Art Teacher Talk

The Value of Good Value

Alright now we’re gettin’ down to it….Value.

Graphite pencil shading techniques.

Realistic drawing.

So much fun to teach and so much fun to watch students learn – the foundation of student confidence in the art room.

If you’ve been reading my blogs or following my Instagram (@mrs_tfox) you may have noticed a theme. My teaching style focuses a LOT on skill building and my approach is deliberately scaffolded to allow for mastery in all students all the time. Excellence in the art room…my personal mantra.

When it comes to Art Curriculum in general, there are a ton of philosophies on what to teach and how to teach it, and I used to get very bogged down thinking my ways were wrong, hyper-focused or overdone and then one day it dawned on me…I only have most of these kids for 18 weeks. They will not return for another art class. Eighteen weeks. Passing through to pick up an Art credit or fill a spot in their schedule. Like a chance meeting in an elevator.

Ever heard of an “Elevator Pitch?” It’s the notion of “pitching” an idea successfully to someone on an elevator ride…

I view my beginner course content just like an “Elevator Pitch.”

I ask myself these two Operative Questions:

“Based on the 20-30 people in front of me, our community, our 18 weeks together, how can I reach all of them successfully?”

“If they never take another art class in their entire LIFE, what successful skills can I leave them with that will reshape the way they see their own potential?”

Have you ever talked about drawing with a group of adults? Next time you’re at a bar-b-que (it may be awhile thank you Covid) bring up drawing…or that you teach Art…99% of people will look horrified at the thought of drawing. The next thing you’ll hear is, “I can’t even draw a straight line,” or “I can’t draw a stick figure”…you know, the usual comments. You may even hear, “I wish I could draw…” The notion of drawing both terrifies and enraptures. Somewhere between kindergarten and adulthood people somehow lose the ability and desire to draw.

So, this brings us back to my focus on teaching skills…I decided a long time ago that I wanted to focus on TEACHING Drawing and Painting. Not just letting the kids flow in, assign a bunch of projects and watch the “talented” kids do well and the rest of the kids struggle, feel inferior and leave discouraged.

I wasn’t sure how to go about this, and at the start of my career it was clunky and most of the kids were frustrated and I was discouraged.

One particular day stands out…ten years ago…Art 1. We were beginning our unit on realistic shading. (I promise I’m getting to the teaching shading part in a bit) The “project” was to find an image and draw it realistically in black and white using graphite pencil. I had a few that were coming out realistically with a full range of value but most of them were largely a cartoon and outlined version of grays and no matter how much I pushed I couldn’t seem to get the kids to add enough value.

I went to my co-worker with my frustrations and she said, “You need to break it down…are you using a value scale? Did you show them HOW to shade to eliminate outlines? Did you do a demo on pencil strokes and blending? Did you show them work with a full range of value and work without a full range of value and outlines?” And I had to say no. Because I hadn’t. I figured that I knew what I wanted so they must know what I wanted also….oh, so wrong.

I hadn’t set the most basic expectations in place.

I went home and made the “No Outlines – Examining the Edge” presentation that I still use to this day (of course since then it now has a lot more student work added over the years).

I came in the next day and said to the class, “Halt! We are taking a step back and I am re-teaching you about value and shading and how to draw realistically with no outlines.” I had fretted all night long thinking they would argue with me or be disappointed. Neither of those things happened. They almost seemed relieved. They took the notes, looked at student exemples (had to find these online at that point in time), and watched me do a demo on shading. I had also come up with a skill builder where they drew a simple sphere and shaded it – requirements were a full range of value, proper value transitions, contrast, and no outlines. Again, I thought they would think it was too easy or be upset because we were taking a break from their drawings.

None of those things happened. They drew the sphere and shaded it (this became the predecessor to my No Outline Sphere Project) and they all did a fabulous job. Everyone (all 25ish) had a full range of value and nice transitions and edges that eliminated the outlines and gave the sphere its 3D appearance.

They were so proud!

They thanked me.

Beforehand, they were too nervous to admit they were in over their heads and too afraid to ask for fear of looking stupid in front of their peers.

Had I been too afraid of looking stupid we would have all been in serious trouble, with a bunch of gray drawings full of copious outlines…

Moral of the story. Break it DOWN. Small chunks. Small steps. Big victories. And don’t be afraid of being open about the process of teaching. I tell my kids all the time that we are all in this together and if I screw it up and teach it wrong or badly then we’ll figure out how to make it better together.

I often ask for feedback on class procedures and the kids are open and comfortable letting me know what works and what I could give more in depth instruction on to help them succeed. This trustworthy classroom environment takes time to build in the early stages of the course, but once it is established the semester or year long experience will be enjoyable for all involved.

Ok, back to shading.

