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One of the things I love about Charlotte Mason method lessons is that you can level them up or level them down to best fit your student, and picture study is no exception. We know that it’s wonderfully simple and effective in the way that we usually do it, but today Richele Baburina is going to join me and tell you how you can level things up if you would like to.
Sonya: Richele, thanks for joining me again.
Richele: It’s a pleasure.
Sonya: We want to talk about picture study today. I know you did a session at one of our SCM live events on how you can level up picture study as the kids get older, and everybody just clamored. They were like, “Can you make that a blog post too?” So, here you go! Why don’t we start first with the fundamentals, to make sure everybody knows where you start with picture study, if we’re going to then level up.
Richele: Yes, so, the fundamentals are basically the same through the years. We’re just going to widen the field with those fundamentals as our student gets older. We choose an artist for our term and then we have about six reproductions to look at. So perhaps we begin with a small, short biography of the artist, then we choose a work of art; the children look at it for a certain amount of time until they can see it in their minds’ eyes. It’s then turned over and they tell all they can remember about it. So, it’s an act of narration. Once they’ve done that, the picture is turned back over. We can look for any details we might have missed, and another reason that we look at that picture another time at the end of our picture study is that we want the work of art itself to leave the lasting impression on the child’s mind.
Sonya: Oh, yes, rather than what they thought they saw and leave it there vaguely, we make sure they get the confirmation or clarification of it, but then also make sure they’re interacting firsthand with that picture at the end. And then I like to post it on display somewhere the rest of the week, so they can look at it as much as they want to.
And I love how all those things are included in the Picture Study Portfolios: the biographies, the beautiful reproductions, all of that stuff is gathered for us. Hooray! So that’s the fundamentals. That’s where you begin. How can we then expand on that?
Richele: After a narration, an older child can be asked to do a rough sketch of the picture that was studied. Now how we do that is by squinting.
Sonya: Oh, now this is interesting. Okay!
Richele: So, this is a method that plein air, or painters who paint outdoors, use as well. Because we have a lot of data in this picture and we want the…
Sonya: Let me grab a picture. How about a Monet? This is one of my favorites. Does this one work for you?
Richele: Yes. That’s great.
Sonya: Here you go.
Richele: First, I’ll tell you that that an artist painting out of doors has a lot of data that he or she is looking at, and so a landscape artist will actually squint to kind of close out some of those things that they’re seeing. That way, they can find the main, or the chief, lines in the landscape.
Sonya: Oh, to look for chief lines. Could you explain “chief lines”?
Richele: So, chief lines are the main lines in a composition. This is why when a landscape artist is working he’ll often make a box with his hands, so that instead of painting this huge panorama, he can focus on one aspect. And then he will also squint, so he can see these shapes.
Sonya: So, I’m assuming the horizon would be one chief line.
Sonya: Or a tree. I’m thinking of Monet’s other one, with his poplar trees that are all in a line. Those would be chief lines?
Richele: Yes, those would be chief lines. So those lines are all we’re going to do in the rough sketch with our children.
Sonya: So, what are the chief lines in this one?
Richele: So, I would be holding it out further here, and I would squint my eyes so I can only have those largest forms and the main, heaviest lines. And when I’m looking at this (I’ve never done this one before), I’m seeing a horizontal line here at the top of the buildings. And then we have some vertical lines running up the path that goes to the house. So when I’m looking at this now, as someone who’s done this exercise before, I see the composition is actually a cross; that’s an archetypal composition in painting. And this will help the children discover for themselves these types of composition.
Sonya: That’s such a Charlotte Mason principle right there. They do so much of that.
Richele: Right, it’s that self-discovery. Your child can either be doing this on a chalkboard with chalk, a crayon, or in one color of watercolor. Just squint, see, and then draw. Okay, we’ve got these chief lines. And then we have this form here, and then we have some ovals here.
Sonya: So, you’re just doing very rough sketch, rough shapes.
Richele: It’s really nothing labored over. The lines could be organic and flowing; they could be straight. We could have circular lines, we could have zigzag lines, depending on the artist. Think of Edward Hopper. He had very geometric lines. And then we have more organic lines with with Monet.
Sonya: With the flowers. Yeah, interesting. What age would you start doing something like that usually? Every child is an individual, of course.
Richele: You can already start incorporating this with your six-year-old, or even having him draw something from memory after the narration. But you don’t have to use this every time. It’s just every once in a while, to get him used to finding these chief lines. And we aren’t introducing words like “composition,” “form,” “value,” “tone,” things like that. We aren’t talking about this, but on their own, they’re going to be discovering shape, form, color, and lines.
Sonya: So, the main thing we’re going to say is, “Draw the chief lines.” And they do it with just one color. This is not, “Reproduce the picture.”
Richele: Right, this isn’t detailed. We don’t want to labor over this. It only takes a few minutes.
Sonya: And it’s just every once in a while.
Richele: Yes, every once in a while. And then our student gets used to this. Now, when we talk about really leveling up, that’s the high school years. And that’s when a student’s going to be giving a more detailed drawing, or the narration could become a written narration. It could be a written narration with a rough sketch. Our forms of narration have widened.
