Saturday, January 10, 2015

Observational Drawing and the Creative License

Observational drawing is one of my absolute favorite things to do with young kids, because they totally buy into it.  The drawing above was done in a 1st grade class.  The students pulled the name of a classmate from a bucket.  The partners sat across from each other, and after some demo and instruction, they carefully drew their partner.  (Hence the 'of' and 'by' on this fabulous pic of Isabella.)  At this age, nobody has convinced these kids that they can't do it, so it never occurs to them!  With a few parameters set (such as 'no boogers'), these kids look intently at each other, draw, and then work hard to match colors of hair and skin.    I'll show you some more 1st grade portraits later  in this post.
By the way - this is a long post.  I hope you'll stick with me!!!
 Oftentimes, I would set up a large still life in my classroom.  I've used everything from toys and weird little doo-dads (mostly stuff I bought for a quarter at yard sales), glassware filled with water and colored scarves, the skeleton from the science room (dressed with hats and jewelry), house plants, and more.  I've used boxes to create levels, and draped fabrics over them to create interesting negative space.  The paintings above and below are by 4th graders.  We were learning about my favorite artist, Matisse.  
 Students were given drawing boards if they wanted, furniture was moved, and students picked a location to draw.  (The still life was 'in the round'.)  Students used viewfinders to help pick an area of the still life that would become an interesting composition (of course we had discussed what this means.) 
To help them use the viewfinders, kids were told to 'squint like a pirate'.  And they were told they were now old enough to earn their Creative License. 
What's that, you ask?  Well, the Creative License (sorry, no pic of it available right now) grants the licensee permission to make changes in the still life (on their paper, that is; they could NOT go and physically move something on the still life setup!) for the benefit of their composition.  I actually printed up and laminated licenses that could fit in a wallet.  The funniest was the day that a boy came in to my room in a panic - "Mrs. Brown!  I left my License at home!  How am I going to work on my project?!?"  I assured him that, since I had granted him the license, I knew he possessed one!   
 Students could also use their Creative License when making decisions about simplifying what they saw, and when making decisions about pattern and color.  Again, they were to choose colors that enhanced their compositions.  I hope you agree that these tempera still life paintings are as beautiful as I think they are!  By the way, they are painted on 18"x 24" paper, with an approximately 1" white border on the paper.  You can see a prior blog post about them here
 My 2nd graders used the same still life as inspiration for painting/collages that focused on the goldfish bowl.  By the way, the goldfish in the still life were made from colored foam, and were in a bowl lined with blue cellophane.  The flowers were fake (from the dollar store), because I wanted them to last for a while.  Some of their pics are below.  You can see a few more of the  finished pieces in a post here, from October 2010.
We read the book 'Ish'.  We decided to make our goldfish bowl paintings 'still life-ish'.  I let them  interpret what they saw rather liberally.  They also were learning about Matisse, of course.
 As I said at the beginning of the post, I love observational work with young kids.  Each spring I brought in branches of lilacs from my backyard, and put them in vases on each table.  Q-tips were used to paint the flowers, after we closely examined the shapes of the flowers, the shapes of the leaves, the vases, etc.  Each piece is unique, based on the student interpretation of what they saw.   You'll see a couple more of these later in the  post.  I'm having trouble moving the pics where I want them tonight!
 Just for fun, an observational painting I did 2 or 3  years ago.  I had received these flowers after a minor surgery.
Now back to portraits: My 3rd graders did self-portraits while looking in mirrors.  The boy on the right below is a sweetie pie with a permanent scowl  He captured it to perfection! 

The drawings were done to a size that would fit tagboard hand mirrors the kids created.  But they had to paint them first, and cut them out, so we could create the mirror illusion.  They carefully mixed their own skin and hair tones. The drawings were glued to metallic silver contact paper, which was adhered to the mirror. 
 By the time those students were in 3rd grade, they'd already gotten used to observational drawing.  In first grade, we had done this: 
 Every 1st grader got a turn to be a model for a minute or two, while their classmates drew.  We paid close attention to where our bodies bend (elbows, knees, hips, and so on), which direction they slanted, and so on.  We drew with skinny markers so their was no opportunity to erase!
 And then, of course, those portraits with partners:
 The problem, of course, is this: who keeps the drawing?  The artist or the model?  So I solved the problem the following year using mirrors for self-portraits.  They were cut out and glued on wallpaper, which really looked terrific!  Here's a few.  Again, this is 1st grade work:
 Kids had to look  thoughtfully for crayon colors that would match their skin and hair.  I showed them how the pressure on the crayon changed the value of the color, and also how they could mix two crayons together to get the color they wanted.  The girl with the red hair in buns (above) realized red hair is not necessarily RED. 
 Every year, I introduced my 5th graders to blind contour drawing.  (Sorry, no pics to show you.  I promised them it was an exercise, and not to worry how they looked!)  We drew hands, and shoes.  Then I would allow them to look and we'd do more contours, including goodies from my box of toys and doodads.  I put a pile of objects on each table, and after they drew they were allowed to trade with another table. 
One year, with a new deaf student in our little school, the kids all did sign language drawings of their initials.  It seemed like a good idea when I demonstrated, but I had forgotten that while I'm a leftie and could therefore model the letter with my right hand as I drew with my left, most of the kids were right-handed and could not be their own models.  We muddled through it somehow, though, and I still liked the results.
 When I first began in my school district, my classrooms (I taught in a a K-4 building in one village, and a 5-8 building in another town) both were near exit doors.  I brought the primary students outside to draw the magnificent tree in the front yard.  I brought the middle school students out to the hill outside my window, where we went on a 12" hike.  Each student had a 12" square viewfinder that they placed on the ground.  They studied what was in their square and drew what they saw.  Sorry, I have no photos from these early days.