We focus on value and using graphite pencil in the 2nd nine weeks of my Drawing 1 class. Value follows units on Line, Shape and Space (Negative Space specifically). I like the kids to have firm observational skills using line, shape and space prior to attempting to create values. I like to say, “All the beautiful shading in the world can’t recover a poorly drawn contour line.” There again, scaffold it. Break it down. Line first. Then add shapes. Then approach the notion of space – both positive and negative.

We began shading with graphite pencil in my Drawing 1 class last Monday.

The progression is:

Notes on Value and Graphite Pencil Shading

Graphite Pencil Mini-Sphere Worksheet

Graphite Pencil Letter “E” Stone Alphabet Exercise

Graphite Pencil Stone Alphabet Name Project

These beginning lessons establish the proficiency with the medium and solidify the understanding of value and its role in making an object appear 3-dimensional in a drawing. I stress the fact that we only have a few weeks to get this right and these skills will prepare them for working with future mediums – especially colored pencil. Value is key to drawing realistically. And whatever your philosophy is on what to teach in art class, you can be rest assured that drawing realistically raises confidence tremendously.

Once I am sure they have mastered graphite pencil techniques and they understand how to shade a form, the next step depends on the overall skill set and work ethic of the group. This goes back to establishing community and really knowing your kids at the beginning of the semester. If I don’t know them, how will I know how to challenge them?

The next graphite pencil project is one of the following. We either complete the “Curly Paper Drawing”, “The Shoe Frenzy” or we dive into an “Expressive Self-Portrait.” All focus on proper use of graphite and proper shading to create 3-dimensional objects, but all three are different levels of difficulty. While there is more choice-based learning in my upper level classes, in Drawing 1 we all move along together on the same path. This is my “no one left behind” philosophy, “we’re all in this together.”

This semester we are going all in and tackling the “Expressive Self-Portrait.” This group, while hybrid (half of them virtual) has a very strong work ethic. I told them you need extra intestinal fortitude (guts) for a self-portrait in an intro class. They definitely have it. I will dive into teaching portraiture in a future blog post.

Spoiler Alert.

Anyone can draw.

Yes, anyone.

This is not a special dispensation dished out at birth, this is a skill that can be learned. There is nothing mystical about it. Everyone starts out with no drawing inhibitions at all and then somewhere along the way someone tells them they’re doing it wrong. Fast-forward to my Drawing 1 class (or worse, that bar-b-que I talked about earlier) and all of the sudden we’re all in a sea of badly drawn stick people…yikes.

This brings us full circle to the Elevator Pitch. And confidence. And leaving people better than when I found them.

I am absolutely bent on making sure my kids know how to draw and paint really well before they leave me. I keep it simple and we take it slow through all of the pertinent steps necessary to get them to the goal of media mastery.

This is the main reason we re-structured our program in 2012 from an Art 1-4 model to a Drawing 1 & 2, Painting 1 & 2, and AP Studio Art model. With the Art 1-4 model, it didn’t seem like there was enough time to give the skills portion of the class enough attention. We were covering too many things and none of them thoroughly. About two years after implementing the new class format, the “WOW” feedback started flowing in – from staff, parents and kids – and the level of work skyrocketed.

As a result, our AP Program grew so much that we went from 11 kids in the first class of 2011 to 22 in 2014. If you teach AP, 22 students is a big class. Growing a program can be challenging, but a sure fire way to growth is student confidence and word of mouth. When kids tell other kids how much they learned and how they too can learn to draw and paint, the rest is history. Kids sign up. Even kids who don’t have much confidence in themselves. Because they have confidence in you and the program

My advice is this.

Display all the work you can in all the places you can. My classroom is a self-contained gallery. I have pretty much taken over the walls in my hallway and in our commons area. There are drawings and paintings everywhere. The bulletin boards are covered. Future students passing by need to see what they are potentially capable of. Current students need to share their experience with future art students (part of my course evaluation at the end of the semester). The reputation will grow quickly and you need not worry about how to get the word out, because the kids will do it for you.

Ok, I’m going down another blog post rabbit hole….lol. Building an AP Art Program….this is a post for another day.

If you take nothing else away from this post, take this.

Break it down.

Small steps.

Big victories.

The kids will appreciate the safety of knowing they will not be left behind. They will have a chance to master the medium. Mastery leads to confidence, and confidence leads to risk and taking risks leads to artistic breakthroughs. In a safe and secure environment, with a solid community, all of this is possible.

My goal is to leave students better off than when I met them.

Not just artistically. As people. And what better way to leave them more confident than to show them they can draw?

Thank you again for stopping by and reading this.

If you have any questions or comments, please contact me here or via email at tj*******@gm***.com.

Have a wonderful day and Happy Teaching!

It truly is the BEST JOB EVER.

Tiff 🙂

For further info on resources mentioned above, click on the links below:

Classroom Management:

Building Community in the Art Room

Drawing and Shading Lessons:

Graphite Mini-Sphere Exercise

No Outline Sphere Presentation and Project

Stone Alphabet Name Project

Beginner Portraiture Unit

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