Observational drawing: Where do we go from here?

Published by Lori Pickert on February 20, 2008 at 02:19 PM


I could talk about that guitar for two hours.

I was going to post something about how we take the skills learned in observational drawing (seeing, describing, discussing, rendering) and then we branch out into the different media.

Something about how drawing then goes to sculpture and collage and painting and modeling and etc.

Then I looked at that guitar and thought about all the non-art places it took us, too.

I remember kids not just looking at instruments but tracing them with their fingers, playing a real rock-band drum set for the first time (!!), arguing passionately about whether a piano is a percussion instrument (because the hammer hits the string! percussion!) or a string instrument (because the strings make the music! string!). Making models of human ears out of clay. Learning about how things are classified — not just musical instruments, but animals, plant, birds, fish. Doing experiments on how sound travels.

Children who cannot yet read or write a single sentence can make extensive notes by drawing, notes that they can read back to you days or even weeks later, knowing exactly what they were thinking about when they first drew it. Children who cannot yet read or write a single sentence can look through stacks of books and mark interesting passages for an adult or older child to read to them later. "I'm sure this says something about the viola! Read it to me!" Pre-readers researching.

Observational drawing is the first step along a path of art and expression — collage, painting, print-making, sculpting, modeling, and so on. For those of us who homeschool, it can also be the first step in hands-on learning.


Batik, Saxophone Player, by Eli, age 8


Related stuff:

Comics project: Inquiry-Based Learning

Art lesson: Observational Drawing

Benefits of observational drawing

Observational drawing with the young and/or reluctant: tips

Sharing our work: Observational drawings

Observational drawing: Musical instruments

Art lesson: Blind-contour drawing



Comment by Deirdre on February 20, 2008 at 05:25 AM

So true about the "pre-readers"...going through a stack of paper in the "scrap box" tonight, my 5 yr old pulled out a very busy sketch that was meaningless to me and said, "Oh, here's the recipe for brownies."

He must have made it a year ago, but it still made perfect sense to him:-)

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 20, 2008 at 02:55 PM


we would go on field trips with children as young as three years old, and they could look at their own drawings weeks later and talk for minutes about the details they remembered from looking at what they were sketching (boat, fire engine, etc.).

Comment by loraxknits on February 20, 2008 at 04:38 PM

I can't find the words to express how inspired I am by your blog. While it's still early for many of the projects and approaches you write about (my daughter is 17 months old) I am trying to make the effort to ensure she has time to do something creative every day (she says 'raw' and swipes the air with one hand when she wants her markers). I'd love a post or two on other ideas for children her age at some point - in your spare time, if you ever get it! Thank you so much again for all the beautiful ideas.

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 20, 2008 at 04:56 PM

thank you so much - that makes my day. :^)

i do want to post about toddlers - i designed a whole program for working with ones and twos to prepare them for doing this sort of work when they were older. i promise to try to post about that!

i love that image of a 17-month-old asking to draw - wonderful!

Comment by estea on February 21, 2008 at 08:44 PM

they're STRING. because the source of the sound comes from vibration of the STRINGS. instruments are classified according to where the sound vibrates from. i have spoken.

okay, classification is a little fuzzy. but still.

that guitar (string instrument) i could look at for, like, 4 hours. it is incredibly rad. can i have it? you owe me a package anyway.


Comment by Lori Pickert on February 21, 2008 at 09:05 PM

i'm sure they would have weighed your opinion, estea, although they would not have accepted it as gospel. ;^)

the best part was, they found it classified differently in different books! of course, we would never just give them the answer anyway - the whole point is for them to do their own research, argue their own opinions, collect evidence to support their arguments, etc.

but when the *books* disagreed with one another - well, there's no quicker way to open a child's eyes to the fact that what you read in a book isn't *always* true. you can't stop there. you need to find out the truth that satisfies you.

sigh ::of contentment::. that is *my* idea of good education. ;^)

um. i'm not sure that *particular* guitar is available. have tommy make you one!!! :^D)

and i'm sure you will eventually. *eventually*. get a package...

Comment by Emily - from K3! on April 16, 2008 at 05:21 PM

I know this comment is after-the-fact for this conversation, but I am a "late reader" and so I'm only seeing this for the first time.

