What is art?

Observation, imagination, and creation. At least, that’s how I see it. These three elements play a role in everything I do as an artist and as a teacher, and they influence each other in a continuous cycle. What we observe and imagine, we can create. What we create, we observe. The things we observe, along with the process of creation, work together to influence what fills our imagination and our very understanding of ourselves and others.

So why bother separating them? I have found that using these categories to figure out the overall goal for each art lesson helps me develop content best suited for developing a specific area, and decide what necessary supports I can provide to reduce the amount student effort required in the other areas. Of course, the ultimate goal of artistic training is to be able to execute a project that integrates all three in a self-directed way, but most students (and adults!) are far from that level of achievement. My role as an art teacher is to provide focused support and training for students to improve and become more comfortable in each area.

Definitions and Examples

Observation (also sometimes called visual literacy): the ability to observe, understand, and evaluate the things we see in the world, including our own art.

Imagination: using our creative mental muscles to solve problems, and to practice combining ideas, feelings, concepts, and images together in unique ways.

Creation: the fundamental artistic ability of making images and objects, which includes the mastery of various art tools, materials, and processes.

Now lets look at these areas of focus in terms of a broad subject — drawing human faces. For many, this can be a very intimidating task. That’s because faces don’t look like we expect, and certainly not how we are taught how to draw them as young children. The disconnect between our creation, our observation of the real world, and what we imagine in our heads, can lead to a lot of frustration, especially as students become aware of these differences. For many, this awareness happens around fourth or fifth grade, but some students notice and become upset at younger ages, leading to a feeling that their art “sucks,” no matter what others may say. The only solution is not to reassure them that it’s “good” but to help them work to create work that matches the images they have in their head.

How does this happen? By strengthening skills of observation and creation, which circle around and feed a student’s imagination. It doesn’t matter whether observation or creation comes first, but both need to built up in alternating lessons.

An example lesson for explicitly teaching observation would be as follows:

Show one or more mostly realistic image of a face. This can be a famous piece of art (such as the Mona Lisa, but there are so many other options), a photograph, or a work by a local artist. I’ve used my own art below as an example, but as you revisit this project, I recommend expanding your search into areas that interest you. There are so many great resources available online!

Ask students to notice what they observe about this picture. Visual Thinking Strategies suggests this simple line of questioning:

  • What’s going on in this picture?
  • What do you see that makes you say that?
  • What more can you find?

Remember: there are no right or wrong answers! It is only what they observe, and you can learn a LOT about the students by how they answer. It can help to rephrase their answer to make it concise and clear enough for the whole class to hear different answers, but be careful to check in with the student to ensure you caught the essence of what they were trying to express. Spend time with this, depending on the image you can get information about different topics like location and emotion.

Next step is to deepen observation to include proportions. Where on the face are the eyes? How big is the nose? How wide is the mouth? Have students use their fingers to roughly measure their own faces. The reason for this step is that our minds (our imagination) don’t store information they don’t find important… like our foreheads. That is a lot of mostly empty space up there above our eyebrows! Most students, without training in observation, will draw a face with the eyes up near the hairline, when they are usually are at about the halfway mark. The bottom of the nose is about halfway between the eyes and the chin, and the mouth halfway between that.

Once students begin to really notice where the different pars of a face are in relation to each other, they are step closer to being able to draw them in a more realistic fashion.

The next step is looking for familiar shapes (which is a whole lesson in itself, but I digress). Circles, ovals, footballs, the letters “m” and “c”, these are all present in our faces. On a profile, the eye is more of a sideways “v” shape.

Beginning to notice where different types of shapes are in relation to each other is a vital skill in art. It’s what helps a student move from the drawing on the left to the one on the right.

The other element important is practice with creation. The simple physical act of picking picking up a pencil, or pen. How to hold it. How hard to press, how to keep the paper from moving or crumpling. The simple motor skills involved in these tasks can requires explicit teaching or modeling (peer modeling is excellent — simply letting students draw together with their friends!) and lots of practice. Using markers or another medium to draw circles, ovals, zig zags, any sort of abstract drawing, over and over again. Practicing these sort of skills without any expectations about the end product is crucial to development, and assists with development and improvement of handwriting as well. Providing students with ample paper (using old flyers, junk mail, even envelopes) and providing unstructured free time to simply draw, doodle, and create, is so crucial to development of artistic skills, as well as self regulation.

