24 Ways to Begin Art
Lessons Without Showing Examples
© 2009 Marvin Bartel, Ed.D., Prof. Emeritus
Goshen College. contact me.
First posting of this page: 11/18/2016 update
How is an inspirational creative studio art classroom culture nurtured?
It is quite common among art teachers to start an art lesson by showing a examples from art history, the art world, from the prior year students, a demonstration, and/or teacher artwork. Image flooding has become a common way to explain an assignment. Students are winning art prizes. Both the students and their teachers are winning honors for their products.
During my own student teaching one of my supervising teachers taught me this method of teaching art. My other supervising teacher taught me by example that students could produce wonderful individually designed work based on their own unique designs and compositions without showing them examples in advance. Then while studying art education with Dr. Phil H. Rueschhoff, I became aware of a whole series of motivational and inspirational methods that I believe result in much stronger creative thinking habits. Rueschhoff, did not ignore the history of art. We discovered that masterworks could be learned better after students had developed a frame of reference for the creative strategies underlying the masterworks.
Teaching by example is both good and honest. However, teaching with examples reduces original thinking. As an art student, I had learned to teach with examples from my own teachers. I now largely avoid showing examples of artwork until after the students have done their own creative work. I now try to teach by example.
If I give an assignment without showing any example or demonstration, some new students are confused and afraid to begin. They ask if I have forgotten to show them what I wanted. They are accustomed to seeing an answer. They have not been expected to solve a problem on their own. They do not realize that there are ways to do it on their own. At best, they have learned to create a slight variation on another person’s answer.
Teaching to learn by example means that a teacher who has learned how to learn shares honest ways of learning how to construct new knowledge. This includes learning to assess past answers and solutions, but does not need to start this way in art classes. We can avoid “dumbing-down” the developing brain. I believe that beginning to learn by first looking at prior answers is likely to produce a form of “learned helplessness”, particularly in art. It certainly produces helplessness and powerlessness in cases where there are no ready precedents to use as examples. I worry about what can happen to our self-confidence when we become dependent on prior answers. What happens when school gives nearly no opportunities to see how well we can think, experiment, discover, invent, and express our own feelings and our own ideas? Most students, regardless of their favored learning style, need more practice in self-designed inquiry and problems solving. What happens to self-confidence when we intentionally begin a learning episode by looking at previous solutions? Does beginning from an expert example make us more or less confident in our own ability to cope and create with new challenges? When should students turn to Google? What happens when other predigested ideas precede our own mental efforts?
Learning how to construct new knowledge will be harder to teach if we have forgotten how this kind of thinking works. Any problem can be solved ‘from scratch’ if we present it in an easy enough form. Basic experiments can be used to activate dormant neurons. The goal is to build a mental mind set, a mental attitude, a disposition and habit that first looks at a series of self-initiated solutions and experiments to deal with challenges before skipping immediately to an effort free search mode. Yes, there is a sense in which Google is making us all stupid (yes, I know you may have arrived at this page as the result of a Google search). Creative minds enjoy strategies that differ from minds that are nurtured to find and sort the answers of others. As a teacher, and particularly as an art teacher, I have an obligation to be the example of a learner that can construct and invent solutions, not merely to be an example of how I can learn to find old solutions. This fosters learning by example—not learning from examples.
I doubt that Larry Page and Sergey Brin invented Google by doing an Internet search. Of course they were not the first to develop an Internet search engine, so I may be wrong. I am right that they invented many ways to exploit their search engine to turn a profit from a free service. Using a navigator (GPS) when driving, has a similar effect on our brains’ ability to learn and remember landmarks, street names, numbers, etc. I use these devices, when finding my way, but it is not a way that I become a more competent navigator and spatial thinker. I certainly did not have to study with a creative art teacher to learn how to use the navigator in my car. A real teacher did teach me to read a map.
As a first grade student, I had a novice teacher. She had not learned how to teach reading. We memorized our reading book. When my second grade teacher asked us to read the beginning second grade book, we had no idea how to do it. If education is comprised of teaching answers and memorization, what is the reason to hire professional teachers? If education is to help students learn how to use their own minds and how solve problems, how to invent, how to design, how to compose, how express, how to question, how to construct new knowledge, how to use phonics (and the equivalent of phonics in every domain) and so on; we do need teachers that can think and understand how thinking is learned and how the words of languages (including visual language) are deciphered. Can we strive to be creative teachers whose creative thinking styles can serve as the example by which to learn how to discover and construct new knowledge including new ways to learn?
