Things to Make & Do

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


Observational drawing: Musical instruments

Published by Lori Pickert on February 18, 2008 at 03:00 PM

When I'm teaching children how to do observational drawing, I talk a lot about "tricking our brain" — our brain that's in a big hurry, so it tells us "oh, we know how to draw a flower — it looks like this!"


Everyone who sees our drawing knows that it's a flower, but how much does it look like the flower that's really in front of us?


We talk about the differences. We look very closely at how the petals attach to the center of the flower. And the center — is it smooth? What is it made of? Sometimes we use a magnifying glass to look at all the parts. (Observational drawing is very easy to integrate with science activities.)

One of the ways to help children be successful at observational drawing is to give them things to draw that are less familiar — so their brains can't immediately throw out a quick symbolic drawing in response.


French horn, by D, age 7

Musical instruments make a perfect subject for observational drawing, because not only are they beautiful and filled with interesting details, but they are unusual enough that there's no correlating symbolic drawing stuck in our head. We have to look to draw, and that's the key to observational drawing.

Why is observational drawing important? Not just because it makes us better at drawing (which it does), but because it makes us wake up and see. It ignites the curiosity of children, and that interest can explode into a dozen different directions.

Just to give an idea of where one can go on this path, taking observational drawing as the starting point, take a look at some sculptures that were created from initial observational drawings of musical instruments. These sculptures/models were made as part of a long-term study of musical instruments that branched into studying the science of sound, the physiology of the human ear, classification systems, and much more.



Observational drawing is just the first step onto a path that leads to investigation, engagement, and expression in many different media.

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: Blind contour drawing

Published by Lori Pickert on February 15, 2008 at 10:54 PM


Observational drawing is about drawing exactly what we see — not what our brain may be telling us to hurry up and draw. (Silly brain, always in a hurry.)

When I see you drawing and looking only at your paper, I know you're not doing observational drawing — to do that, you need to look up and look up and look up again. Then I know that you are looking at something and drawing it very particularly.

Blind contour drawing is a fun way to see how accurately we can draw when we observe something very carefully, by looking at it and not looking away.

At the beginning of this lesson, we talk about outlines. We are going to draw the outline of something, in one continuous line, without lifting our pencil from the paper.

We practice by picking out a few things in the room and outlining them in the air with our index finger. Trace the edge of the item all the way around with your finger. That is what we are going to do with a pencil now.

To do blind contour drawing, we can't let our eyes see what our hand is doing, so we make a blinder.

I used a small paper plate for each student, poking a hole for the pencil to go through. This worked very well. You can also use cardboard. (Be sure to poke a hole smaller than your pencil, so the pencil fits tightly.)


Give each student something to draw. Flowers with petals and leaves with irregular shapes (e.g., oak or maple leaves) work very well. You can also take a wire and bend it into a complex shape.


Emphasize that when we're done, our drawing will almost certainly not look like the thing we're drawing — when we get all the way around, our lines won't meet up. (If they do, we'll know you were peeking! Don't peek!) Our drawings are going to look funny, and that's okay, because this is a fun brain game.

Work in the middle of your page, because your pencil is going to wander around quite a bit.

Pick a spot on the thing you are drawing and, without looking at your hand or the page, follow the edge very carefully all the way around with your eyes, drawing as you go.

When you get to the end, take a look and see what you have!

You will probably find a funny-looking line, but compare what you drew to the edge of what you were drawing — there should be areas that are very good representations. See what your hand can do when you trick your brain?


Try it a few different times on different parts of your page (or turn to a new page if necessary). Each time try to go slowly, never lift your pencil, and follow the edge exactly. Which drawing is best?


After a few goes, remove your blinder and do a regular observational drawing. Is it easier this time?

Usually observational drawings improve after blind contour drawings. Blind contour drawing forces us to really, really observe that outline very closely, and when we draw it without the blinder we usually include that extra detail more faithfully. Also, it's always encouraging to see how well you can draw something, even if you have to trick your brain to do it!


Note the bands on the tips of the petals!

Tip for encouraging children to make better observational drawings:

If they seem to be hurrying and drawing whole areas too quickly, or if they are looking mostly at the page and not referring back often enough to the thing they are drawing, sit with them and ask them to draw one detail at a time as you point it out.

Today we drew gerbera daisies. When I isolated items for one student, I asked him to draw a single petal exactly as it looked. Then I pointed to the petal next to it. Soon he was doing a much more detailed drawing.


