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Leading Students through a First Art Critique

When I was in art class in high school (early 80’s,) we never did any critiques that I recall. It wasn’t until I was in college studio art courses that I learned how and why to do them, and what traps to avoid. A good example of what not to say is when I was being critiqued for this 5-foot by 4-foot painting/collage in 1997:

What's Wild by Dawn Pedersen

The instructor had a teacher’s assistant who was a student at another university. This T.A. saw my painting and said disapprovingly, “It’s a bit narrative, isn’t it?” What do you do with that? And what’s wrong with being narrative in a painting? I learned nothing from her comments, and instead held a grudge against her ever since. I later saw some of her paintings and couldn’t make heads-or-tails of them: square abstract messes of heavily impastoed oil paint with no apparent thought of composition or color harmony. Nothing like the beauty of, say, Jackson Pollock’s work.

Anyhow, the first rule I have is that if you say something about a work of art in a critique, even your own work, start by saying what you like about it. There’s got to be at least one thing that is working for you. And if there’s nothing at all right with it, will cataloging its faults really help the artist in any way? Because that’s the point of critiques: improving everyone’s artwork. Moreover, it serves the purpose of making all students give greater thought to art. No-one’s going to listen to what you have to say right after you piss them off or make them defensive.

A few weeks ago, I had students participate in their first classroom critique. I had found that even in the high school advanced art class, my students had never had a critique before. It’s in the California state standards. If I may vent a little, I am regularly appalled at what my second year students don’t know. Their previous teacher couldn’t have been following the standards. And so I am teaching both the first year and second year students the same basic material to get everyone up to speed. No, my schools don’t check if I’m following the standards, but the standards are an important set of guidelines for me. They build critical thinking skills. And if any of my students go on to art college, they’ll be prepared with the terminology and skills they need to get the most out of their classes.

The Critique

I am grateful for The Art Teacher’s Book of Lists by Helen D. Hume. In it is a section on Art Criticism Questions [List 3-9, page 111]. Hume has two subsections here: “For a Formal Analysis of a Work of Art by a Known Artist” and “Sample Questions for Helping Students Analyze Their Own Work and that of Fellow Students.” Below, I have quoted these sample questions and included my commentary about how responsive my students were when we critiqued the Self-Portrait Collages.

Would someone be willing to talk about your own work?

Again, make sure the students know to talk about something they like first. Most are tempted to just dump all over their work, but they need to recognize that most times improvement requires recognizing what works as well as what doesn’t work. A few of my students were frustrated that they didn’t have a enough time on this project. I will keep this in mind the next time I do it.

Which of these artworks uses line (shape, color, form, space) most effectively?

I kept it simple and asked them about form and color only for this project. It’s important to ask the student “Why?”! A good number of my students were able to tell me why form or color was used effectively, using the terminology I’ve taught them.

Which of these meets the goals of the project best? (A goal might have been variety, creativity, etc.)

In the case of this project, the goals were: creativity, colorfulness, and craftsmanship. I got some good answers with this one, and I made sure that students addressed how the one they picked met a particular goal.

Which of these shows the greatest differences in value…the most contrast?

I’ve worked hard to teach my students the meaning and the importance of contrast. They are beginning to recognize in their work and others’ that contrast helps define edges and strengthen a composition. They now know how to squint their eyes to make contrast more apparent. Many of them were able to identify the artworks that most effectively set foreground and background apart by using value and/or color contrast.

Does this remind you of the work of any artist whose work you have seen?

This was a tough one. Although I have exposed the students to the works of many artists, they are having trouble retaining the names and styles. I am hunting for better methods of educating them about art history for greater retention. On this question, we usually faltered.

If you could make one change in your own artwork, what would you do?

This is a great question, and I received a lot of thoughtful answers on it. From the standpoint of becoming better artists, it’s the most important question I could ask.

If you were a curator and you could buy one of these artworks for the collection of your museum, which one would it be? Why?

