Westview Elementary Fifth Grade Art Class
an essay below   -  Learning How to Learn How to Draw

Part II 


In this lesson
fifth graders are learning to draw with the aide of viewfinders
They gain confidence in 
their drawing ability because 
the task is small enough to master. 


In this scene, Betsy Poling Braun, 1999, Goshen College Student Teacher, is explaining the use of the viewfinder to a fifth grade class at Westview Elementary School, Topeka, Indiana. Rebekah Short is the art teacher. 
Click this Young At Art masthead to see an example of sixth grade art newsletter published for parents and others at Westview Elementary. 

Helping Children Learn How to Learn How to Draw 
 A short essay by Marvin Bartel - 2000

Viewfinders can simplify the task by isolating the important part of the subject being observed.
These students are learning many very important skills and art concepts.
 The teacher is nurturing their natural talents.
They are learning how to learn how to draw.

1. Students learn to make choices with the viewfinder. They are instructed to look for and make note of the relationships between the positive and negative areas.  They are to find the most interesting interplay between object and background considering, size, shape, orientation, overlapping, vectors produced, textural richness, and tonal gradation (shading and shadows).

By making these informed choices, they are learning the principles of design and composition. They are developing an understanding of beauty.

2. They are learning to observe the line contours of the milkweed pod edges. They are instructed to draw these lines without looking at their papers while their pencils move, but to carefully and intently study the line of the observed object as they draw it. If they look at the paper, they simply draw the childlike images learned during their earlier stage of innocence when it did not yet matter whether a thing looked real.  By not looking at the paper, a part of their brains is being developed that is largely ignored by other school learning tasks.        

If this part of the brain lies dormant, as generally happens in American schools, it atrophies and soon children become "visually handicapped", convinced that others have more talent than they do. Practice and exercise develops ability and self-confidence.  Lack of self-confidence produces avoidance of the activity most needed.

3. They learn to make comparisons of spaces, proportions, sizes, values (tone), shape, line character, and textures.  The viewfinder makes the task small enough for them to feel confident in their ability to achieve success.

4. They learn that their drawing ability improves with practice. They can compare work in their portfolios from earlier in the year and see their own drawing ability develop. This in turn motivates them to practice on their own. Rather than feeling handicapped by the inability to draw, they are empowered by their realization that mastery is possible with practice. If teachers never had children practice reading and writing, children would nearly all be illiterate. Since many teachers don't realize that drawing also can be learned with observational practice, most children in America and most other countries remain visually illiterate and handicapped. 

5. Using other drawing aides used to direct better learning habits. Viewfinders are only one example of a drawing helper. In the photo on the right we see third grade students using blinders.
Siting devices, and so on
, also help children understand how to learn to succeed at observation drawing.

6. At what age can children begin drawing instruction? Scribbling is an essential developmental phase for learning to draw. Children naturally progress through a number of stages. With proper instructions they can begin a more programmed development of their skills at very early age after they are past the scribbling and preschematic stages.

blinder drawing

Since drawing is so much a part of creative work and creative idea development, our educational culture is short changing our creative potential. Just as reading is important for survival in our culture, drawing is important for creative idea development in our rapidly changing times. Survival and success is being forfeited by our casual and accidental approach to teaching observation drawing in our culture.

Japan is probably the only country with a universally prescribed national art curriculum that requires working from observation from a very young age (grade one and kindergarten). From what my Japanese college students tell me, they spend about three times as much time learning art during the first three grades in school as we do the the US. Theirs is not a one-sided curriculum. They also have lessons and activities based on the imagination and as well works produced from remembered experiences. All three sources of inspiration for art are learned. Scroll down this page to see the observation work of children who are accustomed to doing regular observation drawing practice. 

These children have learned to focus on a task for an extended period of time in grade one. They become aware of details, not by copying an adult example, but by attending to good observation. When I see how much better they do in high school math than students in the US, it is apparent that the extra time spent in learning to attend to observation has not handicapped their other education. this early attention to extended observation and focus on a task may be the reason their minds are prepared to think and focus better in other disicplines.


When children ask for help with drawing, many teachers are heard to say, "That's okay, I can't draw either."  Yet what teacher would say? "That's okay, I can't read and write either."  We need to realize that, like other skills, if the skill of observation is not taught, only a few discover how to learn it on their own.  How many would learn to read and write if it were totally left up to children's own discoveries?  Using viewfinders and other observation practice techniques, any teacher can help children learn to draw any object, person, animal, and so on.

