RITUALS to Start an Art Class
by Marvin Bartel, Ed.D.

observation seeing values and form seeing perspective finding inspiration practice imagination claywork Clay Rituals

These are not art lessons.  They are rituals to start the class.  In many instances they would be excellent beginning activities to help students understand a more extensive art lesson.

Class or Chaos
Rituals allow class sessions to start automatically and quietly.  As they come into the room, students know where to look to find materials.  They know which materials are needed.  They know what to do after they get the materials.  Some teachers have the material list and starting instructions on the board.  Some teachers place a paper on each worktable with a "map" of what is needed before the work can start.  By the time the teacher has checked attendance, the students are well along with an on-task learning activity.  At this point the teacher moves around to assess progress, reinforce confidence, and ask questions to focus student thinking as they work.

Blind contour observation using "blinders"
Blind contour is done with the pencil inserted through the middle of a 7 x 7 inch blinder card (like a piece of old manila folder) so that students cannot see the paper they are drawing on, but are forced to concentrate on the contour (edge) of the thing being observed while the pencil moves on the paper.  It is done by drawing a slow continuous outline of the object.  If the line meets when it comes around the object, there is a chance the student was not doing it honestly.  Encourage them by saying,  "It probably will look funny and the line generally does not meet when you draw all the way around the object."  I kid them that they are "probably cheating" if they get the line to actually meet.
This site shows children drawing with blinders as well as their drawings.  It works.

Actual Examples -----

  • For learning to draw from observation, blind contour drawing of 2 cosmos flower petals , one inverted, one from different flower than the other, to insure variety of outline. Fine colored felt tip used with 7 x 7 blinder card (pencil is inserted in a hole in the middle of the card) on it to hide lines being drawn.

  • A detailed drawing of one thumb from observation using a ball point pen.

  • To learn to see line character, a ball-point pen blind contour drawing of a bent wire hanging in front of the room. It is bent to resemble a side view of a face, but it is fairly jagged in the hair area and hung with the nose downward so the face is not the apparent subject. After students draw it they are asked to rotate their drawings until they find the face right-side-up. They then add features on their own, but they are asked to draw the added features of the face with the same line character that was used while drawing the original blind contour.  All lines are "look like" they were drawn from wire.

Blind contour observation and tonal discrimination

  1. Blind contour drawing of a row of 6 flower petals. Every other one is inverted. They come from different flowers for variety of outline. They are made into a value scale using a ball-point pen. Ball point pens are convenient and very functional to learn hatching and cross-hatching as a way to create tone.
  2. For learning to render tone do blind contour drawing using the pencil blinder (blind contour means to slowly draw the perimeter without looking at the paper).  Each student draws a one or two inch pebble lightly  in pencil in a continuous line that goes around the pebble - do not permitted sketchy lines. Ball point pen hatching is used to develop the shading on the pebble and the cast shadow from the pebble. Directional lighting is used. Pencil lines are totally erased in the end product in order to show the role of tone without line.  Note: Number 1 above should be done prior to this ritual so the teacher can remind the class about hatching method used in Number 1.
  3. For learning to render tone and see that line is not essential to see form, a light pencil blind contour drawing of an apple with one bite missing. Look down at the paper after each line completion to place the pencil at the correct place for the next line to begin. Use three fine felt tips to stipple the tones developing the shadows, leaving highlights white. Do not outline the apple with markers. Also stipple the cast shadow. Use any two related colors and the complement of the related colors. Erase the pencil lines from the stippled drawing.
  • This study of an orange slice was first drawn as a pencil outline from observation of an orange slice.  Next two colored felt tip pens were used to stipple tone onto the drawing and add shadows.  Finally, the pencil marks were all erased to leave only the ink of the markers. It is drawn by a college student.
  • When food like this is used, ask students to use their smell and taste to enrich their motivation.  Studies show that multisensory experiences improve the quality of student artwork. You can see that a bit of this slice is missing.
  1. For reflections, observe a spoon, draw the outline contour (not the handle, only the spoon). Next draw outlines of the lightest reflected areas and label these as highlights. Next do the same for the darkest reflected areas and label as darkest. Draw a second spoon and use hatching to tone it in, leaving the highlight areas totally white. Make the darkest areas dark and add the middle tones as you see them.

Learning linear perspective by observation before theory

  • A cardboard viewfinder with a 3 x 4 opening is used to trace a 6 x 8 frame on the paper with a cross grid running through it. Students tape string in the viewfinder to make a cross grid in the viewfinder. They use the viewfinders the draw one corner of the room where the walls and ceiling meet. The vertical line of the corner is to line up with the vertical line of the cross grid, but the corner is to be off center (beside and parallel to the vertical string - not congruent with it). They draw the vertical corner line and the two ceiling lines at the correct angles as observed in the viewfinder. It is rendered on the grid paper twice the size of the viewfinder. Follow with a discussion of 2 point perspective, vanishing points, horizon line, eye level line, and so on.