My students loved this one! First, I had to explain that a curator is a person who decides what a museum purchases. That person must keep in mind what art people would want to see, and what art is important and aesthetically beautiful. My students responded to this question more than any other. They loved the thought of having that kind of important role, and then explaining their choices.

In talking about your own work of art, what would you have done if you had had more time?

I found this question to be too similar to the question about changing one thing in one’s work.

What were you trying to show through the style you used?

I didn’t use this question during the critique. Instead, I had students write Artist’s Statements after the critique. The writing prompt was:

Explain why you chose the images, objects, and colors you did to represent yourself. You are encouraged to include anything new you’ve come to understand about your work during the class critique, and what if anything you might do differently next time.

I also asked students to tell me what grade they think they deserved according to our rubric, and why.

UPDATE 1/22/06

Here’s an art teacher’s guide to critiques by Martin Bartel. It’s for college students but includes many things you can ask the younger set. It is really comprehensive and includes worksheets for students.

UPDATE 2/5/06

Here’s another approach to critiques.

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From My Sketchbook

drawing of a clothed woman sketchbook

Last November, a former art history classmate contacted me through MySpace and said he was starting up a new figure drawing opportunity. The concept is pretty cool. The models are in a variety of costumes, rather than nude. It’s weekly, on Tuesdays. It has really helped me brush up on my drawing skills. Unfortunately it will conflict with my oil painting class starting this week. I wish I could do both.
It’s called Pompsicle, and if you’re an artist in the Sacramento region, please go. You’ll enjoy the experience (and you’ll help it keep it alive until the spring semester is over.)

Alternative Clothed Figure Drawing
Every Tuesday night in Sacramento
Pompsicle is a weekly clothed figure drawing session in Sacramento, CA. Artists of all experience levels are encouraged to come! It’s fun. We draw (or paint) from a different live model each week. Some are super cool “real life characters” like goths, punks, beauty queens, club kids or cowboys. Or our model may be some one who has a lot of great costumes in their closet and wants to show them off.
The drawing sessions last 2 1/2 hours and are un-instructed, though we’d be happy to give you some informal guidance/tips. Just ask.
Pompsicle happens every Tuesday night at Jim Ferry’s 19th St. Studio. The studio is in association with 20th St. Art Gallery.

Here are some drawings from my sketchbook of various models at Pompsicle:
sketch by Dawn Pedersen
sketch by Dawn Pedersen
sketch by Dawn Pedersen
sketch by Dawn Pedersen
sketch by Dawn Pedersen
sketch by Dawn Pedersen
sketch by Dawn Pedersen
sketch by Dawn Pedersen

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Instructions: Make an Art Storage Box

Make an Art Storage Box art lesson

At the high school, there are roomy built-in wooden drawers for the students to use to hold their materials and project pieces as they work from day to day. We have a few projects coming up which will require lots of little materials and parts to assemble, so students will want to keep theirs separate from those of other students. For example, I will have them create these two wonderful projects from

Character Nichos
Painted Accordion Books

This coming week, I will assign one drawer per student. Then I will have each student create a new painting on the front of his or her drawer, covering over the paintings of earlier classes. There are over forty drawers, so there will be enough for my two high school art classes. I expect the project to take one week, and they will be able to use acrylic paint.

This left me with the challenge of creating similar storage at the middle school, where there are no such drawers. As I often do in the wee hours of the morning after I am awake but too lazy to get out of bed, I brainstormed. The students really don’t need much more space than, say, a 3″ x 6″ x 3″ box without a lid. 72 such small boxes would take a reasonable amount of shelf space. Eight boxes could fit in one square foot, and pieces taller than six inches in one direction, but narrow in another, would simply stick out of the tops of the boxes.

I came up with the one-week project below.

Materials: 9” x 12” sheet of white tag board, ruler, pencil, scissors, glue, color media.

Click on the image below to download the larger PDF you can print out and copy for student instructions. I drew it in Adobe Illustrator and you may use it too for free.

Make an Art Storage Box

Update 01/11/07

The project is over and went pretty well. I found most of the middle school students to be enthusiastic about creating their own little storage container.

