& Units  

by Marvin Bartel
© 1999 - updated 2010
author bio
  author contact

The original version of this page was intended for college students who were preparing to become art teachers. It has been updated to make it more suitable for all art teachers.

Outline and Sequence Summary
In most cases, I like to teach the art lesson parts in the following order:
  • Talk about the lesson for days or weeks - good ideas grow over time. Consider using questions that make students curious and inspired. Encourage some individual ideas and approaches.
  • Distribute supplies (avoid disruptions later)
  • Review something that we studied recently and introduce today's work. Using questions during the review lets students know that you expect things to be remembered and used again.
  • Practice what is new before students are asked to be creative with it. Students that have hands-on practice prior to the project are apt to be more confident and creative than those that have no idea what they are doing. Hands-on practice and questions can replace many teacher demos and examples that could dampen individual thinking, imagination, and creativity.
  • Present main assignment - motivate more than one way. Some ways include seeing, touching, tasting, hearing, smelling, games, practicing a process, competitive idea teams, collaborative projects, drama, dance, poetry experimentation, and accidental series, and so on.
  • Student time on task - often motivational open questions are used to help enrich, personalize, and focus ideas during this time. If things are not going well, stop everything and refocus the class. If things are going well, it is good to back and allow creativity to flow.
  • Critique time - students can learn critique approaches that are both affirmative and discovery based that encourage learning without turning off or discouraging the participants.
  • Endings and connections (discuss related art history and art in their lives) - review what was learned and how they learned. How we learn in studio art is often quite different than in other classes.

Setup and foreshadow upcoming sessions to activate thinking, sketching, journaling, subconscious thinking, and ideas.

The order in which things are done tells a lot about the teacher's philosophy of education. 

Table of Contents -  click to jump to a topic

Use the browser Back button to return here

  1. pre-lesson foreshadowing
  2. distribute supplies
  3. review 
  4. introduce 
  5. practice materials and processes   - subject ideas  -  composition  -  style  -  observation
  6. motivation 
  7. main assignment
  8. time on task 
  9. impulsiveness 
  10. self doubters 
  11. how to help
  12. endings 
  13. connections 
  14. post script
  15. outline (brief summary)
  16. who are the learners? 
  17. why are you doing it?

    See the same student age 5 self portrait. Work of the same person at age 3. A 2005 article quoting David as an adult scientist reflecting on how child art experiences help develop life-long creative thinking.
    Top of Page

"I Am Playing Tennis With My Father"
original is 3.25 x 5.25 inches 
by David, age 9,  felt tip pen on newsprint. It is drawn from memory of actual experience. A road next to the park is represented at the top. Note the tree next to the tennis court is represented as a negative shape against grass in the background. 

What do you know about the students that will influence your planning?
    Which are most relevant to the lesson you are planning?
1. Level of their art skills:

Good art lessons need some difficulty to be challenging, but need to be easy enough to avoid too much frustration. Art skills are things like: observational drawing, ability to make clay do what you want it to, ability to make tools and materials do what you want, and the ability to actively use the imagination. Will your lesson be easy enough so they are not discouraged? Will the students be challenged enough to keep their interest? Skills are learned by practicing. The best lessons are those that include practice training together with interest builders that motivate self initiated skill practice.

Imaginative thinking may not be thought of as a skill, but it is a more basic skill than most art skills. Art teachers and writing teachers are in good positions to help students retain, practice, and develop their powers of imagination. Imagination makes us human, yet many school assignments seem to be designed to discourage imagination. Every art project needs to be at least partially assessed on the basis of its effect on the students' attitude toward, and ability to use, their skills of imagination. To often school extinguishes a child's divergent thinking and imaginative spark because so much of school work is centered around learning the right answer. In art the child can continue to believe that there are frequently many answers and that limits are often very artificial. Our imaginative and speculating ability is one of the basic skills that gives us the human spark. Education should ignite it rather than extinguish it.

2. Their art world awareness:

Good art lessons review previous art knowledge. What artist's work can you refer to and expect students to know what you are talking about? What historical examples are familiar? What examples from other cultures are familiar to your students?

3. Art knowledge/vocabulary:

What new art terms do your students know, need to review by regular usage, and need to learn by your introduction with this lesson? What design principles do they know or need to learn? How good are they at analyzing the way art effects viewers?

4. Attitude and motivation:

How much enthusiasm do students show for learning new skills, for routine skill practice, for new concepts, for learning the strategies that artists use? Most students want to do well. The chance to master something or at least see that they are improving, has a very positive effect on attitude and motivation. Some students have the mistaken idea that they cannot do well in art because they are not talented. Ability is mostly the result of effective practice. The art teachers job is to make the hard stuff easy enough to avoid too much frustration, and to make the easy stuff challenging enough not to be boring. It is our job to know how art skills can be practiced in ways that produce noticeable improvements in mastery. The recognition of improved mastery is one of the strongest motivations in art classes. This is a reason to have critiques and exhibitions of student work.

