The road to copying -Part 1. ‘Art isn’t just about drawing…

I consider myself to be not really that arty. That’s strange really as I play the ‘cello, I create when I sew but I find drawing really difficult. When I taught children used to complain to me ‘I can’t draw Miss!’ and I would say ‘can you draw me a circle?’ they would say yes and then I would say ‘well you can draw then, just not what you want the way you want too’…

Art in school seems to be about looking at a particular artist, seeing how they create their particular ‘style’ and then doing your best to copy it. The nearer the children get to the original the ‘better’ the art is judged. In the beginning of my teaching career I went along with this idea as I didn’t really know any better and could be heard to say ‘well done Jonny, that sunflower is just like Van Gough’s.’ Sure the children are taught skills, how to shade, mix colours, really look at what they can see but the emphasis isn’t actually on creating your own piece of artwork, just merely churning out imitations of Monet’s garden, Van Gough’s sunflowers and Kandinsky’s concentric circles.

My son found art dull at his last school and appeared to not be very good at art in the traditional sense. But ask him about his favourite artists and he is able to talk about his feelings about particular works of art and give very well thought out ideas and opinions. Monet is his favourite artist as he says his painting are ‘like a dream’ and he likes the calming feeling and the lack of preciseness of them. We read a book about Vincent Van Gough’s life and he cried at the end and when I asked him why he said ‘he was never happy’ and this, to me is the sign of someone in touch with their emotions and the world around them. We talked about his feelings and we said that the best thing was to go and see the painting (it’s in London) stand in front of it and say ‘Vincent, you are truly amazing’ and that is what Hubbie and Oliver did. He came back full of the painting, how wonderful it was, how small it was –books never give you the reality of the size of paintings- and how much he loved it. My son loves art.

He just doesn’t like doing art.

Or should it be he doesn’t like the art that’s done to him? At home he’s very artistic. He builds the most amazing Lego models where he demonstrates great artistic flair. He can talk you though every brick that he has placed and exactly the reason why it’s there. He shows imagination, thought and lots of artistic skill. He plans his models thoroughly, loves symmetry and balance. He uses colour to add to his designs accentuating certain important features. He constructs them as a sculptor would and has an awareness for how to build so that it lasts and, of course, is able to be played with.

When I mentioned his ‘art’ to his previous school I asked if he could bring in one of his models to show the class. To make him feel that he was good at art, well his art anyway, and I was told no that it would be a health and safety nightmare. When I asked if there could be an exhibition of the models that a lot of his friends built again, I was told no that it would be too difficult. Even a picture on an art board would have been some sort of recognition that art doesn’t just come from a scheme of work and the narrow parameters that these contain. The answer was always no. Oliver the art enthusiast was not allowed to create using his own materials and that was that. Maybe the teacher’s weren’t confident artists themselves, maybe they didn’t have the time or maybe, just maybe, they just weren’t bothered after all if they have experienced the lesson, have done the art expected well, that’s doing art –surely?

I know you may be thinking that’s great, you were a teacher so what did you do? Once I realised I wasn’t teaching art well I changed the way I planned lessons. I used the learning objectives but gave the children free rein to create what they wanted. We made picture frames from wood and calico (starving artists don’t always have the money to buy new materials) for our printed pictures. They were all shapes and sizes but very much their own work. We used dolly mixtures to make sculptures and again the children were left to create what they wanted in all aspects of shape, size colour and outcome. We varnished them with glue and had a wonderful exhibition of them to which the whole school loved the idea (though we did have a few problems with the reception children in convincing them that they couldn’t eat them!) We had a unit of work on still life so some of the children painted, some, took photos, some drew on the computer and some just drew but they were able to interpret their ideas into whatever media they wanted and this really brings out the inner artist. They always asked ‘is it finished Miss?’ and I would say ‘I don’t know, you are the artist not me –what do you think?’ and they would potter off and have a look, have a think and make the decision themselves. I always encouraged my children to sign their work as again, they are the artist why shouldn’t they?

What would I have done with the sunflowers and Monet units of work? If a child wanted to make their art out of Lego then who am I to say that would be right or wrong? I would have let a child use a different media if they felt that was the way they wanted to interpret the learning outcomes then we would be really developing the next generation of artists rather than just constraining them to fixed idea however nice that makes a display board. My worst nightmare is seeing 30 identical pictures hung on a wall –that screams out ‘my teacher didn’t trust me to make my own art!!’ and I will always prefer to see a mixture of art.

Art feeds the mind both in terms of appreciation and of creation. It should be fun, lively and bursting with ideas. It shouldn’t be just churning out yet more copies of previous artists work (and mostly dead artists too) and children should be allowed, and trusted, to experiment, to succeed (and fail) at creating what is their heads and imaginations.

So. I feel my opinions as to my lack of artiness stem from my old art lessons where I couldn’t draw in the way that was expected, I couldn’t produce what they wanted what I did never really looked like what it should. It’s not until I started my sewing business that I found my inner artist when all the previous constraints had been lifted that I have been able to create exactly what I have wanted. I’ve learned new techniques which have opened up new possibilities so I totally understand that the skills of art are essential and should be taught to enable ideas to be put down in a creative way. Lack of skill can hold imagination back. But I have learned that I am arty. I am an artist in the way I create designs to make my products look attractive, I need to take note of form and function to make sure they are useable and I have to make sure I add quality to ensure longevity and value for money. My ideas are now flowing like I have unblocked a pipe and there are not enough hours in the day for all that I want to do. I have a little book for my ‘when I have time…’ ideas. Some will be made and some will never be but I am happy with my discovery of my inner artist and I know that art isn’t just about drawing…


