Thursday, November 26, 2009

Self-Expression and Art: What is the Connection?

I have not had much time to do anything other than study and prepare for classes, grade student work and feed my family as I make the transition to full-time teaching. This article was written for our school newsletter, but I have adjusted it for publication here.


In the course of teaching art there has been one concern consistently presented to me from parents and, to a lesser degree, students: the anxiety over students’ self-expression. In truth, the concept of visual art as merely a means of self-expression and an opportunity to share one’s creativity is really a modern concept, but one that has permeated the arts quickly and to a point where it has become the dominant goal in most visual arts. While self-expression has value, it was not the focus of the arts for most of history and is not the focus of my school art classes until the end of the art training process. Instead my curriculum is based on the ideas and methods from the past that helped produce the great art of earlier centuries, which came long before the late 1800s and the concept of art as merely self-expression.

One of the most basic methods of teaching art, which has a long, honored history, is the method that is the most antithetical to today’s focus on self-expression: copying. Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Raphael, Rembrandt, and Rubens were all taught painting (and sculpting, in Michelangelo’s case) in an apprenticeship or workshop situation where the apprentices began by learning how to prepare tools and then moved on to years of copying the works of their masters before being allowed to work independently. When they were deemed ready, they created a work of their own that was presented to the local guild to determine if they could be granted the title of master. This piece of art was their “masterpiece” and is the origin of the term we still use today to describe an artist’s best work. Even after the Renaissance and Baroque eras, the academies that grew up to replace the apprentice system placed a high value on the process of copying, and modern classical ateliers use the process as well.

In art the tool of copying means reproducing a past work of art that exemplifies whatever concept the student is learning. The goal is not simply to reproduce and claim the copy as one’s own work, which would be problematic, but to reinforce the concept studied. For instance, while learning the different methods of perspective, students in my basic drawing class choose one of two images to copy. One piece requires students to reproduce the perspective using shading techniques, while the other drawing forces students to use vanishing points and convergence lines to create the illusion of depth. In painting class students copy a sphere in different values of black and white to understand how to make shadows to create depth, which prepares them for later assignments that include other spherical subject matter, such as still lifes and portraits. By allowing the students to copy a previously painted work, the task becomes simpler because students do not have the added burden of composing a pleasing arrangement of items, nor do they have to attempt to translate three dimensional forms to a flat, two-dimensional surface. Copying allows the students to focus on learning specific skills without the stress of creating subject matter.

The copying process is one of many tools for training, and proper training is essential if one desires to reach the stage of self-expression. Piano training begins by teaching students to understand the keyboard and its notes and chords and is followed by hours of practice training one’s hands to find the right notes each time a composition is played. Imagine what would happen if a beginning piano student were led to the instrument, seated and then told to “Be creative!” Without proper training beforehand, the result would be auditory pandemonium and listeners would quickly flee. In visual art the result is frequently no less palatable, yet this approach is what some people expect in art programs.

But now imagine that the student has been properly prepared. What is the result? At the piano the result is lovely, flowing music. In the visual arts the result is a composition that is pleasing because it implements the concepts the student has learned and uses the proper tools and techniques to achieve the goal of the work. Are there sometimes mistakes? Yes. Even the most seasoned performer or artist misses a cue or puts a brushstroke in the wrong place; but these mistakes happen less frequently with instruction and practice. Copying from a masterpiece helps the student to see where to place the brushstroke to create the desired shape or where to place the color to form a shadow, and the longer the method is used the easier it becomes to dissect the masterpiece to learn from it.

It does not take long for serious art students to appreciate the value in following in the steps of a master. But of course, the ability to copy is not the desired end goal, it is just the tool used. Once students have learned the basics, they move to a more advanced class, where the training focuses on exploring some of those same techniques on a deeper and more thorough level. The rigid structure of the early classes eases some as students are allowed a little more freedom within the skills and concepts learned. Then, in my upper level art classes, students are allowed to explore mediums, skills, techniques and subject matter of their own choosing. Ironically the students who rebel against the early stages of learning frequently do have a vision they want to express, but not the patience to follow the process and learn the techniques needed to express their vision. This rebellion often leads to frustration and, sadly, they quit and never reach the self-expression stage that they so desire.

This process of learning art mirrors the training levels of the Trivium upon which my whole school is based. This year marks a milestone for my school’s art program. As part of a recent restructuring I have been able to add the second and third stages of this art training process by offering classes that allow deeper and individualized study. The most exciting class is the studio art class, which is designed for upper level students who have previous art training to be able to create their own study program. Some of this semester’s projects include painting, storyboarding for movies, pottery, sculpture and photography. The class itself is the fulfillment of a dream for my art program as a whole, in that the students have learned basic skills that now allow them to explore their interests successfully and express the visions they have. At last, they have reached the self-expression stage of the process, and they are greatly enjoying the fruit of their previous labor.