What do your students know about the purposes of art in the world and in their lives? When students feel that what they are doing has a purpose beyond themselves, they are much more apt to be inspired to work hard to do well. Some of the many purposes of art can be reviewed as they relate to each lesson.

Motivation is generally strongest when students feel ownership in their ideas. This means that have to have a say in some important choices made. When it is their choice, they are more apt to work hard because they are more apt to care about it. The most bored students I have seen are those that are working on an assignment that was clearly defined, but it had very little room for personal ideas, very little perceived reason for what they were doing, and no idea about what they were learning by doing the work. They were slowly working to try to get a passing mark.

Daniel Pink writes about motivation for workers in the business world. (Pink, 2009) The studio art class is a work culture of learning. Students learn by working on art projects. Pink says that intrinsic motivation for employees is based on worker autonomy, the chance for mastery, and having a purpose beyond the self. These are more important than the pay rate. In school these are more important than grades. Does each art lesson include autonomy, mastery, and purpose? More on Motivation (below)
Teaching the Lesson  to Top of Page

5. Art developmental level:

Do your students make typical pictures, sculptures, and so on for their age? How many are more advanced and how many are less advanced than expected for their age? How might this be addressed in this lesson? Grading is not based on what is known at the end, but based on what is learned from start to finish. Learning is based on what changes, not on what remains the same. Is it fair to give a better grade to one that already knew it before the lesson and made very little advancement? Or, should the best grades go to students who did not know it, but used the project to learn new things and build new knowledge? If we can match the difficulty to the developmental level, we are more apt to challenge without undue frustration.

What is most important for your students to learn in this lesson?
  • PLAN BACKWARDS. First Summarize the specific art skills to be developed, the specific art knowledge to learn, and the attitudes to be fostered.  These are the goals and objectives of the lesson (or unit). Good teachers often write the final exam first. Some call it backward planning. As we write this, we begin to imagine ideas about how these things can be learned. Even when no actual exam is planned, we do the same thing. We identify what we want to happen to the student as a result of the lesson, the unit, or the year.
  • Some lessons might concentrate more on skill building, others may be designed to encourage imagination and creativity, and some may emphasize learning the design principles and art elements (structure of art). Some lessons may primarily teach students approaches to style.  Every lesson can end with some art world and/or real world examples that review and build on the frame of reference provided by the lesson. In fact, one of best ways for a teacher to get a good lesson or unit idea is to take a great work of art and deconstruct the creative process and strategies used by the artist(s) that created the work. This process yields an untold variety of ways to approach creativity and the materialization of ideas in visual art. Also see reverse engineering.
  • HINT - Post the list of goals and the creative strategies learned in the hall or in the display case with the display of the completed work. It helps other teachers, parents, and other students understand the dynamics of learning in the art.

Plan of Action
Please note the sequence of these activities
Marvin Bartel - 1999, 2001 updated Sept. 2010
An Example Lesson with all the parts is at this link.

  • foreshadow the lesson
  • distribute supplies
  • review 
  • introduce 
  • practice materials and processes   - subject ideas  -  composition style  -  observation
  • motivation 
  • main assignment
  • time on task 
  • impulsiveness 
  • self doubters 
  • how to help
  • endings 
  • connections 
  • dismissal with purpose
  • post script
  • outline (brief summary)
  • who are the learners? 
    Generally, it is better to avoid surprising students with something they have not prepared for. The mind is an amazing and powerful imagination machine. Artistic ideas grow over time in the mind of the artist. It happens when we sleep, when we eat, when we watch TV, when we talk to friends, when we daydream, and so on. In studies of the brain, brain imaging shows that our hippocampus becomes active when we are sleeping and when we are not thinking about anything. Brain imaging shows actively on its own without our awareness. (Buckner, 2010) It imagines future scenarios. Just as foreshadowing in a novel stimulates our imagination to foresee several exciting scenarios, art lesson foreshadowing gets students to imagine and anticipate, imagining their own ideas. On the other hand, ideas are not apt to hit us if we have not yet focused on an artistic problem. Art teachers help students learn this skill by intentionally foreshadowing the next assignments and asking questions that prime the hippocampuses of the students. Students are asked to keep a journal of ideas that come to them when they are not thinking about the assignment.
  • What are some ways you can foreshadow an art lesson? List some before you read the examples I give you in the next paragraph. See how many scenarios to foreshadow an art lesson your mind can imagine. If any of your ideas are different than the ones I list in the next paragraph, that is just perfect. You have been outstandingly creative, just like you want your students to be creative.

