Art Teacher Talk

Two Drawing Skills Every Art Student Should Know

The two drawing skills every art student should know to build confidence and grow engagement are simple. In my humble opinion, they are knowing how to sight relationships in a composition and knowing how to scale things up or down. Once kids understand these two basic concepts, they can draw just about anything, from just about any reference.

Without drawing skills, even if they do engage with your amazing idea, the work will be lackluster or just plain meh at best. If you plan on entering the competitive realm of student competitions, meh will not cut it. It’s brutal out there. 

The Heartbreak

As Art Educators we’ve all been there.

You come up with this great idea, a new high school drawing project – a new prompt, a new sketchbook assignment where the idea is so cool that you can hardly wait to go to school and tell the kids about it. 

You spend hours on the presentation, the directions, the artist inspo, the rubric, only to have it fall on disinterested, distracted or completely disengaged ears.

“How can these kids NOT be excited????” 

“This idea is pure gold!”

“These projects will be unbelievable showstoppers at Scholastics – we’re gonna wipe the floor with the competition!”

And the response from the kids?

Insert cricket noise here.

Remember the teacher in the Charlie Brown shows? 

Wa-wah-wah, wah wah-wawa…

So how do we avoid this apathetic and unengaged response to our brilliant ideas.

Skills, my friend.

Front loaded and fierce drawing skills.

In my experience, kids are much more likely to be invested in a brilliant idea if they feel confident about their ability to create something strong and noteworthy. Ability is not exclusive and reserved only for the “talented” kids. Everyone is able. Everyone just needs to be taught. That’s why they call us Teachers. Because we TEACH people. 

So what is the one foundational skill necessary to lay the foundation for amazingly insightful middle and high school artwork?

Drawing skill.

Let’s not forget that we are dealing with teenagers here.

These kids have just come off of 18 months to two years of being locked in their bedrooms. The attention span is all but gone. They don’t stay on a TikTok video for more than one minute. The brain is going a million miles a second.

So let’s talk about the one fundamental skill middle and high school kids need before creativity can flow with certain success. Drum roll, please…

Drawing from Reference

Sounds obvious, right?

Obvious, but not always in place prior to our big project ideas.

Kids work from reference images most of the time at the middle and high school level. This is where they learn the invaluable skill of taking an image and interpreting it into their own work, either in part or in whole. 

*Side note on reference images:

I would highly encourage the use of original photos in all student work. This is especially crucial for consideration in student art competitions. Nothing says “Disqualified” faster than a reverse image search and judges do this all the time. Now obviously you can’t take your own photos of mythical creatures or wild animals. So if a reference is necessary for such subject matter, use a free image website and be sure that the image is only a portion of the final work, not a copy of the original image. 

I see it like this – I only have them for 18 weeks. If it’s Art 1 or Beginner Drawing, I need to capitalize on these 18 weeks for two reasons – to dazzle them with their potential and to sell them on bringing this potential to Drawing 2 and eventually AP Studio Art. This is how I grow the program. 

Growing a successful art program is all about sales. We are selling students on them becoming successful artists. Nobody wants to sign up for a program where they don’t succeed. We as adults don’t participate or purchase programs where success is not part of the outcome. Why would we expect kids to? Therefore, our art program’s sales pitch is evident in the work produced by the skills learned. 

The Two Drawing Skills Every Art Student Should Know  

  1. Sighting Relationships
  2. Scaling Up (or down)

Let’s start with sighting relationships.

“Everything lines up with something.” 

That’s deep, isn’t it? Maybe not, but It’s a fundamental saying in my classroom. 

Viewing a reference image and translating it to the drawing paper is a necessary skill, especially if there is more than one image being used in a composition. 

I teach two methods for sighting relationships at the very beginning of the drawing journey – The Quadrant Method (simple grid) and the Shape Method (drawing using basic shapes). Both ensure that students hone their observational skills. I insist on keen observation at the start because I know that later on they will need these skills. These skills become even more important when we get to Negative Space, Value and eventually to drawing from life. Everything in life can be turned into a habit (good or bad). I tell them that good observational drawing skills come from developing the habit of observing (that’s why they call it observational…). So if we get this skill nailed down early it will benefit everything that comes after.

The Quadrant Method gets them used to seeing how things “line up” in a drawing. It also helps them focus on the details in a reference image and make sure things are where they need to be in the contour line drawing phase. This is the “get to know you” phase of the drawing. You have to decide if you like the line drawing, you may want to make changes to it before the value or color (or both) get added, and good sighting skills make the contour line drawing strong. 

