How to Draw Out the Very Best Artwork from Your Students

How to Draw Out the Very Best Artwork from Your StudentsI first fell in love with kids’ art long before I ever became an art teacher…. I think I’ve always been attracted to it. Truth be told, I prefer kids’ art to most of the art that adults make! I love its spontaneity, its expressiveness, and its honesty.

Kids’ art is charming, original, and delightful…. except when it’s not.

We’ve all seen art made by kids that looks like a cookie cutter, simplistic version of an adult idea. Authentic art from kids can, and should, be magical! But when you try too hard to control the outcome (or not hard enough!) it can become trite and predictable, and the opportunity for ‘magic’ is lost. The good news is, if your students aren’t producing great artwork, the ideas below can help you turn things around!

Follow these 8 simple principles to draw out the very best artwork from your students…. 

1. Teach specific techniques for the medium you’re working in. There’s nothing wrong with encouraging play and experimentation, but when kids have a few techniques under their belt, it will inform their actions and take their artwork to a new level.

2. Assign parameters. This not only provides a challenge and encourages innovative problem solving, but it also adds interest and gives students a framework within which to create. Giving total freedom to ‘draw or paint whatever you want’ will overwhelm most kids. When you leave instructions too open-ended, kids often respond by playing it safe rather than engaging their creative nature.

3. Avoid templates. I’m not saying you should never use a plastic lid to draw a circle or cut cardboard squares for tracing when a square is the ideal starting point. But try to use templates only when you really need to, and only when your project still allows plenty of room for originality.

4. Before you teach a new lesson, work through it once yourself – from start to finish. I talked about this in my post, Ten Mistakes Every Art Teacher Can Avoid, but I’m mentioning it again here because it’s so important! As you work through a lesson for the first time, think carefully about the best way to explain each step, and the poten­tial prob­lems your students might encounter. Even if you’re just changing the size or direction of the paper, it pays to practice ‘hands-on’ by yourself first. You’d be surprised how a minor change can alter the instructions you should give! Avoid the embarrassment of encountering a problem on the fly that you hadn’t prepared for (we’ve all done it!), and work through anything that’s new before presenting it to your students. (And when you do make a mistake in front of your students, be sure you ‘own it’…. don’t pass up the opportunity to show your students what taking responsibilty looks like!)

5. As you demonstrate, suggest some possible options for each step. Art is not about having only one right answer or one right way to do something. Give students the opportunity to make choices and practice problem solving whenever possible. The more options and choices you offer throughout a lesson the better…. and the more varied responses you will see. 

6. After you demonstrate, take down your sample. Students look to you as the expert, so in their quest to be successful, they will often try to make their project look as much like yours as they can. If you take your sample down when students start working, they will have to rely on their memory and their own creativity. They will quickly learn to pay closer attention while you’re demonstrating, too! And their resulting projects will be so much more interesting. Inspire them with your demo, then encourage them to make the project their own.

7. Let students know how much time they have to complete their project. If a project will take multiple sessions, be clear about what students will need to accomplish by the end of each session. Give them a warning when the session is half over, and again when they have 5 minutes left before it’s time to clean up. I like to use a Time Timer as a visual aid for time management. Remind students that before a work of art can be considered ‘great’, it has to be finished! Learning to pace yourself is a life skill and art class is a good place to practice that!

8. Keep changing things up. If you spend too many sessions in the same medium, style, or technique, no matter how much you love it, most kids will get bored (or frustrated) and lose interest. When this happens, it directly affects the quality of their artwork. Sometimes longer projects can benefit from a break to work on something completely different for a week or two. If students become disengaged with an otherwise popular project, you may have given them ‘too much of a good thing’!

What tips can you add to this list? How do you draw out the best artwork from your students?

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11 Responses to How to Draw Out the Very Best Artwork from Your Students

  1. Charlene November 12, 2014 at 9:56 am #

    Great advice! I’m thankful I do most of these things already, but its great having a reminder. I want to print this out and refer back to it often.

  2. Kim Hyman November 12, 2014 at 4:24 pm #

    This is a terrific post. Thank you for sharing and putting these great thoughts down on paper. As I read through I kept thinking, yep, do that. Just affirmed for me that I’m on the right track.
    Kim Hyman recently posted..Pout Pout FishMy Profile

  3. Georgia December 10, 2014 at 5:27 am #

    I think challenging students to look at their work and assess it is important too. I often only have to say “I like this part but there’s a lot of white space over here” for example to have them say “oh yeah, I forgot” and take it back to finish it. Some kids you know you can push harder. I also have a stock of photos of animals laminated in my room and my 4 year olds up to 10 year olds know they can always use them to help with their drawing/collage/clay work. Teaching observational drawing skills from a young age is important. And I am often amazed with the results.

    • Cheryl Trowbridge December 11, 2014 at 2:00 pm #

      Those are good points, Georgia. I especially like the idea of teaching students to ‘self-assess’ their work…. such an important skill for us all! Thanks for your comments!

    • Belle May 16, 2016 at 2:30 pm #

      I love your idea about the stack of pictures for reference. Good idea

  4. Melissa Burns January 1, 2015 at 5:30 pm #

    You nailed my teaching outline for every lesson…. And what i pass on to each and every one of my student teacher. Thanks for putting it in list form!

  5. Racheal April 2, 2015 at 10:47 am #

    I loved this! It’s great to know that I am on the right track. I have also found that instead of critiquing, as my art teachers loved to do, that asking them the question, “Are you pleased?” or “What do you think of it?” seems to help. When they say that they don’t really like it, I try to help them to see what it is about it they don’t like and try to come up with solutions to make it more “their thing” in the future. I also try to get them to be specific about what they do like or not.
    As for my comments, I try to keep it positive all the time, “I love how you did this…”
    Great article, Thank you!

    • Cheryl Trowbridge April 2, 2015 at 10:55 am #

      Thanks for adding your ideas, Racheal! Helping students learn to ‘self-critique’ is so important!

  6. Audrey October 9, 2015 at 4:17 am #

    That balance between providing structure and skill building with freedom of expression is so important! We as the teacher can help them so much.

    I like to ask leading questions to direct attention to an area that could be reworked. They most often know what they could change.

    We are currently working through a series on building creativity. I’m really enjoying the challenge of teaching with the specific purpose of them expressing themselves and working those creative muscles. Yet giving them enough structure and skills that they have the confidence to try.

    • Cheryl Trowbridge October 10, 2015 at 8:58 am #

      That’s so true, Audrey. They most often do know what changes they need to make when we ask the right questions! Thanks for your comment!


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