    Okay, here are my ideas. See if there are any you want to add to your list. See if you thought of things I missed.
    1) Along the top of the whiteboard in front of the room, the teacher makes a practice of posing a question that foreshadows a future art project.
    2) The teacher gives a sketchbook assignment that will provide ideas to use for future artworks. Can they guess what the assignment will be? What do they wish it would be?
    3) Students have cleaned up and are waiting during the last one minute before the bell rings. The teacher asks them three questions and tells the class that these questions are related to the content of an assignment that is two weeks in the future.
    4) The class is told that some of the homework for art is to keep a journal of notes about art ideas to do in art class. They are told that these ideas pop up anytime, and we need to jot them down immediately.
    5) The teacher takes time once a week to ask students to share their unexpected 'pop up' ideas with the rest of the class.
    6) Art inspiration comes from observation, from experience, and from imagination. Moving between these three sources help students minds remain flexible and and creative in their thinking.

    If I missed one that you like, send it to me in an email (please include the web address or title of this page).

    I do not show examples of what I think they should do. To do so, might result in imitation and a loss of appreciation for their own ideas.   Top of Page

      The mind is an amazing and powerful imagination machine. If we prepare it with good questions and things to look for, expecting it to work for us, it supplies our need for new ideas in time to meet our deadlines. If we never expect it to work for us, ideas that might have flowered, whither and blow away.

    Also see Teaching Creativity

    The Conversation Game
    can help inspire ideas

    The Secrets of Generating Art Ideas

    Top of Page

    Begin by having the class get settled with as many working materials at their places as possible.  This is done first to avoid the need for interruptions, commotion, and moving about once they are concentrating on the tasks at hand.

    Many art teachers develop an orderly routine where students are expected to pick up what is needed as they enter the room before they go to their seats. If they expect to see a list posted or a sheet of paper on their table, they can get things as they come into the room. Some teachers assign tasks to certain students to bring supplies in order to limit mob movements. Some teachers withhold a simple item in order to prevent students from starting before they have the motivation, focus, and instructions for the lesson. Other teachers provide written instructions for the first learning activity so no verbal instructions are needed while the teacher takes attendance, etc.

    At this point some teachers establish a beginning ritual or warm-up. It focuses attention and tunes in to art. A few minutes of quiet contour drawing could serve as a routine warm-up and provide a chance to practice an art skill. The teacher has a time to take attendance while students are on task. Some teachers have a box in the center of each work area with "Today's Objects" to practice drawing for the first few minutes as students settle down for class. Instructions are on the board or on the tables.

    A short review session is always appropriate at the beginning of the session. Ask students questions about the key concepts and art vocabulary learned in a recent lesson. See if they can recall recently studied concepts and help them understand how the ideas and skills will help them with this lesson.

    Briefly introduce the goals and issues of this lesson.  Focus their thinking so that ideas have a chance to emerge during their preparation time. Wait to give the detailed instructions until they are ready to work on the main lesson project. 

    There are good reasons to avoid showing examples of what the students are supposed to produce. For the reasons for this see the list of Nine Classroom Creativity Killers.  Numbers 1, 5, 8, and 9 speak directly to the reasons examples are not shown at the beginning of an art lesson. Art History examples are shown near the end of the lesson.

    5a. PREPARATION for materials used
    To quote a kindergarten child, "You can't never know how to do it before you ever did it before." Students need to know how the materials and process work in order to be creative with their interpretations of the content and design of their work. If it is a new process, it is only fair to allow and expect them have a preliminary practice session. 

    This part of the lesson might have some time to "play around" with materials to see what emerges by accident.  Limit the time for this.  As soon as students cease to be involved in a search, move to a structured activity.  I may be useful at this time to ask students to share their discoveries.

    Example:  The class is about to do a project where the medium will be transparent watercolors over a crayon composition.  Give each child five small pieces of paper and a few minutes in which to test out this combination of materials allowing any sequence and any color combinations on several small pieces of paper. 

    Present some carefully planned step-by-step instructions on the process. This is generally not a teacher demonstration, but hands-on participatory learning. Every student follows along using art materials.  This part of the lesson is not art, it is art skill or craft carefully presented by the teacher. The art immediately follows when the students are in charge of their own ideas and work while doing the main part of the assignment. 

    Example:  The class is about to work with B6 drawing pencils.  These have soft graphite which allows for very bold dark black.  Before using these pencils for drawing, have them make the following lines about five inches long. 

  • Ask them to make a very very dark continuous line about 5 inches long with a single motion.  A continuous line is made with one motion - not starting and stopping.
  • Ask them to make a similar line, but it is to be so light that is almost invisible
  • Ask them to make a similar continuous line that has a darkness (value or tone) half way between the dark and light line (a middle tone).
  • Ask them to make a line that has a value half way between the dark and the mid-tone line.
  • Ask for a line that is half way between the light and the mid-tone line.
  • Ask if they can make a line that is continuous (never stopping), but it keeps changing and getting lighter and darker as it goes across the paper. Practice this several times.
  • Ask them to study all these lines and describe where they are in space. Which is closer? Which is farther away? What is happening to the ones that have both light and dark parts? Should a drawing have many kinds of line or just one kind of line? Why?          Top of Page
  • The teacher can ask, "Why do you think artists try to use some lines that are very dark, some very light, and some that are medium?" Unless students actively think about why they are doing things, they often forget to use what they are learning. When they start there artwork, they may still revert to pervious habits unless they are reminded with this "why" question again while they are working. When an art lesson begins to change habits of thinking, the students take away benefits that are good for their whole lives. Thinking about using a varied line character to achieve compositional dynamics may not sound like a big deal, but it is an example of how every habitual way of working needs to be opened to new alternatives.

