Visual Art Classes: There’s More Than Meets the Eye

Exploring the teaching methods and philosophy behind the Art curriculum at Inly

Artistic Development and Line Exploration with Lower Elementary Students

Between the ages of 6 and 8 (grades 1–3), students are between two separate stages of artistic development: schematic and dawning realism. Both involve structured drawing (specific images such as trees and houses) and the use of obvious sky and ground lines. Dawning Realism leads to a desire to represent their chosen images in a more realistic fashion. This leaves the student open to learning, but also to self-criticism. So how can one successfully teach this age group?

How Art is Traditionally Taught

Art in primary school tends to be taught in two very different ways: either as an individualized creative exercise with complete autonomous freedom (“anything goes!”) to a goal-oriented format with specific elements mastered in a sequential, practice-driven environment (with the teacher serving as “master craftsman” and the resultant art looking like frame-worthy baby clones.)

How Art is Taught at Inly: As an Intellectual Tool

Both models have their strengths and obvious weaknesses. At Inly we pull from the best of both teaching methods but add a crucial component: We recognize art as an important intellectual tool — a tool capable of speaking a language its own, one that is both personal and universal. The power of art is evident from advertising to city planning, and we teach  students to look for art in different societal contexts in the world outside the classroom. The ultimate goal is to create students who are capable of confident interaction with art in all of its many forms.

So, how do we do this? Teaching elemental art principles is key. For example, in Lower Elementary students are introduced to the basic concept of line. Lines are initially explored through the use of simple contour to create form (either by tracing existing objects of drawing freehand depending on the particular student’s age and skill level). Students are then taught that a line is nothing more than a series of connected dots — and that those same lines, when closed, make a shape.

This concept becomes clearer during the daily “7-minute silent draw.” This is when each student is presented with an object.  In order to draw it quickly they must break it down into simple line/shapes. Children learn quickly that they can draw even the most complex of images!  Eventually students are asked to consider the weight of their pencil, the length of their strokes and the direction of their mark making. Line length and weight can be used to create texture, and line direction creates volume. This is how the basic art atelier concepts are covered. And at Inly the work is always independently driven: There is never an “end product” for them to copy. 

Lower Elementary “7-minute draw” art class exercise with line exploration.

Where’s the Philosophical Life Lesson?

Well, those simple lines can also express emotion. Did you know that some lines are better than others in expressing anger or levity, distress or joy? Inly students do! They are asked to make “feeling” lines and present their work to their classmates who then have to guess what feelings might be represented. As a teacher I enjoy watching the multiple ways different children express a single emotion. For example, “sadness” is shown as loopy confusing lines by one student and as the short choppy vertical lines by another. And therein lies the intellectual lesson on the subjectivity of art. And, more importantly, the need to respect others’ attempts at non-verbal expression. Surely a life lesson that extends beyond the art room walls. 

Artistic expression and the spirit of individuality: “Thirsty” and “Silly” mood lines by a Lower Elementary student.

Overcoming Fear of Making Mistakes

What Comes Next? Confidence in all things artistic! Learning basic skills in a creative and accepting manner leads to comfort in a subject matter that some may not feel innately gifted in. And to insure that mistakes are not viewed as failures, the Inly Art Room has a “Share Your Mistakes Board.” Every day students tack up their discards without any shame … and then they try, try again.

To learn more visit the Arts program page and the Lower Elementary Curriculum page at www.inlyschool.org.


Annemarie Whilton joined the Inly faculty in 2006, after having taught in Cohasset High School’s Art Department. She received a B.A. from Vanderbilt University and her M.L.A. from Harvard University, Ext. School. Her master’s thesis was titled, “Using a Visual Dialogue Approach to Art Education” (Harvard University Press). A member of the South Shore Art Center and the Cambridge Art Association, Annemarie is an active artist who enters her works (drawing, painting, printmaking) in yearly shows. Besides art, her interests include her three children, ashtanga yoga, and enjoying a good laugh.

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