Images shown: Leonardo da Vinci's "Head of a Warrior", Francisco de Zurbaran's "Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose", Giovanni Battista Piranesi's "Fantasy on a Magnificent Triumphal Arch"
All are used in my class.

Friday, October 23, 2009


I haven't had much time for art lately. I have been too busy preparing for classes and grading tests and papers. Even my beloved camera is beginning to collect dust. This week, though, I played with a different art form as I wrote out a sample for my writing class. Enjoy this slanted version of the story of Pandora; my seventh graders did. :-)


The jar was so beautiful with the light shining through the alabaster. Dawn’s first rays crept through the window and across the sill like a delicate flower unfolding, inching up the curved sides until the whole jar was infused with a rosy glow. How could I know that it held such foulness inside? The colors were so lovely, so inviting. Surely the maker of the jar should have known that beauty of such a kind would kindle a desire to know what matching beauty was inside. I expected glistening jewels of deep color and fiery shine, or perhaps the rarest perfume to delight my senses—such a nice beginning to my dreary days of hunting down that lazy girl who never brings the water quickly and spinning the rough clumps of wool until my hands are raw. This beauty given me by Venus, my skin smooth like the marble at the temple, or white like the fleeting snow, what good does it do me here? Surely she would have been kinder to hold this gift back and not let it be so destroyed by all this work. My lyre hangs unused while the only strings I stroke are the ones I weave from those first rays of Apollo’s sun to the last. And all the while the jar beckoned to me, reminding me of the beautiful things I could have been surrounded by had I only been betrothed to one more favored by the gods. A man with great wealth and a home of delicately made wares would have been more suited to me, so carefully crafted by the gods. If there had been jewels in the jar wouldn’t it have been my right to adorn myself for my husband instead of letting them sit, wasted?

So I went to that one lovely thing, that one bit of fine workmanship in this stone hovel. The day, even, was fair and blue as Apollo’s chariot rose, the light glancing off the sea like sparkles of gold falling behind the horses. But even in that moment the gods conspired against me to create such burning curiosity in my soul. I savored my dreams as I extended my hand to remove the stopper. It was not even heavy as I drew it out. Shouldn’t such plagues have been held imprisoned with something of more substance than that? But the stopper lifted so gently, and, as I sat enchanted with my imaginings, a slow mist began to rise from the open neck.

At first it was pale. Then the color began to shift, to slither like a snake, up into the air until, for a moment, I thought it was a viper coming out and preparing to strike. Then, in the most horrible moment I could imagine, eyes opened in the vapor and looked at me with an icy cold. Arms raised upward and the wisp became a wraith, now grey, now black, swirling and twirling and dividing until there were suddenly two, then three, then ten, then thirty. Still shocked at such betrayal, I sat staring, as if held fast by Ariadne’s web until I felt the cold caress of a hand on my cheek. Pain poured over me, around me, even through me, like the water in the streams in spring. Terror took me then and I fled. Those shapes, those forms of things, laughed as they floated out through the windows, but it was not silver, tinkling laughter. It was the sound of bitterness as it bites and mayhem as it mocks, the laughter of everything evil and I knew betrayal stood among those wraiths.

Now even the trial of that lazy girl would be a blessing to me. As I go to fetch the water the people point at me in accusation, but they would have done the same. How could anyone stand in that moment against the temptation of the gods or have thought to put the stopper back? Epimetheus didn’t warn me. Surely he knew and yet he never said a word. Now he looks at me as if I were a curse from Jupiter himself and my eyes, once blue like the Aegean, are now as red as my raw, raw hands. But I know that one day they will forget; time will wash away their memories as the water washes away the sands. Some day, when I am old one child will look on me with pity, or with kindness even, and ask if he can draw my water. People will treat me with kindness again and remember my beauty. I still have hope.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

A Quick Link

Thinking about art.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Turn, Turn, Turn

Tonight I stand at one of those pivotal moments in a life, poised on the boundary of the past and the threshold of the future at the same time. I have been studying and planning for this moment all summer, but I have pondered what this moment of change might look like for a number of years. After being home with my children for 10 years, last spring I received an offer to begin teaching full-time this fall, which I accepted, so it's not a moment unexpected.

In mid-August I lifted my eyes from a book long enough to deadhead my flowers, when I realized it was the first time I had done so this summer. The first deadheading, and at the same moment summer was almost gone. As I clipped the old, spent blooms to encourage a continuing bloom it occurred to me that God was doing the same thing in my life. The seedheads fell into the tangled mess of leaves in the flowerbed along with my tears as I recognized God's hand. God was trimming away the old things to encourage the growth of the new in my world. I stand at the end of my time as a stay-home mom and at the beginning of my time re-entering the world of full-time responsibilities.