    Being open to new alternatives is also true of our teaching methods. I recall a student teacher who had carefully observed how an art teacher was making many suggestions whenever a student asked for advice. It might have been better to be using questions or coaching students to experiment and learn to find ideas for themselves. When I first observed her during student teaching, she too was making many suggestions. In our conference, I simply asked her if she remembered her observation the semester before. The next time I observed her, she remembered to use questions that encouraged her students to think more for themselves and become less dependent on her ideas.

    to Teaching the Lesson  to Top of Page

    If possible, do not do a demonstration for students to watch. Its usually more effective to have them each actively do a small sample of the process themselves. Teacher demonstrations might be used if it would be too dangerous or too complex to explain in a step-by-step way while they all do it. When a demonstration is the only way I know to introduce a procedure, I try to follow it immediately with preliminary skill practice before requiring any artwork to be produced with a new process.
    5b. PREPARATION for topic and subject matter used
    Nearly every art project includes subject matter.  If the composition is to be nonobjective, you would skip to the next section, 5c. Preparation for compositional choices. Many teachers use topic motivation related to student interests, experiences, and concerns. Consider student development. Younger children are more egocentric and respond to "I" and "My" topics while older elementary children are quite interested in group identity topics and activities.

    Sometimes teachers feel that it is more creative to allow students to have complete freedom to decide on any subject matter. This can present several problems.  If the teachers says, "Do whatever you want for subject matter," most students simply do whatever was easy and successful in the past. This lassie faire approach also implies that content is immaterial and unimportant. I might say, do what interests you, but try something that you have not tried recently. Or, I might say, if you are repeating something, there has to be something changed so that after you finish, you can compare it and learn which works better.

    Art lessons need to help students learn ways to come up with meaningful and important content for their work. How can we expect ownership and motivation if the content is trivialized?

    All art content comes from three sources: Observation, Memory, and/or Imagination.  Lessons in observation are important for the student's skill formation.  See this link for a list of helpful ways to help children learn observation skills.  This Beginning Rituals page describes careful observation practice.  This link discusses the human need to give aesthetic order to our world.    Top of Page

    Memory is rich if it comes from rich experience. We remember what we notice. When a child is fascinated and absorbed in an experience, it will be a pleasure to remember and express it. Teachers and others can encourage curiosity and awareness. Teachers, parents, and others can make a point to ask many awareness building questions before, during, and after field trips and similar activities. "Why do you think the giraffe has such a long neck?"  "What shape (color) are the spots?"  "Are some a different shape?" Some on-site sketching can be done. In the class it can be developed into a larger drawing, painting, collage, diorama, and so on. Students should be told in advance of the field trip that it will be the basis for artwork. This heightens awareness, attentiveness, and observations while on the outing.

    Imagination gives us amazing power. It is what allows us to speculate about the future.  It even allows us to imagine what others think of us and how our actions might effect others. It allows us to think of alternative ways to act. Art, creative writing, story telling, pretend play, drama, songs, etc. allow us to practice and develop our powers of imagination.

We need to increase the number of ways we teach the development of new ideas for art work.  Here are a few ways used by art teachers and artists to help decide on content for an art project.  These can be used for observation, memory, and/or imagination.  We can encourage our students to practice these methods.

  • Students select the best content and ideas from past sketches
  • Students make a series of new sketches dealing with the self or with another interesting subject.
  • Students develop long lists of attributes about themselves - then share the lists with peers and add to it, sort it, etc.
  • Students list their daily activities, their weekend routines, their summer activities, their family celebrations and events, their heroes, their fears, etc.
  • Students list the best and worst attributes of their neighborhoods, the environment, and societal institutions and issues.
  • Students list the best and worst attributes of a product they are designing, the uses and functions of the product, the users of the product, the materials used to make the product, and the processes used to fabricate the product. 
  • Children enjoy role playing, stories, poems, and so on. These activities can be used to foster richness of imagery in their work.  When teachers use stories or poetry from books they should not show the illustrations unless they want to ruin the art lesson for students. Illustrations may be shared after the children have done their creative work
  • Teach idea development by providing more time and more preliminary events to focus on the problem before the time to decide on an idea. Assign homework such as sketches that focus on finding topics and ideas for an upcoming lesson. Artists frequently are involved in many projects at once. Consider starting several assignments and encouraging students to expect their subconscious minds to come up with ideas over time. Require journal entrees to keep from forgetting ideas before they are needed.
  • 5b. PREPARATION for design and composition 
    Art lessons need to help students learn ways to use the visual elements and principles of design to achieve the effects they want to express in their work. Good design generally seeks unity, harmony, and good integration of diverse visual effects. On the other hand, it needs strong interest, emphasis, repetition, variation, motion, emotion, and expressive content. 