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Children can begin practicing observation drawing in grade one and younger. This is not to say observational drawing needs to replace their drawing from memory and imagination. These are also useful in developing parts of the brain through regular vigorous practice requiring memory and/or  imagination.  However, if young children are not helped with observational drawing, many children mistakenly grow up believing they can't draw because they lack talent. It is true that they lack ability, and because no teacher ever helped them develop, they generally end up without talent. Talent needs nurture in order to flower.

If they do not have observational drawing practice when they are young, most children at about third grade realize the inadequacy of their childlike images.  They inevitably see the work of a few peers who have practiced more enlightened and careful observation. 

Some of these "self-taught" 'talents' have learned to copy rather than to observe from real objects.  For them, even though they can copy precociously, they can find it very threatening to draw from actual objects unless they are given sound observational methods. Often, because of their learned dependence on copying, they are totally unaware of methodology by which to develop real observational skill. They  too experience a crisis of confidence to the extent that their lack of ability becomes a self-fulfilling inevitability.

All teachers, whether they themselves were lucky enough to develop their brains for observational drawing, can teach drawing. Teachers should not show children how to draw by drawing for them. Teachers should not use "how to draw" books that prescribe patterns and formulas for making various animals and other objects. These methods perpetuate false ideas about the way drawing is learned. When you learn a formula for drawing a fish, you haven't learned to allow various fish to tell what they look like. You simply know one fish symbol. While symbolic language may function for basic communication, real observation and expression is so much more empowering and effective.

Teachers should, at times, encourage children to examine things closely, slowly, and carefully, compare sizes, study the slant of a line, and compare everything with everything else in the subject being observed. Not only the objects are observed, but the spaces between objects must be carefully compared in size and character with the each other and the objects (art teachers call these the negative spaces). Drawing becomes a perfect way to record this data. Drawing becomes the perfect way to encourage this learning by examination. A beneficial self perpetuating circle of learning is initiated. Observation makes better drawing and drawing motivates better observation . . . . practice happens.

Children only learn to see when they are free to stop looking at their paper as a mistake. They have to observe and totally become the thing being drawn. Generally, when they look at the paper, they obsess about getting it "right". Children often need help to learn that observational drawing is much different than drawing from memory and drawings from imagination.  Observational drawing is based on external data. The data must be allowed to come from the subject. In other types of drawing, the data comes from within. When data comes from within, the information emerging on the paper can also be an  important source of additional ideas for development. This is less true in observational drawing. 

In observation drawing, once the student is has become liberated from the misconceptions of infantile schema and symbolic representations, the student can rationally compare the created work with the source (compare the drawing with the object observed). When the student begins to see creative ideas in the work instead of only mistakes, the student has been set forth on a path of self learning and fulfillment. 

Learning to draw is multifaceted.
Not every drawing lesson should be slow and deliberate observation. For good drawing instruction, at times teachers should encourage children to make fast and impulsive expressionistic markings representing their gut feelings. While this is also from observation, it is a more immediate way to observe a subject (often a live person posed in an action pose).  Marks are made to represent stimuli from within their inner selves. Drawing teachers often do this by requiring that observed impressions are forcefully recorded in a matter seconds. Many teachers encourage beginners to make quick "air drawings".  Practicing fast drawing in the air builds confidence.  In this type of drawing students are asked to start from the center and rapidly move outward.  This is the opposite of contour line drawing that carefully outlines the edge. 

Rembrandt and Kathy Kollwitz were two artists who mastered both modes of working, often including both within the same artworks. Picasso said he could draw like and artist when he was a child and it took a lifetime to learn to draw like a child. Both their contour lines and their gestural lines spoke volumes about their abilities to observe and express both their outer and inner worlds.


Observation Drawing" using "blinders" as an observation "helpers".

Skills learned in order to be able to Draw Anything
Impediments to progress and transfer of learning while Learning to Draw


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This page updated June 14, 2010

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Has your child asked for help in learning to draw better?
Drawing lessons are now available.

Drawing to Learn DRAWING

by Marvin Bartel - 2010 - is Now Available


This is a book written for kids who can read who want some good ways to practice their drawing skills. Us older folks who still want to learn new stuff can also use this book. It is also great for artists who want some ideas on how to help children learn to draw better. If you are an artist, you could start a Drawing Camp or some after school art classes using the ideas in this book. Parents can use this book plan a really cool and creative kids art party.

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