Confidence issues and the young artist

Published by Lori Pickert on March 18, 2008 at 01:29 PM



My kids most of the time see what I've drawn and right away start complaining that they can't draw and that they want me to draw it for them, or saying "I don't know how to draw it". — Heather

Never draw for your children. It sets up a dynamic where they are going to try to copy your example, and that's not what we're after. We want to observe and try to draw what we see, not mimic someone else's drawing.

Instead of drawing for your child, talk to them and support their efforts.

The child who says "I can't draw!" or "My drawing looks terrible!" is expressing a lack of confidence or maybe just looking for confirmation or denial. Sometimes they are overwhelmed by something that seems too difficult.

If they complain that they are making mistakes or their drawing isn't good, point out that we have to make mistakes when we are learning something new. If we aren't making mistakes, we aren't learning.

Focus their attention on what they are drawing. Talk together about at which point they might start drawing the object. Have them trace it with their finger before they start. Talk about all the things they notice about what they are drawing — the textures, the details.

Try breaking the exercise down into smaller tasks. "Can you draw this line?" Once they have drawn that line, "Can you add this detail?" It is always helpful to ask, "What do you think?" They will usually point out to me what they haven't yet drawn, or some detail they've so far ignored. They may point out something they don't like about their drawing. "It's too small." "It's the wrong shape." In that case, say, "I see what you are saying. Why don't you draw it again over here [on a blank piece of the paper or a new sheet]."

Let them see that they are learning. This is why I like to use a sketchbook. Flip back and look at their first drawings and ask them what they think. Can they see their own progress? Remind them that the two things that will make them better at drawing are observation and practice.

My son compares his drawing to his older brother's and becomes upset and says he doesn't want to draw anymore. What should I say? — Pam

If a child compares himself to an older friend or sibling or to you or another adult, point out that that person has simply had more practice than he has.

When my younger son made this same lament, his older brother said, "You are a much better artist than I was at your age — when you are my age, you will probably be better than me!"

If I was working with a child and they admired my work, I would say a genuine "Thank you!" and maybe "I've been working really hard on this." (Modeling desirable behavior.)

If the child went on to say, discouraged, "I'll never be that good", I would point out how much progress they've made and/or point out how much better I get when I practice. (Praising effort, not results.)

I have a question about using erasers--how would you handle objections?? My oldest is Mr. Perfectionist and I can already hear him griping at me for suggesting this. Any ideas?? — Jill

My older students especially can spend the entire class erasing and trying to perfect each line as they go. Stress that sketching is practicing and when you stop being happy with your drawing, instead of erasing you're just going to move to another part of the paper (or a new page) and keep drawing.

How about a little sports analogy? If your son was practicing batting, he would hit 100 balls in a row. He wouldn't stop every time he missed one and say, wait, pitch that one to me again — I need to redo that! You just keep practicing and after hundreds of balls, you're a much better hitter.

How do you encourage them to follow their own ideas instead of feeling like they should copy you? — Michelle

Copying isn't necessarily bad. In the clasroom, we loved to see kids copying each other, because they would get into a fantastic group dynamic, extending each other's work. For example, child #1 makes an aquarium by wrapping a piece of cardboard into a tube. Child #2 "copies" the first child and also makes an aquarium, but he finds a piece of acetate in the recyclables and makes a transparent tube. Child #1 goes to find his own piece of acetate and make a new, transparent aquarium. Child #3 is now on the scene and also wants to make an aquarium — but he adds beads to the bottom for rocks and tapes cut-out fish to the sides. You can see how this kind of dialog improves everyone's work.

I wouldn't necessarily assume that a child lacks confidence in her own ideas if she switches to making the same thing that you are making, or the same thing as the child next to her. In some ways this can be "restaurant syndrome" — I thought I wanted a salad until you ordered the club sandwich. I had an idea, but once I saw your idea, that looked great, too!

If your child has a lot of opportunities to make authentic art — preferably every day — they will eventually work on their own ideas. If you sit down to, say, play with wire sculpture with your children, you might hang back and wait to see what they are making and encourage their efforts.

Try having your child draw from her imagination while you are nearby but busy with some other activity — cooking dinner, for example. Have her tell you about her drawing while she makes it. "I'm drawing our house. This is me. This is you. This is Daddy. This is Grandma coming to visit" etc. When you are making art together or with a group of friends, try not to worry too much if she's "copying" someone else's idea. She will probably add her own ideas, like seasoning, and she is still getting great experience learning about the materials and what she can do with them.

