It’s a simple way to teach art, but this method has been around for centuries and it gives our children so many benefits!
Art wasn’t an official part of my homeschool education but I was always drawing. At age five, I wanted to draw horses just as well as one of my friends. Those horses never looked right so I moved on to watching Bob Ross, trying to recreate his landscape paintings.
Those didn’t turn out either.
At 13, I took a year of art lessons and finally created some drawings I was proud of. But when I left home and met far better artists, I decided it wasn’t worth trying anymore.
Now, at 41, I’ve rediscovered my love of art and I’m happy with my work. I’d rather my kids not have to wait 35 years to reach this point!
The Problem of Perception
Many children think of art the way I did: creative people pull everything out of their head and get it perfect the first time.
This myth can make our children give up because they’re trying to live up to a standard that doesn’t exist. Thankfully, I married into a family of professional artists and designers who taught me the truth about how artists learn and work.
When someone goes to art school, they learn to draw from models. The teacher’s examples, wooden models of the human form, real-life objects, works at museums – imitation is everywhere.
Then, when artists move on to creating their own work, they observe the world around them, make rough sketches so they remember what they see, take photos, and browse books and online references.
While they’re constantly observing, artists are also drawing their favorite subjects over and over and over so they can internalize those observations.
How My Children Learned to Draw
This simple way to teach art all started with maps. Puzzle maps at Montessori school, atlas maps at home. Hours and hours of tracing maps.
From there, my boys began tracing flags from a reference book, animals from a set of wildlife cards, and illustrations in their favorite books.
But after a few years, they stopped tracing.
I still saw the books and cards and atlases laid out on the table, but they were next to my children’s papers.
The kids had moved from imitation to reference.
Like professional artists, the kids still use references. When it’s a subject they know well they can often draw it on their own, but, also like professional artists, they don’t hesitate to pull out a reference if they get stuck.
Observation and imitation taught our children that art imitates reality. But it means the artist has to focus on reality, rather than their own view of it.
Ironically, it’s this deep understanding of reality that allows our children to portray the world in a way that is unique to them.
Our children have developed confidence in their art. But they’re able to honestly critique their work because they have something outside themselves to compare it with.
A Simple Way to Teach Art through Imitation
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Here’s how you can teach art simply in your homeschool:
Remember art and self-expression are two different things. Your child’s unique expression will come out naturally, the more confident they are in their understanding of their subject.
Surround your child with beautiful art. We use the art cards from Memoria Press to introduce masterpieces, but we also make a point to choose picture books, novels, and coloring pages that have beautiful illustrations in them.
Introduce tracing with large maps and images. Letter-sized atlases and books are full of options. The larger size will allow younger children to trace even before their fine motor skills are fully developed. Bonus: it will help develop fine motor control!
You don’t need any fancy equipment or papers for this. Our kids draw on printer paper and use windows as light boxes. If they’re working on a display piece, we’ll let the older kids use our artist’s lightbox.
Another way to do this is with well-done, yet simple, coloring pages. The kids will often color a printable page, then turn it over and trace the image so they can color it again. Sometimes, they’ll add their own details to the traced image.
When they’re at the tracing stage, be sure your child shares their work honestly. “Look, Dad, I traced the United States map from my history book!”
Give it time. The tracing stage can last for months or years and that’s okay! Your child will know when they’re ready to make the transition to references.
Note: if you have a child who is a perfectionist, you may need to encourage this transition in small steps. Have them draw the main form freehand and then trace the details (or vice versa, depending on which is more comfortable for your child). Slowly decrease the amount of tracing. Again, this will take time.
Let them draw just for fun. I can’t tell you how many army and princess drawings we have in this house! While imitation and references will help your child’s art, they also need the freedom to just draw whatever is in their head.
Keep a variety of materials available. Have colored pencils, watercolors, chalk pastels, oil pastels, graphite, charcoal, dip pens and inks, etc. around. You don’t need to keep all of this on hand at all times, but it can be fun to bring home a new medium and let the kids test it out!
Be ready for questions. Your child will likely reach a point where they’re struggling with perspective, or color choice, or want to learn more about a specific medium.
We keep various how-to books on hand, mostly passed on to us from older homeschoolers. A newer book my kids enjoy is The Drawing Lesson: A Graphic Novel that Teaches You How to Draw.
We’re also planning to add Memoria Press’s Creating Art to our shelf as it explains color theory, texture, and how to use various mediums.
Explain the difference between a study and an original piece. When your child creates a study — a freehand copy of someone else’s work — they need to give credit to the original source. “Look what I drew, Grandma! It’s a study of an owl from my nature book.”
As they get older, explain how to use references professionally, especially if your child wants to go deeper with art or display their work publicly. Some tips for this:
- Unless your child is simply practicing their skills, only public domain images can be recreated in their entirety.
- Copyrighted images can only be used as general references (see next points).
- Have your child observe images of their chosen subject, noting the object’s form and details. For example, how many petals does this type of flower tend to have? What does a chair look like from a specific angle?
- Next, have your child step away from the images and just think about them for a day or two. Then, they can sit down to draw based on what they observed.
- If they need to look again at a copyrighted image to understand the way a shadow hits other petals, or the way a horse’s leg meets at the joints, that is perfectly fine!
Is This a Complete Homeschool Art Curriculum?
Yes! This is a complete fine art curriculum. Your child will know how to draw, and how to teach themselves to draw new things that interest them. They will be familiar with famous works of art and the artists who created them. And they’ll know the basics of different mediums.
This foundation will prepare your child to go deeper based on their interests.
One of my children is currently learning more about watercolors, another is working to master pencil shading, and a third is transferring his drawing skills to leather tooling.
But it all started with tracing!