Monday, June 12, 2017

Having Trouble With Oil Pastels? The Problem May Be the Paper

Our neighbor uses ArtAchieve art lessons in her 6th grade classroom, and often drops by our house to show off her students’ latest achievements.

This week she came over again, a stack of student art work in hand, but rather than show off her students’ work, she wanted to tell me how frustrated her students were.

Here is the problem the kids faced. They were using the Level I art lesson: Four Suns With Four Faces. The lesson suggests that students use oil pastels and shows how to blend them.

The picture that appears in the art lesson

The problem this class faced was with blending. The lesson suggests that people use an eraser or a fingertip to blend colors together, but for this class, the blending turned out to be impossible.

“Here,” said my disappointed teacher/neighbor. “Look at these. America was trying so hard, and look how blotchy that picture turned out to be. 

America's sun

"And look at that cheek on Angelina’s sun. It looks like she didn’t blend it at all, but she really tried!"

Angelina's sun

"Carlie got the blending to work a little, but even his looks rough.”

Carlie's sun

“What did we do wrong?” With that she handed the papers to me.

Problem #1

As soon as I touched the paper, I knew the main problem: it was the paper. It had a very smooth, almost slick feel.

So I explained, “Your paper has no tooth.”

The paper I had used in the example was some inexpensive drawing paper, but it had a nice “drawing paper” roughness. We sometimes refer to that roughness as the paper’s “tooth.” The tooth on the paper “bites” the oil pastel and holds the pigment on the tip of the “teeth.”

The paper I had used

When we blend the pastels, we are rubbing the pigment from one tooth to another, and the pigment slips down into tiny valleys between the teeth. That helps to make the blending easy.

Problem #2

The second thing that went wrong is that the students applied the first coating of oil pastels too heavily. It’s better to let the first layer of color be rather light. If you color with wiggly, erratic patterns, rather than scrubbing a thick coat into the paper, there is room on the “teeth” to catch other colors later, making the blending process easier.

If you follow these two principles
  • using paper with a bit of tooth, and
  • applying the first layer of color with a light, erratic stroke,

you should find that oil pastels are easy to blend, and will reward your effort with their rich, brilliant color. Enjoy your oil pastels!

Saturday, June 3, 2017

The Art of Engagement

What we set out to learn and what we actually learn are often two different things. For example, have you ever gone into the library to look for some information, only to find yourself lost in a sea of interesting books that are unrelated to the book you originally searched for?

I had a similar experience a few days ago when I was invited to teach an art class to a group of sixth graders. “Teach anything you like,” the teacher said. “They’ll love whatever you do. And I’ll make sure they behave!”

It’s not often I get a chance to teach the age of kids that I write our art lessons for, so I jumped at the opportunity. I was working on a new lesson about drawing and shading a still life, and I wanted to see how some of my ideas would work with kids.
  • Would the history of still life painting be interesting to these kids? 
  • Would they find arranging a still life interesting? 
  • Could they handle the complexities of shading many objects? 

However, although I set out to see how an art lesson idea would work, 

what I actually learned was something entirely different.

It was the school principal who brought the lesson home to me.

The art lesson had the usual ArtAchieve art lesson sequence. We talked about the history of still life pictures, and about how some artists used a simple arrangement of ordinary objects to comment on their life and times.

We talked about some ordinary objects I had brought with me, chose three of them, and together we arranged them so all 27 kids could see them clearly. As we finished making the arrangement, one of the kids commented:

“I’m going to suck at this. This is going to be SOOO hard.”


I promised to help her through the challenge. Then, as you might expect with an ArtAchieve art lesson, we did a  warmup.

Then as I sat at the back of the room drawing under the watchful eye of a camera/projector, we did a guided drawing of our arrangement. As we were doing so, the school principal came in to observe.

We talked about some simple principles of shading and then began shading the still life together - with me working under the camera and students working silently at their desks. As we did so, the principal walked over to the classroom teacher and started whispering. She was clearly excited.

A few moments later she stepped over to me and said, “We’re so glad you came. You are welcome here any time!” Then she explained what she was so excited about.

"I have NEVER seen these kids so quiet!”

Students worked with hardly a sound for an hour and thirty minutes, with one three-minute break. I had answered my questions about the lesson. The girl who said she was going to “suck” offered her paper so I could use it to review what we had tried to accomplish. She was clearly proud of her work.

It was time for students to get ready to go home. Later in the evening the teacher called and repeated what the principal had said told her. She added:

“Those kids were so focused!”

And so they were. And why shouldn’t they have been?

Visual arts classes are one of the best ways to teach kids the skill of engagement. 


This class was another demonstration of a group of kids learning that skill.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

It's All About Play!