As with all of God's works, these changes in season are good and will be of great benefit to our family. At the same time, this moment cannot help but be bittersweet. These years of staying home have been such pleasant ones for me. Taking my little ones to explore autumn apple orchards in the late September sun; napping in a quiet house in the middle of the day with my son snuggled into my arms; driving north to visit Grandma on a whim; all these things have been precious. As Mary treasured up things and pondered them in her heart, so have I. God has been gracious in allowing this time.

He has also been gracious in gently easing me from this season. The change to a working mom has happened slowly, in His time and in His way. I have often wondered what I would do if I returned to the workforce. The field I was in previously doesn't even make the software I used; in ten years I have become a dinosaur. To work as a teacher never would have entered my mind, yet God has made a way through part-time work and I have enjoyed it, along with learning so many things--not all academic. Sometimes I still have doubts. How do I know this is His will for me? Am I really sure? Can I teach these children? To be sure, this summer several naysayers have crossed my path and tripped me up with more uncertainty. But when I examine the elements of my life in the whole I see that He has prepared me for this moment for much longer than just one summer.

When I passed by the flower bed a few days ago I noticed the gallardia is ready to yield more seedheads to my scissors. Then I looked more closely and saw how once again the flowers were the visual metaphor for my life. On one plant are blooms in three stages of life: the old spent and falling away, the middle full of color and life and the new bud opening to the future. And here am I, the year of 40, leaving something behind and turning to something new, all in God's timing. To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

From the Daughter and Son OR Let's Get Wild with Words

My summer has been spent with my nose in a book. I forgot to come back and post our adventure with the cherries; I forgot to even take a picture of the adventure with the cherries. Which may be just as well, since years from now I don't want to look at pictures of small worms--not even the ones you can shoot out from the fruit like a mini-cannon clear across the kitchen. But you probably didn't want to know about that icky mind picture. And technically it's been more than one book. (Yes, back to the nose.)

Which has left my children to entertain themselves a bit more. My daughter has never been challenged with this concept, but my son seems to need a bit more encouragement in this area. Today, however, they did well. I'm not sure from whence they came, but my daughter produced a pack of word cards and my son received a lesson in grammar. Whether he wanted it or not was never asked. Between the soon-to-be writing teacher and the bossy older sister, he learned some new terms this morning. But once he got past the reminder of days to come, they got down to business and amused themselves with creating the silliest, most bizarre sentences they could make that still made sense. Or at least I hope they make sense; once I promised to share them here, things really got wild. So, yes, here are the sentences.

Poodles bashfully frighten comical steamrolled finger nails.

Cheerfully, girls fiercely punch weirdos. (Surprisingly, or maybe not, from the male child.)

Abnormally bizarre lovesick (had to define that word) kneecaps tweak (had to define that word) lukewarm kneecaps.

Sweatsocks drink feverishly, shocking enormous boys.

Heartless, wicked prom gowns murder hot dogs.

Noisily massive grandmothers casually burn computers. (I'm getting a Salvador Dali vibe here.)

Pierced eyeballs are aggressively useless.

Gorgeous dummies overwhelm choirboys impolitely.

Sticky baseballs stupidly despise romance bitterly. (Noticing a personification trend here.)

Hard drives desire incredible spaceships.

I was tickled to watch my daughter use her Shurley grammar and the technique of listing strong words with this exercise. And you have to admit, some of these sentences leave one with some pretty vivid images. Maybe I'll have to use this card deck in class every now and then!

Once again, images are courtesy of

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Random Summer Moments

The lazy, hazy days of summer have been more like the wavy, crazy days of summer for me this year. Since I will be teaching full-time this next year I have been studying for my new classes. Trying to do a little each day has been my plan, but some days are just more productive than others. So, my first random summer moment is this moment with the ancients--see, even my footware has gone Greek!

I've already spent more time in or near water than in previous summers. On one of our outings we returned home to find this lovely belated birthday gift watiting, full of homemade goodies. Fun stuff--thanks Sis!

In the moments I'm not reading and taking notes, I'm trying to practice my drawing or calligraphy skills. The drawings are in various stages of progress and are inspired by the ancient myths, although drawn from various modern sources. The most unfinished one

will be Circe, I think. Medusa needs better snakes in her hair. I did not know she was originally a woman, but she was a beautiful maiden, who, like so many maidens in the Greek myths, dared compare herself to a goddess. Since her chief attribute was her hair, Minerva changed the lovely ringlets to hideous snakes, and of course the girl's whole countenance, physical and personality, transformed unpleasantly as well. My version is obviously in the beginnings of the conversion, but some of the snakes could use more definition. The expression should probably be one of horror, but maybe she hasn't figured out yet, what is happening. Anyway, it's practice. I think I'm making progress, although I don't draw fast enough for effective classroom demonstration. Next task--drawing from life instead of flat sources...