First attempt at observational drawing following contour drawing



Second attempt, petal detail

My final tip of the day: I asked a florist if they could give me any partly- or mostly-dead flowers for my drawing class, and they gave me a huge, gorgeous bouquet for just a couple of dollars! So our second lesson for today is — just ask. People are nice. :^D)

Related stuff:

Art lesson: Observational Drawing

Benefits of observational drawing

Observational drawing with young children: tips

Published by Lori Pickert on February 15, 2008 at 10:53 PM


I am moving this up to its own post from the comments, in case it is helpful to anyone else.

Heather wrote:

I need tips, yesterday I tried this with my 3 and almost 5 yr old and no one wanted to do it. They just wanted to draw their own thing which was fine with me. However I would love for them to try observational drawing out.

My response:

I have tips, tips of many kinds.

Talk about how sometimes we draw whatever we want (free draw) and use our imaginations, but this is a special kind of drawing where we are going to draw something in particular, together.

Rather than grab any old thing, choose something compelling for them to draw that you know will interest them and hold their attention. and remember - your goal at first should be ten minutes or so of drawing, not an hour!

In class, we do observational drawing first, and we do free drawing at the end of class. always make sure they have time to free draw, and they will enjoy free drawing with you as much as they enjoy doing observational drawing with you.

Make a big deal of giving them a special sketchbook to do observational drawing in - even if you just staple together a stack of copy paper with a cover. Make yourself one! Then make a routine of getting out your sketchbooks, revealing the thing you're going to draw (and after a few sessions, they can make suggestions), talking before drawing (discussing details), then draw together and continue discussing details as you draw.

After you finish (short times to start, longer as they become experts), pull out the loose paper and free draw - you can get out colored pencils or markers at this time, too.

Remember that small children can be so mesmerized by any new materials you bring out that they can't concentrate on the task at hand. If that's the case, give them time to draw whatever they want at the front, then start the activity.

No matter what, make sure that this is a pleasant experience! If they enjoy it, they will definitely want to do it again! Play soft music if you like, give them a lot of your undivided attention, sit down together at a clean table, have something interesting to look at and draw (a seashell, something from the yard, a toy, something from the kitchen, something from your desk...), and always give lots of encouraging positive feedback: "I like the way you are drawing so carefully." "You have really put a lot of detail into your drawing!" "Wow, I didn't even notice those little lines." etc. If you make this a really enjoyable experience for all of you, you will all want to do it again!

Thank you, Heather, for your great question. I hope this helps out anyone else who is working with a young and/or reluctant artist!

Related stuff:

Art lesson: Observational Drawing

Benefits of observational drawing

Sharing our work: Observational drawings

Observational drawing: Musical instruments

Observational drawing: Where do we go from here

Art lesson: Blind-contour drawing

Benefits of observational drawing

Published by Lori Pickert on February 13, 2008 at 01:33 PM


Besides the obvious benefit of learning how to draw, what are some other benefits of observational drawing with children?

• Slowing down, taking our time

• Learning to really see

• Noticing details

• Realizing improvement comes with practice

This is why a sketchbook is essential! Keep sketches together!

• Becoming comfortable with mistakes

• Becoming confident in attempting something new


Tomorrow I'm going to talk a little bit about working with mixed age groups. We have always taught classes with children ranging in age over several years; if you are teaching siblings you are probably doing the same thing. How do you address everyone's needs and make sure no one gets bored? It's not as hard as you think.

See Art Lesson: Observational Drawing

Michelle's sweater apron tutorial

Published by Lori Pickert on February 2, 2008 at 07:27 PM



Check out Michelle's Sweater Apron Tutorial!

Children Make Sculpture

Published by Lori Pickert on January 27, 2008 at 05:27 PM


I ordered this book after I saw Lena's copy.



“This book attempts to show children involved in making sculpture. Their work does not have to be good, finished or artistic. What matters is the activity itself and the knowledge gained by the child…”


This book was written in 1972. It is the work we did with children from 2000 to 2007, and it is the same message we tried to spread through our own work with children, workshops and conferences, and educational consulting.

It is not a new message. We are saying the same things that Elizabeth Leyh was saying in 1972; unfortunately they are still largely ignored. We were constantly having to explain to parents, education students, teachers, visiting administrators, etc., that what the children were doing was important and meaningful and a better use of their time than coloring in a mimeo book about apples or making a follow-the-directions craft.


Many of the books that sustained me during the running-a-private-school years were written decades earlier. Yet the vast majority of the work with children that we observed in both public and private schools didn't reveal one one-hundredth of what we knew children were capable of doing, making, experiencing, and expressing.

That's not to say we shouldn't keep trying. What I'm trying to say is, we must keep trying.