Related stuff:

Drawing with your children

Drawing with your children, continued


Drawing with your children, continued

Published by Lori Pickert on March 17, 2008 at 06:17 PM


The best reason for drawing with your children occurred to me only after I wrote the last post. (Of course!)

If you don't draw with your children, then you are getting out the materials, sitting down with them, talking about the goals of the drawing exercise, and then .. what? If I was drawing — and trying something new — it would make me nervous to have you sit and watch me! I would wonder how you thought I was doing, if you thought I was doing a good job, if I was doing it right or wrong. I would know you were watching me, and I would realize you were judging my work.

When I bake with my children, we put on our aprons, get out the bowl and measuring cups and ingredients, divvy up the tasks, and we get to measuring, mixing, stirring, spooning, etc.

I don't step back and have them do everything because I'm worried about intimidating them with my awesome baking skills. We work together, side by side, cheerfully, as a team.

This is the same kind of cooperative environment that I am suggesting for making art.

I'm not sitting and watching you draw (with an implied judgment). I'm just sitting here drawing, too, concentrating on my own work. We may show each other what we did, and we may talk about what we like and don't like and how successful we thought we were (talking about our own work), but I'm not here to critique a child's work.

Draw with them, but don't draw for them.

So, again — draw with your children! Show them that's it about the fun of acquiring a new skill, not about you judging their efforts. Get on their level and draw alongside them. It's fun!

Drawing with your children

Published by Lori Pickert on March 10, 2008 at 04:01 PM


A question from Michelle at Mama Chronicles:

Have you ever had trouble with [your children] feeling inferior to you when you draw alongside them?

I have had a difficult time writing a succinct response to your excellent question.

This is my third attempt to answer without producing a novella.


Draw with your children, and share both your skill and your enthusiasm. Just as it's perfectly fine to learn alongside your children, it's also perfectly fine to share your talents with them. It's no different than reading, cooking, woodworking, gardening — do the things you love to do with your kids. What better gift could you give them?

You may not be more skilled than your children (I'm not!) — that's okay, too! Learn alongside them, and let them share your enthusiasm and your interest. You are modeling having a great attitude about tackling something challenging. You are modeling that not everything worth doing comes easily.

We do lots of things better than our children — drive, for instance. ;^) We read better than they do, but we don't worry that they'll feel bad about that — we're confident their skills will improve, so they are, too. They respect our skills and they want to be like us. With that power comes great responsibility. (Quoting Spiderman!)

Now, tomorrow I'll post about some things you can say to your child if they start comparing their work to others or disparaging their own abilities. And this post isn't a mile long, so — whew!

Visiting the museum with children

Published by Lori Pickert on March 8, 2008 at 04:05 PM


This week I took my homeschool art class to the museum to draw.

We walked around and looked at some of the exhibits, then we headed for a part of the museum with a few large bronze sculptures that the children could touch.


We sat down and drew.


First: contour drawings. Choose a spot. This is your perspective. Draw your contour.


Contour drawing helps us slow down, pay attention to the way things really look, and gets our hand used to drawing what our eye sees.


When we had produced a contour drawing we were happy with, we moved on to doing an observational drawing.


The sculptures were very large. Some children drew the whole sculpture,

mu-j-sculpt.jpg mu-j-obs.jpg

but most concentrated on a particular part. It's best to start with your favorite detail and then, if you have time, you can sketch in the things around it.




My tips for visiting the museum with children:

Take your time.

Choose one spot to concentrate on and branch out from there if you have time. (Just like drawing!)

The experience is more important than how much of the museum you see. (Process over product!)

Be clear about the rules (no touching walls or artwork, etc.) — discuss them before you go, and take time before you start browsing to discuss them again.

Talk about what you see together! Model asking good questions, and model looking for answers. Wonder aloud. Read signs. Ask questions of the museum staff.

Prepare before the visit. Talk about what you might see. Wonder aloud together. You don't need to tell them everything — you can talk about it afterward, comparing their expectations to what really happened.

Bring a notebook and pencil, even if you aren't there to draw, for note-taking. Get your child in the habit of drawing and making notes about important things he or she sees — to share later with another parent or family member, perhaps. (Or your dog — dogs love art.) Even pre-readers can make notes that they will be able to refer to and "read back" later.