Another “Foxism”: 

“The only thing worse than a beautifully shaded yet poorly drawn contour line drawing is nothing.”

We do extensive work using the Quadrant Method prior to this Shape Method to get them used to paying close attention to angles and relationships between parts, but using shapes is easier when composing a work from multiple reference images. It is also the only option when drawing from life, which is the ultimate goal, especially for kids headed off to art school.

Now let’s talk about Scaling Up a Reference Image

While the Quadrant Method is great for scaling up one image in a single image drawing , it’s not really convenient for combining multiple images into one composition. When kids create to a prompt and flesh out ideas in thumbnails, the Shape Method is effective as they can place objects quickly at varying sizes with accuracy.

As we focus on Drawing with Shapes, my mantra is “It’s all about that first shape.” If that first shape isn’t the correct size (or shape) the rest of the shapes will be too large, too small or just plain out of proportion. 

The internal dialogue should be: “As I draw this shape, I will line it up and consider the areas around that shape. How do they relate to it? Are they larger? Smaller?”

In Art 1 and Drawing 1, we do a lot of practice work with both the Quadrant and Shape Methods before we do final projects. Art projects are the crowning achievement for skills learned. This is where the kids show off their newfound techniques. If we begin with a project prompt, but no skill work precedes it, only a small number of kids will succeed. The rest will be discouraged and that will turn to apathy, and that will turn to behavior issues, and nobody wants that.

Strong drawing skills make for strong paintings, too. Watching kids paint a contour line purely by sighting angles and shapes and scaling up from a 6×8 inch photo to an 18×24 canvas is magical. More on this magic in another blog post. I’m getting off topic…as usual…lol

The Encounter

Now let’s talk about one of my All Time Favorite High School Art Project Prompts, a word prompt titled, “The Encounter.” It’s a showstopper every single time. Kids take it in every direction, and all the creativity radiates out of one phrase. Two simple words. 

I have used this prompt with Drawing 2 and with AP®Studio Art (I always have a “Selected Works” style section in the beginning of my AP Curriculum – August to November) prior to embarking on Sustained Investigation.

Students examine the word, “Encounter.” They research the definition, they write down various versions of the definition, synonyms, etc. They go to the Thesaurus for more ideas. Once they write these findings down, they begin brainstorming unusual ways to visually communicate the findings. 

As they examine the prompt, I encourage them to stay away from anything obvious. I don’t want to see two people meeting on the street. Why don’t you just put me to sleep already…

To get the creative muscles warmed up, I encourage them to collaborate by pairing up and writing down key words from their findings and having their creative partner write down possible visual communication ideas – subject matter, angle, viewer point of view, etc. 

Another Foxism: “The first idea is not the best idea.”

Yet another Foxism: “Two brains are better than one.”

I’ve had many students come up with an idea that another student was able to use that took the piece to a whole new level of creativity. 

With foundational skills in place, the best part is this – when I presented the project prompt to the class, be it Drawing 2 or AP Studio Art, the kids were ready to jump in head first. Once the ideas are formulated, the image research begins – most of the time it’s the “taking our own photos” phase (the work in the slideshow below is 99% original photos taken by the students). The hardest part oftentimes is they want to start drawing too early – they are so excited to get their idea on paper. This is a result of confidence. This confidence is a result of skills. 

If you are fighting apathy in your art classroom, might I humbly suggest evaluating the group and considering their skills and their confidence. Maybe give a baseline to see how easy it is for them to take a couple reference images and scale them into one picture plane.

In the Shape Lesson we do three of these practices – one image scaled to two sizes, two images overlapped in one picture plane, and three images scaled and overlapped into one picture plane. It may seem excessive, but it pays off.

Evidence of the Payoff

Below is a slideshow of some of my favorite interpretations of “The Encounter.”

I have never had two students interpret this drawing prompt the same way.

I hope you enjoy seeing these, and if you do this project with your kids, please reach out to me and send me some work so I can shout you out on my Facebook and IG pages!

Each of the students above started the journey with the Quadrant Method and the Shape Method, and each one had the drawing confidence necessary to take on the challenge of creating to this prompt. 

Creativity combined with skills is a force to be reckoned with. 

If you are interested in the ready to use drawing resources mentioned in this post, links are listed below.

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Thanks for stopping by, I hope your day is fabulous.

Tiff 🙂

The Encounter Drawing Prompt (Pictured below)

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