Since I am a visual artist I will be addressing this issue of learning art from the visual artist perspective. I hope other artists from other media jump in and share their perspective.
I have always loved to draw. Like most children, drawing was my form of communication. But, as an artistic child it was better than my verbal or written communication. Generally, parents can’t figure out what their child has drawn, but give praise anyway. This by the way is a very good thing. That is what parents should do whether your young child is artistically talented or not. They are proud of what they have done and they need to hear that it is good, whether you know what they have drawn or not.
However, there is a time that children need to know that they are required to learn the rules of art. Sadly, most of our school systems maintain the praise phase far too long. Imagine teachers just allowing their students to write down numbers add an equal sign and put a number down that does not add, subtract, divide or multiply; and tell them that is wonderful. Or just put down letters that don’t even resemble words and tell them that is superb. You would say that they are not teaching and your child is not learning and you would be right. All subjects – science, math, grammar, and literature have rules, even the arts – music, dance, performing and visual have rules.
But, you say art is about creativity and you feel that creativity should not be squashed. Fair enough, but how is learning the rules, the techniques, the control of medium going to hurt creativity? I say if you learn the rules, the techniques and how to control your medium it only enhances your creativity. Your drawings will look the way you want them to look; the way you see them in your mind’s eye. Also, after you learn the rules, you can then find out which rules can be broken or stretched, skewed in order to push the vision. If a rule is broken accidently, you can decide if you want or need to correct it. But, more importantly you know that a rule was broken, you know how to fix it, or use it to your artistic advantage. Just like mathematicians or scientists coming upon an answer accidently, they can go back and look at what they did and what rule was broken. Now the scientist or mathematician test this broken rule to see if using it makes the same answer that they could not originally get come forward again and again. If it proves it out it becomes the rule for that answer. That broken rule now becomes part of the learning process; part of the lexicon of the subject; a discovery. It is the same with art. Sometimes a broken rule allows for a better outcome and if it will give you the same outcome each time you do it, then it becomes a rule, or technique for acquiring that outcome.
Figurative art / portraiture have very specific rules. As children we love drawing people. Most children draw apple shaped people with stick legs and arms. One girl in the third grade with me shared that she knew how to draw girls. She would draw a heart shape right-side up and another heart shape up-side down; add a U shape for the head, add squiggles on top and sides of the U and stick arms and legs. She showed me this and then advised me that is the way I should draw my people. By the third grade my people were much more refined than most of the students in my class and I was also drawing horses and dogs. They were still rough and lots of improvement was needed. However, drawing two heart shapes with a U plopped on top was not my idea of what a person looked like. This was the year that I discovered Leonardo DaVinci, Michelangelo, John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, and Sarah Miriam Peale, as well as, the Dutch artists. I spent hours in the library reading and copying what these great masters had done. Since, I was only allowed one book at a time; I started with DaVinci – whose drawings were a great tool in teaching me how to draw the human form: Followed by Michelangelo and so on down the line.
Now, you say, well that is because you had artistic talent. No, it was because art was not taught in elementary school – and unless it is an art high school (of which not all artistically talented children are admitted) it still is not taught in high school, but it is a recreational period. No one is teaching the rules.
By the third grade, teachers should be at least teaching the basics of art – The basic shapes, the basic colors, and the basic lines. Each year another of the basics can be added. This will open a world of possibilities to the artistic child and for the non-artistic child a real sense of understanding of what and how art functions in society. It will give them an understanding of design and how art is all around them.
When art is not taken seriously it is frustrating for the artistic child. They want to learn how to draw better. They want to learn how to draw so it looks like what they see inside their heads. For the non-artistic child it teaches respect for the craft, the skill and the ability of the artists, and improves their art skills. It is not saying all children will want be an artist, anymore than all children will want be a mathematician or a scientist. The artistic child should not need to wait until they take an art class in college to discover the level of their talent. Children that are good in math and science thrive when they are taught the rules, the athletic child thrives by learning about the rules of the sport they enjoy; and so it is with artistic children. We should celebrate that our children all have different skills and talents. We need to encourage our schools and teachers to take the teaching of art more seriously. It will surprise them when all subjects are taken with the same amount of seriousness that the children will rise to the occasion and flourish in their learning. Art Class should not be the easy A.
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