time to investigate the sources of our own creative ideas?
As a teacher, how often do I teach “another one of those” lessons? Can I justify it because
I am still learning how to teach? As a creative teacher, it is my responsibility to review
the results of a lesson or a unit. As I assess the results, it is my responsibility to imagine
other ways the lesson could have been taught. It may be a year before I teach a similar
unit again, will I remember what needs to be changed? Will I remember to start
mentioning it sooner so that my students' subconscious minds start their homework
sooner? A creative teacher needs a good system to record ideas for next year? I am
thankful for computers to make this easier.
For a number of years I had college art students who were required to observe some of
the best art teachers in the public schools in our area. My students had to journal their
observations. Even though they saw very impressive methods, I required that their notes
and ideas include alternative ways of teaching a similar lesson. Also, their journal must
include some critical thinking about the pros and cons of “another way” of teaching what
they observe. It is fairly easy for apprentice teachers to learn by imitating their model
teachers. However, creative teachers go beyond imitating their role models. They go
beyond their mentors. They do this by virtue of critical review of their own teaching – by
carefully reviewing what happens and then searching for alternative things to try.
Creative teachers make mistakes, but but they also search for ways to overcome mistakes.
Each time they try something, they review the outcomes and try to imagine ways to make
improvements. If I am an uncreative teacher, it may be because I do not feel that I make
mistakes. I know I am teaching in the same way I was taught. My instinct to imitate says
I am doing okay. I may admit to some bad outcomes, but in my uncreative mind I blame
my students for the bad outcomes. I say, “Nobody can teach correctly for every student in
a class and certainly I should not be held responsible for an unmotivated or ‘mentally
challenged’ student. Students have to do their part.” If I tend to make excuses for what
should be changed in my teaching, I will not be a creative teacher. On the other hand, if I
have a habit of looking for new alternative methods, I am likely to be a creative teacher.
Unfortunately, studies show that many school administrators do not rate highly creative
teachers as their best teachers. Along with the propensity to be creative, these teachers
may be less predictable, and maybe in some cases be less amenable to school policies.
Creative people are not only more fluent and flexible. They are also more skeptical and
may be less respectful of authority. They may be more impulsive, more brash, more
daring, and may be lacking in some social skills. From this, we need to be warned that
not everybody will appreciate our creative efforts so much that they will overlook our
personality faults. The more creative we are, the more important it is for us to be good
communicators and graceful colleagues.
----end of essay--The author invites your comments and questions. Contact the author
If you are an art teachers interested in doing some research on creativity, on
learning to draw, or on the relationship of art and learning to think, or some other
issue, send me a note. Click here for a list of issues of particular interest to the
Harris, Judith. The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do.
1998. Simon and Schuster, New York.
Kotulak, Ronald. "Word Test Used to Spot Creative Geniuses." Chicago Tribune,
October 2, 1983, page 1. This article describes research by Albert Rothenberg.
Rothenberg, Albert. "Creative Contradictions" Psychology Today, June, 1979. Pages 5579.
This article describes Rothenberg's theory of the way in which creative people can solve
problems and produce innovations by seeing the logic of simultaneous opposites.
Langer, Suzzane K. Problems of Art. 1957. Charles Schribner's Sons, New York.
A few art teachers succeed with self-taught artists because they understand how fragile
many self-taught artists are. These teachers put the first emphasis on learning new
observation skills. They use blind contour drawing and humor. They encourage linemaking for fun like a music teacher might play noise games as a warm up. These teachers
do not worry about pointing out mistakes. When the students begin to notice their own
mistakes, the teacher knows how to use questions that help help students learn to see and
eventually answer their own questions. When these teachers see bad habits, they know
how to raise questions that get the students to notice things. The questions can be phrased
in ways that are face saving for the student. A teacher can fein ignorance, by saying, "I
can't quite see what you intend here. Do you want me to see it coming forward or going
back? What am I missing?" These teachers teach creativity because their students move
from being dependent to being independent learners that think about what they see - not
merely copy. They learned how artists solve visual problems.