Perhaps I should spend time drawing flowers instead of photographing them. Nah. I love taking pictures. When I see foxglove I always think of Agatha Christie and British mysteries where digitalis leaves end up in the salad and someone dies. Luckily there are only strawberries and raspberries growing near these.

I could end with a shot of cherries, since we've been inundated with fruits, but I think I'll save that for another post. After all, our summer fruit adventures really deserve a post of their own. Let's just say I now know more about bugs than I really should--I'm a humanities teacher, not science! ;-)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Are Your School Supplies a Waste of Time?

To finish up my thoughts on school supplies, I offer some general thoughts for pondering.


The items discussed before offer some specific challenges, but I would also like to speak to the challenge of cheapness. Like I said before, as a mom I am familiar with the need to budget, but as an art teacher I have discovered that cheap price usually goes along with cheap quality. Watching students try to make poor quality items work well for them, and growing frustrated in the process, makes me see the value in spending a bit mor (when I can) in order to facilitate my own children's learning experiences. Because once in the classroom, the real issues change. Can the student learn with the tools provided? Can the student do the work with the tools provided? Do the tools provided steal and waste student time? For example, one second grader complained that her pencil sharpener seemed to always be jammed because it never made her pencils any sharper. She brought it to me so I could clear it and we discovered that the reason it didn't sharpen was because there was no blade in it! It hadn't fallen out—there was no way it could have. It had never had a blade inside, ever. This particular sharpener still bore the logo of a large discount office supply store on the side and sells for quite cheap at the store. Sure, it's just a pencil sharpener, but the bigger problem is the amount of time wasted by the poor supplies. In this case, she had spent over half the year trying to sharpen pencils with something that NEVER would have done the job. After minutes spent fiddling with her sharpener, she would then ask another student to borrow one and now at least two students, but more likely three to five (because nothing ever happens that quietly), have now been disturbed by the problem sharpener. What seems like a bargain really isn't in the end.

I'm not trying to place an extra burden on parents or blame anyone for buying materials that turn out to be bad quality (I've done it too, and I'm not really sure how to recommend choosing something like a pencil sharpener!). I like to see good prices, just like everyone else. But until I started seeing these items in action I didn't realize the frustration some of them can cause. My goal is to educate, and in this letter I hope I have been able to give you some information to help you make choices. For younger students, who are more prone to losing things (most classrooms have a crayon/marker/pencil lost and found just for this reason!), the investment might not be wise, but they won't always be so young, either.

If you do decide to invest in better paints and colored pencils, etc., and want to re-use some of those supplies, remember to talk to your teacher and let it be known that you might want some of those items back at the end of the year. Some classrooms have community boxes for some supplies, but others keep individual items in their desks, so communication is important. Also, make sure to label anything you might want back. Finally, if you have extra supplies and you don't know what to do with them—ask me. Your art teacher can always use donations, or you can find a home for them elsewhere, such as VBS or summer camps. And if the items are still in good shape you can always use them again next year. Blessings to you for a great summer!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Glue and Watercolor Paints for Kids

Next we take a look at glue and watercolor paints.


Glue is another item that parents should be wary of buying cheaply. Store brands seem to be the worst offenders, making claims to dry clearly, but then leaving blue, sticky patches in the middle of artwork. Or worse, the glue just does not hold fast, so art falls apart (I could say that's an application problem on the part of the user, but I find that most grade schoolers have the opposite problem and use too much). Gel glues, in my experience, are also not the best option for younger students. The ability to squeeze out only the amount needed isn't really developed yet. Even my eighth grade art students take some time learning how to put out the right amount of paint from the tube, and young children are just fascinated with squeezing things out—especially if there's any glitter involved. I would recommend that you stick with the stick (no pun intended!) when it comes to glue, and save the bling for folders.

The final item I want to make some recommendations about is watercolor paints. With paints you need to decide what quality is most important to you: washability, rich color or lightfastness. If all you are concerned with is washability, then Crayola is a great brand and probably the most economical. For rich color Prang is hard to beat. If lightfastness (which means the art will not fade when exposed to light, such as in a frame), you need to buy Sargent; they are pricier, but they are lightfast, and as far as I can discover, they are the only ones that are. I do not recommend other brands because many of them contain so much glycerin (to make them washable) that when water is added they become gel-like and are very difficult to paint with, besides giving weak, pale, unpleasant colors.

Next time we'll talk about the bottom line with school supplies. Photos courtesy of and

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Some thoughts on colored pencils and crayons

To continue with my series on school supply tips, this time we look at colored pencils and crayons.