Pick up free brochures, exhibit cards, etc., at the desk for your child to add to her notebook later at home.

Talking about the visit beforehand, taking your time, taking notes, reliving it later at home — all of these things add up to a more fully realized, more meaningful experience that they will remember for a long time. Reflecting on the experience deepens their understanding and exponentially increases their learning.


My tips for drawing at the museum:

Pack light. Small bag with notebooks, pencils, enclosed pencil sharpeners, white erasers.

Choose your drawing spots carefully, to be out of the way yet not against a wall, with a good view of what the children want to draw.

If children will be sitting on the floor, make sure they can see their subject clearly from there.

Often the large, touchable sculptures are either in the entry, near the entry, or off in an alcove. Go to the front desk and ask if there are any large sculptures or other exhibits that can be touched.

Concentrate on plain pencil and paper. Later, after a good deal of drawing practice, consider adding colored pencils. (Color tends to distract when children are initially building their skills.)

Take photographs of what your child is drawing, from their perspective.

If you have been following along with these art lessons, try a contour drawing first. It can settle a child into working quietly and purposefully, and their observational drawings will reflect this preliminary attention to outlines.

Go back! As I've said before, there is beauty in repetition. If you make the museum a familiar place, it will be easier for your child to settle and enjoy drawing there rather than chomping at the bit to see more. Take your time and walk around for awhile before sitting to draw (and there will always be new exhibits, even if you've visited before). Don't be afraid to do the same thing over and over — it's how we grow.

Related stuff:

Art lesson: Observational Drawing

Benefits of observational drawing

Observational drawing with the young and/or reluctant: tips

Sharing our work: Observational drawings

Observational drawing: Where do we go from here

Art lesson: Blind-contour drawing

Art lesson: Contour drawing

Perfectionism and praise

Published by Lori Pickert on March 7, 2008 at 08:44 PM

An interesting article in New York Magazine: How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise.

Offering praise has become a sort of panacea for the anxieties of modern parenting. Out of our children’s lives from breakfast to dinner, we turn it up a notch when we get home. In those few hours together, we want them to hear the things we can’t say during the day—We are in your corner, we are here for you, we believe in you.

Dweck’s research on overpraised kids strongly suggests that image maintenance becomes their primary concern — they are more competitive and more interested in tearing others down.

Their meta-analysis determined that praised students become risk-averse [my emphasis] and lack perceived autonomy. The scholars found consistent correlations between a liberal use of praise and students’ “shorter task persistence, more eye-checking with the teacher, and inflected speech such that answers have the intonation of questions.”

It's not a terribly new idea. Just have to hop on over to Alfie Kohn's website and reread Five Reasons to Stop Saying "Good Job!":

Are our reactions helping the child to feel a sense of control over her life -- or to constantly look to us for approval? Are they helping her to become more excited about what she’s doing in its own right – or turning it into something she just wants to get through in order to receive a pat on the head?

Or, check out Kohn's 1997 book Punished by Rewards (interview referencing the book here).

As we've been discussing both here and in e-mail and on some of your blogs, perfectionism tends to shut kids down — they stop being interested in doing things that they don't immediately excel at. Bronson's article, the same as Kohn's ten years ago, suggests that if we praise end products rather than effort, kids are less likely to dig in to a difficult task. What do you think?

Related stuff:

It's not (all) about the art

The perfectionist

Art lesson: Contour drawing

Published by Lori Pickert on March 1, 2008 at 01:26 PM


contour drawing by J, age 9

Last week we did some blind contour drawing, using a paper plate on our pencil so we couldn't see our paper — we kept our eye on the outline of what we were drawing and let our hand follow along.

We then followed up with a regular observational drawing. Our observational drawings are improving dramatically after just a few classes. The children are getting into the habit of looking for more detail before I ask them (nag them), "Do you see another detail you can add?" When they say "I'm done!", they really do have a mostly completed drawing to show me.

Blind contour drawing forces us to slow down and really look hard at the outline of what we're drawing; afterward, their observational drawings show how much attention they had given to the object they were drawing.

This week we tossed away the paper plates (metaphorically) and did some contour drawing.

Once again we started by talking about outlines. We drew backpacks during class, so I held up a backpack and had one of the students come up and trace and major lines with her finger while we all talked about it. Then we were ready to draw.



• Try to draw the outline of all the major parts of the backpack with one long line — no stopping and starting.

