Learning to Look: Observing, Critiquing, and Exploring Art

Ginger Carlson
March 19, 2009

Young children move through their days with such passion and fervor that it is often a skill for a child to pause and just observe. Learning to look is the foundation, the first baby step if you will, to being able to develop creative expression through art. Once a child can really look at a piece and articulate what is special and how they feel about it, they can then begin to incorporate some of these techniques into their own experiences and explorations with materials.

What Do I See?: Young Children and Observing Art

We start with simply observing art. Once you begin to look, you will see that art is everywhere in many different forms. And once you begin to experience it with your children, you will also find that they begin to learn this art vocabulary and seamlessly incorporate it into their daily experiences.

Here's a starter list for getting kids observing the art around them:

Give children an opportunity to look at all types of art: in print, online (many museums of the world have their collections on the Internet), and of course, experience art in-person at local galleries, in the homes of your artist friends, or on display in your town. Help your children to understand that art isn't something reserved for a few special people; it is in the everyday and everyway!

From prehistoric works of art (rock carvings and cave paintings of the Cro-Magnon) to Egyptian hieroglyphs to African and Asian art and modern day marvels, regardless of the age of your children, experience art history together. Talk about how art has changed over time. Look for similarities and differences in time periods and across cultures.

Ask, What is unique about this piece What do they notice about how it is different from the last one you looked at? From itty-bitty art to large murals, point out differences in size, shape and form.

What types of materials were used? Together, observe the many different types of materials that artists use: metal, rubber, paint, recycled objects, plaster, canvas, paper, wood, and any other number of different materials used to make art.

Bring attention to what they know. Especially interesting to children is looking at color, line, animals, nature, transportation, how movement is depicted, and representations of other children. They all lend themselves well to the direct experiences and interests of many young children.

What Do I Feel?: Learning the Art of Critique

To critique is to look carefully and analyze something, and then articulate feelings about it. It is clear that children begin to develop likes and dislikes early on in life. As you expose your child to different styles and observe art together, discuss concepts such as line, color, shape, space, and patterns.

While many art critics spend time finding fault in artwork, when observing and discussing it with your children it does not need to be overtly negative, or negative at all. 

When discussing a piece and guiding children in art critique, begin with these questions:

What did the piece make you feel? Give children a chance to really connect with the myriad of feelings in the human experience. 

What do you like about this piece? To articulate the specific details of a piece of art is a skill that helps children begin to bring awareness to the aspects that lead to an overall feeling a piece of art evokes.

What does it remind you of? Art is a powerful way to get kids talking and making connections. It can evoke memories about a special trip to the sea, a time they met a new friend, or solved a problem. Or it may remind them of another work by the same artist, a similar style they saw elsewhere, or even a story they've heard. 

Keep the experience positive. If your child doesn't prefer a particular piece, that's okay and certainly part of the critiquing process. Ask them to tell you what about the piece doesn't appeal to them. Then, find one they consider more attractive and talk about the pieces' differences.

Observation and critique are truly significant ways for children to explore the art around them. Learning to really look at a piece of art, be it sculpture, painting, embroidery, or mixed-media, goes beyond the simple craft experience that is often associated with childhood art. To Learn to Look is to bring the world of art closer to the human experience, to connect with it on a deeper level. In turn, children bring this vocabulary for observing and critiquing the art around them to the very real art they themselves create. From this place, they develop a deeper understanding of the potential and power of art. Because it is true that Life is Art and Art is Life.

A few good books for introducing children to the skill of Learning to Look:

Can You Find it?: Search and Discover More than 150 Details in 19 Works of Art by Judith Cressy

Animals in Art (National Gallery Series) by Ljiljana Ortolja-Baird

The Art Book for Children by Editors of Phaidon Press

Cave Paintings to Picasso: The Inside Scoop on 50 Art Masterpieces by Henry M. Sayre

I Spy a Lion: Animals in Art by Lucy Micklethwait



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