Friday, December 02, 2011

Still Life With Motor's Rumble

I've tried encouraging still life artwork several different ways in our 3-5's class over the years, but I think this is the method that works best. I start with a collection of "attractive" items, things with which I know the children will want to play, declare them "art table toys" (meaning they stay on the art table) then provide paper and crayons.

The classic technique of arranging fruit or flowers or whatever on a table top, nestled in a wad of velvety fabric doesn't sit well with me pedagogically, nor have I ever had the experience of more than one of two kids actually making the effort under these conditions, opting instead to draw the far more interesting pictures in their heads. I've also tried the idea of providing attractive objects without the "art table toy" label. These objects tend to walk away, one at a time in descending order of attractiveness until we're left with paper and whatever tool we're using to apply color, which is nothing to sneeze at, but also doesn't encourage working from still life.

The point of attempting still life in preschool, I think, is to expose children to another way of coming to understand objects. It's a way of exploring that is a step removed from the direct experience of the 5 senses, one that requires a careful study in three-dimensions, then a communication of that study, or an expression of that study in two. 

Of course, we think of this as an exercise in which the artist visually takes in information about shape, light, and color before translating it onto his canvas, but this is not how preschoolers approach still life. For one thing, they don't limit themselves to the sense of sight. Still life for them is a hands on project, one that engages their sense of touch at least as much. That's why as long as the attractive objects remain at the art table, they are free to handle the objects, play with them, put them through their paces.

We don't necessarily wind up with a lot of actual still life drawings out of this process. Many kids arrive at the art table with no intention of picking up a crayon, it's the objects that they're after, but that's okay. The first step in still life is the "still" part, and the very concept of an "art table toy" is one that implies a kind of stillness not usually found in our classroom in which most objects freely move with the children from place to place. Perhaps the "art" part will come next time.

It's also not uncommon for young children to become sort of stuck with the challenge of drawing the object they've selected, placing it there, holding a crayon, but unable to get started. Often they'll say something like, "I can't draw it," or "Help me." As a teacher I might start by discussing the basic shapes I see, "The ball is round" or "This part looks like a triangle" or "The T-Rex has sharp teeth." Sometimes that uncorks the bottle enough to get a geometric shape or a row of pointy teeth.

When Sadie was stuck with the sea star skeleton she wanted to draw, I demonstrated how she might want to start by tracing it's outline on the paper. We then talked about it's colors and texture before she got to work.

Among the still life objects were a few that I knew would attract some of the younger boys who don't usually engage in art at school, one of which was a large model of a moving van. Parker latched onto it right away, one of my primary "targets" for this lure. He understood the concept of "art table toy," sitting for a long time with his hands on it, discovering the two buttons on the roof of the cab, one of which made a motor sound, the other honked its horn.

We slid a piece of paper under his arms along with a few crayons. I played with him for awhile, talking about the truck and the buttons. At some point I said, "Do you want to try to draw it?"

He said, "I don't know how," pushing the motor button. "This is how it sounds when it's driving on a rough road."

I picked up a crayon and began drawing a crude truck on my own piece of paper. "What does that other button do?"

Parker pushed it, "The horn . . . But the horn button only works when it's driving on the road."

As I drew Parker pushed the buttons, turning the sounds off and on. It inspired me to say, "Maybe you could draw what it sounds like."

He smiled at me like he thought I was joking, then picked up a crayon. He pushed the button and as the motor rumbled began drawing a long jagged line representing the sound he was hearing. 

As he got to the edge of his paper I said, "Ah, you're going to crash!" He turned the sound off and his drawing stopped as well. Then he did it again. Parker sat there for quite some time drawing his still life with motor's rumble.

Our next still life session will include more objects with distinctive sounds, fragrances, and perhaps even flavors: still life for all the senses.

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Beth said...

One of my favorite books even in childhood was "Drawing with Children" ( I've noticed that kids often draw representations of what they see (such as a stick figure or 6 lines making a house) instead of what they actually see--color, shadows, etc. I often wonder if this is a developmental step OR if it's because most kids' coloring books, books, and art use representations.

Scott said...

I like the idea of "still life for all the senses." Drawing a sound or smell of an object. What an intriguing idea. Thanks for the post...and the food for thought.

Cave Momma said...

I love the concept of drawing the senses. My perfectionist daughter struggles with drawing and I have been trying to find ways to help her. I will be sure to try this.

Barbara Zaborowski said...

I, too, love Parker drawing the sound. You could also encourage the kids to only draw one small part, say, just the door of the truck. Then they can be encouraged to draw a little more of the truck and maybe a bit more. I had a girl a few years ago who was absolutely stymied by a large brass unicorn head. (We're the Unicorn class.) When I gave her permission to draw just the eye...well, she didn't. She decided instead to start with the horn, but she ended up with a beautiful picture of the whole head, drawn piece by piece.

Aunt Annie said...

Hard on the heels of drawing the sound of a horn, you could try suggesting they draw the sound of some classical music... this can produce some really interesting results and processes! To engage boys, I'd try playing them a bit of 'Mars' from Holst's 'Planets Suite' and giving them something splattery like thick paint and stamping equipment...

Jeanne Zuech said...

You KNOW I love still life art with young children. Offering them the opportunity to engage with an object yet also represent it on paper is fascinating on a number of developmental levels. Drawing "what something sounds like" captivates me as an observer - loved that!
Another way to help children get started in this kind of looking/art is to offer that they might want to draw ONE PART of their object - a wheel or window from the truck, the teeth of the dinosaur, the big dots from the ladybug - it provides an anchor to which they may continue drawing (or not!) :)

Cheena said...

Recently my son created a sweet melodious sketch along a song :) We are sitting and listening to one of our favorite songs, and he was drawing...I asked him to draw 'from' the song, and here is what he made :)

What a pleasure it was! And what a song!

Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

Thank you for sharing the way you present this. I want to work toward this with my children, and now you have shown me the way!
Many thanks!!

Ramsey Willis said...


Still life drawing sounds like a really sophisticated idea for 3-5 year old children. I think they are reacting like any 3 - 5 year old would do at that age. I believe you know that is nothing wrong with it and when they get older they will take what they learned (even without drawing) and apply it to life.

LeeAnn Bone said...

Wow, I really like the idea of of drawing out the senses. I never really sat down and did this. Drew what I heard, smelled, tasted, felt, and seen. I think it would create very creative drawings because not all children taste, hear, smell, feel or see. I like this idea. Thanks for the post. I love the pictures also.

Laura said...

thanks for sharing your method and your very honest description of previous attempts at life drawing, I'm going to try it with my preschool art class tomorrow-I see all these blogs with teachers displaying photos of a group of very small children attentively sketching fruit or each other, and I can't imagine that scenario playing out for more than three seconds with my preschool class-someone would be an instant away from grabbing the apple and dunking it in paint, and someone else would be running off with a banana or eating it, and another would be whining "This is boring!" they do love cars, though, so maybe we'll try drawing them this time