    Consider special motivational activities to enrich their frame of reference for creative media work projects. These might be sensory exercises to make them more aware of texture, tone, hue, size, depth, intensity or some other visual quality being learned. 

    Preliminary sketching and planning on separate paper are an excellent way for students to prepare for the main project. For many lessons it is appropriate to require some preliminary planning. It is also a chance to help them learn about quality by helping them learn ways to discern their best ideas and the best ways to arrange their compositions.

    5c. PREPARATION for stylistic approaches
    Art lessons can help students learn ways to understand and develop style in their work. This may seem difficult to do without showing examples of artists' work.  However, there are many examples of individual style in other areas of our students' lives that they already understand.  They know about style in music, in clothing, in dining, in hair, in handwriting, in cars, and so on.  All these areas have are large categories as well as individual variations.  We do not develop a personal style though copy work or even by mimicking somebody else's style.

    Most mature artists fall into one of four large categories, but also have a very individual recognizable style within the larger category.  Most art styles fall under realism (naturalism), expressionism, formalism (including minimalism), or surrealism (fantastic). 

    Students often experiment with several styles.  Ideally, we want students who can experimentally develop original styles rather than students that mimic or copy established styles.  Since it may take years and many works before an artist can be expected to have a mature distinctive style, students are encouraged to experiment with style, looking for effective ways to achieve results.  In the following experiments, every student is likely to see individual style emerge.

    Preliminary experiments directed to style might include:

    • Listening to short sections of several very different styles of music.  Students can do 30 second mark making sessions in response to contrasting music sounds and rhythms.
    • Using a dark marker, each student signs their name across the paper.  Compare them.
    • Making a series of descriptive lines across the paper such as, "calm and nervous" "waltzing and stumbling"  "running and swimming".
    • Filling textures into pre drawn boxes.  Do not allow images or subjects.  Have the textures represent noises that can not be identified so that each student will have to listen to the texture of the noise. 

      Periodically, during these experiments, the teacher points out that every person is finding a unique way of doing this.  Every person eventually, with lots of experimentation and practice, develops their own "aesthetic stance" and their own "signature style".  Great artists are not great because they learned how to copy or mimic another style.  Great artists are great because of what they contribute. 

    5d. PREPARATION for observation    to Teaching the Lesson  to Top of Page

Recently I was teaching this first grade girl who wanted to make a drawing of a teapot she had selected in my studio. 

Top of Page


    I said, "When I draw something new, I like to sit and look at all the shapes and lines before I start.  When I look at this part (pointing to the top) of the handle, I notice that the top here is more round, when I look at this part down here I notice that it is almost like a straight line.  I also like to look at how big the different parts are, and compare the size of the handle and the spout, or the size of the handle and the belly of the pot. I like to imagine each line before I draw it."

    I do not draw any examples because I do not want children to observe my drawing when they need to learn to observe the subject. I do talk about drawing experiences. I know that children fail to learn because the are afraid to fail. Therefore, I talked about all the mistakes I make when I draw something.  I said, "Usually, I draw a line, but after I draw it, I can notice that it should have been a little different shape or a little different size, but I don't erase right away.  I just leave it and I try another line.  When I am finished, I might go back and erase some mistakes.  My mistakes are good because I learn to see better from them - they are my practice lines.  Whenever we try a new thing we expect to make some mistakes, but with practice we get better at it."

    She was noticeably pleased with her own achievement.  In this one drawing of the teapot she moved from the "schematic" stage of geometric simplification to the "dawning realism" stage in her drawing.  She now has a basic foundation for learning to observe.  She can now draw anything she wants to (with similar observation and practice).  With enough of this kind of instruction and practice in the first grade, she can be spared the crisis of confidence that many third grade children experience. 

    The problem with many drawing instruction books is that they prescribe shortcuts and formulas that give success without any actual observation.  Without developing much ability, they replace the motivation to actually learn. Observation practice and many more links on teaching drawing can be found here. Teachers who teach drawing by drawing for the children are not directing their minds to right learning task. The task is not to replicate a drawing. If the learning task is to imagine and create a drawing by observing the real world, the child learns to draw anything - not only the specific thing being taught. Top of Page


    Give or review the detailed explanation of the assignment. Be sure instructions are understood, and they feel comfortable about your expectations. Empower them to create. Define limits to encourage problem solving, but allow individual ownership of ideas and work. Explain the main points that you plan to evaluate.  This link has a rubric for grading artwork. Some teachers make a poster with their assessment points.  Some use a handout. 

    Be especially sensitive to questions as they first start to work. If there are more than one or two questions, stop and clarify things for the whole class. If there are slow starters, make sure they understand, but allow time to think, to experiment, to plan, and time to look at more than one option.

    While they are working, stay tuned to the class and be thinking of ways to keep them on task. Art teachers sense when a class is getting off track. Students begin to discuss their social lives and other topics that have nothing to do with the problem at hand. 

