In a culture abounding with transient, often meaningless imagery, our calling to develop a strong visual language often gets overlooked. Perhaps we assume that true communication skills hinge on what we can say with words or letters and not on what we can convey with a paint stroke, a line, or a squiggle.
After teaching art to grade 1 and 2 students at Laurentian Hills Christian School, Caroline van Donkelaar knows that amazing things can happen when students gain a visual vocabulary through which they can understand their art and express themselves.
Her husband, a practicing artist himself, knows it too. His knowledge and passion for the subject has played a large role in van Donkelaar’s planning this year. Together, the pair has been able to create a number of engaging art activities—many of them focusing on the elements of art—and how those building blocks can help students present their own unique ‘way of seeing’ to others.
One of the first art lessons they crafted centered around line. The class learned that a curvy line says something very different than a flat one and that lines can be many things: energetic, surprising, static, strong. “The students were asked to make something with just five lines,” recalls van Donkelaar. “The lines could be thick, curved or thin. That was sort of an introductory project that we did. That was hard work for them.”
The class’s exploration of line flowed well into their lessons about texture. After looking at the strong lines in prehistoric cave paintings, the students went out on to the school’s black top with charcoal and manilla paper, allowing them to experience what it’s like to draw on a rough surface.
The class also explored colour, by layering small pieces of paper to see what kind of pallets they liked best.
“We talked about how colours relate to each other. How you can make a pallet with different colours and how that can be exciting, or how it can be cozy or energetic. We also talked about the warm and cool in colours,” says van Donkelaar.
Framing many of her lessons was the understanding that the elements of art can act as powerful tools for self expression. Like the line and texture explorations, the colour activity was designed in way that would eventually help each member of the class present a unique and personal perspective. For example, students were asked to paint a place they knew “inside and out” and express how it made them feel: Did they find the space vibrant? Did they find it exciting? Did they find it boring?
The assignment led to a range of evocative student creations. In a painting of the “exciting park” dabs of blue and green float in a flurry of colour against a bright purple background. A pair of electric green swings dangles in front of a neon orange archway. One child depicts “the boring bank” as a solid black square with two windows and a set of white doors. Another student drew his bedroom when he’s angry. The background is painted entirely in red, and his room is a black box, taking up less than a quarter of the page with a tiny figure (himself) standing in the corner.
Although they are young, the children in Mrs. van Donkelaar’s classroom have created striking, meaningful works of art. “What I’m trying to teach them is to be deliberate in their artistic choices,” she says. Throughout the year, she’s encouraged students to go beyond the “I’ll paint this building grey because it looks grey” mentality, towards making decisions around things like line, colour, shape or texture that are based on how they feel about the object and the messages they’d like to communicate through their art.
For van Donkelaar, seeing each child’s personality come through in his or her artwork has been one of the best parts of teaching the class. “It’s been fun seeing the individuality of each response. They have their styles so marked already,” she says.
She’s also been impressed by the number of students who plan out their work ahead of time. “The kids are capable of a lot,” she notes. “I’ve got them now planning their art ahead of time on a sheet, saying this is how I want my work to feel and here’s the medium I want to use and here’s what I want to do.”
All this hasn’t been an easy task for children in the first and second grade. When van Donkelaar’s students find her assignments challenging, she’s quick to remind them that feelings of frustration are OK and that no artist “gets it” the first time. Being married to one has opened her eyes to some of the struggles that come with creating art.
But, by the end, it’s those very feelings of frustration that conversely lead to a greater sense of accomplishment. With their teacher’s support and encouragement to exercise the needed grit to finish the artwork, the students have been able to make some very imaginative, creative pieces. “They are pretty happy in their art making,” she says.
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