- Middle School
When I had the chance to teach middle school art, I jumped at it. While some people don’t remember middle school with fond memories, myself included, I knew this was my opportunity. I was going to go on a mission. It stemmed from meeting so many adults who would say things like “I’m not an artist. I can’t draw.” What perhaps they don’t understand though is that art is so much more than drawing. When I taught ceramics to adults, it was amazing to see who would enroll. I had doctors, lawyers, mothers, scientists, and grad students all wanting the same thing. They wanted to learn a new skill, take a break from everyday work, find community, and discover their voice and thoughts. Art can be life-changing, but why do so many people steer clear?
In middle school, students become more self-aware, self-critical, and start caring more about their peers. I thought, maybe this is when students give up on drawing and making art. I wanted to see for myself. I was armed with ideas on exploration, experimentation, and student choice to help students get past the fear of drawing.
Three Types of Drawing
There are three types of drawing - symbolic, realistic, and abstract. When we understand the value of drawing, the three categories, and the time needed to learn the skill, art can then show up in many ways for people - like clay or cooking. I see this play out in middle school when students have their foundational drawing unit. They learn the basics, discover the techniques, and feel the success. After this unit, we continue with more media exploration like painting, printmaking, digital arts, or clay. Finding the right medium to express yourself, communicate ideas, or solve problems is one of the major goals of art.
Symbolic Drawing – Our First Language
Symbolic is our first form of communication. When you think about designing a garden, deck, or kitchen, you don’t worry about the details. You simply get the idea down on the paper. It may look like a bunch of energetic squares, circles, etc. but you know what it is. It’s your language. In fact, it’s our first language. We draw with symbols before we learn to read and write! Research confirms what artists always knew about symbolic drawing - drawing our notes cements it into our memory.
“The most important function of class notes should be for the note-taker to recall and understand what was said. So, it makes sense to allow students to take notes in a way that is meaningful to them.” - Rachael S. Smith
Realistic Drawing – A Learned Skill
The second type of drawing is realistic. In the middle school years, students really desire to draw this way, as do many adults. To them, it becomes the only type of “art”. But in my mind, art is so much more than realism. Art is interpretation, perspective, point of view, and background. Art is about bringing the real YOU to the table. Drawing realistically is a skill like learning a language or how to make a basket. It starts with understanding and learning about value, shading, scale and most importantly, it takes a lot of practice. Therefore, if you want to learn to make realistic drawings, it takes time and practice.
In middle school art, we begin to draw realistically by first learning to see grayscale or value. Value is what creates the illusion of a 3D object on a 2D surface. It is all about how the light hits the object. Sometimes it is subtle, but once you see value, it will pop up in everything. We follow our lesson on value with learning to understand planes of surfaces and contour. Then we typically do a grid drawing. This type of drawing takes time and often years of practice. Your first attempt versus your tenth attempt will have a different outcome no matter your age. Therefore, it’s important to see realistic drawing as just one form and as you are learning it, you can still draw symbolically or abstractly!
Abstract Drawing – Expressing Emotion
The third type of drawing is abstract. This type of drawing is made of lines, shapes, and colors and expresses an emotion or gives us a question. It's not designed to necessarily give an answer, but provide more of an experience. In middle school, we approach this type of drawing by first studying the abstract work of various artists and asking the question, "What do you see?" Students find there is always a lot to discuss about what a specific color might mean or what the artist is trying to convey.
The ability to be expressive is critical for middle school students to feel confident. Abstract drawing helps them find that confidence because there are no expectations. Throughout the year, we often stop what we are doing and have sketchbook Thursdays, allowing students to draw without restraint. The freeform style of abstract drawing is a big part of their sketching. By 8th grade, students are often allowed to choose their own style when working on pieces and abstract is always a popular choice. It's a true language.
Moving Past the Fear of Drawing
What happens when you move past fears of drawing and stop saying "I can’t draw"? Art happens and teaches us to:
- communicate visually
- make decisions
- take an idea from the abstract and bring it to fruition
- make mistakes and keep going
- listen to different points of view
- learn perspective
- express our emotions
- make our own connections in our learning
- understand who we are as people, where we have been and imagine who we can become.
It is important to see the visual arts as a vehicle to the above and as a life practice - something we never stop doing. Drawing is only one aspect! The arts are a window into who we are as humans from the beginning of time. It also has many tangible benefits when you practice it in some form your entire life.
“Creativity in and of itself is important for remaining healthy, remaining connected to yourself and connected to the world.” - Christianne Strang, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Alabama Birmingham and former President of the American Art Therapy Association.
I believe everyone can draw when they apply the time and effort. In middle school art, I want to give everyone the opportunity to at least try their hand at this art form. However, not everyone wants to draw as an adult and that’s okay. There is clay, printmaking, painting, jewelry, fibers, digital arts, looking at art and so much to be explored. Encouraging your children to always be creative and defining art as more than drawing is the key to a life-long journey of making contributions to our communities, staying connected with ourselves, and making more art!
"To practice any art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow. So do it." - Kurt Vonnegut
Want to learn more about this topic? Check out Drawing With Children: A Creative Method for Adult Beginners, Too by Mona Brooks. This resource is written by a wonderful artist that I had the pleasure of interning under during an intense one-week training session.
About the Author
Preschool and Middle School Art Teacher
- visual arts