Today we are going to talk about something that has two names in the world of CM educators: artist study, also known as picture study. I’m going to try and cover the basics of this and not get all caught up in the potential details of organization or implementation.
I Call it Picture Study
Or at least I try to. My reason for this is that when I use this name, I’m putting the emphasis where I think it belongs, and that is upon the pictures themselves. Now, I’m not saying the artists are incidental to their works, because they’re not, and Miss Mason’s volumes tell us that her students knew about the artists they studied. But lately I’ve noticed an inclination to put the emphasis on the artist and purchase a big huge biography to be read over the course of, say, the entire 12-week term, and that isn’t what was happening in Miss Mason’s classrooms.
After a short story of the artist’s life and a few sympathetic words about his trees or his skies, his river-paths or his figures, the little pictures are studied one at a time.Vol. 6, p. 214
A short story. Look him up on Wikipedia or something. Skip the book buying, my friends.
Picture Study’s Purpose
It is always important to build what we do upon why we’re doing it. Miss Mason tells us that our children are studying these pictures in order to:
- Furnish his imagination with “whole galleries of mental pictures” (Vol. 6, p. 43)
- To know the pictures themselves (Vol. 6, p. 216)
- To see beauty and to come to love beauty — to refine the aesthetic sense (Vol. 6, p. 56; Vol. 1, p. 309)
- To build a culture, a common basis of thought, which comes from having a large group of people study the same pictures (Vol. 6, p. 264)
- To teach him which pictures he should be delighting in (Vol. 6, p. 329)
- To have discriminating taste in pictures (Vol. 3, p. 78)
Please notice that, again, the emphasis is upon the pictures, not the artists. Obviously, in order to know pictures we must know artists, but again, I think this helps us put our focus where it ought to be. Knowing the facts of an artist’s life does not develop the aesthetic sensibilities of the child, which is why we are always trying to get to and study the pictures themselves.
The Reproduction Controversy
Miss Mason’s approach to picture study evolved as she grew in knowledge and understanding. So, early in her career, we see her suggesting that students study a picture, yes, but at the end they also “draw the chief lines of the picture, in five minutes, with a pencil and paper” (Vol. 1, p. 309). Mid-career, this seems to have become something in greater depth:
Step 3. Show the pictures to the girls, let them look well at them, and then draw from them their ideas as to the beauty and simplicity of the composition; call attention to the breadth of tone, and the dignity of the lines. Help them, sketching when necessary. to reduce a picture to its most simple form; half-closing their eyes to shut out detail, help them to get an idea of the masses of tone, etc.
Step 4. Let the children reproduce a detail of one of the pictures, working in water-colour with monochrome and making their washes simple and flat, reducing the tones to two or three.Vol. 3, p. 311
Now, she is very clear in these instances that the goal is appreciation and not re-creation. So though we see her methods changing a bit, her goal is always the same. And it is her goal, her purpose, which seems to bring about a repentance near the end of her career:
[T]hese picture studies do not afford much material for actual drawing; they are never copied lest an attempt to copy should lessen a child’s reverence for great work.Vol. 6, p. 216
There are a couple options here. The first is that she doesn’t mean this precisely. She’s exaggerating, and so “never” doesn’t actually mean “never” — it means mostly never. If you have read a lot of Miss Mason, you know this is a real possibility and I’m not being sarcastic. The other option is that she really did change her mind sometime between the writing of Volume 3 and Volume 6. This second option represents my position on this subject, and I only bring it up because it’ll influence how I write the next part of this post. It also influenced me personally as I used to assign my children to draw a bit, and now I don’t (though of course I wouldn’t stop them if they tried on their own time).
The Basics of Picture Study
First, let’s talk about what Miss Mason did. We know that she chose one artist per term, and we know that there were usually six pictures per artist. We already mentioned that there was a short telling of the artist’s life, and a tiny bit of talk on his work, and then the students studied the pictures. Some of what Miss Mason writes makes it sound like the children study all six pictures at once, during a single lesson. Other times, it seems like this couldn’t possibly be the case considering other things she says about the study, including, but not limited to, their length. Either way, we know that the children studied the pictures on little cards, turned them over, and then narrated the details they remembered.
It’s sort of like that bridal shower or baby shower game where you try and remember everything on a tray. Do you know that game? I always lose that game.
But I digress.
Now I’m going to tell you what I actually do in my own home.
Starting at age six, my children are required to participate in picture study. I have never had a toddler or preschooler who didn’t want to participate as soon as he had dropped his morning nap, but I don’t require anything of them until they are school age.
When children have begun regular lessons (that is, as soon as they are six), this sort of study of pictures should not be left to chance, but they should take one artist after another, term by term, and study quietly some half-dozen reproductions of his work in the course of the term.Vol 1, p. 308
The art training of children should proceed on two lines. The six-year-old child should begin both to express himself and to appreciate, and his appreciation should be well in advance of his power to express what he sees or imagines.Vol. 1, p. 307
I use the AmblesideOnline art study page as my main resource, though I admit that I am not always using the artist assigned for any particular term. I do, however, generally use the paintings they have pre-selected whenever I choose an artist. So, just like Miss Mason, we have one artist per term, six paintings per artist. I print the paintings out and frame them in our dining area so that the children are exposed to these paintings every day for the entire term.
On the day we are actually studying the artist, I take the painting off the wall so they can see it better. Since there are twelve weeks in a term, and six paintings assigned, we spend two weeks on each painting. This means two “lessons.” For the first lesson out of the two, I’ll do the bit of talking Miss Mason mentions. I’ll tell a bit about the artist’s life. If there is a Bible story, myth, or historical event as background to the painting, I’ll tell them about it. After that, they get to look at it and comment on it.
For the second lesson, we do the formal study where they look at it, turn it over, and narrate to me.
Miss Mason spent about 30 minutes on a single lesson. I, as you see, divide this into two lessons, and they are about 15 minutes each. This works better for us.
My oldest child is eleven. In a few years, we’ll start being a bit more formal about some of this study. Miss Mason wrote:
There is no talk about schools of painting, little about style; consideration of these matters comes in later life, but the first and most important thing is to know the pictures themselves.Vol. 6, p. 216
In high school, then, we’ll do more form art history study. For now, this is enough, and it serves as a delight.
We cannot measure the influence that one or another artist has upon the child’s sense of beauty, upon his power of seeing, as in a picture, the common sights of life; he is enriched more than we know in having really looked at even a single picture.Vol. 1, p. 309
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