    A series of focused but open questions can bring the students back on task.  Good open questions bring richness and content into their work. "Does the dog have a special smell? What is the part of the dog that is the darkest? ... the lightest? How much larger does the dog's body seem than the dog's head?" Questions help passive knowledge becomes active knowledge and gets it included in the artwork.  Open questions (those with many possible answers) stimulate the imagination.

    If they are working directly from observation of the subject (the dog is in the room), they will be encouraged to make better observations if the teacher goes over to the dog and asks about specific aspects of the subject.  Ask, "How does height and length compare?" while placing hands near the subject to show height and width. Focused but open questions generally result in much richer student work. They surprise themselves with how well they can do if they have actually made careful observations. This works with an individual or with the whole group. If several students are floundering at once, it may be more efficient to call the whole class to attention and take time to refocus.

    What questions might have been asked related to the tennis picture shown at the top of this page?  Top of Page

    Some students are impulsive and rush to finish without giving enough attention to important aspects of the work. You should encourage them to develop more complex products. "This part looks really interesting. I wonder what you could do to make this other part as interesting." "I see some nice depth effects here by the way the colors work. Here's some empty space. What could happen in this area that adds interest?" A teacher can help these students become more thoughtful and deliberate by raising issues to think about in their work. Eventually, the student's habits will improve if the teacher is insistent and consistent. Stay positive, but keep asking questions. I notice that many students begin to imitate this and they begin to ask themselves similar questions as they work. They learn how to learn.

    MOTIVATION - verbal - I resist making suggestions - I use open questions to raise issues for them to consider in their work. Their greatest need is thinking practice. I do not want to take this away from them by providing answers. I try to use focused questions. Eventually they learn to anticipate the type of questions needed to produce better art, and they will need less hand holding. Good teaching empowers them by helping them learn the kind of questions artists use to improve their own work. When I am asked for a suggestion, I first ask what the student has been thinking about. Often the student already has an idea or two, but was not confident to try it.

    MOTIVATION - multi sensory - There are many kinds of motivation. I have used unseen (hidden) sound making devices as motivation for texture. When when working from food, flowers, plants, smell and sometimes taste is incorporated into the preliminary experience. Studies show that students who examine something by touch create richer artwork than those who only work from visual observation.

    MOTIVATION - animals - Live animals elicit instinctive attention. Every child pays attention to an animal moving around. Field trips to farms, zoos, etc. are great venues for drawing and/or for asking lots of observation questions.

    I avoid showing examples as motivation because imitation is too easy. It shortcuts original thinking.  to:  Top of Page

    Other students are handicapped by being very slow and deliberate. They may be perfectionists because they are afraid to make a mistake. Reassure them. They need confidence to experiment with expressive approaches. They need to appreciate the learning that comes from mistakes and to see how "happy accidents" happen. Sour lemons make great lemonade with the right additions. Empower them by building their confidence. Don't encourage these students to start over unless they have a better idea they are anxious to try.

    Do not be tempted to tell them that quality doesn't matter and don't say, "I'm not an artist either." Say, "I often make mistakes when I am learning a new thing, but I like my mistakes because they help me learn by pointing out what I need to practice more.  Often I don't erase my mistakes until I finish so that I can learn from them.  When I finish, I even leave some mistakes because they add motion or extra excitement and magic to the work.  Sometimes my mistakes are the best part.  Sometimes they give me an idea for something better to try."  Encourage them by pointing out that some things are only learned by practice and the more we practice the better it will get.  

    Find the best part of what they have done and tell them why you think so. Don't use praise that is empty or general, but praise together with specific information so they can learn from it.    Top of Page

    A serious mishap can justify a start over. Deliberate and self-doubting perfectionists may particularly benefit from assignments that begin with "intentional accidents" that are changed into artwork by the individual's creative efforts.

    Never do any of the work for the students. Do not draw on their papers. There are other ways to help without taking away ownership and empowerment. Good teaching is making the hard stuff easier and making the easy stuff harder, but a good teacher never does the work and never solves the problem for the student. If you must draw to illustrate a point, do it on your own paper - never on theirs.

    If they are having trouble drawing or modeling from observation, go over to the thing being observed and ask in detail what they see.  If more is needed, explain in detail what you see. If they are working from imagination or memory, use detailed questions to help them remember and value their own past experiences.  Encourage the word challenging instead of too hard.     Top of Page

    Avoid assignments for which they have no reasonable frame of reference. Amish children should not have to make art about TV characters. As you listen to student conversations, learn their real interests. Base topics on their interests, experiences, and what can be observed in or near the classroom.  Click here to review list making and other ways to generate ideas.