Good education conditions the mind for the better. Bad education conditions the mind to forget how to think. Bad education produces 'learned helplessness'.
TEACHING BY EXAMPLE – NOT FROM EXAMPLES
Instead of showing examples, what happens when we as art teachers secretly study powerful art examples in order to come up with inspirational art questions? What happens if we use such questions to get students thinking like artists? What happens to the development of student brains if we use the questions to get experimentation and discovery going? What happens when we use the questions to get more elaboration, refinement, invention, and boundary pushing? What happens when we use the questions to move critique to a level of deeper thinking and learning? What if we use questions generated by our own consideration of masterworks to inspire and motivate students to invent their own questions and problem definitions. As creativity matures within our students, will they learn by example that we do not look at masterworks in order to copy them nor to copy their answers, but we look at them to read the minds of the artists? Will they have learned by our example that we study masterworks for their questions so that we know why we must have art and why we must make art?
What happens when we, in our own artwork, reflect on how and where our own best ideas develop? Can we use our own experiences to advocate for creative productive processes?
WAYS TO BEGIN AN ART LESSON without showing any examples
STOP. If you are an art teacher, I suggest that you stop reading now. Take a think break, a snack, a walk, or simply close your eyes and relax. Before reading my meager list of answers (teaching examples), start making your own list first. Even if you only think of one or two good ways to start an art lesson, you will gain confidence and you will want to experiment to see if your idea works. Write down your ideas.
Ideas beget ideas. They copulate like rabbits. I find that when I start writing, ideas begin to have children. These offspring often greatly surpass their parents. You will think of ideas that are better than my ideas. In any case, even if you think of the same ideas, you will be doing your brain a favor. Our brains need the practice. They need to wake up and think for themselves as often as possible. In learning to think by example, we need to practice. Even if your ideas are similar to my ideas, you have proven to yourself that you still have this ability. You are an art teacher. You are creative.
When I stop and ask myself hard questions, it may take time, and it may take several attempts before my brain kicks in and offers ideas. I am less fluent than I wish. Good thoughts often require coaxing. Persistence, patience, and incubation pays off. Ideas pop up at the least expected time—often at the last moment (possibly weeks or years later) or just before the deadlines. Confidence, vigilance, and expectation do work.
WAYS TO BEGIN AN ART LESSON without showing any examples
Okay, you can read on.
- It looks easy, but it is too difficult for many students. In this method, the class is simply set up from the beginning with a clearly articulated statement that students are expected and required to bring their own ideas and choose materials and processes with nearly no limitations from the teacher.
This is not my first option, but it is an ultimate goal. This assumes that if our goal is for students to be able to become more independent as artists and as people, they need practice in writing or at least planning their own assignments.
This is a lot of choice and a lot of student responsibility. It is too hard for some students if their parents and teachers have never given them open opportunities and never helped them learn to learn this way.
However, by the end of this list (by the end of my students’ time with me), they must feel empowered to learn without me. I find that free choice and self-assignments work well for some students immediately. In a class with a creative artist-teacher coach who knows how to inspire idea generation, elaboration, critique, and refinement processes, the students progress to the point where they can be expected to bring their own ideas to start an art project. When free choice works well, I am less a director and more as a learning facilitator. My flying lessons have worked. They are prepared to leave the nest. Even in beginning classes, I have frequently found that the final assignment can and should be an individual self-assignment. How better can we leave the students with the confidence that they can continue to learn without the teacher or the class to tell them what to do.
WAYS TO BEGIN AN ART LESSON while working toward the goal of total student choice. These are ways to coach without showing any examples to explain the project. Most students are unaware of the many approaches artists use. What follows are ways to build awareness by providing enough real hands-on practice so that when students make their own choices to work from their strengths when they feel a need to excel, and practice in areas of their weaknesses when they feel a need to remediate their own abilities.