  • Use ruler-like mat board sticks to find the angles and the lengths of the outline of a simple large box on the floor or desk in front of them. They draw from measured lengths (marked on their sticks) and matched angles. They then test to see if vertical lines are vertical and if horizontal lines meet at logical vanishing points.

  • Another way to create viewfinders is to use a copying machine that can make transparencies.  Include a black frame with window that is divided by bold black lines.  The grid helps students observe measurements and angles.

Practicing Visual Memory

  • Place an unfamiliar object under a cardboard carton in front of the class.  Instruct the class to study the object for two seconds when you lift the box off to reveal the object.  Replace the box after two seconds, hiding the object while they do a drawing of what they remember about the object. The object needs to be unfamiliar so that students do not draw from prior experience, but must observe and draw only from their short term memory.  An unfamiliar object might be something like a simple sculptural assemblage of scrap materials created by the teacher.  Wood, metal, plastic, foam products, etc. can be glued or even taped together.  A lump of clay can be easily shaped into something fairly simple but unfamiliar.
  • Use the same object the following day in the same way.  If you plan to do this, do not allow the students to see the object after the first drawing.  See if their drawings improve after a second two second observation.
  • For comparison purposes, use the same object for a blind contour drawing ritual.
  • Ask for a memory drawing of the object one week later without allowing them to see either their drawings or the object.

Learning to look for sources of inspiration

  • For sources of inspiration from capricious events, give out a paper on which tempera paint has been mashed against another sheet (not folded to give the standard symmetrical design, but the 2 parts are given to 2 different students). They are to use their ball points to develop and add subject matter based on anything they are able to see in the paint blotches. Green and orange paint was used. Note capricious events as source for creative ideas and inspiration.
  • For sources of inspiration from capricious events , give out a 6 x 9 piece of paper and 5 random different sized strips of black paper. They place the paper on the floor and drop the strips until they are all at least partially on the paper. They must then study the composition and improve it as much as possible by only moving one of the five strips of paper. Glue them in place with glue sticks. Note the desire and ability of all the be aesthetic organizers. Verbally note the value of capricious events (accidents and mistakes) as source for creative ideas and inspiration.

Learning to practice the imagination based on an observed object

A shard from a tribal cooking pot.

  • Each student selects a pottery shard and a marble size piece of clay or similar material.  The clay is used to mount shard fragment in the position that the student thinks it might have been in the complete pottery piece that it may have originated from.  Using a blinder on their pencils so that the drawing paper is not visible, they draw a light continuous outline of exterior side of the pottery fragment.  Next a ballpoint pen is used to add the value scheme to the drawing (no ink outlines are permitted - only hatching to create shaded areas).  Erase the outlines formerly drawn by the pencil.
  • Using a pencil, use the imagination to create the rest of the pottery form.
  • OTHER POSSIBILITIES: Write a short story about the original user or maker of the pot.  Bury the shard (or imagine that you are doing this) 5 inches underground in the backyard of where you live and write a short story about the person who finds the shard 100 years from now.

  • Left: The V shaped portion at the top of this drawing was drawn by obersvation from the pottery shard above it.  The remainder of the form was invented from the student's imagination . We note that the student was aware that the top of a round form is represented by an oval. However, as is typical before students master drawing from observation, the line representing the base is flat (or straight).  The left brain knows that the base is to be flat on the table.  It does not realize that a correct observation would draw the front portion of the base as a half oval (curved).  Those who have learned to draw, know this, and even in their imaginary renderings, they show show it.

Learning to compare memory with observation

    For sources of inspiration from memory vs. observation, students draw an eye from memory.  Distribute 4 x 5 mirrors.  Next draw a an eye from observation. Compare and note the benefits of real information vs. dependence on memory.

    Even things we see everyday, are not totally memorized. The top eye is drawn from memory by an adult.  The bottom eye is then drawn by the same adult while using a mirror to observe her own eye. The next time this person draws an eye from memory, she will have learned more about the parts of her eye. This drawing is by a college student

Clay Work on a Small Scale can be used as a Classroom Ritual
Learning to observe and create in three dimensions
  • Small clay birds are made and recorded with blind contour drawing. See details by clicking here.
  • Clay sculpture: A student brings in an animal. Students each examine the animal by holding or at least feeling it. They have a small piece of clay with which to model a small animal.

See WHAT SKILLS ARE NEEDED TO DRAW EVERYTHING? © 2003 for more ideas by this author
See more essays ideas for art education by Marvin Bartel
See Art Lessons by Marvin Bartel
to Marvin Bartel Art for Children and Secondary School Art art education home page
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Also see: Sources of Art Lesson Ideas | Planning to Teach Art Lessons

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Updated: January 2003
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