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Getting Smart with Art

By Kathy von Duyke
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #20, 1997.

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Kathy von Duyke


Great art draws universal truth out of the particulars of life. I especially love Mary Cassat's paintings of mothers and children. Sweet chubby babes nestled cozily in the laps of everyday moms reminds me of the universal truth that children need moms who love them. We do not want others to define art for our children, nor leave them hungering for beauty in their lives. We want to train their tastes to that which would reflect God's glory. We also want to develop in them artistic literacy, so they can use art in practical ways in their lives.

With all the subject areas we are responsible to teach, how do we fit in one more? And especially, how do we teach something we might have little ability in ourselves? Like everything else in homeschooling, we learn with our children.

Art Helps Us Understand

When I first began addressing the subject of art, I thought Michelangelo was a Greek artist. Somehow I knew this wasn't quite right, but I didn't know where to place him. I find that in these non-core subject areas I need three strategies to build the subject into our lives.

First of all, I need some sort of overview to put the whole area into context for me. Second, I need to address the area as a subject in a concentrated fashion with my children. And finally, we need a way to continue our learning.

Our family loved the Francis Schaeffer series, How Should We Then Live? This overview of the philosophy and art of each period of history clearly shows how the artist reflects the thinking of his time. It gave me a frame of reference for teaching each period of art and a new appreciation for the value of art as a window into the mind of a historical period. We next studied the seven basic periods of art: Church Art, Renaissance, Baroque, Neo-Classical, Romantic, Impressionistic, and Modern periods using the pre-school program How to Use Art Postcards for Art Appreciation (formerly known as "Mommy, It's a Renoir!") to become familiar with representative paintings from each period and to make a timeline of art.

We used Adventures in Art by David Quine to look in-depth at paintings from each school from a biblical worldview. One of our favorites was Rembrandt's Raising of the Cross from the Baroque period. Rembrandt pictures himself raising Christ's cross, demonstrating how his sins led to Christ's crucifixion. Our children copied Rembrandt's work, painting themselves into the picture. They understood to a new depth the precious work of Christ.

The study of art periods has also made the children more aware of the history around them. While participating in a music program at a local Baptist church, the children noticed that the Clerestory (the open part above the pews) above the Nave (central part of church that houses the pews) was surrounded with stained glass pictures of Bible stories. They also noted the Latin-shaped floor plan, a Maltese cross on the altar table, a Calvary cross embroidered on the table cloth, a Laborum (a "R" and a "C" symbolizing Christ is King), a Rose window, and the pointed Gothic arches. Because their eyes were now open to these elements, they recognized exciting details in an "old church," reflecting its founding congregation's love for the art of another time.

Putting it Into Practice

We also studied basic elements of pictures, breaking them down into the elements of color, value, light and shadow, perspective, space, texture, shapes, and lines. We studied composition (paying attention to the arrangement of elements in a painting) and identified focal points (noticing where the artist intended to take our eyes and why), in several works of art. We practiced using these elements in our own drawings and paintings, highlighting a different element in each work. For instance, the children did black-and-white charcoal drawings using shading to create interest in their work. The children also carved plaster like Rodin's The Thinker, and painted while on their backs a la Michelangelo (great ideas are in the now-out-of-print Creativity Unit by KONOS).

All of this art study was done as part of a larger unit on the period of the Renaissance and Reformation. The emphasis we gave to art during this study made it easier to maintain these sorts of activities throughout subsequent units. We use art to enhance our other studies rather than teach art as a separate course.

A typical elementary art course might include the following: drawing, painting, clay work, printing, fabric art, and collages. While studying modern France, the children practiced pointillism. With Ancient Greece (via KONOS History of the World), the children painted jars with red and black figures. While studying ancient Israel, they created a model Tabernacle. During an Egyptian unit they fabric painted Egyptian-style collars onto T-shirts. They've also built sailing ships while studying the Exploration, and worked on cross-stitch and other crafts while studying colonial America.

Currently, the children are studying botany and zoology. The nature notebooks the children are each creating are beautiful! They've included specimens from our backyard as well as detailed drawings of dissections. For inspiration, the children studied John James Audubon, reading a biography and looking at lithographs of his work, and The Diary of an Edwardian Lady. Our younger children made a flower-part collage using tissue paper for petals, green construction paper sepals, pipe cleaner stems, and glitter pollen, then labeled all the parts with marker.

In other subjects, they've previously practiced art skills while sketching biography figures to grace reports or timelines, drawing scenes from battles or major events (the days of creation or highlights of Jesus' life), or making clay models of the parts of the cell or dioramas of historical scenes.