I am not sure that teachers should assign these methods in any particular order. Begin with anything that feels right and inspirational in your situation. Teachers should begin from their own strengths, their student interests, and whatever they feel is likely to succeed.
- Students select from a self-generated list of personal life experiences as content. Making this list of questions based on life experiences will give focus and help them realize that ordinary experiences are important sources of art ideas. I find that teams of students often produce better lists than individual students produce. Teams often have leaders whose ideas serve as prompts for those who are unaccustomed to active thinking and are less fluent. These team rubrics may help students learn to be good team members.
A classroom culture of helpful collaboration linked to creative projects is likely to increase learning and the quality of outcomes. Children and youth are naturally good at peer-to-peer coaching and learning, but some classrooms have an anti-sharing policy that has changed these natural proclivities. Instead of prohibiting shared ideas, can we encourage students to help each other, not with suggestions, but with good questions that build better thinking and more discoveries?
- Students select from their own existing sketchbook/journal of ideas. This works well in conjunction with good coaching in ways to produce good sketchbook ideas. Some art teachers improve the outcomes by including several improvement steps or practice steps before the final project is produced.
- Students select from personal sketches done from observation specifically for this project. This works better if they have practiced drawing from the observation of real objects, real animals and plants, real people, and so on. Drawing from pictures, photos, and so on is not appropriate in a studio art classroom. Copying builds replication skill. This is not art. The creation of art requires some kind of creativity and transformation. Drawing from a three-dimensional subject includes transformation.
- Students practice a skill or idea based on a teacher demonstration.
NOTE: Teachers demonstrations can reduce creativity because students copy teacher’s ideas. Therefore, I try to keep demonstrations very short and simple so students can begin their own hands-on immediately. With complex processes it may work for every student to actually follow each step with materials and tools. I stop the demonstration before I make content or design choices, or I ask the students to direct my content and composition choices, making it clear that I expect them to make the content and design choices. Students are expected to make choices that produce meaning and context in their artwork. I avoid the demo entirely if I can think of an adequate hands-on approach to learning a process or technique. See next item.
- Students begin with hands-on practice based on teacher's explanatory instructions (no visual demo). This has worked very well for me, but I keep these short and simple. When possible, I will have students do hands-on practice rather than a teacher demo because watching a demo is too passive. Watching develops the mirror neurons more than the creative thinking neurons in the brain. Doing, without knowing the outcome, is more likely to produce the joy of discovery and active creative idea production. Often students are already getting creative ideas while the are practicing a skill or technical steps.
- Students produce multiple intentional accidents from which to choose best and abandon the worst. And /or they add imaginary content suggested by the accidents plus their own imaginations. Some accident production activities result in beautiful colorful and decorative results without any real thinking or efforts. In these cases, I encourage them to do a large number of accidental products and discard most of them so they learn to consider criteria for aesthetic choices. Without choice making and critique, effortless accidental productions offer very scant learning about art and creativity.
- Students begin with an idea generation activity. If you need examples, search for web essays: “The Secrets of Generating Art Ideas” Bartel, -&- “The Conversation Game” Bartel.
- Students work from sounds, touch, taste, smell, etc. The transformation of sensory experiences from one sensory input to a visual art form provides added emotional involvement and inspiration. I believe that multisensory input provides good practice in creative transformation. I sometimes begin a session with sounds using things that students cannot see (only hear) while the students draw small practice swatches of texture that they imagine might visually represent the noise. Then in their projects, they seem to produce a richer texture. When students prepare to work from a still life of fruits and veggies, we often smell and taste small samples of food in a still life composition.
- Students translate, creating visual art from a story, song, poem, or other non-visual art form. Is art the part that moves across boundaries, or is art the part that is unique to the art form? Should an illustration start before the story or follow the story or other art form? What if we reverse the sequence to see what happens?
- Students play around with materials and/or processes making comparisons and searching for inspiration and possible answers. Playing around is not quite the same as experimentation. Playing is more accidental. It is a search for serendipity.
- Start with a programmed play activity. The teacher inserts a play activity. For example, use dice with colors, textures, or styles instead of dots. Make spinners to make choices. Form teams to see which team can generate the largest quantities of ideas within a limited time. These activities set up arbitrary but important limitations that force new thinking rather than allowing students to slip back into whatever worked last time.