The University of Minnesota's education magazine, CE+HD Connect, recently published a study in its Summer 2017 issue called “The Power of Play” that included several noteworthy - and often surprising - facts about play.

Play, by definition, has no immediate purpose, so it’s easy to call play a waste of time.

It’s also been called the work of children. 

Those are things you likely already knew. However, the study highlighted several facts about play that may surprise you.

  • When children are engaged in pretend play, they perform cognitively like they are a year older. The 20th Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, once said that when children play, they are “a head taller.”
  • Today’s children play about 8 hours less each week than children of 30 years ago.
  • Play may look like a waste of time, but when they play, children learn 7 important skills:
    •     Creative and critical thinking
    •     Self control
    •     Confidence
    •     Collaboration
    •     Communication, and
    •     Coordination
  • Play helps kids learn, because things have to be imagined before they can become real to us.

The researchers used 6 criteria that  to define what is and what isn’t play:

  1. It’s fun. If it’s not fun for you, you’re not playing!
  2. We engage in play simply for the satisfaction it gives us.
  3. It’s voluntary. If you are forced to do an activity, you won’t be playing.
  4. The process is more important than the outcome. If the reverse is true, playfulness is lost. Parents who think that winning the soccer game is most important, for example, are taking the play out of the game.
  5. You have to be mentally or physically engaged in the activity. Watching TV seldom involves play.
  6. Play is non-literal, but instead it involves pretending.

It also seems to me that creating art CAN be a playful activity, IF we properly direct an art lesson. 

Here are some ideas that I think would move an art lesson in the direction of play:
  • Set up the project as a puzzle to be solved, e.g., (e.g. Can we draw and color this object using our markers to create nothing but 6 kinds of lines?)
  • Set up the project as a kind of game you play with yourself. (e.g. The rules I decide to use are to limit myself to making the picture entirely out of lines, and to add onto the central object until I have a balanced picture.)

Do you have any ideas about how to make an art project a play-filled activity? How do you promote your kids’ play?

“The Power of Play: Advancing science behind the way we learn and grow,” in E+HD Connect, Summer 2017
"The Power of Play: A Research Summary on Play and Learning,” by Rachel E. White for Minnesota Children’s Museum.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Seeing Is Understanding

Our high school chemistry teacher, Mrs. Harms, didn’t merely teach chemistry. She WAS chemistry. As she danced under the periodic chart, she became sodium atoms who craved electrons from their friends, the generous chlorine atoms.

The atoms we studied had likes and dislikes, personalities, and families. We almost imagined them as people. When Mrs. Harms taught, she became the atoms we were learning, and because she made the abstract visible, it became easy to learn Bohr’s law, calculate moles, and memorize atomic valences. 

As a result, I found chemistry exciting. So imagine my disappointment when my third-grade daughter found science difficult and boring. For her, learning science meant learning lists of abstract definitions, and little more.

One day as she studied, I heard her repeat over and over,
  • “An atom is the smallest unit of an element,” and “
  • A molecule is a combination of two or more atoms.” 

She was learning the right words, but the concepts remained meaningless. Hearing her struggle, I remembered Mrs. Harms, and suggested we act out the concepts.
  • I played the nucleus and she raced around me as the electron. 
  • Then she and I held tight together as protons and neutrons as my wife—an electron—raced around us. 
  • Next, the three of us stood far apart and named ourselves as separate atoms: I was carbon, my wife was hydrogen, and our daughter was oxygen. 
  • Finally, we left our own spaces and joined together in a big group hug to become a molecule. 
With these simple exercises, the foggy abstractness of the science lesson became a concrete idea. What had made the difference? The obscure definitions now had an image that made them make sense.

Images are vital to understanding. That’s why we often say, “Oh, now I SEE,” when we suddenly understand a new concept. On the other hand,

an idea without an image has little meaning

Images also provide us with the tools we need to create solutions. In the mid-1800’s, the German scientist August KekulĂ© was baffled about the atomic structure of benzene. One day he sat in a chair and dozed off in front of his fireplace. During his nap, he had a dream about dancing atoms! Some atoms twined together twisted like snakes. Then one snake grabbed its own tail and started whirling before his eyes. He awoke with a start, realized that the benzene molecule could only be a shaped as a circle, and worked long into the night to study the implications of his new theory.

If images can be so helpful to learning science, why not exploit this fact when we teach an art lesson? We commonly use art lessons to encourage creativity and to develop a sense of aesthetics. Why not also link art lessons to other subjects so that an art project can become:
  • A springboard that encourages curiosity, or 
  • A motivational tool to learn more about the subject of the art lesson, or 
  • An image that becomes the “hook” to hang information on?

Make art a window on the world!