Hopefully, your art education does not solely consist of smattered practice in various media, but will also include concentrated practice in the most basic art form, sketching. Ever spend hours searching for just the right clip art, frustrated because you know if you had rudimentary drawing skills you could draw it yourself? Then you know the frustration of being a drawing illiterate. While an art course may be beneficial as a supplement to drawing, the only way to become proficient at drawing is to spend time drawing. Most artists spent their childhoods drawing feverishly. How can we practically encourage that sort of environment in our homes?

Steps to Creating an Artistic Environment

  1. It always seems to start here - De-junk your house of unworthy "art stuff" that would take up the children's real skill time, such as coloring books or art "kits" which allow limited exploration and practice (the Barbie fashion tracing stencils come to mind for some reason).

  2. Make paper, pencil, and a creative mind a habit. Children with prepared minds can amuse themselves anywhere with just paper and pencil. The creative mind takes time and boredom to develop. If children are constantly entertained by videos, computers, and popular toys, they never develop creative scenarios in their minds. They can not keep themselves creatively amused, because they've been trained to look to outside sources to keep them content.

  3. Develop time for art. Our children usually draw or paint during our family read-aloud times. Each child drags his favorite medium into our bedroom to occupy their hands while my husband, Tim reads.

    I like plastic stackable bins so that they can quickly set up and clean up their artwork. With a tray inside each bin, the children work on a somewhat protective surface, saving my bedroom carpet a little while longer. I have tried to create an art "center" in our home for creative exploration, but find my two-year-olds exploration more creative than I'd like. The bins allow the children to keep age appropriate materials accessible to them, and they appreciate not having expensive supplies messed up by toddlers.

  4. Keep quality supplies on hand:

    • White Sculpey - this highly malleable clay may be baked hard in the oven and painted and glazed. It gives small hands far more control than regular dough clays, comes out of the carpet pretty easily, and doesn't dry out. One box can last a whole school year. The flesh-colored Sculpey is very fun for making realistic faces, or fingers curving around cabinet doors.

    • Colored pencils - We especially like the Berol pencils in a soft lead. These are far better than markers (too fun on walls and faces), crayons (too fun to peel the paper and break), or cheap pencils (don't lay enough color). While expensive, they last forever (as long as your child doesn't sharpen them down to a nub!).

    • Tracing paper - The younger children really love this. It can be a little expensive, so I dole it out. We have used it often to trace diagrams or maps in their school books. The children love to trace their story book pictures, and it makes wonderful "stained glass" when colored lightly.

    • White copy paper or scrap paper - We keep a stack of paper always accessible to the younger children. Sometimes I sew a few sheets together down the middle with a long straight stitch on my machine, or I staple some inside of some construction paper. These exciting variations can keep them busy for a whole morning creating books. For even more exciting ideas, consult Dinah Zike's book Big Book of Books. I've used her suggestions to make several types of booklets at the beginning of the school year as instant "inspiration" when my younger children need a project.

    • Watercolors (for older children) - I confess, I'm not the kind of mom to have paints accessible to younger children. Sometimes we use them together, but it isn't a mess I'm always happy about. But once children are old enough to clean up after themselves and take care of expensive supplies, I like to get a more expensive watercolor kit for them. The children's versions lay very little color, but the artist-quality brands have more intense colors which allow for far more depth in paintings.

    • The Basics - For school projects I also keep construction paper, tissue paper, and poster board on hand.

  5. Consider a drawing course. We have periodically used Drawing with Children by Mona Brooks, Blitz Cartooning, and Gordon School of Art Young Masters. All of these have enhanced our artwork to some degree, though we've only used these programs for concentrated times. No program is as effective as copying great art and nature on a regular basis.

  6. Preserve your children's work. Let your child know that his efforts are important to you! Show him how real artists keep their work and make your child his own art portfolio. It is essentially made with two large pieces of cardboard taped down the center with duct tape, or you can use a poster storage board from a teacher supply store. Make a coffee table art display book of their work by placing pictures in clear report cover sheets in a view binder. Display it right next to your other art books. Take the time to have one or more works properly matted and framed for your wall. I still enjoy works my older children created, and find the artwork of children refreshing. Some frame stores include mats that have a space for your child's photo to go with his painting.

  7. Keep prints around and talk about them on occasion. I have art prints from the Renoir series hanging under our timeline. I also like to take the art inserts from "that other homeschooling magazine" and place them on our refrigerator for viewing and discussion. With a little caution, I also like to bring home art books (including fashion and architecture ones) from the library as they pertain to our current unit.


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