How can we motivate children who feel they have no drawing talent? If they say, "I can not draw" and "I am rubbish at art" in most cases they honestly do have serious weaknesses. With respect to drawing, they may have devastating self-image problems. We know they will not learn drawing if they do not practice. We know they do not practice because they are too frustrated and discouraged when they see their own drawings. How are desire, confidence, and passion acquired? How does a coach, teacher, or parent motivate practice that happens spontaneously, joyfully, and passionately?
1. The universal desire and instinct to learn
It is easy and too common to attribute all the differences in drawing ability to inherited talent. We all have varying inherited assets and liabilities. Additionally, many of us have acquired deficits because of injuries, malnutrition, and/or environmental damage. While in many cases there may be nutritional, chemical, and childcare preventions and remedies, we are still misguided if we ignore the effects of nurture and practice on any given set of inherited or environmental circumstances. Our abilities to learn how to think and do things are often dependent on how we practice and how much we practice. In this essay I am thinking about what motivates some of us to practice while others of us lack motivation and therefore lack abilities. This essay is written with the assumption and sincere belief that with the right kinds of coaching, every able minded person with eyesight can learn to draw well.
and focusing on the desire to learn
impediments to motivation
Unmotivated students often belong to a social class that believes artists are weird, indolent, or not to be trusted. Students learn to harbor these negative attitudes. If they do not respect artistic ability, it is hard to find incentive to develop the skill. Fortunately this is rare in art.
Unfortunately, among the poverty class and to some extent in the working class, education itself is distrusted. Educated people are suspected of taking advantage of others. Hence, their children are unintentionally conditioned to lack incentive to do well in school. My sociologist friends call this the sociology of self-perpetuating poverty. Homework is not the norm in this culture. Their parents work for eight hours a day and do not take a stack of work home with them like many people in the professions do. Active learning at home is a strange concept in some families. Those of us who are teachers work every waking hour to get everything done. We love our work. Even when we are taking care of other tasks, our minds are thinking about our work. We find negative homework values very hard to understand. Children, on the other hand, tend to normalize the settings in which they live. They do not even know that alternate worlds and value systems exist. Therefore, in nearly every classroom, some will be highly motivated and others will by nature have very little incentive to join the educated rat race of social climbers who may be disdained and distrusted by their caregivers at home. In today's world, those who are brought up to avoid self-initiated learning can not compete economically, socially, and may lack the ability to survive without lots of assistance from others.
Motivation is stronger when we can pick something we like. As teachers, we can use subjects and topics that are important and interesting - things that grow out of their own immediate life experiences. These vary. By giving two or more choices, the students often feel more incentive because they got to choose. I know an art teacher who has 13 and 14 year olds drawing details from a motorcycle on loan to the classroom in winter. This especially fascinates boys. This teacher always has an animal in his art room. Few children fail to respond to the animal. He has had two lizards in a terrarium. He has had a brown and white guinea pig.
Relevant and interesting subjects
I believe all children have an instinct to be interested in animals. We are social and we all pay attention to other people. Of course there are individual variations. Some feel that some children with special needs may respond better to animals than to peers. In tribal life in a wide animal environment, any child that lacked the instinct to be motivated by animals would not have lived long enough to have children. Hence, we all have the instinct to pay attention to animals. I find that children always enjoy drawing, painting, and sculpting while using a live animal as the subject. Few subjects or topics provide stronger motivation. Imagine all the possibilities of teaching an art class at a zoo, on a farm, or in a pet store.
We can experiment with topics of social consequence to push our students to think more critically about fairness issues, economic issues, health issues, environmental issues, neighborhood issues, global issues, delinquency concerns, and so on. To have a purpose beyond ourselves can be a very strong reason to practice. Many students already hold strong opinions and it is very motivating to give them permission to express these beliefs in their artwork. Giving students choices about the purpose of the work makes them feel more stongly. They will be more engaged. Those without a strong opinion, can be challenged to present the issue in a more ambivalent way, allowing the viewer to decide which is the right choice.
Methods that get improved results
It goes without saying, students are motivated more when they see themselves learning in order to be inspired to work hard, to focus, and make the effort to learn. I do not use self-deceptive methods that fool the child into thinking they are improving. Too many drawing books and TV personalities show tricks to copy that produce a slick result. These methods do not actually produce much new observation ability. End-product-based activities are counter productive because they do not make it easier to draw things other than the particular thing being produced. Cheating does not develop the crutial portions of the brain.
Real learning comes from drawing from actual objects, animals, or people. Real and careful observations teach us how to see more carefully and we begin to draw better. Regular practice methods can be directed so that any skill level can experience successes. Few accomplishments will measure up to being able to draw when it comes to building self confidence and status with their peers and parents. This page has more on what we need to learn in order to draw well.
