How I Talk to My Students about Drawing on Day One

When I came into the Classical model of education, one of the things I loved about it is that it echoes what I already know to be true about the drawing/artistic “talent.” It’s not an “either you were born with it or not” kind of thing.

My first experience tutoring for Classical Conversations (CC), and teaching drawing in Fine Arts as one of the components, 9-12 year olds comprised my class. (“Masters” in CC speak.) Because I’d always loved drawing, and minored in art in college, this has been one of my favorite components. I have tutored only Masters and Journeymen, so my lessons are geared to kids age 8-12, with a goal to challenge them, help them see they are capable of drawing things that look “hard.” My first group of students were perhaps unusually keen on drawing; the majority loved to draw as a past-time, so they gobbled up whatever I could challenge them with. (I’ve wondered if that was merely coincidental or if it spoke to how the Classical model turns out kids who have learned they could draw from an early age; most students in my class had been in the program since first grade.)

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 “An Inspirational Classroom” by Sarah Dee via Flickr; photo by Namasteschool via Flickr. 


On the first day of class, before I hand out anything for Fine Arts, I discuss notions of what makes an artist. I start by asking the students what makes someone “good” at drawing. “What body parts are used in this skill? People who are good at drawing, are good at using what?” Some kids will mention hands, some say eyes, some say mind. It’s a good discussion point  to get them thinking.

I believe an artist or someone skilled at drawing is someone who can see an object for its componenets, or, to word it another way, the ability to break down the object into the components that make it up. The hand can never draw what the mind cannot see, so artistic skill begins with vision, an ability to see.

cc horse step 4 001                              cc horse step 3 001

 My drawings of a horse for lesson 1, complete and broken down into basic shape components.


I also ask students if a person is born with the ability to see this way or not. After students offer some observations, I like to share the story of my two sons, whom many of my students know. I share this with you, reader, as you may likely be considering teaching drawing to someone, in order to help you see what is possible with practice. My elder son has a reputation as good artist. Without bias, though I am his mother, I can say that he is very skilled at drawing for his age. I spent a lot of time drawing in my childhood and took it seriously, yet what I was capable of in sixth grade, my son was doing in third grade. When I mention his name, the nods of my students confirm they recognize my son as someone they consider born with artistic skill.

I share with my class that this son has spent 2-3 hours a day practicing drawing from the age of four or five; he has invested time. My younger son liked to draw too, but his early drawings were not of the same caliber as his brother’s early drawings. Many people could have looked at the drawings of each boy at the age of five and declared, yes, one was the naturally talented drawer, the other was a typical child. When my younger son was about five years old, he got frustrated by seeing the difference between his drawings and his brother’s. He came to me one day, resolute. “I want to draw like that.” But he observed his brother’s practice–hours a day–and said, “I think I’ll try that.” And he did. Every afternoon in our house, everyone gets 1.5 hours of quiet time alone. My younger son applied himself to practicing–copying things he saw in books and even his older brother’s drawings.

And where did that get my younger son? By the time he began coming up through the ranks of CC classes, other people told me (not knowing anything about his drawings before his commitment): “Well, you’ve got another artist on your hands!” His tutors and other moms in the community speak of my sons the same way. And I now look at their drawings done at more recent similar ages and see the younger one’s “talent” is on par with the older’s.

I love sharing that story with my students because it’s a transformation I witnessed: an artist blooming in front of my very eyes because he taught himself to see with the kind of vision artist have by practicing!

Perhaps my older son did come out of the womb with, or develop early on, a way of interpreting visual information that breaks it down into its components, making it easier for him to transfer them to paper. But I love how my younger son showed that this way of seeing the world is a skill one can develop!

So after sharing my philosophy about that, I review the OiLs lesson, which all CC tutors and parents are familiar with–and indeed, all my students are familiar with! (By the time kids get to my class in a long-established campus, the challenge for me is to keep the material fresh; they’ve had up to 7 years of drawing lessons with various tutors using this method.) I won’t explain it further here; CC covers that well. The most important thing to convey about the OiLs shapes, in my opinion, is the truth that every great piece of art was composed of just those very same shapes. Whether we’re talking about the Mona Lisa or Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel paintings, all artists’ works are composed of just those shapes and lines–nothing more. I tell my students, if their hands can draw these basic lines and shapes, their hand is capable of drawing anything–once they develop the ability to see the way artists see.

For my step-by-step lesson 1 drawing instructions with drawing samples, read Basics of Drawing, Fine Arts, Week 1 for Classical Conversations.

If this kind of post is helpful to other instructors, let me know if you’d like to see more of this kind.

Other teaching/tutoring resources:

  1. Creating an Encouraging Classroom
  2. Fostering Respect and Encouragement in the Classroom: My Journey as a Public School Teacher
  3. Classroom Management: Motivation Without Treats?
  4. Rewards in Classrooms: To Give or Not to Give?
  5. Holding Kids Accountable in an Encouraging Classroom

About Renee Lannan's blog

I live, write, teach and enjoy life from a place of hope and a belief in miracles from seeing first-hand the depths of redemption
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10 Responses to How I Talk to My Students about Drawing on Day One

  1. Andrea Honea says:

    love love this. very helpful! thank you~

  2. Tara Balcom says:

    I am loving all your posts! Thank you!! I am heading into my 4th year with pretty much all the same kids, and finding that I really need to “step up my game” this year and challenge them a bit. I am really appreciating all your insight and suggestions about classroom management and new ways to do art. Thank you!!!

  3. Pingback: Recognizing the Good Days (and My Son’s Fascination with Medieval Korean Pottery) | Renee Lannan's blog

  4. fournicholstwocents says:

    Absolutely love this post and mindset- thank you for sharing and inspiring kids to work hard to increase their abilities!!

  5. Meredith Brewer says:

    What a great post. Thank you!

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