Mistakes Are Part of the Creative Process, and Other Lessons for Art Teachers

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Last summer, I had the opportunity to attend the National Gallery of Art’s Teacher Institute in Washington. Each year, the NGA offers two of these six-day trainings, which help educators learn about art history and integrate visual art into their classrooms, no matter what subject they teach. The workshop I attended highlighted the social and cultural context of Renaissance art and demonstrated interdisciplinary teaching strategies. It featured a plethora of lectures, gallery tours, teaching strategies, and hands-on learning experiences—but three lessons stood out to me as the most worth sharing.

1. Mistakes Are a Part of the Process

At the workshop, noted painter and sculptor Robert Liberace led a demonstration where he reproduced Titian’s "Ranuccio Farnese" (c. 1542), a portrait of the 12-year-old grandson of Pope Paul III. Before his demonstration, Liberace had completed the first stages of the painting so that the figure and a base of neutral colors were already on the canvas. During the session, Liberace applied the colors of Titian’s work to his own painting as he spoke to us about the process.

In my elementary art classes, I have shown photographs from this demonstration to students in order to help them understand that the creation of art is a process—even for the most accomplished artists. I’ve also led discussions with my students about the concept of layering color and working around mistakes, as Liberace did in his demonstration.

Too many students enter my classroom thinking that they should be able to create a masterpiece immediately, in one sitting, without making any mistakes along the way. But the creation of art is about working and reworking until you get it right. The photographs I took at Liberace’s demonstration have become an invaluable resource that I return to time and time again when my students are in creative slumps or when their confidence is low because of a perceived mistake.

2. The Historical Context of Artwork Matters

After attending the institute, I spent a lot of time reflecting on how historical context influences artists and their work. One session in particular made me realize that this was something I’d been neglecting to address in my own teaching.

Teachers were able to get up close and personal with artworks, using magnifying glasses to note minute details.
Teachers were able to get up close and personal with artworks, using magnifying glasses to note minute details.

In this session, we were able to view original works up close, even observing them with magnifying glasses. One of the most spectacular pieces was Albrecht Durer’s woodcut "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," which is one of the 15 illustrations in his "Apocalypse" series, originally published in 1498. I was already familiar with this work, but before the institute I’d only thought of it as a biblical scene. Now, I’ve learned that this particular work was created near the end of a millennium, when talk of an apocalypse was common. Durer depicted a violent scene to evoke the climate of the time, but after the millennium passed, he was able to republish the plates of these prints for the art market. This helped cement Durer’s fame as a printmaker, as it allowed even more people to experience his work.

Since the institute, I’ve been working much harder to teach my students about the context of the artworks we study, so they understand how artwork can be meaningful to both the creator and the audience in many ways. Not only does this help them connect to the artwork on a deeper level, but it inspires them to create their own meaningful works.

3. There Is More Than One Way to View Artwork

I’ve been an art teacher for about seven years now, but I’ve been an avid art lover all my life. That means I’ve made many visits to museums and had many different interactions with all forms of visual art. But through a simple activity, I learned how to see artwork in a different way.

At the institute, we discussed the "Adoration of the Magi" (c. 1440/1460) by Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi. This large circular painting shows a long line of people waiting to greet the Holy Family after the birth of Jesus. The artists chose to forgo accurately depicting space in favor of focusing on the religious subject matter: The long line of people starts somewhere on the right side of the painting and appears to go up through mountains, reemerging on the left side and leading around to the Holy Family. There is a lot of distance covered in the painting (or crammed into it), and to measure it, you have to observe the size of the people and the direction they appear to be moving.

This is the tracing paper that I used with
This is the tracing paper that I used with "Adoration of the Magi." Notice my notes on the lines and movement.

During one of our sessions in the gallery, I placed a sheet of tracing paper on top of a printout of the painting. Then I used my pencil to identify points on the painting where implied lines were located, which helped me identify angles in the painting. I was also able to trace the spiraling movement of the people. Being able to draw on the work helped me see it in a different way: I noticed parallel, perpendicular, vertical, and horizontal lines.

Since attending the institute, I have been able to incorporate this activity in my own classroom. I ask students to point out implied lines in the artwork we’re studying. Then we identify whether those lines are vertical, perpendicular, intersecting, etcetera, and we discuss the mathematical definitions and applications of different types of lines.

The Takeaway for All Teachers

The institute is a professional development experience that I highly recommend to all teachers—not just art teachers. The content was visual arts-focused, but we had so many opportunities to plan for our own classroom contexts and chat with colleagues about ways to use the information. In fact, most of the teachers in attendance taught subjects other than art. The program is organized in such a way that any teacher will be able to reflect productively on their teaching practice and then implement what they learned when they return to the classroom. I heard teachers discuss using the visual imagery to help students make connections to history and as primary sources for research.

If you are interested in this opportunity, sign up to receive the newsletters from NGA. You will get a notification that they are accepting applications early in the year.

All photos courtesy of the author.

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