Colored pencils have the same issues with gluing, but they also share a common problem with crayons: wax content. Cheap versions of these supplies are typically loaded with extra wax, and contain smaller amounts of pigment. Consequently they give weak, pale colors and sometimes don't even look like the colors they are supposed to be, which is frustrating to many students. For crayons, I usually stick with Crayola. With colored pencils there are several options. Faber-Castell makes a nice colored pencil that is glued all the way down (which solves the breakage issue talked about above) and has nice color. It's a little more expensive, but I would recommend it for older, more responsible students. Crayola colored pencils have nice color, but are very prone to breaking. A couple years ago I bought my daughter a set of colored pencils at Michaels. I'm not even sure of the brand, but I found them in the art supply section, not the kid arts and crafts section. I paid about six dollars for 24 colors, but she has used them for two years now and will be able to use them again next year, so we're now down to $2 a year. Of course, this investment only works when the student is old enough to not lose the items. I have seen some colored pencils put out by Crayola that are twistable and encased in plastic; what I have heard about them has been favorable, but I'm not very familiar with them.

Thank you to for the crayon photo.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

School supplies already

Wow, I've been so involved in school that I haven't visited my own blog in a while. As our year winds down I've been thinking ahead to school supply lists for my art classes next year. This year I've paid attention to the tools all the students use, no matter what age, and have decided to write an informational article for our parents. Then I decided I'd share it here as well. So, if you're reading this and thinking I'm off my rocker already talking about supplies for next year, well just chalk it up to the fact that my students have driven me off the deep end--no wait, I'm just planning ahead. And rather than dump a massive article (in blog terms) here all at once, I think I'm going to serialize it, so tune in again for more schooooool supply tiiiiiips...


Well it's almost here: the end of the school year. Which means summer break, sleeping in and fun at the beach? No, it means it's time to buy more school supplies! Am I the only parent amazed at how quickly the back-to-school sales fliers come out and sales begin? Before you start stocking up, though, I have a few suggestions I'd like to share after watching students use those supplies in art class.

The first warning I have is to watch out for some of those bargain supplies. Now I understand about budgets—I live on one, too, and I know many families are feeling the pinch right now. But one of the biggest difficulties I have found this year is that many of those supplies I remember seeing at such fantastic prices turned out to be big duds. Specifically, there are a handful of major offenders that I want to discuss and give some recommendations about: pencils and colored pencils, crayons, glue sticks, and watercolor paints.

Colored pencils seem to be a perpetual problem, but in the last couple years I've noticed that regular pencils also create unneeded difficulties. Cheaply made pencils, of both kinds, have fragile leads inside and are glued in only a couple places. When they are dropped—and sooner or later they will be!—the leads break down inside the pencil and fall out when the student tries to write. Then the student has to sharpen the pencil, but unless the sharpening process goes below the break or the next glue spot, the pencil lead will still continue to fall out when the student tries to write again. With regular pencils this problem is compounded by exteriors that are made of flimsy wood. Pencils covered with decorative plastic coatings seem to be especially bad about this. Manufacturers seem to think that the plastic will bind the wood tightly enough that the poor quality wood will be reinforced and hold fast. But manufacturers don't live in the world of grade schoolers, who peel the decorative coatings off and drop things all the time. I have watched students spend one third of their class time sharpening pencils until they have almost nothing left. My recommendation is to buy a little higher quality pencil, which of course aren't the ones on sale, but especially avoid the plastic coated ones.

Next time: More on colored pencils and crayons

Photo credit: through (Thank you!)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

May the Drawing Force Be With You

I currently have two students who have a strong interest in creating graphic novels or pursuing similar work after graduation. Consequently I've been dipping into the world of comics, graphic novels and the creation of said materials. Since my household consists of several Star Wars fans who regularly look for online videos, I've spent some time on their site also and have discovered some fun and informative videos on the process of creating in this arena. If you're interested, check out the video on story boarding and then search for the other "You can draw Star Wars" videos. There is also a very good book of the same name. Yes, we have it, too, and it covers more than just Star Wars--including a lot of good solid basics.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Resources for beginning sketchers

It's spring break in my world, which means I have a few moments to myself. Right now that means answering a question someone posted about drawing books in a forum I occasionally visit. The post was a query for recommendations for books to help one learn to draw, which caught my eye because I'm always on the lookout for good resources. I was gratified to see that several of the ones offered where books I've already got. But I wanted to offer another title, which made me think, why don't I share this info on my blog, too. So, here is the text of my post (with slight revisions to stand alone), for anyone who is interested in learning to draw.

