Robert Beeching’s commentary on the importance of art in a child’s education.
It was a bright sunny Saturday morning when the children started to arrive. The Gertrude School was closed to public school education in 1968, and reopened its doors in 1979 as the Yosemite Western Artists Gallery, started by a group of retired artists and those who were interested in learning more about the arts.
Located in the mountain community of Ahwahnee, not far from Yosemite National Park, YWA quickly became a flourishing community enterprise dedicated to the preservation and development of the arts.
The year was 1982, when a group of mothers of young children approached me on the idea of starting a summer arts program that became known as Discovery. Since both my wife and I were artists, former teachers, and members, we approached the YWA board with the idea that a children’s art program could keep the club alive by adding new members each year – the parents of those children whom participated. With YWA sponsorship, Discovery took off like a bird, and through the years has contributed to the general education of the children in this mountain community.
Every Monday through Friday during the summer months, children ages 6 through 16 arrive with snack sacks, and would place them on shelves in the refrigerator in the kitchen. This was one of those mornings. Laying out sets of “Crayola Markers” and sheets of 12″ x 9″ white sulfite paper, I said, “Draw anything you like,” I wanted to get an indication of how well these children could draw. Some would scribble aimlessly. Others held markers so tightly in their hands, that their fingers turned white around the edges. There was at least one child who was quite proficient at creating recognizable images. The majority tended to rely upon stereotypes of stick figure, lollypop trees, gabled-roofed houses, and suns with radiating spikes. They worked judiciously scribbling a line object here, and another one there. They seemed to take an inordinate amount of time filling in the color, or just swishing color around the page to suggest volume. It all appeared as random selection with no visible thought process of composition in mind.
After collecting these first efforts, I said, “I haven’t taught you anything yet, have I?” Eyes and heads would roam from one to another, wondering what to say, when one brave soul replied, “No. These were pictures are from our imagination.” “I see. Where do you keep your imaginations – under your arm pits?” They all laughed. The ice was broken, and the journey began.
All children are born with a tendency to scribble – on anything. Some quickly become observant of their external environment. Others must be lead to observe their environments more critically. “You have to learn to see. If you draw what you see, rather than what you remember, your drawings will improve.”
“We will start with a warm up just like athletes do. No artist just starts drawing a composition on a sheet of paper.” The children look at one another, wondering what is coming next. These children have never had any formal training in drawing or painting. This is the first time they have heard anything about learning to draw. They came in with the mistaken knowledge that some people can draw, and others can’t. “Anyone who can tie a shoe lace can learn to draw, and draw well,” I would declare. This was a stunning revelation to them. Most couldn’t believe what they were hearing. “Anyone can learn to draw,” one would ask? “Yes. Shall we prove it?” They were motivated, and ready to try.
“In this warm up, I want you to stand over your paper, using a whole arm movement. Hold your marker in the middle of the stock.” “What’s a stock,” one would ask? “The stock is the length of the marker. Grip it around the center. Now we will draw a circle in the air with our markers. How many sides does a circle have?” This stops them cold for a moment. “One?,” someone ventures. “Count, one, two, three, one, two, three, in waltz time. “What’s a waltz time?” “It is a dance step in three quarter time with the accent on the first beat like this. ONE, two, three. ONE, two, three. Got it?” They are hesitant and unsure of themselves at first. “Use your whole arm. Like a dancer! ONE, two, thee. ONE, two, three. That’s the idea.”
“Did you fall through the air? Could you make a circle in the air without falling down?” They laughed and nodded. “Now, we will keep making circles in the air, and counting out loud as we lower the marker to the paper. “Round, and round, and round. ONE, two, three. ONE, two three, they count.
For most, this is the first time they have ever drawn a reasonable circle without the aide of a compass or template. “Fill the sheet with circles in all sizes. Overlap them. “What is overlap.” “Try placing circles over other circles in different sizes. Where they cross, there’s your overlap.
“How many sides does a square have?” In unison, they say “four.” “What’s the count?” In unison, again, they sing out, “One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four.” They quickly get the hang of this new routine. “How many sides does a triangle have?” “Three,” they sing out once again in waltz time.
What transpires here is an introduction to the process and skill formation of basic drawing techniques; something rarely learned in the elementary classroom. Soon these children will be released from their ignorance, left to draw anything freely and with ease.
Once a child learns to draw what he or she sees rather than what is remembered, the sooner that child gets a grip on the real environment, and learns to manipulate any medium with control.
By introducing techniques in stages, gives children time to learn incrementally. They are not likely to become overwhelmed by having to produce a picture on the first go round. It would be like asking children to listen to a Stravinsky concerto, and then asking them to create a concerto of their own without ever knowing where middle “C” is located on a keyboard.
From da Vinci to Nicholaides, artists have analyzed and perfected drawing techniques, passing this knowledge onto their students. These approaches have served artists well through the centuries. This short description of an introduction to drawing, is only one of many professional techniques available to children. All we have to do is implement them.
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