Methods that develop neurons in the brain and body
To develop our visualization and drawing neurons we have to force them to practice by giving them new jobs to do. Drawing teachers know this. They help students learn to find interesting subjects that have not been drawn before in order to train their brains to notice things that would otherwise be overlooked. As this new ability develops, the brain begins to re-look at all the previously memorized ways to draw things. Old ways are revised as new and better seeing ability is acquired.
I avoid things that are too easy or too hard. Something that is a simple rectangle or circle is too easy and will not develop our seeing neurons. A complex house plant is too intimidating. However, asking a child to select a group of three overlapping leaves would require thinking and careful looking, both prior to drawing as well as during the drawing. The brain needs a challenge, but it gives up in despair and reverts back to a memorized simple symbol if the job is too complex.
Teachers and Parents to be Helpful
Delay the child. Before marking the paper, use imaginary practice (tactile tracing and air drawing). This teaches the importance of observation as a way to learn. Air drawing practice helps us notice more of what we are looking at. Air drawing can be done with the pointer finger following the edges or the tip of the nose that is pointed at the edge of the object and directed to follow the edge line (contour) around. It goes as fast as an ant could crawl along the edge and it notices little changes in direction. After nose drawing, try pointer air drawing with the finger extended so the eye can make it trace the edge of the object. Add details to make the air drawing more interesting. See endnote about nose drawing.
Blinders (also called drawing helpers) can be placed on pencils to make sure we are not obsessing about the picture on their paper when they should be studying the subject being observed. Blinders are eight-inch squares of tag board (like file folder materials or poster board) with a hole in the center - see rabbit photo above. The drawing pencil is placed in the hole so the blinder hides the paper while drawing.
We give the lines permission to be wrong. If a line goes around an object and ends up at the point of origin, it probably means the student peaked under the blinder. Practice means we try it again and again. When we get a good drawing started, we can always use an eraser and fix a few mistakes later. These lines are not sketchy, but continuous. When a new line is started, students may peak under the card to locate the best starting place.
Blinders are used to teach blind contour drawing. Blind drawing consists of drawing the edge of the observed object slowly so that every detail can be noticed. To avoid disappointment, teachers need to point out that the outlines are not expected to end up at the right place. We are doing this to see how the line moves (takes on unique shape and character) in order to represent the thing we are looking at. I often present drawing with the blinder as line practice rather than as object drawing. Then, after all the lines have been practiced, the object may be drawn without the blinder, but while looking at the subject rather than the paper most of the time. The student is asked not to watch the pencil while it is in motion, but otherwise they can look at the paper.
As the teacher, I never demonstrate this because I do not want students to learn to mimic my drawing. For them to assume that that another person's vision is more legitimate than their own will discourage them from developing their own observation neurons.
Teachers can encourage the comparison of shapes, sizes,
textures, tone, and so on. Teachers can show them how to do
by using an outstretched arm and pencil measure to make visual
Students can practice viewing through viewfinders (small cardboard
to see how to proportion objects and relate them to the edges of the
When students ask for help, I go to the subject being drawn and use hand motions to point out general orientation of lines and shapes, hold a hand near the line being observed to show the angle, make size comparisons, and so on. I hold a pencil at the same slant as the line with another pencil held vertical to show an angle. I can point out details. I ask awareness questions, but I try to avoid giving drawing suggestions. Students can build self-confidence by practicing in the air (pointing to the detail and moving in the air to pretend to draw what is observed). Students can practice a difficult passage on extra paper before drawing. This is like learning a hard passage in music by playing the hard part repeatedly until it can be integrated into the whole piece, or it is like breaking the hard part into smaller parts in order to figure it out. But it is not like music in that the teacher is not playing the piece for the student to copy it.
Even though I do not draw the same thing as the students while in front of the students, I think it is good motivation for a teacher to have an exhibition of her or his own work in the school. Students are inspired by seeing that their teacher is a capable practitioner. However, I agree with those drawing teachers who do not draw for students while teaching because to do so may cause students to try to mimic the teacher's drawing rather than learning how to observing the subject. This is different than teaching music where a teacher may play a hard part in order to help the student hear as well as see the musical notes. Drawing differs from musical performance in that we are acting as both the composer and the performer when we draw. We are not simply interpreting another persons notation. We are creating an original composition and rendition from scratch as we draw. When art teachers draw, they are drawing for themselves, never for their students. Students need to know this as well as learn to do this.
The GESTURE drawing dance---The Opposite Style, but still Observation
Artists know that the ability to draw a camera-like likeness is a useful skill, but by itself, it is not art. Gesture drawing helps nurture our expressive, intuitive, emotional, and artistic temperament. Gesture drawing is a great change of pace from the careful work of contour drawing. It must be explained that this is not intended to give the same results as contour drawing, but it can improve the quality of subsequent contour drawings. Observation is still very central to the activity, but feeling and kinesthetic response to tools, materials, and motion are also rehearsed and artistically and expressively developed. Gesture drawing is the dance of drawing.