I teach K-12 art and have looked at hundreds of art books. The first book I would recommend is "Start to Draw" by Robert Capitolo and Ken Schwab. The first section covers some basic techniques that can be quite helpful: recognizing shapes and forms as understructure (something my students are currently struggling with), grid drawing, creating depth through shading techniques, proper lighting. The rest of the book gives various step-by-step projects to practice, but also covers such fundamentals as composition, using source material (see below for my thoughts on this topic) and basic proportions of the human face. "Drawing for the Absolute and Utter Beginner", by Claire Watson Garcia, is another one that offers some of the same techniques, but she gives more explanations and goes a little more in-depth in places. She also discusses contour drawing, which has value as a practice exercise, but I think is more important in terms of teaching the eye to really observe what is being drawn. She also explains sighting and spends time teaching values, which are crucial to good art.

Also recommended by other people were Bert Dodson's "Keys to Drawing" and Betty Edwards' "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain". I have both, along with the workbook for the Edwards book. Dodson's book has good information, but I have to confess to not liking his drawing style very much. A couple things I do like are the summaries and checklists at the end of each chapter to help keep the things learned in mind. I also like how he points out what artists from the past have done. Since I incorporate art history into my classes, this is a big bonus for me. "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain" is a standard for many people, but I find it to be very cerebral (while usually being on the lookout for witticisms, I have to say no pun intended here!). I rather felt like I was reading a psychology book, which must appeal to many people, but wasn't very helpful to me. The work book helped, because it's obviously designed with exercises to make one draw, which put into practice much of what she taught in the regular title.

Another standard is Mona Brooks' "Drawing with Children". This book gives some good step-by-step chapters and I found the breaking objects down into smaller parts advice very helpful. Children especially benefit from this concept, because it can be very overwhelming to look at a complete subject and try to draw it. By taking said subject as smaller, easy to draw bites, students have an easier time not becoming discouraged. Which reminds me that any youngster who likes to draw will enjoy the books by Ed Emberley, where he draws hundreds of people, animals, buildings, vehicles, etc. using a handful of basic shapes.

Someone on the forum suggested going to the library to check out some of the books before buying them and I would second their thought. I have saved myself tons of money by using my local library. Art instruction books (especially painting books) tend to fall into two basic categories: the ones that start from the most basic (pencils, paper, setting up a place to work, etc.) and the ones that take you from blank support to finished art in 3-5 steps. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. There are only so many times you need to read about paper surfaces, and going from beginning to end in three steps can be less than satisfactory. There are books that manage to avoid these two extremes and are extremely helpful--but the best way to discover what's what is to check them out at the library first. If you're not a regular library user, don't forget that most libraries can borrow from all around the country through their inter-library loan programs. Once you find something that is helpful you might try looking it up online and seeing if the author has published anything else or if the book site can recommend another similar book--I've found some great books that way.

Another comment on the forum was that the best way to learn is to do, and really that's the most important step. My seventh grade students focus on drawing and anytime a student has completed an assignment and is in need of something to do I give them another assignment to keep them drawing--practice, practice, practice. We work in the classical style, where we use old master drawings as our source material (copying), just like the art schools of old. I highly recommend this method to master the basics, then move on to being creative. Sometimes the biggest challenge in art is not knowing what to create and this method helps remove that obstacle, as well as helping you see things you might not have seen before: what is the angle on that roofline and how did the artist shade the wall to create the most depth? Copying from a painting or drawing also has the advantage that the artist has done some of the work for you already in terms of translating a dimensional subject to a flat surface and using methods of perspective and shading to create depth. These are techniques that you will want to learn, so copying an old master also gives the opportunity to study what they did to create the effect of the finished piece. Some of my favorite places to find art are Web Gallery of Art for Medieval to Romantic-age paintings and drawings (they also have sculpture, engravings, etc.), Art Renewal Center for 18th-20th century academic and classical art, Artcyclopedia for all ages and links to other places and The Athenaeum for many images not posted elsewhere. Copying has a long, respected history in the art world, but please be mindful of copyright issues.

Even if you are not interested in copying from an old painting, I would still encourage you to use some kind of source material to look at: find an object to draw or a photo to work from (preferably your own to avoid copyright issues). Having something to look at helps with proportions and lends a higher level of realism to the final result. You can also compare and find the places where you drawing goes wrong more easily when you actually have something you are looking at and comparing to. I know that most of my students, if given the assignment to just draw something, typically default to whatever they have always drawn, which doesn't help them improve.

A final reason to use source material is that most artists do, although many people don't realize this fact. There is a stereotype of the artist pulling a subject out of mind and putting it to canvas quickly and perfectly, and yes, this is done sometimes I'm sure (usually after a lifetime of looking at source materials!). However, most artists do quite a bit of research on a subject, including quick sketches, more in-depth studies and possibly several versions of the finished subject. Does every project need this much effort? Of course not, but the point is that artists do research and keep files of research. Even old masters had props and plaster casts to observe and work from. And don't forget the fine tradition of modeling for the artist. Source material is invaluable.

