Looking for successful lessons from art class when you were a teenager.
November 23, 2008 4:30 PM   Subscribe

What exercises or experiences do you remember most from art class when you were a kid? Did you ever have an "aha!" moment, and, if so, what caused it?

I teach two weekend drawing and painting classes for kids. One class is 14-15 and the other is 11-13 years old. It's been about 8 weeks so far, and I've been through the basics of life drawing, proportion, and working with different materials with both classes. The younger class is turning into an animation class, which I've done before. It's only a difference of a couple years, but the younger class is still at that point where they can have too much fun to be self-conscious.

It's the teens that I really want to work on. I feel like I've finally gotten their attention, but they're still all at that phase where they're considering everything they do against the image of who they want to be or think they should be. I'm doing fine as a glorified babysitter that teaches them basic technique, but I have two ambitions for the class:

1) I want them to learn about what they want to do with art and gain confidence and faculty with it.

2) I want to expand their ideas about art and what it means to them.

I never had an art class that did that when I was their age, so I'm looking for any stories of inspiration striking when you were a teen, or something you did in class that surprised you enough to pay attention at least for a minute. It would be best if it's something I can duplicate without great expense, but I'm interested in anything that felt like a breakthrough.

I've started splitting their time between group work on techniques and materials and individual work on personal projects. I want to be an adult in their life that takes their interests seriously and encourages them. There's:

a shy boy who likes non-fantasy manga
one girl who does fashion design
a cheery-goth girl who draws, aside from the usual goth stuff, transvestite rave DJ's
a sort-of-shy guy who's into skate/hip-hop style and graffiti
a quiet girl with a lot of natural talent but a resistance to visual contrast
a laid-back friendly guy who draws monsters
a kind of posh girl who likes drawing elves and fairies

and the rest of them just like drawing realistic drawing of people, mainly from photos.

If any of that thrilled you when you were a teen, let me know what worked/didn't work/took you to the next idea. Thanks!
posted by nímwunnan to Education (11 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: One of the standard art class assignments at my high school was to illustrate song lyrics. It was the one thing everyone enjoyed, because everyone got to use their own favorite song (and oh man, teenagers are so into their music). It was also interesting to see the range of work produced--some people kept it really literal, and others tried to capture the feeling and tone of the song.
posted by phunniemee at 5:57 PM on November 23, 2008

Best answer: Two things definitely stuck with me - the first was the very basic exercise of drawing what you actually see, rather than what you think it looks like - for example, don't draw a face by outlining the features, but by re-creating the areas of light and shadow; use colours as they are affected by light, not just flatly as they appear on a surface. I think we started working on this by drawing in light pastel on a black piece of paper, so that we were adding highlights instead of drawing shadows. Life (or still life) drawing is good for this as well, because it involves rendering from each student's particular perspective, rather than the single view presented by a photograph.

The other I got in university, a professor once said "don't let your work get too precious" The idea that not every scribble is worthwhile, to be able to have the discernment to see when something could be made better by trashing it and starting again. This has been a huge help not just in my art but in my career as well.

From your descriptions of the kids you're teaching, they each have a style or specialty they prefer and think is cool, and could use some help seeing that good art doesn't stick to a style, but is an expression of something personal. An artist should be trying to reach the audience, not just impress them with their hipness. That doesn't mean that they have to abandon their style, but to make sure that it is their own rendering of it. Get them to draw something really ordinary, like a bowl of fruit, using their preferred techniques, and I bet a lot of interesting stuff will arise.

also - take them to an art gallery

y'know, when I started writing this, I had no idea I had so much to say on this topic!
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 6:04 PM on November 23, 2008

I remember a distinct 'aha!' moment in an art class when I was like 9 or 10. I was drawing the back and legs of a horse, but somehow the teacher managed to get me to think about it not as "I am drawing a horse" but rather "I am drawing this line based on what I am observing." It totally changed my drawings from the little kid style, to something moving towards more adult drawing.

A few activities that took me out of my comfort zone effectively were blind contour drawing that you could only look at at the end; drawing with the hand that you don't write with; or using unwieldy materials to break students out of stiff, obsessive, tight detail. I remember really liking using a huge piece of paper and charcoal. It force me to use my whole arm in making a line, and didn't allow me to tense up.
posted by umbú at 6:11 PM on November 23, 2008

Have you ever flipped-through George Nelson's How To See? Nelson was a notable mid-century modern designer. He carried a camera with him everywhere to train himself to look for beauty and remarkable—sometimes accidental—design in everyday life. Have your students carry a sketchbook (or camera) and draw from life every single day. Train them to see the beauty, style, and meaning in the shapes, patterns, and chance arrangements of their environments.
posted by paulg at 7:01 PM on November 23, 2008