• It's okay to glance at the page to make sure your lines are going where they're supposed to go, but try to mostly keep looking at what you are drawing.

• This is not an observational drawing — don't stop and add details. Just keep going forward and outline the big/important elements.

• Your line needs to be strong and go straight ahead like a slow freight train — it's fine to draw over the lines that are already there.

• No coloring in or filling in — just do the outline.

• Draw big! Try to fill your whole paper.


Since this is the first time we were doing this type of drawing, I did some "that's great, but let's start again on this side of the paper and this time..." encouragement as I walked the room.

I always tell the kids that sketching is practicing and we will usually put more than one drawing on a page. If they have an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper and they are making a drawing that is about the size of a pack of cards, I will encourage them to just draw it again in an empty part of the paper. If they are drawing a large object very small, then I will ask them to try to draw it larger.

In the same vein, when I emphasize that sketching is practicing, I don't say or imply "you're doing it wrong" — I say "great, now do it again and change this or that". When they are doing an observational drawing of a small object, I flip it over or around so they can draw it from a different perspective. If they tend to draw very lightly, I might ask them to do another one with big strong lines. Sketching, I tell them, is about trying a lot of different things.


J, age 9, contour drawing, first attempt



second attempt


E, age 7, contour drawing

Contour drawing, like blind contour drawing, is about drawing the outline of something as it really looks. Many of the children made a first attempt, then we talked about the results, then they made a second attempt. Most of them needed at least two tries to figure out trying to draw the whole thing in one line. We talked about using an etch-a-sketch — how you just go over another line or through the empty part to get to the next thing you are going to draw.


Left to right: first attempt at contour drawing, second attempt, final observational drawing, by E, age 6

After we finished our contour drawings, we did an observational drawing. You can see the children used the information they gathered during the contour drawing to improve their observational drawings.


observational drawing by Jack, age 8


Related stuff:

Art lesson: Blind Contour Drawing

Art lesson: Observational Drawing

Benefits of observational drawing

Displaying children's art

Published by Lori Pickert on February 29, 2008 at 11:11 PM


My friend Jo asked me if I had anything to contribute to this delightful post at the Cookie Nesting blog on kids' art displays. I didn't manage to send her anything because I've been a little swamped.

(Also, when anyone asks me for something, instead of rifling through my photos and immediately sending something in, I tend to think "oh, that won't do .. I need to take new photos" and "I'll wait until the light is brighter" and etc. and etc.)

So, up above is my favorite way we displayed children's art at the T.P.S. — in a hanging room divider of plexiglass frames. These are two pieces of plexi sandwiched together with two pieces of art in the middle — so you can see something different on each side. We drilled holes in the corners and used circle clips to attach them together and make a huge display, but you could easily have the plexi cut smaller (they will cut it for you at the hardware store) and hang them singly or maybe three in a row vertically. A smaller version would look beautiful hanging in a window.

And here are some of my favorite kid art displays from my peeps:

Estea's houses on the windowsill, rickrack art line, and wire book/art display shelf.

Geninne's son Daniel's window art

Kajsa's beautiful kid art line in the kitchen

Eren's drying rack gallery display

And, technically this isn't kids' art, but what a great display idea:

Hannah's little brother's stop sign as magnet board (awesome!) (totally stealing this for the boys' rooms!)

Let me know if you have something cool to share!


Art lesson: Wire sculpture, part 1

Published by Lori Pickert on February 25, 2008 at 03:04 PM


It's always interesting starting off a class with a large group of kids of various ages (5 to 12) and various previous art experience. They all come to the class with different expectations, different ideas, different biases, and different approaches.

Observational drawing is a great leveler. It gets us all looking at more or less the same thing and talking about the same thing — paying attention, drawing what we see.

Last week we did some blind contour drawing and we talked a lot about lines and outlines. We tried to follow things very carefully with our eyes and not look at our hands or the paper at all. The results were very interesting.

This week we started off with another blind contour drawing and we talked more about lines.

We talked about points, lines, planes, and cubes — when is something two-dimensional and when is it three dimensional? (Some good talk about 3D movies and things here — I remember cutting 3D glasses from the back of a cereal box, but then I'm about a hundred years old.)

While we talked, we drew. And after we finished our blind contour drawings and talked about them, we did an observational drawing. All in all, we completed our drawings in under 15 minutes.