- Students work like scientists. They do an experiment and elaborate on the resultant discoveries. Learning how to experiment makes us more self-sufficient. When we learn that true experiments come out in unexpected ways (discoveries), we adapt and practice our divergent thinking abilities. We practice using our ability to organize and make it look right. Experiments differ from playing around because in an experiment we make controlled comparisons. In experiments we make predictions in advance, but we are still open to unexpected results and discoveries.
- Students respond to the teacher's open questions. This is good because it develops an art studio culture of student answers rather than teacher answers. Using projects like collage or assemblage, this method can foster collaborative creativity where students help each other solve compositional and content problems. Questions can focus thinking on certain topics, concerns, etc. We can get good question ideas to use with students by reading current events and by learning to know our students’ passions. I also get questions by studying the work of important artists, but not showing the work. I try to imagine the questions that the artists must have asked. I call it ‘reverse engineering’ art. http://www.bartelart.com/arted/reverse.html http://www.bartelart.com/arted/questions.html
- Students sketch and/or list and combine unexpected content, style, or another art aspect. Using unexpected juxtapositions may feel like a gimmick, but it inspires imagination, challenges the self, and invents surrealist expressions. Other examples of changing habits of work to activate creative thinking: starting with the background, drawing only negative space, change hands, use white on black paper, invert it, and so on.
- Students begin by listing attributes before creating a composition, design, or craft product. Every artwork has attributes, but we seldom begin by listing the attributes. Attributes are function, boldness, elements, recipients, audience type, etc. The attributes of an original ceramic soap dish might be: how well it allows soap to dry, how well it relates to the person for whom it will be used, and how easy is it to clean. The formal aspects of color, size, texture etc. can also be deliberately considered as attributes.
- We change something in the studio classroom to make things look or feel different. Perhaps the lighting is colored or more directional. The seating is changed. Take all the seating away. There is a new display or poster. There is a thought-provoking question for the day or week on the whiteboard. Change how stuff looks by painting all the stuff in a still life set up white, or gray, or black.
- The studio period begins with brief silent meditation. Maybe students can learn to lead this. Everybody jot down insights. Ask for volunteers to share.
- Try an Internet search for ideas that your think are appropriate. What if students try to jot down opposites of the Internet answers to produce original and creative ideas.
- The studio session begins with a physical in-place two-minute workout to increase blood blow to the brain and clear out the daily distractions and cobwebs. Maybe students can learn to lead this.
- Foreshadow the problem or questions weeks in advance. Warn students well in advance by discussing upcoming questions. Assure them that they have brains that are always thinking, even as they are asleep. Highly creative people often explain that their best solutions come to them after a time when they are not thinking about the problem. Review the questions but avoid giving solutions. When the time comes to be actively creative, they may surprise themselves.
- Students collaborate with team members that compete to “out-create” other teams. This is particularly good for assemblage, collage, posters, murals, etc. I stop the production periodically during the process to have teams learn from other teams and help each other. This combines the motivation of competition with the enrichment of cooperation. The most successful innovative companies use this approach to carry out their most challenging projects. For us to do this in art class prepares our students for many of the projects they will do in their adult lives. Highly successful people are those that possess a combination of knowledge, technical skill, creativity, and good social skills. Teamwork practice builds social skills.
- Students review their previous work with an eye toward creating an improvement on a previous idea using their new ideas/skills to make it better this time. Artists spend their whole lives doing this. We can use similar questions when reviewing the art concepts by way of art history. Invert old work and assess it while it is upside down. Stand way back from it. Use a mirror to view it. After new experiences, we can search the old work and find new discoveries. It is important to learn this by making multiple iterations is a proven way to make improvements based on comparisons.
- Advanced art students study an important favorite work of art by an important artist working in an entirely different art form. For example: a painting student studies the work of a sculptor that is very impressive to the student. The student develops a painting approach that has no resemblance to the sculpture but the painting attempts to achieve what the sculpture achieves. Picasso and Braque did this when they saw some of the first motion picture films. They invented cubism. Most viewers of cubism do not realize that the invention of cubism was probably inspired by the invention of motion picture film.
