I used to believe that the most important element for children when undertaking artwork was the freedom to create whatever their imagination dreamed up. For some pupils and in some situations, I still believe this is true. There are the pupils for whom the greatest gift you can give them is a blank canvas and permission to be creative. For other pupils though, a blank piece of paper fills them with dread and, in their eyes, will result in failure. When I asked pupils across the school which art lessons they enjoyed the most, more than half the pupils gave examples of lessons which had been highly prescriptive and not at all the blank canvas that I had believed every child desired. When I asked them why they had enjoyed these lessons so much, the answer was overwhelming consistent – “because my picture looked so good”. All the pupils that I spoke to described huge satisfaction from producing high quality pieces of art which looked similar to the example modelled to them. They didn’t seem to mind if 25 other pupils had done almost identical pieces of work as long as they knew it “looked good”.
When I used grids and photocopied colouring sheets to help Year 3 copy Van Gogh’s sunflowers, they were thrilled with their work as their copied sketch gave them a high quality outline to paint from and created great results. When I then asked Year 5 to sketch and then paint their impression of the sunflowers without the support of a black and white grid picture to copy, they quickly became frustrated because “mine looks nothing like it”. One pupil asked me if copying from a grid was “cheating” because it seemed so easy but I don’t think it is as it still requires excellent observation skills as well as an understanding of proportion and good pencil control.
So what has this taught me? Well, I suppose it’s made me rethink my approach to art. Art lessons can be fantastically creative and a vehicle for the imagination but they can also be prescriptive and heavily supported whilst still being satisfying, enjoyable and successful. A more balanced, varied approach to art will be taking place in my art room from now on.
Laura Shiell is Arts Subject Leader and Year 6 class teacher at Shrubland Street Primary School.