Sonya: So, “Describe Monet’s picture of The Garden at Vétheuil in writing, and give me a rough sketch of the chief lines”? Or would you go more…
Richele: So, we have a lot of options in high school. It could be of the chief lines. It could be a more detailed drawing or painting. And remember that our students have had art lessons as well through the years. So, they can be incorporating what they’ve learned in their art lessons into this. So, if they’ve learned some of Monet’s techniques, they could, but what a lesson would usually look like in this case would be looking at that picture again, same thing, this time the form of narration widens. When your student has begun written narrations, if he’d like to write his narration, he might like to write his narration and give a rough sketch. If he’d like to spend the whole time, his whole narration time, making a more detailed drawing or painting, that’s another option. A student could also be asked to narrate the picture in poetry form.
Sonya: Oh yes. I’ve thought about, “Write your narration in poetry form,” but I never connected it to “Describe the picture in poetry form.” There’s a level up right there. My mind is going through how I would make a poem out of The Garden at Vétheuil. Yeah, wow!
Richele: What it does is it also widens the field of art appreciation for the student. So it’s not always simply “look and then tell back.” By this time a high school student who has had these types of narrations understands different forms of narrations. As we know, in literature, the narration could be a drawing or a brush-drawing of a scene from a literature reading.
Sonya: That’s true; so it goes both ways.
Richele: Right, it crosses over.
Sonya: It does. Everything you’re doing on the right-hand side is laying a foundation for what you could do on the left-hand side and vice versa. It’s so brilliant!
Richele: That helps the student from ever saying, “Do I have to narrate?” Because we have a lot more options with our narrations than to simply look at the picture and tell back; it is a wonderful thing.
Sonya: Yeah, that’s the fundamentals.
Richele: Yes, and that’s what helps the student hang that picture in the gallery of his mind. It’s that assimilation, that telling back.
Sonya: Now, also in the high school years, you had mentioned some kind of art history book. How does that come into play?
Richele: In high school, it’s no longer called “picture study.” Now we can call it “art appreciation.” The lessons are longer—30 to 45 minutes. So what you’ll want to do is choose a good survey, or book, on a school of art.
Sonya: I found a few on my shelf. I’ve got The Story of Painting by Janson and Janson.
Richele: That’s great. It’s illustrated, and it reads like a story as you go through: a survey from cave drawings all the way up to the Modern Era.
Sonya: At least, what was “modern” when this was written. It wouldn’t go up to 2023.
Richele: That would be considered Contemporary Art and, unfortunately, I’m trying to think, I haven’t found one that I would absolutely suggest coming all the way up to today. You’re going to have to find those. All of the books that I would consider really “living” that I know about are older. If your readers have things they can recommend, we would certainly take them. But Gambrich’s The Story of Art is another. It’s a survey, but again it goes up to Modern, which is about the 1950s. Anything beyond the 50s we would consider Contemporary Art.
Sonya: Got it. I also found Van Loon, The Arts. Now, maybe we should give some disclaimers for Van Loon. He writes in a very living way, but he’s got an attitude. (laughs)
Richele: He has an attitude, a particular sense of humor, that I have to say that my boys really loved. He’s kind of tongue-in-cheek; he definitely has his opinions, so I would say that The Story of Art by Gambrich is considered a classic. It’s told in story form. I think it’s very lovable.
They are definitely shorter sections, and it’s never condescending; he doesn’t judge; he doesn’t condescend. So, that’s one of the reasons that I do recommend that book. Another one is Hillyer if you love…
Sonya: Oh yeah, A Child’s History of the World.
Richele: Right, then you might also love A Child’s History of Art. And I just have to say that though it’s for children, that adults and high schoolers will enjoy it as well.
Sonya: Oh yeah, it’s such a living book. All ages enjoy it.
Richele: Yes. I would say the Gambrich is definitely high-school-level reading, though.
Sonya: So, what that is going to do, if I’m understanding correctly… throughout all of the years leading up to high school, they’ve been studying individual artists and putting them in their book of centuries so they can see which ones were contemporary with each other. But then, in this art history book, now they’re going to see the different schools and look at them as groups, right?
Richele: Right. They’re going to be placed in a little more historical context. They’ve been gaining historical knowledge. Now we’re going to be putting this into even more historical context with the reading. So, a lesson could look like this: You assign your high school student a reading on one of the schools [of art], a section perhaps on the Impressionists. So, the student has read that section on his own, and now he is going to provide a narration for that section. He could narrate orally to you, or it could be in writing. Now, when the student comes to the lesson, you’re going to choose an Impressionist from your Picture Study Portfolios. And rather than just taking one picture for that week, your student gets to pull out all of the reproductions and study all of Monet’s reproductions that you have here.
Sonya: All at the same time. Spread them all out. Even though he’s already studied them before, and is somewhat familiar with them. Actually, that’s a bonus that he’s familiar with them. So you’re laying out all of the pictures at once; and then what does he do?
Richele: He’ll look them over and study them all. And then he can choose one that he prefers that he would like to study more in depth. So, say your student… (displays Monet print)
Sonya: Picks my favorite? And gets a double dessert tonight for doing that. (laughs)
Richele: Now he’ll take some time to really look at that picture. Now he’s going to make a detailed drawing of that picture.