    When a student is afraid to try something, give them extra paper on which to make several experiments or to practice on. Artists frequently do experiments, practice, and research before they feel ready to try it in their actual work. Of course artists work according to many different styles and strategies and some of them want all the expressiveness of mistakes and false starts to remain as evidence of the creative process. For an abstract expressionist (action painter) much of the meaning and feeling of the work would be lost if they pre planned or practiced it, but for most art styles it is common to practice or make sketches ahead of the actual work.  Top of Page

    9. MEANINGFUL ENDINGS - making criticism pleasant
    Discus the finished work as a way to affirm student efforts and review the concepts learned. Be fair and inclusive. Critiques that are affirmative and discovery based help produce a great studio art learning culture. Everybody can answer the question, "What do you notice first?", but not everybody can explain the reasons they notice something it first in a composition.  Have them practice the analysis and interpretation of work.  Require comments that speculate about why we notice something first.  Help them learn to analyze the effects of color, size, brightness, uniqueness, subject matter, and so on. 

    Interpretation refers the the meanings and feelings seen.  We can ask for ideas for titles.  We can discuss the visual reasons for meanings and feelings observed.  The one who created the work may want to verbalize about this, but I try to delay this until others have a chance to respond.  We need to learn about the richness of meanings and feelings that are possible in a group setting.

    Never allow judgmental comments like, "I don't see why anybody would use that color for . . . "  When commenting on a perceived weakness allow only neutral questions so the student artist may be asked to explain rather than defend a choice.  "Can we talk a bit about the effects that this color is producing?  Who can give us an idea?"  Frame the questions in non-judgmental terms.  Use questions to raise awareness, not to declare mistakes. Art is a search. Critique makes discoveries.

    Allow time to include each work or adapt a fair system that includes everybody within a series of lessons. Emphasize the positive and use questions to get discussion going. Take advantage of learning opportunities.  Some situations may work better if this is done in smaller groups.  This might begin when the first four to six students complete a project.  Each time another four to six students finish, another discussion group is formed.  Written forms can also be used at times.      Top of Page

    Help students learn how to question, how to describe, how to analyze, and encourage them to speculate about possible meanings (interpretations) and feelings in each other's work. We have to help them learn to be careful viewers and critics that empathize with each other and their work, ideas and feelings. One of the main purposes of the critique is to find, recognize, and exploit discoveries in the work. The secondary purpose is to cultivate a positive culture and better relationship skills. Studio artwork is a search for art. If we skip the critique, we may be missing half the learning.

    Relating this project to their world and the art world.

    This is an ideal time (after they have done their creative work) to introduce art from another culture, particularly if the lesson has been planned to lead up to it. Encourage them to see similarities and differences. Encourage speculation about meaning and symbolism.  This is a link to an essay on creatively teaching multicultural art.

    Your lesson planning strategy often starts by thinking about the closing portion of the lesson. What creative activities will best build a frame of reference for this experience? What do you want students to take with them from the experience? Just as a beginning ritual can help focus and center the class's attention, an ending ritual gives meaning and relevance which is so vital to learning.  This link is a beginning ritual that includes an ending connection from art history.

    This is also a good time to ask questions about ways they will now notice things differently as they leave the art room because of the lesson they have worked on today. Will it change the way they see colors? What will be the new things they notice in their everyday experiences?

    Helps in finding artists on the web and using their images
    How to spell and pronounce artists names    To get back here, use your Back button (top left on your browser).  This is an offsite link to ArtLex, Copyright 1996-2002 Michael Delahunt.  Once we have the right spelling of an artist's name, we can find examples by using a search engine like

    Using copyrighted artwork images - when you get to this link, scroll down in the left frame and click on copyright.  To get back here, use your Back button (top left on your browser).  This site gives explanation of what is legally permitted in the classroom.  This is an offsite link to ArtLex, Copyright 1996-2002 Michael Delahunt.
       Top of Page

We have a chance to improve student minds and thinking habits by doing at least one of these things at dismissal time.

  1. Review today's main points and vocabulary.
  2. Talk about lessons being planned for the future.
  3. Invite ideas for future art lessons.
  4. Ask open art questions to think about.
  5. Tell or show an art joke.
  6. Offer to show them a gymnastics trick if they are quieter next time.
  7. Students are assigned things to look at and look for in their lives.
  8. Students are sent away with their subconscious minds actively creating imaginary solutions to art problems anticipated in the future.
  9. Students are sent away formulating new art problems to work on.
  10. Art teachers expect students to come to the next session with new journal entrees and new sketches of what they have seen and imagined.

Artists never get away from the homework of the eye and the mind. We dream art both at night and in our daydreams. We sketch and journal these rich ideas so that when we finally get to enter the studio, the ideas force themselves onto the canvas or into the clay. Art teachers understand this and find ways to inculcate their students with artistic ways of seeing and thinking about all of life.


You may be thinking, "This is too much to do in one art lesson."  An Example Lesson with all the parts is at this link.