Unlike contour drawing, gesture drawing does not start with an outline. It starts from the center (the core) and moves out to all the joints, the extremities, emphasizing movement and action as it rapidly colors in the figure. Gesture drawing is the opposite of slow and careful contour drawing. Gesture drawing is from observation, but it is done very fast--not slow and deliberate as contour drawing needs to be.
Any subject can be used, but people make excellent models for gesture drawing. We are social creatures. Using classmates as models takes the motivational advantage of our instinct to attend to our peers.
In gesture drawing, the whole model (students take turns being models) is drawn in less than a minute or two. Ask them to try to get the overall pose, the angles, the lengths, and the forms filled in as quickly as possible. Invite the drawing students to mimic the pose for a few moments prior to actually starting to draw so they feel the tension in the pose. Tell them the muscle tension is often seen in gesture drawings.
To help students understand gesture drawing I allow no outlines at all. Some students miss this instruction the first time it is given because I do not demonstrate it, so we stop. We put down another paper and start again until every student has understood that we do not include any outlines. I never reprimand anybody by name, but we continue to start over until everybody remembers not to draw outlines. I do not demonstrate, because when I demonstrate, everybody thinks their drawing is supposed to look like mine. I want them to find their own gestural styles and voices. I do not want clones of my style.
They have to begin in the center and very quickly fill in the drawing of the figure with a rapid coloring motion while looking at the model at least 75 percent of the time. Sometimes I say, "Oops, somebody is still drawing the outline." I keep repeating this with new poses until everybody does it without drawing any outline. Sometime we play a passage of very fast music during the practice to encourage the drawing tool to dance the picture unto the paper. Stop the music to signal the end of each practice piece.
Once, they get the idea of no outlines, students are encouraged to look around between drawings to see how others have solved the problem. They are instructed to look for the most expressive lines, or group of lines, shapes, and tone areas in each drawing they look at.
A gesture drawing is a recording of arm motions. In gesture drawing the arm dance produces the lines that render the drawing. The arm dances with a drawing tool that records the sensory input from the eyes, ears, and muscles in the arms and body as you are drawing. I emphasize that they need to feel the tension in their arms and they need to dance it, not just keep doing one thing. If they dance it, the drawing will not be a monotonous repetition of lines, but it will have expressive variety in the rendition. Lines and colored in tone will have a variety in boldness, in length, in direction, in softness, and so on.
Gesture drawing is a physical activity. Students stand up while drawing. Paper is taped to drawing boards placed at arms length. At least 12 x 18 inch paper is good to get lots of arm motion into the work. Newspapers publishers often give their role ends to schools (a source of free paper). Crayons, markers, soft dark pencils (6B), graphite sticks, pastels, oil crayons, and charcoal work well. For a variation, try both black and white on gray paper using dramatic lighting for strong tonal modeling.
I use various action poses with arms and legs extended for gesture drawings. Ask the model to pretend to be dancing, skating, stumbling, sliding into home base, and so on. I pose them on a table in the center of the room with each pose facing a new direction. Sometimes we add pieces of bright colored tape or paper at structural points (knees, elbows, toes, heels, etc.). Sporting equipment adds interest. The model can be in act of throwing a ball or swinging a racket.
Effective gesture drawings are lively and expressive, have strong line character that is not monotonous, and the lines capture the feeling of the action pose. I suggest that they frequently change length of their lines (some short and some long), the orientation (angle) of their lines, the boldness of their lines (some bold and some faint lines), the kind of lines (some curved, straight, jagged, wavy, etc).
If the drawings have monotonous lines, I stop and we do a bunch of line warm-ups to learn how to make a large variety of line types. This is like dance instruction. I have them change the speed while making a line from slow to fast and from fast to slow. Instruct them to alternate between smooth and jittery motions. Play music with different tempos while they draw. Allow the crayons to bounce, dance, and twirl. Ask for a full range of tone (changing pressure). Ask them to try to do these changes in response to what they are looking at, hearing, and feeling. To avoid deadly monotonous coloring-book lines I might ask them to switch hands every ten seconds during the drawing process. Like in acting class, students might be asked imagine themselves in a situation that evokes a strong feeling that is being channeled into the drawing. (For other ideas on gesture drawing, also see How to Teach Children to Draw and/or Portrait and Figure Drawing)
GESTURE-CONTOUR Hybrid Drawings
Portfolios and longitudinal assessment
Common Motivational Killers
to Avoid when Teaching Drawing.