Sonya: Okay, let me stop you there, because there’s the famous passage in Charlotte’s writings that the student should not duplicate the master’s works. What’s the difference?
Richele: Okay, so, what Charlotte Mason was talking about there is that we don’t want the child to just simply try to make a copy. What we’re doing here can be likened to nature study. We’re going to be observing; we’re going to be looking really intently at it, and we’re going to bring what we know about it into our detailed drawing. I say “detailed,” but it can be done in monochrome; it doesn’t have to be the actual colors. You’re going to take a more detailed look; this isn’t an art lesson that we’re trying to teach our child how to become a painter. This activity helps the child see the decisions that the artist made himself when building up his picture. We’re going to take a look at the light and the shadow. If we’re doing this in monochrome, watercolor say, we pick sepia, or “burnt sienna,” as it’s called today…
Sonya: For those of us who are not artistic, that means “brown.” (laughs)
Richele: Right, and then adjust the amount of water. That’s how we’ll get our picture to be lighter in some areas and darker in the others. In this way, the student, by making a more detailed reproduction, is going to be looking at the decisions that an artist would make in composition: in line, in form, in shape. Like what we said before, “Are these going to be our strong diagonal lines, or is this going to be flowing and more organic?” It’s going to be helping make an impression in the student’s mind as well as, perhaps, a love for this work of art.
Sonya: I love that, and they’re not being distracted by making sure they mix the color to match exactly every little piece. It is more, as you said, the picture as a composition, the whole thing.
Sonya: That’s great. So as they’re going through the high school years, how often would they… do you want to try and get them to read and narrate and find a picture to study in depth for every school? How often? Are we doing a school a term? What kind of guideline can you give?
Richele: So you can give a school a term. This is one of the things that I love about these Picture Study Portfolios, is that they gives the timeline: Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, and Modern. It doesn’t have to line up, I do want to say that, but if you are in the Modern Era [of history], then you might choose to study the Modern Era of painting as well. And so you could go to your shelf and pick out all of the Picture Study Portfolios of the Modern Era. And then for that term, your student could be reading about that particular artist as well as the school. So, we start with the school, assign some reading, then we do what we just talked about with Monet. The next time the student has assigned reading further into Impressionism in the art history book, and then the student can choose, or you can choose, another of the Impressionists. Now when your student is doing a narration, he can start to compare and contrast, say, Cassatt with Monet. At the end of the term, he could have a written narration assigned on Impressionism as a whole, which is the same as when we ask for an essay.
Sonya: Right, the exam could be, yeah, “Tell me about Impressionism.” I love the idea of letting that older student, that high school student, have a say in which artist he’s going to dig deeper into. Charlotte did that with a lot of areas, giving those students choices, which, especially when you have boys, is a big thing.
Richele: Yes, my boys really like to make those choices, so it could be like a choice in literature: “For this time period, are you going to choose a book by Charles Dickens or Jane Austen?” So there are choices to be made, and with our art appreciation in high school, the student gets to choose his or her favorite reproduction to study in more detail.
Sonya: Now, let’s get very practical. We’ve got our high school student, who is doing this art study, if we want to call it that, “art history study,” is he also participating in regular picture study with the younger students?
Richele: I would really encourage family picture study to continue. Because the students are always in the same time and era of history. That gives them things to talk about. So, with picture study, although your young children might take just five minutes for a picture study, to do the fundamentals, later your older student can do his reading.
Sonya: Then he can do his individual work on the side, but he can have both of those. The best of both worlds.
Richele: I only had two boys, but they were a few years apart. And so we were always studying the same era at least.
Sonya: Yes, I love that. Anything else you want to share with our readers about art appreciation in the high school years? Why is this important?
Richele: Charlotte tells us that we can never even imagine the importance that even one picture hanging in the gallery of a child’s mind can have across his entire life. So that’s one of the big reasons I think picture study is important. The beauty and appreciation of the art is something that will be with them throughout their entire lives. Now, even if the student isn’t artistic, these are all activities that the student is doing that aren’t based on what he can do as an artist.
This is based on looking at the artist in history and the things that that artist has expressed. One of the things that really hit home for me was the first time I went to an art museum (I was 19, I think) and I saw one of Claude Monet’s hay stacks. Now, growing up in Northeast Iowa, there were hay stacks all around me, and I never saw the beauty of them until I saw them through Monet’s eyes. And that really helped me appreciate the hay stacks at home.
Sonya: Yes, it shapes how you view the world. As Charlotte said, we can never imagine the power that one of those pictures might have in shaping how that person views the world, seeing the beauty in the world around us. I love that, and I love how the parent doesn’t have to be this wonderful artist, or art aficionado, or anything like that in order to lead the student through these methods that you’ve outlined.
Richele: Right. We give the child opportunity and we get to be his guide, and so we will guide him in the methods, but we don’t stand between the artwork and the student. And for the student, just like how we let the author speak to the student in a living book, we let the work of art speak to the student.
Sonya: I love it. Thanks for sharing these great ideas with us.
Richele: You’re welcome.