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The context is critical

James Sharp finds ideas for teaching primary art and considers the life and work of some famous artists

One of the biggest changes in art education in recent years has been the inclusion of critical studies at primary level. Teaching Art to Young Children 4-9 (Routledge Falmer pound;15.99) is a new edition of Rob Barnes's classic text, updated to reflect recent changes - most notably with a new chapter on digital imaging. In an expanded and thought-provoking chapter on using the work of famous artists, Barnes is dismissive of much critical study. The walls of UK primary schools are "not short of copies of Picasso portraits, Monet water gardens and Van Gogh sunflowers", he states mordantly.

Though acknowledging the tradition of students copying in order to learn from the Old Masters, Barnes argues that primary critical studies need to go beyond that, to become a springboard for children to make informed decisions about their own work. Teachers looking at famous artists need to avoid giving only "a few isolated facts about their lives"; they should encourage a higher order of questioning, about how the artists worked.

Barnes suggests the sort of questions teachers need to elicit, giving a sample project in which the brushwork of Picasso and Monet is studied and contrasted. His book is valuable because it is theoretical as well as practical.

The Questions Dictionary of Art (Questions Publishing pound;15.99), also by Rob Barnes, is a useful keystone for any art co-ordinator's library, aimed directly at the classroom. Everything is clearly explained and illustrated, from Abstract Expressionism to wood engraving, and the vocabulary and concepts involved in teaching art. The book is designed to be photocopied for making A5-sized display cards.

In the World of Display series, three new titles are offered (Folens, pound;12.99 each). Art in Focus, by Hilary Ansell, demonstrates how to use photography as a stimulus for artwork, while in Art for All Seasons Marilyn Barnes explores how different seasonal events can provide a starting point. Both are useful reference books and some of the pupils' work featured in them is wonderful. Moira Andrew's Tell Me a Tale is even more on the button, designed to relate to the National Literacy Framework's requirements for studying traditional tales. Ten stories from around the world are accompanied by ideas for literacy activities and artwork.

Sometimes you need inspiration. For a wide range of artists, including Gauguin, Matisse, Rembrandt, Kandinsky and Barbara Hepworth, new books in The Life and Work series (Heinemann, pound;8.99 each) offer it. They explain how events in the artist's life and in the wider world influenced their work. Hepworth is particularly well served by Jayne Woodhouse, with carefully chosen photos illustrating how her work was inspired by growing up in the Yorkshire countryside. Pupils are helped to see how the birth of her children and the work of contemporaries such as Henry Moore contributed to the making of one of this country's most important artists.

Overall, the texts are well supported by excellent reproductions, with timelines showing key events, and extensive glossaries to introduce important concepts, movements and techniques. Key stage 2 teachers will also find them useful, if only for the photographs. The series is also published in a Big Book format to fit in with the requirements of the literacy hour at KS1.

Artists in Their World series from Franklin Watts (pound;12.99 each) is clearly aimed at upper KS2, with much to aid critical interpretation. The 16 titles cover artists such as Cezanne, Chagall, Klee, Hopper and Jackson Pollock. These beautifully produced books enable students to research the artists quite comprehensively. Biographical detail is linked to artistic development and well documented by photographs, extracts from letters and diaries, and excellent reproductions of their work. Each book has a chapter examining the artist's influence on the world of art.

The books do not shy away from using artistic terminology or challenging works of art (Jude Weldon's book on Matisse features several nudes and odalisque paintings). The text will challenge able pupils, while the captions require an understanding of composition.

The Lifetimes books on Picasso, by Liz Gogerly, and Van Gogh, by Clare Bevan (Belitha Press, pound;10.99) are also aimed at KS2. There are no photos or reproductions, but each chapter has a small section describing the artist's work in historical context.

James Sharp is art co-ordinator at Elmhurst Primary School, Hackney

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