Thursday, February 12, 2015

Relax; it's just a sheet of paper

A couple of weeks ago, when I wrote a post on fostering independence in the art room,  I said I was going to write a post about the things that go wrong. And now that I've set out to write it, I realize I don't have the visuals I'd like, but I'll do the best I can.  
In that prior post, I wrote this:
"My point is this: we should offer students the opportunity to become independent thinkers.  We need to let them gain a level of independence to make them confident about their work, and less dependent on copying or tracing that of someone else.  We need to prevent ourselves from being helicopter art teachers, hovering over our students and making all their decisions for them.  Sometimes, yes, they will fail.  And that, broadly, is the topic of my next post."

I never got to that 'next' post until now...
So - the things that go wrong... We've all had the student who, the minute you turn your back, is pitching his (lovely) work in the trash and sneaking a new piece of paper.  (Can you tell, I have a very specific student in mind right now?)  It's frustrating, and to be honest, I'm kind of a nut about unnecessarily wasting paper, and frequently the kid who wants to repeatedly start over already has got something good going on.

Instead, I believe we should get our students to 'embrace the mistake'.  Sometimes that's easy. For example, when the 6th grade cartouche carved into Sheetrock cracked, the student glued it back together and decided the visible cracks made the work look more 'ancient'.  And everyone started breaking their projects on purpose to make theirs look old too.
Or when a bit of the color in this 'toothpaste batik' washed out more than expected, the 5th grade artist happily used a Sharpie to add in some lines and colors that were not there in the first place.
But not all young artists are so easily convinced.  I've told this story before (here), but I'll tell it again because it relates to my point here.  Years ago, my 3rd graders embarked on a Monet project that I had seen presented in a workshop at a conference.  I hadn't tested it out myself (big mistake, friends!).   Finger-paint paper had been used in the demo (I still don't really know why).  Tape was used to mask out a Japanese bridge, or an arbor, or a fence with a gate.  Watercolors washes of blue were painted on the sky and in the water, and a wash of green was used on the ground.  Then, sponges and/or Q-tip swabs were used to paint in a glorious array of 'impressionist' flowers, using a variety of reds, and yellows, and pinks, and the edges of cardboard scraps were dipped in green paints and stamped to create grasses and stems.  Finally, the tape was pulled off, to reveal the white fence/bridge/arbor/gate, and a few more flowers, stems, and grasses were added.  My students worked enthusiastically, and their projects should have been, and almost were, beautiful.  But my tape was 'better' than the  tape used in the demo, and the tape tore holes in almost every paper as it was removed.  It had stuck too good!  Kids started to freak out.  I quickly grabbed the box of construction  paper scraps and painted paper scraps, and told the kids to cut/tear flowers and leaves and glue them over the holes.  The artwork took on a real liveliness at this point, way beyond my original intent.  I wish I took pictures, but I didn't).  But I discovered one girl sobbing uncontrollably.  At that moment she believed that her work was beyond repair and the world was nearing its end.  It took a long time to convince her that, hey, it was just a sheet of paper.  I had to promise: the earth would NOT stop spinning just because of a hole in a sheet of paper.  The girl's life was not ruined forever because of a hole in the paper.  Find a solution, and move on.

When my students begin a tooling foil project, I always warn up-front: if you are properly tooling the foil to get the deep relief we are seeking, by the time you are done with this project, every one of you will have poked at least one unintended hole in the foil.  It is not a problem.  It's just a hole, and nobody will see it.  (Can you find the holes in these 6th grade tooling foil African-inspired masks?  Of course not!) 
When a tail breaks off a papier-mache animal, and the hot glue repair is obvious and unattractive, I might suggest to the student to embrace the mistake and put a Band-aid on it (an actual, real Band-aid).  And then I suggest, when someone asks about it, to make up a good story about how the animal got injured!
 Sometimes it is a lesson we need to learn for ourselves.  When I finished building Lucy, the dragon on this blog, I didn't have a plan how to attach her wings, so I went to someone for help.  The wings had to be removable so Lucy could fit in my car to be transported.  She is large.  He (the very creative 'shop' or technology teacher) took Lucy, and came back with her later that day, with wings attached, upside down and backwards. They were intended to curve forward and down, to protect her baby (not in the photo).  Lucy and child were on their way to an art show that afternoon, and I had no choice but to embrace the mistake, and learn from it. 
In a college painting class, we were painting in oils on pieces of brown Kraft paper 5' tall x 36" wide.  Our subject was a live model.  It was intimidating trying to get it 'right' with no pre-drawing, and halfway through the class, the model switched her pose and Professor Minewski had us flip our papers vertically and continue working.  After the initial shock wore off, it was a really good experience (and my roommate and I ended up hanging those large paintings in the living area in our dorm suite).  And another professor assigned us to create paintings based on the work of a chosen artist (mine was based on Hans Hofman) and then unexpectedly had us tear holes in them a la Rauschenberg, and totally revamp our original intent.  Both of these lessons were good reminders to me that a sheet of paper, a hunk of canvas, and lump of clay... none of it is precious.  If it doesn't look like what its supposed to be, look at it differently; perhaps it might be some thing else completely.  Don't be afraid to squash the clay and start over.

When something doesn't turn out as planned, but turns into something infinitely more interesting, I have often told kids that a good response is "I meant it to be like that".   But if, as happens sometimes, that the student tries something original and it just doesn't work, is it a failure?  Or is it a discovery? Maybe a sheet of paper has been 'wasted', but is it wasted if the student learned something by the failure?  What has really been wasted?  It's just a piece of paper, and a little bit of time.  It's not the end of the world.  Here's a new piece of paper; try something else.  I've often had this conversation with a student whose project just didn't go as planned:  "Did you try your best?" (yes) "Did you enjoy the activity?" (yes) "Did you learn about or how to do something new?" (yes)  "Then what was wasted? It's just a sheet of paper."  (smile)

And with your students, please think twice before giving them patterns or tracers because you think their work will look 'better'.  Let them try on their own, giving them the room and the tools to create something beautiful, and if it doesn't quite go as planned, guide them to find what their work might become instead.  Use this wonderful book as inspiration:
Children's artwork, created by children, is infinitely more interesting than artwork that is a coloring book activity.  I'd rather see a display of 20 unique and somewhat lumpy looking horses, or cows, or whales, or houses, or whatever it is, than 20 of the exact same shape with only the insides filled in differently.  And aren't you more proud of something you've created yourself? 
Maybe there really are no failures when someone has made an attempt, because even that failure becomes a worthwhile learning experience. 


  1. Great post thank you Phyl. I like 'it's only paper' . I hear myself saying ' you can't get art wrong'.

  2. I was reminded of this post today at school when I mentioned that we were probably going to make a bit of a mess today but that we would clean up at the end of class. I overheard one little second grade boy say, "That's what art is -- making messes and making them look good!!" Glad I to know I've gotten through to someone over the years!!:))

    1. Haha! To the tune of 'All About That Bass': "it's all about the mess, about the mess, no problem..."

  3. Hi Phyl,

    Finally had a moment to catch up on some blog reading. I "disappeared" to East Tennessee with my husband--transferred for his job. Miss NYSATA but will enjoy keeping in touch through this blog. Love your posts.

    1. Hey, good to hear from you! I wondered where you'd disppeared to!

      Where in Tenessee? I seem to know several people in Teneseee. Maybe someday I'll have to actually get there, and do a swing around the state!

      You know, if you are on Facebook, there is an active and lively Art Teachers group there. Are you still teaching?