Modelling for success in an art class

After last week’s dilemma, I approached this week’s art class with more structure. We were missing the five year old, so we were all able to fit around one table and set ourselves up for a day of acrylic painting. There were no warm ups; just preparation for working together.

I chose Tom Thomson and The Group of Seven as my focus. Their work seems to hold just the right balance of structure and “cutting loose” for developing painters. As I mentioned last week, I wanted to encourage movement beyond “school art” and this usually means I need to move some distance out of the students’ comfort zone. We started by looking at The Group of Seven’s art and discussing the kinds of things they chose to paint and the techniques they used to capture Canadian landscape. We had already been working with undercoats, so it was great for them to see them in use in works of art.

Together, we voted on the painting we want to try together. I narrowed it down to a choice between two where the focus was on brushstrokes and free movement as opposed to too much detail (again, I was keeping in mind the need to loosen up a little). We chose a Thomson and started by choosing the undercoat colour. I stated right off the start that they did not need to choose the exact colours Thomson used. What I wanted them to do was capture the “essence” of the work but put their own “stamp” on their piece. That seemed to be the right amount of freedom for them and they all chose a version of red or orange as their undercoat colour but no one chose the same colour as anyone else. Already, we had variety!

While their undercoat dried, we looked at Thomson’s brushstrokes and colour blending. We discussed the order we thought Thomson had tackled his work of art and decided that we would start with the sky. We used charcoal pencils to sketch the landscape first and worked on “mapping out” the picture as opposed to drawing it. We agreed that when we spend too much time on drawing, we feel sad about placing colour over top of our drawing. I clarified the purpose of a sketch and they embraced this quick draw approach.

T started to stress a little as the sketching progressed. She admitted she likes to control her art by choosing geometric patterns and subjects she feels able to replicate exactly. This “free and easy” approach was making her unsure of herself and she expressed her anxiety several times throughout the class. We talked as a group about the notion of art as being about risk taking and learning as opposed to controlling a medium by staying in our comfort zones. She agreed with this idea and kept working on her piece but only stopped expressing insecurity when she was 80% done her picture and could see that she had done something she was really proud of. This was the first time I had seen her actually excited about taking her piece home to show her family. Success! She took a risk and it worked out – the perfect formula for moving forward.

The rest of us worked on our pieces until done. We were shocked when we looked at the clock and saw that our hour and a half was almost over. The time had flown and every single person had been engaged the entire time. Their work reflected their engagement and there was an air of confidence that I hadn’t felt the previous week.

Reflecting back, there were many factors that shifted the atmosphere. First, I was working alongside them. I used “think alouds” throughout the process, sharing my own wonderings and challenges as well as solutions. We helped each other through some rough patches and had a spirit of collaboration. We also sat in a circle, which ensured constant interaction. They spontaneously shared palettes and colours they created. We were all working on the same thing in our own way and I was able to give more of myself to everyone just through proximity and shared purpose. I think that this needs to be an essential part of the learning cycle, even when everyone is working on different things – we need to have times built in to come together with a shared purpose and talk and think. Otherwise, it feels like I am just juggling all the pins and I don’t actually get to spend any time getting to know any one of those pins in detail. By working with them, I made myself vulnerable – I was learning with them, which takes a lot of pressure off everyone. Finally, every person had the freedom and autonomy to interpret the task in their own way. This is how inquiry was still honoured. We had the same catalyst for our art but we all went in the direction we wanted and we ended up with very different pieces when all was said and done.

Next week, they have requested to be able to choose thier own picture from the art book and work on it themselves. They are ready for “You do, I help” which is just great. I can hardly wait to see what happens!

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