I required my students to decorate the box inside and out, and to put their names on one side of the box. I defined “decorate” as “creating image, pattern or text.” Flat colors were not sufficient.

I made watercolors available for the first time this year. I made a hard and fast “lose your brush privilege” policy: no brushes left sitting vertically in the box or in the water cup. This bends the bristles. I asked them to fold up a sheet of paper towel, and lay the brush on it after it has been rinsed in the cup and is not in use. A number of students lost their brush privilege this project, but they will get another chance next week. I am trying to get them into good habits, and of course I am trying to keep our brushes from being ruined. Many of our brushes are cheap, but the better ones are quite expensive and I don’t want to have to replace them.

Students were also allowed to use collage, construction paper, colored pencils, crayon, and colored markers. One student even used the paper weaving technique we did a few weeks ago. I’ll post up a photo soon.

Update 01/13/07

Here are photos of the finished boxes:

Student Work - artboxes
Student Work - artboxes

Update 01/18/07

Here are the boxes filled with pieces from the Character Nicho project:


Update 01/31/07

This project has been very successful. After 24 days and much use, the boxes are still intact, large enough for the Nicho project, and extremely useful. I hope to continue using them for the Book project, in which the largest materials are 3″ x 3″.

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Trying watercolor again: an anniversary gift for my boyfriend

watercolor painting: Fenrir praying mantis

I took a color course in watercolor over ten years ago. My teacher, Gary Pruner, is an extremely good painter and I admire his work greatly. However, I came out of that class intimidated by watercolor instead of encouraged. I am much more comfortable with acrylic paint, and eventually gave all my watercolor supplies away.
Unfortunately, my attitude toward watercolor has kept me from jumping right in with it with my students. That is, until I picked up a Winsor & Newton Cotman kit at University Art right at the beginning of the winter break. I grabbed a couple of books on the subject, including a great tutorial book called Watercolour in 10 Steps by Patricia Seligman. I’ve gone through most of the book and went on to do a mediocre painting of one of my cats (she kept moving.)
My boyfriend owns a pet praying mantis that he found on his car tire in front of my house. He keeps it on a house plant in his apartment, and he feeds it well with crickets. He named it Fenrir. He really cherishes the little guy, so I think a little watercolor of his pet will please him. I took a few photos this morning. Our one-year anniversary since we first met is tomorrow. I’m giving him this 6″ x 4″ painting I did this afternoon as a gift:
Fenrir by Dawn Pedersen - copyright 2007
I now feel energized to teach my students a little something about watercolor. I’m looking forward to going through Artist’s Projects You Can Paint: 10 Floral Watercolors by Kathy Dunham next.
I bought an oil painting kit too, for sometime soon. I’ve never used oil paint before.

UPDATE 01/07/07

I signed up to take an official oil painting class at a local community college on Tuesday nights. I hope I can balance it with time for my Thursday night master’s class, lesson planning, and my boyfriend. Otherwise, I’m very excited about it!

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Reviewing Art Elements, Part 4: Draw an Imaginary Person

Draw an Imaginary Person - student drawing

This lesson served as a final project (one-day) at the high school, and simply as a comprehensive exercise at the middle school.


  1. Use the manikin as a model.
    • Three students per manikin
    • All three students agree together on a pose
    • After it is positioned, do not move the manikin
  2. Draw the outlines/contours of the manikin
    • Draw what you see
    • Have the body fill the paper, but small parts may go off the edges
    • Draw lightly
  3. Create an imaginary clothed person
    • Base it on your drawing in step #2
    • Color the drawing, using a range of value to show shading and roundness
    • If time, draw an appropriate background

manikin photo manikin sketch
imaginary person from manikin model

UPDATE 01-05-07: Student Work

I will try to get more photos, but for now I will post this 7th grader’s drawing without comment.
Student Work - from manikin

UPDATE 01-13-07: Student Work

Here are four drawings from high schoolers.