The important thing to remember as an adult interacting with a student in the process of creation is to focus on effort instead of talent or outcome. “You really focused on coloring in that whole side of the paper!” “I can tell you spent a lot of time working on this.” “Look how carefully you drew that circle!” This encourages them to keep going. Telling a child (really… just about anyone) that their art is “Beautiful!” gives no way forward, and can feel disingenuous if they’re not happy with their art. It also makes it devastating when they go somewhere and don’t get the same positive response, which will inevitably happen. A teacher, friend, or even you (when you’re tired, maybe?) will inevitably react in a way that’s less than enthusiastic. How to keep going from there? The only answer is to for them to know they put in a good effort, regardless of the outcome, and that the effort is valued.

Now back to address specific skills in drawing a face. One activity would be to practice mirroring — being able to flip an image from one side to the other. While faces aren’t perfectly symmetrical, it is particularly frustrating for a beginning artist to be unable to make both eyes about the same size and shape, the ears the same, to make the mouth curve the same way on both sides.

Another practice would involve the ability to draw simple shapes of different dimensions. When I first began teaching art, I was surprised to find sixth grade students who were unable to make a flatter “football” shape, and were drawing circles instead. They certainly found it difficult to draw the iris of the eye, because it takes practice to be able to draw a circle that touches another shape on the top and the bottom. To be able to draw a circle, period. To draw a straight line — horizontal, vertical, angled. Doing warm up activities which involve simple practice of copying abstract shapes and patterns is so vital.

As students improve their skills, practicing copying ever more intricate and delicate curves can help with their control over the medium, and this also ties in with their observation skills. They can also begin to learn how to do shading, different types of which require different hand skills, such as varying the darkness of the line, the width of the line, and being able to draw many lines in the same direction, in equal distances apart. Learning what colors work together, and how to combine them in ways that show the natural shade and highlights of an image.

Last but certainly not least, what about imagination? That comes partly from increasing visual input — careful observation of a diversity of images will feed imagination. But it’s not only images themselves, but stories, ideas, concepts. Listening to books on tape, telling a story, these require the listener to imagine the images in their head — and they can then pull upon these images for use in creating art.

But the real difference is in having the skill sets available to be able to begin to draw the images in a student’s head. This gives them the confidence to continue to use art as a way to process and understand themselves and the world around them, and to ultimately come up with and recombine different ideas in new ways. As a teacher, parent, or caregiver, the act of nurturing the supporting skills of observation and creation are crucial to also nurturing a student’s imagination.

Paper sculptures for the littles

Who knew strips of paper could be so much fun? Kindergarteners, that’s who. They know what’s up.

This project was easy to prep with a large paper cutter. I cut strips of different colors from construction paper, enough for 10 per student, plus about 5 extra sets for students who wanted to make two versions (one made three, and he usually has a hard time participating at all. It was a proud teacher moment.) I sorted the sets so they all got the same rainbow of colors, and paper clipped them to a piece of card stock (we have a bunch of green so that’s what I used) to make it easy for storing and handing out. If you only have a few students you can skip that step and let them pick out their own strips.

I introduced the project by having them sit on the floor and asked, “What is a sculpture?” Some students weren’t sure, or had just heard the term, but in 2 out of the 3 classes a student came up with “a statue.” I explained that was right! So a statue, something wasn’t flat like a drawing, but something that was called “3D” and came up off the page. And that’s what we were going to make today! Yay! Then we talked about different materials to make sculptures, and told them one material we could use was paper.

I then held up an example strip to show how to bend the edges of a strip of paper to make a little “tab” where they could glue it on to the base, and showed how it would look. I then told them they were welcome to start gluing OR they could decorate their strips first with patterns and shapes if they wanted when they got to their desks (I like giving options). I handed out the sets one by one. In the first class I left the paperclips on the sets and a number of them were immediately twisted and turned into other shapes, which is fine if you have enough paperclips for them to play with them like that… learning is learning! I took them off in the other classes though.

Public school art budgets. Sigh.