My aha moment was when the teacher showed me how to correctly draw an the eye with all of the features correctly displayed. I was amazed by how easy it actually was as opposed to just drawing a circle. I also got a lot out of learning to draw that little wooden dummy that you could manipulate its position.
posted by bkeene12 at 7:45 PM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

This is more of a reverse-aha moment, but please DO NOT berate your kids for producing anything that is less than "art" or is done differently from what the other kids are doing. My art teachers at school growing up were horrors at this; there were no end to the "my six-year-old cousin could draw better" comments. It traumatised me and I'm only starting - very slowly - to experiment with art again.
posted by divabat at 7:48 PM on November 23, 2008

Zeitgeist! I'm doing the micro version of this kind of class... 30 minutes with 10 fifth graders twice a week for four weeks. (Yeah, I know.) But I see a lot of my own thoughts about my "workshop" in your post.

On the topic of helping them find their own direction, your best bet is probably to expose them to as much as possible and give them the opportunities to explore types of art they haven't spent much time with, from other countries and other (sub)cultures... other industries. Periodicals, (library) books, internet, field trips... probably depends on what you have to work with. Show them history, show them "The Art of ______" books, show them the journals and sketchbooks of underground artists. Use DeviantArt. Use Flickr. (Those two sites plus a growing collection of artist blogs helped me build up a large library of reference images that I find inspiring and encouraging).

When talking about his early years in drawing (his mid-late teens, around 2000), my husband usually mentions Elfwood and Don Bluth. Of the drawing classes I took in community college, the most inspiring thing I remember (besides the personal friendship with the teacher) was a video about Piet Mondrian. (We were subjected to old PBS-esq shows and documentaries most classes on things ranging from calligraphy to Patrick Hughes to how paint brushes are made. I actually liked most of them.) I loved seeing the evolution of his work from representational to abstract, and how there are so many stages (between sketch between painting) to each concept.

In a lot of ways I found technique exercises to be dull and frustrating until I had a clear direction of where I wanted to go. I can get excited about shading and contour practice and hatching worksheets when they're a means to a personal end. Rendering still life pieces isn't interesting unless I'm thinking about how I'll apply what I'm learning about shading to my webcomic. Fuel the engine! Don't push the car!

Unless these are kids on the path to career artistry, I'd stress "do art for yourself first. do it every day" and encourage them towards evolving their work (especially through exposure to more established artists), but not force them towards it. In my opinion, an artist shouldn't be pressured about their development until a critical mass (pick two: experience, age/maturity, goals/intentions) is reached. I think creative teenagers should have a ton of leeway with seeking out what style identity they're comfortable with and secure enough within to properly process outside influence.

For a specific project idea, have them pair up (by choice, by assignment, or randomly. or all three at different times) and collaborate on a piece. It could be done jam style (we each draw a couple elements on our own papers, then swap and continue the other person's work) or fully cooperative-style (both people involved in one work from start to finish). The former encourages an interplay of styles, the latter a blending of styles.
posted by itesser at 10:20 PM on November 23, 2008

At about age 12, my older brother came across Drawing on the right side of the brain, and got me to copy upside down and then right side up. The upside down one came out better. That was when I started to understand about seeing, and not just looking.

My daughter (16, and top of her year level at her school in Art) seems to particularly enjoy tactile materials in her art, thick paper, clay, layering. I know she had an aha moment this year when challenged to understand some modern artists. She really resisted and was quite cranky about not just being allowed to produce, but after a couple of goes at it, really blossomed and her point of view in her work really widened. One of the ways you could trial this is letting each kid choose a book about a particular artist (unusual ones) and then asking them to imitate the style (not the content).
posted by b33j at 1:48 AM on November 24, 2008

I didn't really have an 'aha' moment as a kid, but I did have one recently (I'm 26) when I was working through the exercises in Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.

My drawing skills as a kid were fairly mediocre. I particularly remember being frustrated that I had such a hard time just drawing what was in front of me.

After doing a few exercises in the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, particularly the upside-down drawing and the drawing of my hand, I was amazed at what I was capable of. Once I was able to see that I was in fact capable of drawing, I was far more driven to put in effort into learning and practicing more. I just wish I had been able to figure this out as a kid.

Perhaps some of these exercises in the above book would help.
posted by ogami at 4:59 AM on November 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


Yes! I had an art teacher that drilled on on that book and it helped so much in basic draftsmanship. The contour line/negative space exercises lead to a gradual kind of "Oh wait, it's all about measuring!" moment.
posted by The Whelk at 7:04 AM on November 24, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks a lot for the suggestions so far. I've done some of them already, but some of this will definitely be useful. Glad to hear that "aha!" moments do happen. Hopefully I can spur a couple myself.
posted by nímwunnan at 7:44 PM on November 24, 2008

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