When my district consolidated into one building, my classroom was on the 2nd floor, a very long walk from the door.  It was no longer practical to take the class outside during a class period.  So I brought the outside in.  The sunflowers were planted (at my request) in the school garden.  I had to sneak out a window on the first floor to get the flowers!  Luckily, the teacher whose window I used was very cooperative!  
  On this particular occasion, 4th graders were given assorted colors of tempera and no instruction other than the stipulation that the negative space be filled.  I love this painting above!

First graders (below) were given crayons and liquid watercolor.
 Oh!  Some more lilacs!
 And kindergarten pussywillows.  We examined them closely, touched them, drew the branches and seed pods with crayon, and painted the fuzzy blooms with fingerprints. 
 A 3rd grade still life of musical instruments was interpreted liberally for this painting below.  Incorporating the CD into the artwork was a fun challenge for the kids!
 One of my favorite observational lessons came when my students were learning about Audubon.  All his work was done by observation of the carefully posed birds that had been stuffed.  I was lucky to find a parent who was a taxidermist.  He loaned my classroom a gray fox (beautiful), a fisher (terrifying)  and a pheasant.  The students at all grade levels were totally engaged and drew and painted magnificently.  And somehow, in the excitement of the two weeks that those animals lived in my room, I forgot to take a single photo.  But here's what they would have looked like if I had:
 This fisher below looks much gentler than the one in my room, which had his teeth bared and a glaring menacing look in his eyes.  Everyone loved drawing these animals! 
 Why have I spent SO much time tonight writing this post?  Because I think that sometimes well-meaning art educators get caught up in the attraction of the art projects they see on Pinterest, and forget that we can do so much for our students just by encouraging them to use their powers of observation. Working with them as they figure out how to interpret what they see on their papers is a powerful thing, and will give them something that has more of a lasting benefit than having everyone follow a directed drawing lesson.
Don't get me wrong;  I'm not telling you never to do directed drawing.  I do it sometimes too.  But don't forget that that is just one skill.
 And observation can come in handy for more than just drawing/painting.  When my 6th graders built plaster bandage sculptures of people in motion, I had them repeatedly model for each other to capture the tilt of shoulders, the angle of hips, The stretch of a leg, and so on.  I think it's what made the finished products so spectacular!
By the way - yes, I have taught my older students to enlarge a photo by means of a grid, and it certainly serves a purpose in an intelligent art curriculum.  But it is again just one skill, and shouldn't replace observational drawing, which will give students so much more.   This painting below by a high school student in my district, based on the work of Chuck Close, was done with the grid method. 
 But still, there's something to be learned from observation that you don't find when using a grid.  This is a painting on cardboard I did many years ago, while working with a group of 9th grade students on observational self-portraits.  I love it for its many flaws. 
Now, before I go - one last thing.  Every photo in this post has appeared elsewhere in this blog during the last 4 or 5 years.  If you want to find more about any of them, use the labels at the bottom of the blog, or use the search bar on the right.  You'll find labels for still life, portraits, and more, or type whatever you want into the search bar to find it! 


  1. I'm a big fan of observational drawing too and I love setting up still lifes like yours, usually for fall or spring. I LOVE your fishbowl solution instead of dragging in a real one - will be including that in my spring set up for sure! Thanks :)

    1. Thanks! This still life was on an old cart for an overhead projector that someone was throwing away and I rescued! It was great because I could just wheel it out of the way when it wasn't being used. I stuck everything down with tape or sticky tack to keep it all in place. I had a bigger cart, like a hospital lunch cart, that I sometimes used for giant still life setups, too. And I have boxes of all kinds of peculiar stuff - an old dive mask, a toy bubble gum machine, a diving helmet cookie jar, a Spider-Man flashlight, a crown, a wooden parrot, and so on. Much more interesting to kids than a piece of fruit in a bowl.

  2. How amazingly beautiful and they are ALL DIFFERENT!!!!!!!! I hope so many art teachers get inspired from this.

  3. Like I said in the Facebook, thread, I absolutely LOVE the crazy still life in the center of the room. I am totally doing this! Such an inspiring post. Thanks!

    1. Thanks so much, Patty! Your compliment means a lot to me! It makes it worthwhile that I dragged one of my ice cream chairs into school for this!

  4. Excellent Post! I love the goldfish bowl lined with cellophane-definitely doing this one! This is a great way to teach about Matisse and still life paintings-thank you for sharing your wealth of knowledge!!

  5. Wow! What a great post! Now how can I force those lilac twigs!!!! :)

    1. Thanks, but is there a typo there? How do you force lilac?