I put this image up on the projector (I drew it by hand for my classes but you do you). I explained that the paper started out flat, like the first shape, but we were going to make the second shape, and demonstrated the flap glue technique again. The students moved at very very different speeds in this project so assure the ones done quickly that yes, they can do more than one strip, or they can move on to the next shape if they want.

For the spiral, we had the best luck by wrapping the paper tight around a pencil. Some students turned the spiral into a loop-de-loop like on a racetrack. The zig-zag required one on one instruction with a number of students, and I found it best to have them fold the paper on the table, and showed them how to “fold, flip, fold, flip…” Some had trouble getting the idea that you need to fold up the whole little pile of folded parts all together, and others had trouble with the pattern and wanted to just fold, fold, fold, fold, so it rolled up. If a student is stressed, let it go and encourage them to move on and experiment with different shapes and colors. Or if they’re happy with their creation, whatever it looks like, this is one of those times that it’s good let that go too.

Some students looped the shapes around the other pieces to make a chain, some glued them on sideways onto the paper so they faced up… so many possibilities.

One of the things I enjoyed about this were the stories the students came up with about their projects. Some told me they were making playgrounds, houses, stairs, race tracks, amusement parks… even a zoo! So many possibilities. One student that finished early made two, then made a “bridge” between his two projects.

After all the students were finished (or it was almost time to go, whichever came first), we lined all the projects in the back of the classroom, and then lined up the students up outside to come in and do a “gallery walk.” I reminded them to be respectful of the other projects, to look with our eyes and not our hands or feet, and to pay attention to the colors and shapes they saw. They were really excited to see each other’s work, and proud to have their own work being displayed in this way.

Gotta love the littles.

Kapa inspired cork stamps

This project took about 2.5 hours from start to finish. Including a few snack breaks because it’s a rainy Saturday. Good thing was that I made a few for my daughter to play with and she was happily occupied creating a complicated story picture about magic crystals, a friendly bunny, and a fish that used to be good but now is bad.

I created this project for the fourth graders, as their focus this year is on Hawaiian culture and history.

Okay, ready? Here we go!

1) Read this great website from Dalani Tanahy. Kapa is decorated both with watermarks as part of the process of creating the cloth, but also by ‘ohe kapala which are bamboo stamps. Since I don’t have easy access to bamboo, I decided to try this project instead to still give students the experience of everyone creating original designs from the same simple shapes. I will also have a discussion with them about the fact that people everywhere have used whatever materials they have available to create tools and art, and are inspired by the world around them. It’s important to remind students as well that the art of kapa making in Hawaii has been revived, and isn’t something that only belongs to ancient history but is still being created by artists today.


I like this image in particular, and will share it with the students to give them some ideas of ways to create patterns using different rotations and repetition.


2) Gather corks. I used to work at Kalapawai Cafe and remembered that they saved corks from the bottles. They gave me a gallon bag full!

3) Sort them. Some will have been pretty broken by the corkscrew. The ones made of compressed cork are better for angled/complicated designs but are tougher to cut. The more natural ones are good to use as is for textured circles, or for cutting squares (with the grain, of course).


4) Soak in hot water for ten minutes. I read this online and thought it sounded like a good idea to soften them. Then put them in the water was reminded that corks float, duh. I put the strainer insert and the lid on top to push them into the water, but I imagine a heavy plate would also work.


5) Cut off the wine soaked ends. Optional, but this is the part that smells the strongest of wine. Not really an appropriate scent for children. 🙂


6) Cut out the shapes! Be careful, obviously. I cut the outline out with them straight up and down, then turned it onto the side and cut from the edge inward until the extra piece came off. Some of the corners broke off, so have extras on hand in case of that.



7) Label the tops. I used a permanent marker. And yes, my hands are very sore now after making 30 of these!


8) Have fun stamping! I will update this post with student work once I bring it into class. I used a regular stamp pad for this. You can visit Dalani’s website again for inspiration about ways to use color to create different effects. http://www.kapahawaii.com/gallery.html

9) Future goals. Eventually, I would like to start growing some of the plants used in dye making on our school campus, or at least go harvest natural materials to have the students make their own dyes to use. One step at a time, though!

10) Alternative materials. Another idea for printing would be to have students cut out their own shapes from cardboard or craft foam and glue it onto a bigger piece of cardboard backing, and we may still do that, but right now I wanted to have some reusable versions to use over and over in different grade levels.