A couple last tips: if you are working on a picture and it just isn't going right for you there are a couple things you might try. One, try converting your source to black and white, which will help you see the values (this tip is especially helpful in painting). Two, turn it upside down and look at it from a new angle. Sometimes wrong proportions or off angles are more obvious upside down because we're not so focused on what the elements are: rather than seeing the town, we see a collection of lines. Look for relationships, line things up using your pencil and then compare it to your drawing. Are the relationships the same? Looking upside down will make these things easier to see.

I hope these thoughts are helpful to you. I would say best of luck, but it would probably be more fruitful to say, practice, practice, practice!

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

St. Jerome in His Study

St. Jerome in His Study by Antonello da Messina. I like the stillness of this painting. It has immense depth and makes me wonder what's around the other side of this unusual space within a space that comprises his study. What do you think?

Friday, February 20, 2009


Repose, by John White Alexander, Metropolitan Museum of Art (

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Where does my time go...

That's the question I many times stop and ask myself. Lately I haven't been asking that, but perhaps wishing for more time instead. C'est la vie. A few nights ago I sat and colored samples for second grade, which was quite fun. Maybe I need to do more coloring-oriented projects! In fourth grade we will be making faux stained glass tomorrow, using Pebeo glass paints to color in the patterns the students created. Here is my sample in a couple stages of progress. The second photo shows the colors in the finished piece on the paper at the top.

Another recent project was to shepherd the process of making a tapestry as a play prop. The play was Macbeth and the tapestry theme was Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden: both men who listened to their wives with tragic consequences. We based ours on a detail of a fresco by Giusto de' Menabuoi. I designed the pattern from enlarged photocopies of the fresco and then cast the vision for our seventh grade students. They chose most of the fabrics (with a little guidance) and then helped fuse the layers. I stitched over most of them before the play, and was glad I did because the fusing would not have held up during the handling of it that night. I still need to finish stitching the figures. The students did a great job. I'm grateful, also, to Mrs. Bailey, who helped supervise the students, and to sweet Catherine, who painted the faces on the figures.

Personal art right now is largely neglected, but I have some ideas percolating. Hopefully soon I will have a little extra time...

Sunday, January 25, 2009


I want to share this post from Deryn Mentock's blog, Something Sublime. It talks about meanness in our world. I teach art to almost every child in our school and occasionally bump up against meanness, squelching it every chance I get. My daughter was the special target of one child for some time. Blessedly, at this point things have been worked out, but watching a child be singled out makes my heart yearn to take it all away. Of all the things I wish for my children, I wish I could take away the meanness they will encounter in the world. Then I remember that these are the very things that shape us into who God wants us to be. Since we cannot escape the world, I am reminded to take the lessons into my heart and make each chisel stroke count for something. Otherwise, the world is just mean.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A bit of fun again

Here's an interesting little applet that creates word pictures.


This morning I am struck again by the beauty of the winter landscape. But it is a scary beauty, a sort of terrible beauty. The frost covers the trees like lace and the fog casts a delicate glaze over the landscape, unifying it, softening the harsh and hiding the displeasing. The snow absorbs the sound and forces a sometimes peaceful, sometimes eerie quiet on everything. Yet, I cannot let go of the thought of freezing and these same images take on a power that seems to underpin the beauty. Especially the ice.

It is the ice that catches my attention this morning. As we try to safely make our way to school, our car slides around the corner and then we take tentative steps into the building, hoping to not make unexpected contact with the pavement. I see the massive chunks of ice that have slowly broken loose from roofs and am amazed at the size this year, and glad to not have been near when they came down. Beautiful when the sun shines, rays of light finding paths through the crystals and cracks sparkle and the ice is lovely to behold.

All of which reminds me of two things. The first is the how God also fits so many of these descriptions. He covers our sins (Acts 10:43). He holds us delicately at times, knowing that we are dust (Gen 2:7; Ps 103:13,14). He desires for His people to be unified (Rom 15:5; Col 3:14). We can hide in Him (Ps 32:7). He gives us peace, which may seem eerie to those who do not understand (Phil 4:7). And He is powerful (Jer 10:12; Rom 1:20). Still, when I look at the snowy landscape what I see most is beauty and God is revealed to me through it, but revealed as the terrible beauty that defines what is sublime. Then I drink in the hush and sing praises in my heart.

The second thing of which I am reminded is the Robert Frost poem, Fire and Ice. It fits, perhaps in an odd way, with my meditations of the power of God, so I share it here. But maybe the connection is made only in my mind and I'm not sure I can adequately explain it because it puts in mind too many things for me to discuss here.