Credits: My art education students helped compile this list. Please send me your best ideas. contact http://www.bartelart.com/mb.html
HOW TO LEARN ART HISTORY
Art history is about visualized ideas, lives, and times. If we teach the art history separately or right after the media work we can take advantage of question/thinking. Having created artwork with similar questions, students have an active and aware mindset with which to speculate. The cataloging data such as dates, places, titles, names, etc. are still important. However, these are mainly cataloging information. The meaning and emotional content, the relevance and implications, the lessons to be learned, the primal purposes of the art in the world, and the ideas to be processed are the real content of art history and our study of the art world. Why was it made? What were the purposes of it when it was made and what are the purposes of the work now? Artists imitate relevant purposes and motivations, but they imagine and create their own ways to express themselves in their work.
CRITIQUE AS POSITIVE FEEDBACK and KNOWLEDGE CONSTRUCTION*
Teachers who establish a positive inquiry critique culture are likely see more then twice as much learning and creativity as seen in classes with no critiques. Critiques are simply an outwardly shared extension and clarification of the intrinsic artistic process itself. As artists, we are constantly self-critiquing. Good critique helps participants construct new knowledge. Critique by self and others is intrinsic to the creative process. This intrinsic assessment as we are creatively working can be hard or soft—it is up to us. However, during classroom critique the social implications become crucial. It must be kept civil and positive in order to be helpful and educational. Being a bully as a teacher or as a student cannot be justified. It kills creativity and learning.
Many art teachers have had negative experiences with critique. Badly conducted critiques have killed enthusiasm. They kill the passion for learning and creative work. Because of negative experiences, some teachers have stopped having critiques rather than trying to develop positive critiques. A positive and beneficial critique culture can be established, but it may require entirely new thinking for many students and some teachers.
Students and teachers must avoid all negative comments about student artwork. Instead, we can use open questions to express interest and curiosity. When we see things we do not agree with, we can learn to phrase it as a question without including negative connotations. We can inquire without being critical. We can ask what, how, and why in ways that express interest rather than in ways that imply error or mistake. It is mutually beneficial to learn more about the artist’s intentions. We can express confidence in students. We can use language that owns problems rather than making blame statements. Art problems and solutions are points of view, and for an expert to act out of power rather than empathic understanding does not motivate and inspire. It is the teacher’s responsibility to monitor and judge the discussion, but it can be counter-productive bullying to publicly judge the artwork during a classroom critique.
By clarifying our discoveries, critiques help students *construct new knowledge. When we see things in student work that are working well for us, we can affirm and clarify to help us understand the reasons. Finding positive ways to conduct critiques and model a culture of helpfulness is essential to maximize a learning studio culture. Establishing a positive critique culture may more than double the passion, motivation, learning, and creativity in an art class. The magic storm of process and product may result.
*Constructivist learning theory.
By not showing preliminary examples of answers, we are skipping one kind of direct instruction in order to motivate more problem solving and creativity. Students are asked to creatively construct their own knowledge through experimentation and discovery.
"Constructivist teaching methods"
Accessed on Nov. 19, 2016 at:
Davis, J. "A Radical Way of Unleashing a Generation of Geniuse." Wired,15 June 2013
Accessed on Nov. 19, 2016 at:
NOTE: The above article relates the experiences of a sixth grade teacher in Mexico who changed to constructivist methods with outstanding success.
Kirschner, P. A.; Sweller, Clark; John, R.E. " Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching."
Educational Psychologist, Volume 41, 2006 - Issue 2
Pages 75-86 | Published online: 08 Jun 2010
Accessed on Nov. 19, 2016 at:
NOTE: The above article deals with medical school education. It may be argued that art instruction needs to be less direct, but we can still consider ways to overcome the inadequacies identified without killing creativity. Constructivist methods may not automatically imply minimal guidance, but the type of guidance may not need to be direct instruction. Inquiry learning, collaborative learning, and critiques of choice-based learning in art may prove to be much more effective than direct instruction.
All rights reserved. This page © Marvin Bartel. You may link to this page, but you may not post it on your site or publish it. Scholarly citations are allowed. They require attribution. contact http://www.bartelart.com/mb.html
This page was updated Nov. 19, 2016
For permission to make copies or handouts, contact the author.
top of page