Today we are working with wire, a great thing to start with after you've been talking so much about lines. With wire we can make linear two-dimensional works or three-dimensional sculptures. Each child was given several pieces of wire about 12 inches long.

I have a big cache of leftover wire cable that was used for running telephone and computer lines in our school. Most of it comes in cable form, and I use wire cutters to trim away the plastic from each section so I can pull the wires out.


You can buy this sort of wire at an art supply store like Dick Blick, however it is quite pricey (to me — but then, I am very cheap). You might want to ask around and see if a friend — or a friend of a friend — has access to some wire from a telephone, cable, or construction business. You don't need much.

This type of wire is easy to bend and form, soft and easy to cut with safety scissors, not likely to poke yourself (or a friend) with, and quite colorful.

We have also made great use of the type of wire that you can buy on plastic spools at the hardware store; it is very inexpensive. You can buy silver or copper wire of various thicknesses — as slender as a hair or so thick you can barely bend it. (The thicker the wire, the sharper the ends when you cut it and the more easily you can poke yourself and get hurt.)

This type of wire is easy to find, inexpensive, available in a variety of thicknesses, and comes in limited colors. I prefer it for doing more advanced work, because with color out of the equation they tend to focus more on form. The thicker wire has an entirely different look and feel, and it can hold its shape much more easily.


We are starting with telephone wire, and in this first lesson we will first review safety measures:

• Wire is sharp on the ends and can poke you or the person next to you — be careful!

• Don't whip your wire around in the air or throw it.

Keep the wire pieces 12 inches or shorter (no longer than, say, a pipe cleaner) to make it more difficult for a child to poke themselves in the eye. Still, this activity requires supervision! Some of us do like to crouch over our work.

Now we will enjoy some free exploration of the material. Everyone has their wire; they can do with it what they will. They will bend it, wrap it around things, see how well it holds its shape, twist pieces together, etc. We talk while we work and play — about what we are making and what the wire can do. I bring extra wire to anyone who needs it. If I can, I will sit and play with the wire beside them.

If someone does something interesting, I ask them to show it to the group.

Today, we simply play and explore. Next week, we'll extend our work and do a more involved project.


See also:

Working with wire

Adventures in wire continue

More fun with wire

Art lesson: Free exploration/ working purposefully

Published by Lori Pickert on February 24, 2008 at 07:41 PM


Imagine two children who are asked to paint a picture of their house. The first child hasn't used these paints before, or for a long time. The second child was given them to play with yesterday.

The first child is a bundle of frustration. The paint colors are running together! My house is beige, not brown, and I can't make the color I want! I used the black paint and now I've ruined the yellow paint. And now it's all dripping on the floor! I quit!

The second child learned a lot yesterday just by playing with the paints and painting several pictures. She waits for one area to dry before painting next to it with another color. She mixes new colors on a clean sheet of paper. She cleans her brush carefully between color changes. She is working intently. When she finishes her first painting, she talks about it and then asks for another piece of paper. She's ready to try another.

The child who was given time to play and explore can now work purposefully.

If you paint two big wet spots next to each other, the paint will run together. Imagine how interesting and fun this can be when you are just playing and experimenting — watching the yellow paint swirl with the blue, and then the center is turning green.

Imagine how disappointing and discouraging this same effect is when you really wanted a yellow dress covered in blue flowers.

The lessons we learn during play, we apply when we are working to create something important to us.

To work with a purpose is to choose deliberately, with a definite goal in mind.

Imagine two children sitting down to draw a bird with a collection of pencils. One child hasn't used these pencils before; one has. Who will be more successful? Even pencils have different personalities — hard and soft leads make different kinds of lines, we can apply too much pressure so they break or make a hole in the paper, color can be dragged across with the edge of our hand and spoil our work.

To work purposefully is to reach for a material or a tool confidently, choosing it because we know what it will do.

We cannot work purposefully until we have become familiar with the materials and tools.

Free exploration means we have no goal in mind, we're just seeing what this material can do and what we can do with it.

We learn through play, and what we learn, we can use when to create work that is important to us.

(W)ith a sense of certainty, play is almost always mindful. People take risks and involve themselves in their play. Imagine making play feel routine; it would not be playful. In play, there is no reason not to take some risks. In fact, without risk, the pleasures of mastery would disappear. … We tend to be more adventurous at play because it feels safe. — Roger Kelly, Leisure

(Did you figure out this was a lesson for you and not for the children? :^D)

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