About littlewhitecottage

Emma is a qualified teacher with 14 years of teaching in many different settings. From teaching adults and children at a music school to choosing to work in a demanding primary school that was failing (which meant moving from an outstanding school – her colleagues were aghast!) to running her own sewing business for the last 5 ½ years teaching all ages how to sew: Emma loves to teach.
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7 Responses to The road to copying -Part 1. ‘Art isn’t just about drawing…

  1. Dani Higginson says:

    Spot on!!! I have had so many conversations about this with friends. I too was made to feel this way in school and even in college and I actually felt emotional while reading this! If you feel creative and enjoy doing something-anything-artistic, why should anyone have the right to tell you you’re not doing it right? I will be showing this to a friend of mine whos 12 year old son is having this problem in school now, he was so enthusiastic before but now has lost confidence and interest because of his teachers responses-thank you for writing this!x

  2. Pam says:

    It seems so strange that we’re prepared to accept the many different ways of producing literature, but art often gets stuck in the ‘fine art’ category.
    Especially in schools. And isn’t it strange that the most successful art teaching is done by those who don’t go down the ‘copying’ route? But then that can be said of all subject teaching! I have always believed in the art and magic of numbers because of a wonderful maths teacher.
    Look forward to part two!
    P x

  3. renshens says:

    Thank you for this post, Your blog is always interesting. I think you have raised some very interesting points about the teaching of art in schools. Children should be inspired by the work of others and be shown techniques, but then left to develop their own work from this point. Art is so subjective, children need to be encouraged to really value their own work and style and like you say not just in how closely they can copy something!

  4. Jen says:

    Great article Emma, as always! As someone who was told that I was ‘rubbish’ at art, consistently through primary and secondary, I didn’t dare pick up a pencil til about 10 years ago, when I read some really interesting ‘journalling through drawing’ blogs, and had a go myself. I wasn’t great, but I had my own ‘style’ and objects were recognisable! I still can’t do people, but then I stuck to things I could draw. I picked up my pens and watercolours on Tuesday, for only the second time in 10 years. Had had a dream 3 times in a week, which I wasn’t able to make sense of in words. A nightmare, it was very vivid in colour and shade, so I drew it instead. The perspective is wrong, the shading is dubious, there are key elements ‘missing’, but it totally encapsulated the dream and was so cathartic. Breaking through that ‘you can’t do art’ is so difficult, and it is so upsetting that our children are still being indoctrinated like that (F’s schools equally awful at producing ‘identical’ art for display purposes!). Well done you for recognising that No.1 has a sculptural bent, and thank you, as I hadnt thought about F’s creations like that and can see that his reluctance to pick up a paintbrush doesn’t mean he doesn’t ‘do’ art.

    From my perspective, the ability to draw what you see, but to expect your ‘filter’ to express that will be different to everyone else, is the hardest thing to accept.

  5. Helen Stewart says:

    Emma, your blog is spot on! I’m instantly taken back to my GCSE art days many years ago now. I too can’t claim to draw or paint in the conventional sense but I consider myself to be very creative or arty. I thankfully had a teacher who was able to work with me to use my talents and almost translate what I wanted to do for what she knew would be exam approved material. I got an A in my GCSE art but the whole experience of trying to adapt my style into what was acceptable really ruined my creativity. I just lost heart in it. I dropped the practical element and transferred to History of Art instead. That was 15 years ago and without turning this response into an essay it had a lot to do with me getting really down earlier this year…but that’s another story. All those post school years and even my Uni years, I lost sense of who I was because creativity was not deemed to be acceptable art. So for the last 6 months I’ve been trying to refind that creativity, and I’m trying everything, sewing, painting, crochet, needlepoint, clay etc And I have found that creating or making is the number one therapy for me. It matters less if what I make is any good, it’s just the process of creating. So now with my own children aged 6 and 4 I try to make sure that they are not suppressed in any way. Great blog. I really connected with it.

  6. Julia says:

    Oh my goodness you have blown me away!! What a fabulous article, I felt like cheering out loud at what you wrote.
    When I was at school, our teachers were very much as you describe: you came to school, you fitted in the Box or you didn’t get good grades. I was never one of those children who enjoyed drawing from life or copying what other artists had done. I think back and I remember thinking there must be more to it than this…There was one time we had to design a record cover of our own choosing and it was the only project I remember getting enthusiastic about – the rest of it was like ‘that doesn’t look too much like a labrador, no no you have to do its nose like that – keep looking at the picture and copy what’s in front of you’ and so on. Yawn.

    I suppose those classes taught me the finer points of how to draw and how to imitate what someone else had done, but I never learnt how to develop my imagination, and how to make art my way – from the heart and soul and in a way that came naturally. I taught myself to do that.

    I love what you did for your pupils; I wish I’d had a teacher like you who encouraged individuality and how to create outside the Box. I dislike that Box, which I fear my own daughter will inevitably one day encounter as she journeys through school (but maybe she will be lucky and meet a teacher like you). I suppose I worry because I already see a very gifted little girl who shines like a light when she creates – but at least she can come home and be the artist she wants to be here – and that I will always encourage.

    Thank you for sharing and writing this post, it’s been a pleasure to read it – sorry for my rather long reply!! Sending love, Julia x x x

  7. Angela says:

    Really interesting article. I was fortunate enough to have great art teachers at school (thank you Mr Harrup!) and went on to do A level, foundation and a fine art degree. After my degree I gained some work experience as a modelmaker for an architect. It fitted in perfectly with my style and way of working but I was thought to have been ‘selling out’ by my tutors. 13 years later, I am still working there and have travelled the world and had my work exhibited in places I could never have dreamed of. I say all this to agree with you; you can be creative in many, many ways. And also to let your little boy know about modelmaking as a career. I didn’t even know it existed as a job until I started! And we even have a very large model of The Pompidou Centre made entirely from Lego (made in the early 80’s)!

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