As soon as I read your post, Lori, I knew I *had* to write a comment because I still think about all the wonderful things that happened during our instrument project. Learning the instrument families --- no! Becoming *experts* on instrument families, learning how sounds travels, making the ears, the "Keyboard Controversy," all of it was amazing. It's all become a magical memory for me. One that keeps me motivated to keep trying projects in a public school setting even if it is hard and sometimes frustrating. One that reminds me all that children are capable of --- so much more than I sometimes give them credit for. One that encourages me to challenge kids. One that makes me mourn the loss of that class, and the simple fact that my own son will not ever get to experience that moment with those circumstances. (Although I hope to recreate it for him at home.)

Thank you for giving me another moment to relive that year!

I also wanted to share another story related to the "keyboard controversy." As estea pointed out, the piano is a string instrument, and, of course, we knew that as well, but the PROCESS they took to learn that fact was much more worthwhile for them since they had to discover it on their own. They learned so much more than how to classify a piano. They learned that everything written in books isn't necessarily true, as you mentioned. They learned how to debate. They learned how to make hypotheses and conclusions. (In the end, they decided that a piano was, indeed, a string instrument, BUT an electronic keyboard was a percussion instrument since it doesn't have strings.)

The story I was thinking of happened about that same time. A child in the class became very interested in the Loch Ness Monster. He asked me if it was real, and, of course, I answered, "I don't know. Why don't you try to find out?" So, he did! He checked out books on the subject, interviewed his classmates to see what they thought, and we probably looked online for information too. And then all of sudden, one day, his interest was gone. *Poof!* No more discussions, no questions, nothing. When I asked him about it, he replied, "Oh, I asked my dad what he thought, and he said it wasn't real. So now I know." And just like that, he lost so many valuable learning opportunities.

And now I've rambled for long enough. Thank you again, Lori, for writing about this!

Comment by Lori Pickert on April 16, 2008 at 05:29 PM

Emily, thank you so much for your comment, and I hope you won't mind when I republish it at the top of the blog so other people can read it. ;^)


Comment by Helen on April 16, 2011 at 05:53 AM

Hi Lori,

I've searched a bit and can't find whether you ever managed to follow up on your promise above.

"i do want to post about toddlers - i designed a whole program for working with ones and twos to prepare them for doing this sort of work when they were older. i promise to try to post about that!

I'd love it if you already have and it's just my searching skills that are the problem.

Comment by Lori Pickert on August 3, 2011 at 10:43 PM

hi helen, sorry i dropped the ball. and sorry for this tardy response!

somewhere in my files is a workshop i did for parent-toddler teachers (working with at-risk families) in a feeder program whose kids then went into a preschool class that was planning a reggio-inspired, project-based curriculum.

basically, the toddler program recommendations i had were:

- focus on giving more choice: the current toddler "art" and "craft" opportunities were things like "here is a cut-out of a christmas tree, you may decorate it as you please with these items". there was the *illusion* of choice but really it was cookie-cutter art. toddlers should be working with open-ended art items and exploring media - learning through relaxed, free exploration what materials can do. they need to get used to making their own choices *early*.

- in the same way, fewer organized activities and games and rules. again, they need to start getting used to making their own choices. open-ended toys like blocks, simple dramatic play props, squares of fabric, cardboard boxes, table and chairs .. rather than toys with a lot of bells and whistles that *do* a lot of things. you want the children to do a lot, not the toys, as a general rule.

classrooms can have a lot of *rules* - such as, only X many people in the block area at a time. this stymies the kids' creativity - both in how they want to play and in solving their own problems. if everyone is crushed into the block area so that no one can do anything, they can figure that out. or maybe the blocks should be moved out to the big rug if everyone wants to play together!

similarly, some homes have a lot of rules, some of which are useful (pick up your toys when you're through playing) and some of which are questionable (no bringing toys to the table when you are painting). very generally, even toddlers need a relaxed atmosphere where they can start having their own ideas -- they shouldn't *always* be doing regimented, predetermined, organized activities. some parents plan *everything*. better to have relaxed free time with simple toys for unrushed imaginative play.

- start ramping up to responsibility. toddlers are old enough to pick up their toys or at least meaningfully help pick up their toys, and they can help clean off the table after painting, etc. linking independence with responsibility early helps when they are preschool age and older.

essentially, think about what you want your three- and four-year-olds to be doing and then think about ramping them up to that. if you want them to be working creatively, then you need to be encouraging that at age 1 and 2 also. if you want them to be responsible and clean up after themselves, you don''t want to wait and start at age 4. and so on.

i hope this helps - it's by no means complete, of course!



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