Teaching art 7 – accurate observational drawing with beginners

Initial observations

In addition to working with the advanced group I did some exercises with the beginners class. This was quite a different ball game as there were 33 students, only a small handful of whom had any english at all. Joseph, our translator, was essential which meant only one person could really teach at a time.

The process of working with translators is an interesting one. Some make a real effort to help connect us with the students – when the class was laughing or telling jokes he translated what was going on and vice versa so that as a group we got to know each other. It is vital that the translator understands the essence of what you are trying to impart, they also must understand to a certain degree, what problems the students are encountering in order to convey the queries back and forth. A lot of subtle detail can easily get lost along the way meaning that one take many different approaches to explaining the same problem.

The exercise

While the students were on lunch break I drew and example of the string exercise on the blackboard. I also explained the exercise in detail to the translator. When the students came back each person was given a piece of string and instructed in how to begin. I started working on a large drawing on the blackboard to show the steps in building up the drawing.

After a few minutes I began to go around to the individual students. Some people seemed quite fixated on arranging the string nicely before drawing it, positioning the loops very carefully to make them pretty. Some were drawing the string and not the spaces in between, others drawing the shapes with no attention to the size or their relationship to other shapes. It took some time to work out the right way of explaining the exercise. Drawing the string without drawing the string was quite a difficult concept to convey. Leading by example seemed to be the most successful approach, I had a sheet of paper on a clip board that I took with me and demonstrate the process for each person.

We moved on to drawing the string and the negative spaces. Again this threw up a series of challenges. By the end of the afternoon people were much improved.

There were one or two people who were using the exercise as a way of developing pattern. In these cases I found myself not wanting to disrupt their way of working. I told them how much I liked what they were developing, and that although it wasn’t the intended result that it was beautiful all the same.


Later on in the week it was great to see how the string exercise manifested itself in the students approaches to painting. People were not afraid to tackle complexity in the scenes they select to paint. Drawings that featured trees showed particularly obvious relation to the string drawings. Introducing these sorts of exercise at this early stage worked really well. It was more difficult and tiring for the class this time around but I think as a foundation they came away much stronger at the end of the 10 days than in the first year.


students at work, the tree branches showing influence of the string exercises

students at work, the tree branches and complexity of the scene showing influence of the string exercises

Student at work. the accuracy and complexity of the drawing showing evidence of the string exercise

painting from the beginners class

painting from the beginners class

finished painting

the finished painting

the finished painting

a finished painting