Q. and A. teaching specific art skills

Someone asked a good question on a recent post;
" I am very interested to read your further explorations on this topic. My kids will often ask me "how do I draw a horse?" or "how can I make this lego tower taller?" and because I am not trained in the constructivist approach, I feel like my two options are to say "well how do YOU think you should draw a horse?" (which, presumably, they don't know or they wouldn't be asking), or to show them how to draw a horse, which feels like cheating and/or robbing them of their process. So I'm very interested in the notion of how to teach specific art skills (shading, perspective, body shapes, diminesion) using a constructivist approach. How do you do that? What do you do when a kid asks you "how do you draw a horse?" or "how do I make this ball look real instead of flat?"

This is a tough one, and I hope it can be more of a dialog than just me talking.

First of all, I'm not sure you can even get trained in a constructivist approach, can you? I don't have that training, for sure. That means I am just making it up as I go along with whatever information I can get from books, talking to people, trying, reflecting and trying again. Maybe we can figure this out together!

Here at Sabot, we believe that drawing to learn enhances understanding, and in order to be able to make thinking and learning visible, children need to feel comfortable drawing and have the ability to draw from observation. So it is important to keep the student engaged and not totally frustrated, by demonstrating the technical skills they really need for observational drawing. I always try to do that in context. That is, when someone needs a new skill to do what they have in mind, I try to show it to them within the work they are already doing.  Children don't usually need much teaching. I try to show that noticing and observation is the most important thing in drawing, and I teach about making 'studies', or a series of drawings to try to capture something. The use of studies really helps children with perfectionist tendencies stop throwing away draft after draft, and begin to learn that every drawing, no matter how flawed, is still valuable.

Most important, after learning to notice, is to give people time to mess about and practice drawing.

I really believe that direct instruction in art technique leads to stilted, superficial work, unless the student applies and practices the technique enough to make it their own. I don't want to encourage techniques a la Bob Ross, even though he seemed like a very nice man. So when someone asks how to draw a horse, I might go get a book about horses and look at it with them, noticing out loud the form and shapes I see in the horses figure. I would ask the other children for help. Sometimes we might take a trip to look at real horses and draw them.
Sometimes it seems hard for people to imagine the fine line between scaffolding and instructing in a school like ours.  I do want to loan skills to the students, but I have utter faith that just telling them something (or just demonstrating it) doesn't make much difference in the construction of knew understandings. In the studio, I try to offer the bare minimum of help, but enough to keep the person trying. It is just like you might start with moving closer to a child who is becoming aggressive, and then gently lay a hand on their shoulder, and then reassess to see if more support is needed...except with drawing you might talk about where you notice a dark shadow on the side of a ball, and maybe even show how to hold the pencil on it's side to create a wider mark for shading.
I know that this is one of those "it depends" answers, but there it is. It depends. I hope that helps a little. What do you think?


  1. I think this is a wonderful answer. This is an area I would like to work on myself and I feel that you have led me in the right direction. Thank you.

  2. What a great response to a question I also get asked a lot! In these moments, I think the challenge is to respond with teaching that supports PROCESS and approach rather than specific content or outcomes. As you have so beautifully articulated here, it's abut wondering and thinking aloud and gently MODELLING a possible way in for the child. The learning here becomes much more about learning itself - not drawing a horse. I also think those direct and narrow questions can be responded to with a bit of probing about what the child has already done/trialled.... What have you tried so far? What's been helpful? Which part is challenging? Sometimes the thinking behind the question - not so much the question - helps me know how best to support the learning....

  3. This is a very good answer and makes sense to me--it's totally fair to say "it depends." On the one hand, it took human history thousands of years to figure out shading and perspective, so it seems unfair to imagine a child would be able to figure it out in an afternoon or a series of weeks. But with leading questions and "scaffolding" it seems like you could lead them to the solution (in cases where there are accepted techniques) but give them a greater understanding that will lead to eventual mastery.
    I definitely get confused on the difference between scaffolding and instructing, and on the difference between co-creation for deeper understanding and intentionally holding back on useful knowledge. I am also wondering if there is a difference between foundational skills (how to hold a pencil, how to make scissors cut, how to throw pottery) and creation (what to draw with that pencil and how to draw it). Do you instruct on some kinds of things and co-create on others? Or is it all co-creation?


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