Student Work - from manikin Student Work - from manikin Student Work - from manikin Student Work - from manikin

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Reviewing Art Elements, Part 3: Color and Texture

Color and Texture: paper weaving art lesson

I based this fun art activity on this lesson plan from

I have copied the basics below in case that link every goes dead:


  1. The teacher may prepare a sample(s) ahead of time for showing to the class. Begin with a brief discussion of weaving and what it is (the interlacing of threads to form a continuous piece of fabric). Write vocabulary list on board and discuss. Show example(s).
    • Weaving – The process of forming cloth or fabric on a loom by interlacing yarn or thread (or, as in this case, paper).
    • Loom – A frame for weaving yarn or thread into cloth or fabric.
    • Warp – Threads running lengthwise on the loom. The warp is placed on the loom prior to beginning the weaving process.
    • Weft – Threads that are weaved across the warp threads to form the web.
    • Web – The cloth or fabric produced by weaving.
  2. Distribute materials and tools.
  3. Students fold one sheet of paper horizontally.
  4. Draw a line about one inch from the open end of the folded paper. This is the limit of cutting.
  5. From the fold, make irregular cuts up to the line. Cuts need not be straight. (The irregular cuts make a more interesting finished product.) Unfold and lay it flat. This will serve as the “warp” and the “loom.”
  6. Measure and cut from the second sheet of paper, one-inch wide by nine-inch strips. These will serve as the “weft.” Tip: Teacher may precut the one-inch weft strips.
  7. Begin by weaving one “weft thread” over one “warp thread” then under the next warp and over the next, etc.
  8. Continue this process alternating over and under with each weft thread. If the previous weft thread went under the warp thread, the following row will begin by going over the warp.

figure 1
figure 2

Instead of construction paper, I had students use the textured and decorated paper they had painted a few weeks back when we first covered color and texture. My students really got into it, and afterward, I taped the student’s work next to each other on the wall, resulting in a sort of crazy quilt.

Below is my demonstration example, using some of the paper my students painted:

paper weaving

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Reviewing Art Elements, Part 2: Form and Value

Form and Value: manikin demonstration drawing

I got some fantastic results from some of my students ages 11-18 on this one. I’ll post them up later when I grab some student sample after the holiday break.

I purchased 10 artist’s manikins which are about a foot tall from IKEA. They run about $6 each. I arranged one manikin per table in a twisting or energetic pose (each table seats six students.) I admonished students not to move the manikins.

Materials: white letter-sized copier paper, regular writing pencil (2H)


  1. Select a portion of the manikin on your table to draw.
  2. Draw this portion large to fill the paper. Go off the edges of the paper. Draw the outlines lightly.
  3. Create form and contrast by filling in the drawing with a full range of value. Draw what you see.
  4. If you have time afterward, fill in a contrasting background.

Here is my demonstration drawing, done in black colored pencil so that it could be seen clearly across the classroom:
manikin in full range of values

Assessment criteria:

  • Drew large
  • Drew only a portion
  • Drew a range of values
  • Followed the steps in order
  • Optional: drew a contrasting background

UPDATE 01-05-07: Student Work

These are some of the best work from my high schoolers:

Student Work - manikin Student Work - manikin Student Work - manikin

And from my middle schoolers:

Student Work - manikin Student Work - manikin Student Work - manikin

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Reviewing Art Elements, Part 1: Line and Shape Game

I borrowed this idea from Cheri Harrell at

Here is my formal lesson plan.

Here are the guts of the activity. Most of my students enjoyed the game a good deal.

  1. Instructor displays three posters. One shows images of the following types of lines: vertical, horizontal, slant, curve, wavy, zigzag, and curlicue. The second shows types of geometric shapes: circle, oval, square, rectangle, triangle, trapezoid, parallelogram, pentagon, hexagon, and octagon. The third shows a variety of organic shapes, some recognizable (such as a banana shape,) and some not. Each of these items is given a name which is written clearly under it.
  2. Instructor describes the rules of the game:
    1. Each student begins with a pencil or pen and a sheet of paper.
    2. Each student is to create a scene or abstract composition.
    3. Each student is given a turn to call out any shape or line they want.
    4. All the class must use that shape or line in their drawing. If someone calls out a line or shape a student had not planned to use in the art, they have to figure out some way to use it anyway.
    5. Students have 10-30 seconds to include the line or shape before the next one is called.
    6. If there is time after the game, students color the resulting picture.
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Collage Self-Portrait project

