Teaching Kids How to do Art (4 Things to Keep in Mind)

I’m just going to say right now that I do not have a Masters degree in teaching, nor am I an expert on this kind of stuff, but I’ve simply observed some things in the way I’ve been taught to do art and how I’ve seen other kids being taught, and my previous experience in student teaching, that I’ve formed a couple of ideas on how one should (and shouldn’t) teach kids how to do art.

Due to a series of unfortunate circumstances with my little sister’s current painting class, she’s going to be pulled out of said class, and I’m going to be using spending an hour a week minimum tutoring her instead. We’re both actually pretty excited about it. She’s going to be doing two projects. First project, she’s going to make a reproduction of Mary Cassat’s Little Girl in a Blue Armchair:

Image from Wikimedia Commons


Then, she’s going to make an original piece in Cassat’s style (in fact, that’s the reason she chose this piece to duplicate, because the dog in the picture looks like a smaller version of our dog).

So, in my search of looking for curriculum as to how to run and teach painting to an older child, I ran into a couple problems: there’s this huge emphasis on just “letting kids experiment” which, don’t get me wrong, that’s great, but I know for certain that when I was that age, I wanted to be able to paint as good as the paintings I saw in the museums, which required a lot more skill, knowledge, and control that I’m not really seeing in a lot of lesson plans on the internet. My sister actually feels the same way.

What’s really scary is that she’s already much better at art than I was at her age.

Even Blick’s proposed lesson plans for painting look more like something for second graders rather than middle/high school aged kids. Come on, Blick, this is just sad.

So, it looks like I’m creating my own curriculum from scratch. Hopefully it works out. So, here’s a list of things that I think is a good thing to keep in mind when teaching.

1. Teach some foundational elements

This is something I WISH I learned from teachers as a kid. Sure, I got a few things, some value, “here’s an excerpt about negative space”, yadayada, but it was mostly “Here’s a subject, now draw it. Have fun.” No advice beyond that, no proper way to hold a pencil, nothing. It wasn’t until I started taking college art classes at a small, nonprofit art school that I learned BASIC stuff that the Old Masters knew about. After taking these classes, my art improved exponentially.

If you’re teaching painting, teach some color theory first, show some videos about the rules of color theory, teach some basic composition like “the rule of thirds,” and a little perspective too. It’s better that they learn some foundations so that they don’t paint a picture and can’t figure out why it’s not looking the way they want it. If you’re one of those artists who believe that art should be about “breaking the rules,” then it might be worth learning what the rules are so that kids know how to break them.

2. Don’t expect the student to already start drawing/painting realistically

This is something I’m really trying to keep in mind for this tutoring session. It’s really easy when teaching kids to immediately understand what you’re trying to teach, then become great masters. This is just NOT going to happen. So, when teaching, be patient, give advice, and most importantly: understand that art is a skill with infinite things to learn over an entire lifetime.

If you’re an artist, think about it, did you draw/paint as good five years ago as you do now? I’m going to guess not. I hate looking at my old art, and I thought it was great at the time I made it.

3. Let the student do the art themselves

Now, this drove me crazy. On the other side of the “let kids do whatever they want and experiment” school of thought were teachers who thought that the best way of teaching was to take the pencil/paintbrush/etc and do some (or most) of the piece for them. For pity’s sake, don’t do this. I don’t believe many children can just look at someone else do something once and immediately know how to do it. I know a really effective way of learning would be to watch someone do something, then do it yourself with your own hands. This is also good muscle memory as well as memory memory.

If there’s a technique you want to teach your student, then it’s better to get a separate piece of paper and show them on that rather than take the wheel and do a huge part for them. If you think it’s more effective, you can maybe do a teeny tiny bit of drawing or painting on their work as you’re long as you’re just getting them started, but let them do 99% of the work themselves. You wouldn’t want them to look at their piece and think “I didn’t do this, my teacher did most of it.” Would you? Remember, this is their art, not yours. And another thing. If you’re going to touch the student’s art at all, please have their permission first. If they’re telling you “No” over and over again, then you shouldn’t do it.

4. Make the class fun

Lots of kids want to take art because it’s supposed to be fun. I found that a really good way to make students hate art is to be too hard on them and overly critical of the art they’re trying to make (kinda going back to #2 a bit). A good way to make the class fun is to let them draw things they would be interested in. Do you have a student that likes to draw cats? Let them learn to draw a cat. If you want to teach your students how to draw/paint a landscape and copy from a picture, make it clear that they can put a castle, animal, car, whatever they want in the picture.

It would also be worth doing some fun warmups before actually teaching. Playing a song and letting the students draw whatever comes to mind would be a good way to start things.

When planning out my sister’s curriculum, I let her pick the reference. I personally would have liked her to do a Degas, but this is her art, and she likes doggies, so the Cassat painting it is. 🙂



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