Even showing the placement of eyes and parts of the face on an oval is a general formula that can result is a lazy approach to observation. It constitutes a formula that requires less actual sighting, measuring, observation, and decision-making on the part of the student. Why not ask them to find the placement of the parts of the face using sighting methods such as grids on mirrors? Have them tilt their face toward the mirror to make one observation and tilt the head back to make another. Have them look askance at the mirrors. Have them decide how the eye-line changes. Real motivation is the result of learning how to learn, not the result of copying and memorizing other people's expertise--as in a spelling class.
Ways, Styles, and Habits of Working
Some drawing is neither observation nor memory. When drawing from imagination, students can be asked to generate the questions as well as the visual answers. What are the parts of a home of the future? What will transportation look like in 100 years when all collisions are prevented by proximity sensors and roads are not needed because we all levitate?
Teachers who practice an unpredictable reward system (going beyond fairness) are good at "catching" their students doing extra things or doing the right thing. To keep it fair, this has to be seen as extra rewards or apart from the standard grading. These teachers let students know with quiet but enthusiastic comments that they are doing something right or something special. Good coaches have a sixth sense about motivation that keeps the team members working very hard to learn, gain skill, and feel self-worth. These players can never predict exactly what kind of performance will elicit the positive comment from the coach. If it is too predicable, the players loose their creative edge. In the art class, a good teacher not only sees when students listen carefully and follow directions, good teachers are very excited and they give special notice whenever anything unexpected happens in a student's artwork. Even an unintended discovery that accidentally happens in a student's artwork can be an opportunity to make give a positive response. I might say, "Wow, I did not know that you could do this." or "Wow, is this the first time you did this?" or "Did you notice how you got this effect (explain the effect seen). Good job!" We can tell any student that deserves it, "Thanks for working hard today. Your work is getting better."
Good art teachers look for teaching/learning moments. They find specific good things that happen that can also be used to reinforce art learning such as, "The color you used here really helps this part come forward in the picture because of the colors around it. Did notice how it works?" "Wow, this reflected light here in the shadow area really shows that you were looking carefully." Students nearby are bound to perk up their ears and start looking for similar ideas to incorporate into their work.
talent and encouraging passion
In addition to avoiding the term "talent", we can clarify and expand the definition of talent. It may be better for me to describe skills as passions rather than talents. This allows me to say that I have a passion for teaching art, a passion for drawing, and a passion for making pottery on the wheel. Because of these passions, I have practiced. Because of this practice, it looks like I have talent. Because it looks like I have talent, my passion is motivated.
Motivating through mistakes
In art, mistakes often bring the out a new idea that never would have occurred to us otherwise. Teachers who see this happen, can use these events for an unexpected and helpful rewarding comment.
Some families encourage children's drawing practice, but many adults have no notion of what to do that is helpful. These children have a smaller chance of developing natural skills that are described by many as talent.
Sooner or later every child asks for help. This is often when the trouble begins. The help that is given can too easily be destructive rather than helpful. Well-meaning adults often make totally inappropriate "corrections" and suggestions. We ruin a child's ability to observe, express, and to be self-sufficient when we draw for them and when we buy them pattern books, drawing instruction books, coloring books, and so on. Adults that do not want to get informed about how to be helpful should simply provide materials and appropriate places to work.
By age nine or so, most children seem to have reached a point when they are quite aware of the good "drawers" among their peers. Sometimes the accomplished ones have a parent or most often an uncle or aunt who is also quite accomplished. This leads people to assume that they have a special inherited talent. We suspect the skilled ones have been fortunate to receive inspiration and in some cases even some helpful instruction within their family system. At least they have the notion that drawing is a valued skill in their family. This has motivated them to practice. We see similar family influences in music.
When we multitask, we may get more routine chores done, but we probably are not really learning new things. In order to practice a skill and develop ability, students need to be helped to find a place, time, and routine that minimizes distractions and irrelevant sensory stimulation. Tutoring and mentoring can give one-on-one supervision of practice to help keep the student on task.
Good teachers find ways to help stronger students become helpful to other students. We remind helping students not to do too much for those they are helping. These students need to learn to use questions rather give answers. They can learn to phrase questions, encourage learning experiments, but not give suggestions when they help.
If a student says, "I am not talented in drawing", we can say something like, "I know how you feel. There was a time when I was totally stupid about computers, but even though I was terribly discouraged about it at times, I just kept practicing, making mistakes, asking for advice, reading directions, and studying until I got computers to work for me. Even now I would never say I am talented at using computers. I still keep making mistakes, but I still keep learning from the mistakes. Drawing is like that.” We get good at drawing if we are willing to practice, to pay attention, to make lots of mistakes and to learn from our mistakes. I learn to use computers because it is important and it is fun. We learn drawing because it is important and it is fun. We learn drawing because creative people use drawing to figure out their innovative ideas. We learn drawing because it can be an important means of artistic expression. We learn drawing because it helps our powers of observation and being a good observer is an important way to learn. Learning how to learn is probably the most important reason to learn to draw.