When students are meaningfully engaged in learning, to continue projects from week to week or from session to session is not a waste of time. The brain that can think of ideas if we foreshadow the questions before the lesson, can also imagine new ideas and better alternatives to try. The time between work sessions allows the hippocampus (the subconscious mind) to think of new ideas. Artists often continue their work from session to session. When students are doing things about themselves, when children find purpose, see mastery, and experience autonomy in artwork, they often have a much longer attention span for artwork than for other studies. Studies show that we can use artwork as a way to lengthen attention span (Posner, 2010). Too often art has been a waste of time because it was only taught as an "activity for the hands" resulting in products for decoration at best, but without learning about art as a discipline and without ownership of the ideas by those who made it. Some children enjoy this, but others find it boring busy work.

If possible, make time to teach the whole lesson by continuing one lesson over several sessions. Think of it as a unit if that helps. This is a much better option than leaving out the meaningful parts. You might repeat the opening rituals to start each session, and include a short review before each session.    Top of Page

If overall time is a real problem, consider scheduling fewer lessons rather than skipping meaningful learning opportunities. The length of time we spend on each subject doesn't always make sense. It may simply be a result of tradition rather than meaningful research.
Materials Needed:

The best way to build confidence is to do the activities and projects yourself before teaching the lesson. It is easy to find out what materials are needed when you do it yourself. I have often made important discoveries while doing this. Make a list of the materials as you use them.

While working, make notes about essential questions to ask to get students thinking and keep them focused while they are working. Doing it is a great way to be sure everything in planned. Refrain from showing this work until students have had a chance to do their own thinking.

What do we learn from planning and teaching this lesson?

Teaching is practice. Every experience is a chance get better. Make notes of successes and shortcomings. As in any skill, we seek to make the best of our strengths and try to remedy our weaknesses. If I ask a teaching job candidate about her/his mistakes, I would hope for a response that lists many mistakes, but also many things improved because of being able to recognize teaching mistakes.  If a teachers says, "I've had a few bad results, but it was not my fault. The students were just having a bad day." I would hesitate to hire that teacher.

Next Steps:           Top of Page1. The results of this lesson can help you assess the students' needs and plan for appropriate follow-up learning. List lesson ideas now rather than waiting till next year when memory has faded. What changes might work better?

2. Make yourself notes to repeat the best parts of the lesson next time you teach it.

3. Make a list of ideas to try to improve any part of the lesson or experience that seemed less than ideal. It is often helpful to discuss these issues with successful teachers with similar experiences. Successful teachers cultivate friends who are positive, creative, and helpful to each other.      Top of Page


(the short version)
The lesson parts should be taught in the following order:
  • distribute supplies (avoid disruptions later)
  • review and introduce today's work
  • practice whatever may be new before they are asked to be creative with it
  • present main assignment, motivate, use use open questions
  • student time on task - refocus if needed - use open questions
  • discuss the outcomes to review what is learned and what was discovered
  • endings and connections (discuss related art history and art in their lives)


Art Education Links

Linked Table of the above Contents  

Buckner, R. L. (2010 "The role of the hippocampus in prediction and imagination." Annual Review of Psychology, L61:27-48 (an abstract is published by U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Health. (retrieved 2-2-2010)

Pink, D. H. (2009) Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.  Penguin Group, New York.

Posner, M. I. & Patoine B. (2010) "How Arts Training Improves Attention and Cognition" The Dana Foundation website.

Author NOTES: Much of what is offered on my web site is motivated by the desire to help students learn to think for themselves.  Few educational goals are more important than this.  Many authors have influenced my ideas and helped me think about thinking, expressing emotions and ideas, and how this is learned.

Many of my ideas about teaching art have been hammered out through trial and error over many years of teaching art and during supervision of apprentice art teachers. 

Some ideas are in response to the DBEA (Discipline Based Art Education) trend to increase the showing of examples (or "doing research" of other artists) prior to media work.  I question this. I look for ways to inspire more authentic artistic and imaginative thinking. Having said this, I believe it may be an unintended trend because the goals of DBEA are not dependent on showing examples before the creative work. I am certainly supportive of DBEA's goals of making art education a more serious and more comprehensive endeavor.

Many of the ideas that have guided my thinking throughout my art teaching years were hatched or inspired in the classes of Dr. Phil Rueschhoff at the University of Kansas during my graduate work there. We learned as much as possible about creativity and the attributes of highly creative individuals.  Rueshhoff studied with Viktor Lowenfeld, author of Creative and Mental Growth. Lowenfeld was often discussed.  Rueschhoff's ideas are recorded in a text still available in some libraries and in the used book market. It was Rueschoff that helped us understand the value of showing the exemplar at the end of the lesson instead of at the beginning of the lesson.

Rueschhoff, P. H., Swartz, M. E.   Teaching Art in the Elementary School: Enhancing Visual Perception. 1969.  The Ronald Press Company, New York, 339 pgs.    Top of Page

Notice: © 1999,  2001, 2005 Marvin Bartel. Those who wish to copy or publish any part of this electronically or otherwise must get permission to do so. Teachers may make one copy for their own personal use. Links from other sites are okay.
updated: 9-29-2010

Contact the Author at

Check this online book of eight drawing lessons