Fire and Ice

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

In this mood of musing I went out to take photos of our winter landscape, but my camera is not cooperating with its port this morning, so instead of my own photography I share with you an image from a young lady I know. And another photo from another friend, that sums up our winter.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Have I mentioned the snow yet this year?

While I haven't had to shovel my mother's barn this year, we have still been pounded with snow. We've had a week of thawing and freezing now, and we still have at least two feet in our yard. Here are some pics from before the thaw began.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

I Can Make That...

Here are some paintings that I've finished just this last month.

This small canvas piece is a collage tribute to my husband's grandmother, who died in October. She was my real-life Proverbs 31 woman and I made a similar 4x4 book page for a swap a few years ago. I gave this painting to grandpa for Christmas and we cried together as we remembered this very lovely lady.

In the spirit of the still life, this little piece only measures 3-3/4x5 inches and was based on a large green still life in a magazine spread (I've been cleaning out the secret magazine stash that lives underneath my couch over Christmas break). I simplified it quite a bit and left some very dark places like many of the still lifes of the Baroque era. I think the grapes still need work, but I'm living with it for now. Here's a peek at some of the still lifes painted by my students. I cannot tell you how proud of them I am. Remember, for most of them, this is only the third painting they've done--ever!

This third piece is on 6x6 inch Strathmore linen canvas for acrylic. I went shopping with a friend in November and we both stopped to ogle a little snowman card (we both like snowmen) and I thought what every creative person thinks at one time or another, "I could make that..." Okay, so I really thought, "I could paint that," and it isn't very like the one we saw in the store. But she loves it and I'm very happy with the way it turned out.

I really should be keeping count of the number of paintings I've done so I can encourage the students that we get better with practice, but at this point I can still count the number of realistic paintings I've done on all my fingers and toes. And I'm starting to be happy with them, so there's hope! So, if you have tried painting and been less than happy with the results, please remember what I always tell my students and frequently tell myself (although usually not in the same pleasant tone of voice--lol!) "Art takes practice--just like everything else."

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Oh bother! or lemon curd is nicer, even thinly spread

Well, our school's Christmas break is rapidly coming to an end and with early mornings looming near once again I decided to make waffles. You know--those delicious, slightly crispy breakfast cakes with butter melted into each individual square and topped with aromatic maple syrup. Mmmm...

What? We are out of syrup. It was on the list, but apparently the shopper did not go to the store where the best syrup deal is and consequently we are out. Which rather made me feel like the king in the A.A. Milne poem, The King's Breakfast, especially in the middle (or so) verse:

The King said,
And then he said,
"Oh, deary me!"
The King sobbed, "Oh, deary me!"
And went back to bed.
He whimpered,
"Could call me
A fussy man;
I only want
A little bit
Of butter for
My bread!"

I wanted to be crabby, but remembering what my dearest hubby has been telling the little people lately about how we CHOOSE to have bad attitudes, I thought it best to pull up my socks and be a big girl. (Bother!)

So, I set about digging through the fridge and came up with an option--lemon curd. Not just any lemon curd, I might add, but lemon curd made by a true English woman and gifted to me in celebration of The Saviour's birthday. (Which makes it extra yummy, don't you think?) My daughter added to the options by pulling out huckleberry jam from another dear friend, which prompted me to scrounge a bit more and find the blackberry from yet another friend. I don't can. I don't make jams. I barely like to bake. In fact, other than eating, there's not much that happens in the kitchen that I really enjoy. Maybe watering the plants... Anyway, all this antipathy toward kitchen duties makes me doubly appreciative of all such gifts and my three little jars from Esther, Patty and Susan (respectively) are like little pots of gold.

Little pots of yummy gold to top my waffles! The lemon curd was very nice on top of some gingerbread cookies I had, but my taste buds were eager to try it on that most northwest of northwest breakfasts, a huckleberry waffle.

For anyone interested, here's a scrumptious recipe for sourdough waffles:

2/3 cup warm water
2 tablespoons yeast
2-1/2 cups baking mix (my mom uses Bisquick; I use Jiffy)
1 cup milk
1 egg
We (my mom and I both) mix everything in the blender, then pour the appropriate amount into the waffle iron. I sprinkle frozen huckleberries into the batter before closing the lid. (Please be aware that this recipe makes waffle batter that grows, so it can pop the lid off your blender, if stored in said container.) Then top with butter and syrup.

Oh wait, not today. It was a difficult choice--each topping had its own merits. Huckleberry in double doses is definitely delicious. Blackberry added a bit of zingy bite. But I think the lemon curd was the luscious winner for me. Lemon and huckleberry are quite complementary (just like their respective colors on the color wheel. You knew I had to work art in here somewhere, right?).

Now, I'll have to find something to try the apple and tomato chutney on. Hmm, I don't think it's going to be huckleberry waffles. ;-)