torn paper collage self-portrait by Dawn Pedersen

I’m still a teaching student, in my final semester before moving on to my Masters classes. One of my current classes is actually my student teaching. I have a very unusual student teaching situation – instead of having three classes per day with a master teacher, I am all on my own with six classes per day plus a prep. This is an extremely good but daunting experience. It’s all up to me to keep on top of everything, not to mention create an entire year’s curriculum on my own for both art and drama. I think I’m doing well. One of the ways that my credential program keeps tabs on me is an evaluator who observes eight of my lessons throughout the semester. For each day he visits, I need to provide him a fancy-schmancy lesson plan, something I ordinarily have zero time to do. So, he’s coming this Wednesday.

I’m sharing my lesson plan with you. The format is based on Madeline Hunter’s recommendations. I adapted the rubric from this similar lesson. I borrowed the critique questions from Helen D. Hume’s book “The Art Teacher’s Book of Lists” (a lifesaver). The anticipatory set for the lesson will include transparencies of these artworks (self portraits by Leonardo daVinci, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gaugin, Robert Arneson, followed by the image below).
Bob Kilvert
“The Black Felt Hat” by Bob Kilvert, from Creative Collage Techniques by Nita Leland and Virginia Lee Williams.

I’ll post up my own self-portrait collage as I progress on it.

UPDATE December 27, 2006

Here’s the initial self-portrait line drawing I did first in graphite, then in felt-tip pen:

self-portrait line drawing

Here’s the final collage I did based on the line drawing above:
self-portrait in collage

Here’s a detail of one eye, showing that I did not merely cut out someone else’s eye from a magazine photo. I pieced it together using all kinds of sources to create an eye that was more authentically mine:
deatil of collaged eye

UPDATE 01-05-07: Student Work

These are some of the best work from my high schoolers:

Student self-portrait collage
Student self-portrait collage
Student self-portrait collage

There was a wide range of skill level, creativity and degree of completeness at both the middle school and high school. Here’s a sample from the middle school:

Student self-portrait collage

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Collage Lessons: Color Wheel and Organisms

paper collage of a fish by Dawn Pedersen

I’m not going to give y’all a fancy lesson plan here, but I will share some stuff I created for collage lessons. I created these myself, and so far the unit has gone over well with my students.

Lesson One: Torn Paper Color Wheel

Students use a color wheel template to create a collage of torn paper from color magazines. This project took two 50-minute class periods for grades 6-12.


  • Color wheel template (13kb PDF file)
  • Lots of full-color glossy magazines, catalogs, mailers, etc.
  • Bottle glue or glue sticks

(no scissors!)

Art elements explored

  • Color
  • Texture

Torn paper collage gives the color wheel a very textured, layered and artsy effect. One student said, “I didn’t realize how much fun it is to tear paper!” I asked them to fill in the triangles, overlapping the edges, to show smooth transitions between color blocks. I told them that several shades of the same hue are great too. They often cooperated with each other in hunting down and identifying specific colors: “Is this red-purple?” Most students dove into this project with much enthusiasm.

My demonstration collage is below.

Collaged Color Wheel

Lesson Two: Painting with Colored Paper

In the previous lesson, students used colored paper as a sort of paint. Students create an image of an insect, fish, lizard, or flowers using the same technique. They may create their own image of one of those four categories, or use one of the templates I drew in Illustrator. They may either tear paper as before, or use scissors. I expect this project to take two 50-minute class periods for grades 6-12.


Collage Image Templates

Art elements explored

  • Color
  • Texture

My demonstration collage is below.
Collaged Color Wheel

Update 01-05-07: Student Work

Here’s a sample of my high-schoolers’ work:

Student collages

One of my middle schoolers, struck with brilliance:

student peek-a-boo