Our Teaching Methods, and Why They Work

Learning to paint is complex. There are many skills involved, many that we don’t even recognize as skills.

Probably the most important skill that beginning painters need to learn is how to “see” like an artist. They have to approach the painting as a collection of shapes and colors, light and shadow.  Seeing true color is a surprisingly challenging aspect of learning to paint. 

One of the activities that we do to help kids learn to see is we play description games. In one game, one child is “It,” while the other children use colored chalk or pastels to draw as directed. The child who is it selects a picture or painting at random, and then describes it to the others, while they attempt to draw the image. There are many challenges posed by this game. The most obvious is that the describer must “see” the picture like an artist, and then use words to communicate what the picture is. We don’t make the children guess... the describer can start by saying “it is a painting of a white cat.” The challenge comes in seeing what makes that white cat look so engaging. The describer is encouraged to talk about the shadowing the posture, the composition of the painting, and of course, the colors.

If you ask someone “What color is the cat?” in the picture to the right, the answer is invariably “white.”  Young artists usually focus on mixing black and white to make several shades of grey to paint this cat. But as they become more attuned to the original painting, they start to appreciate shades of blue and shades of pink throughout the painting. While very monochromatic, the more colors the artist incorporates, the more realistic their creation turns out.


The most challenging hurdle to good painting is learning to draw. You can’t paint a realistic picture without having a good underlying drawing to start with. But the neat thing is, painting helps you to learn to draw. We try to break down the drawing and painting skills into more manageable tasks, so that beginning artists can develop their drawing skills in a logical progression, over time. Too often, kids are just told to draw something, with very little support for how to do that. We practice drawing simple objects, and we use the transfer method to help kids develop a sense of proportion and composition.

We start by working on drawings of simple objects. Our first lesson is to create a painting of a single croquet ball. The first thing we learn is how to draw a perfect circle, how to check its balance, and how to develop the perfect circle into a three dimensional ball. Most kids are pretty surprised when they realize how challenging drawing a circle is. 

Once we master our circle, we exercise our “seeing”. If you look at the croquet ball, you will notice that there are myriad shades of green involved. The light bounces off the ball, and the backdrop, making it an extremely challenging exercise. Most of the students are overly cautious about mixing the colors, and tend to use a lot of similar greens with very little contrast. There are reflections, but they are usually done with green tones, and shadows are monochromatic as well. The overall effect is fairly flat representation, but a fairly sophisticated one.

Once the students “master” the single croquet ball, we throw a tennis ball into the still life. This adds a range of skills to the drawing and the painting challenge. The whole concept of proportion comes into play, and we learn how to measure objects in space. We experience overlap. And we learn how to achieve texture. The croquet ball is shiny and hard, but the tennis ball is soft and fuzzy. 

The neat thing is, by this second painting, students usually have a better grasp of how to manage color, and are willing to take more risks with contrast. 

While we do many more exercises to encourage students to develop their ability to see and create color, they are generally far less cautious by the time they complete their second painting.

Why (and how) the transfer method works:

Another way that we help students develop their drawing skills is by transferring an image onto the canvas to get a good sound drawing. For the beginning artist, this method provides a lot of positive reinforcement, so that students’ drawings stays on track. It helps the artist to get the main proportions of a painting correct, right from the beginning. This trains the artist to understand what they are looking at, and to understand that what they are actually seeing is quite different than what they think they are seeing.

For example, when you look at the white cat painting above, you notice that it looks just like a cat. But if you look closer, only one of the eyes actually looks like an eye. There are only two paws in the picture. There is no tail. If you ask any beginning artist to draw this picture, they would try to include all these features. They inevitably struggle to include details from the right side of the cat’s face. And the paws baffle people in their simplicity.

When an artist paints their first brush stroke, the guidelines they’ve transferred immediately and completely disappear. So the artist has to make small adjustments, correcting their painted “drawing” with their own skills. This breaks the drawing process down into manageable pieces. While the general proportions of the cat remain intact, the size, shape and proportion of the eye often changes. So the artist corrects it and adjusts it, and learns this surprising lesson of when the eye actually belongs.... rarely do beginning draw-ers think  that an eye should be placed where an eye actually belongs. And that eye is critically important to the success of the painting.

We do a lot of master studies in the beginning, for a couple of reasons. One obvious reason is that it allows the students to achieve a high level of success early on. It also allows us to introduce complex concepts such as composition without overwhelming the student.

Ultimately, painting, like all art, is a form of communication, with a language that we all understand, but few of us can speak. That’s a powerful gift.