Questions on Student Art

Monday was an interesting day. Shortly after lunch, my husband and I went to our nearby library where we met the president of our Fine Arts Association and her husband. Two other men from the club were there, as well. We’d come together to set up display panels and prepare for the student art show the association was holding.

Once the display panels were in place, the men made their exit while the club president and I worked together to check-in the art as it arrived. Later, two more club members arrived to help with hanging the drawings and paintings, as well as setting up the 3-D area. We had a total of 65 entries from 6 different schools. Grade levels ranged from 5th to 12th grade.

From the moment the first portfolio arrived — the teachers were responsible for bringing in all the entries from their classes — I was impressed. Actually, that’s not even the right word. It was more like I was in awe of the work presented by these student artists.

The first piece that caught by eye was this incredible ink and watercolor “Village” scene. This was created by an 11th grade student artist. Oh, my goodness! How awesome is this?

If I were judging this show — which I’m not — this would definitely be getting a first place ribbon. Not only is it expertly drawn, but it was beautifully matted on a black foam board, making it all the more stunning. I wasn’t able to get a good photograph of the complete work.

You can see this drawing again in this photo. From left to right is Donna Eckhoff, me, and Patsy Albers.

“The Village” was not the only impressive work of art entered in the show. Another mind-blowing drawing was this colored pencil image:

I looked at this and my mouth fell open. This was drawn by a 12th grade art student. I just stood there looking and wondering how anyone can have such talent at such a young age.

Checking in and hanging this art led to a lot of thoughtful reflection for me. Despite myself, I couldn’t help but compare my limited ability in art to the incredible works these students had created. I figured I might be somewhere around the 6th or 7th grade level, if even that. Of course, I wondered again how it would feel to have such talent, to be truly gifted in art. I’ll never know. I’m not a gifted artist. I have no natural talent. What progress I’ve made in drawing and painting has come only through persistent practice.

Which all brings up another question. Can art be taught? Well, yes, of course. But how much can really be learned? I could spend eight hours a day drawing for the rest of my life and never be able to come up with anything like “The Viillage” or “The Hamburger”. I just don’t have that sort of ability in me.

So, here’s the next question. How much credit goes to the student and how much credit goes to the art instructor? I’m asking this,  you see, because our club chooses one art teacher from those whose students have participated and names her — or him — as “Art Teacher of the Year”. This honor comes with a $50.00 cash prize, the only cash awarded in the show. Many members feel it’s best to vote for the teacher who brings in the most entries. Maybe so. But isn’t that rewarding quantity over quality? But then again, how much influence does a single teacher have over any student? A talented student artist will still turn out excellent work regardless of the teacher, right? Or can a good art teacher bring out the best in all students, even ones, like me, who have to work hard at creating art? By what criteria should an art teacher be judged?

About this time I found myself wondering how my life might have been different if I’d been given any real art instruction as a child. Would I have developed some skill in drawing? Would I have gone on to become an artist then? As it was, I didn’t become an artist until I was in my sixties. It certainly has changed my life now, but I wonder what life would have been like — could have been like — if someone had believed in me and encouraged me. As it was I was simply reminded over and over again that I had no talent for art.

And what of students like me who want to learn but who really don’t have any natural talent? I know, this is a touchy subject, and there are those who claim that we all have talent. I’ll agree that we all have a creative spirit and that we all have the ability to learn, but I still believe that some individuals are born with that natural gift for creating art; others, like me, were given other gifts. We can learn art, but we’ll never be exceptionally good at it.

So, from there, my attention went to those drawings and paintings that weren’t as outstanding, and yes, as you stroll through the display it’s obvious that some of these young artists have more talent than others. There, I could see so much of my own attempts at making art. Some entries were quite original in their idea, but rather poor in their execution. Others were adequately drawn or painted but lacked a certain something that might have made them more interesting.

And needless to say, I thought about how the competitive aspect of art can affect students. I remembered attending a reception at a student art show several years ago where one “losing” artist was curled up in the corner crying because she didn’t understand why the judges didn’t like her painting. I thought, too, of the “winners” — and having worked at several student art shows over the years, I’ve recognized a few names from show to show. These are those “talented” artists who can confidently display their work, and I doubt that they’re too surprised when they take home the ribbons they win.

For what it’s worth, in this particular show there will be a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place ribbon awarded for each grade level, plus a few “honorable mention” ribbons.

Now, I’ve been fortunate to have received awards for my art, but each time I’m given a ribbon I still shake my head in disbelief. How can it be? Of course, there have been shows I’ve entered where I’ve not been in any winner’s circle. Sure, there’s a bit of disappointment, but as an adult, I can accept it. I don’t go into any art show with the expectation of winning. I’m always hopeful that some judge might deem a painting of mine to have merit, but I’m just grateful to have my work on display, to see for myself that my landscape oil paintings are good enough to show. 

But how do young artists handle competition? More to the point, how do we make “art shows” like this a positive experience for all artists? How do we acknowledge and reward those exceptionally good young artists without discouraging those whose work isn’t quite as good?

And again, where do art teachers fit into this equation? Is it their job to teach art, to provide information on techniques with various media, or is their job to promote visual creativity regardless of the outcome? A good art teacher should make art fun, I think. A good art teacher should be especially attentive to those students who want to learn but who don’t have — or don’t believe they have — any natural talent.

While browsing around this morning, I came across an interesting article about student art. While I know it was written with the best of intentions as a way of helping aspiring young artists achieve success, I found it a bit depressing overall. It points out how hard art is, how much work is involved in becoming an artist,

Many students select Art thinking that it will be a fun subject where you hurl a bit of paint around and scribble with brightly coloured crayons. Students who enter under this misconception suffer a very quick wake-up call. Art can indeed be fun, but it is also an unimaginable amount of work. It requires constant and ongoing effort. From: The Top 10 Mistakes By Art Students

The emphasis is mine. It’s true, of course, that art requires time and effort, but isn’t it possible to balance that in a student art class? No art teacher should put excessive demands on students, but maybe my thinking is skewed here. Looking back at “The Village” or “The Hamburger” — of course those drawings took a lot of time and effort. But should we expect this degree of diligence from all art students? No, absolutely not.

The best artists will always rise to the top, I think. Art instruction — in elementary, middle, and high schools — needs to focus more on the students who aren’t exceptional, the ones who have a sincere desire to learn, the ones who need a bit more guidance, the ones who need encouragement most of all. Sometimes that means making art fun. It means taking the pressure off. It means giving all art students a chance to learn and grow.

I still have a lot of mixed feelings about student art shows. I want to promote art and encourage our talented young artists. Yet I also want to encourage all young artists, not just those whose work is always applauded, the ones who always get top honors at shows like this. I don’t ever want to see any young artist crying in a corner and feeling that her work wasn’t good enough

Goodness knows, I’ve been there. Any time I tried to “make art” I was that girl. Disappointed. Frustrated. Doing my best and still being told “You’ll never be an artist”. I guess my feeling is that the good artists will always find their way. It’s the ones like me who need someone to guide us.

Taking part in astudent art show should be an exciting experience for all young artists. How do we make that happen?


  1. Oof! You raise some good points here. From my own experiences as a kid who always won Art prizes to being an adult helping to inspire creativity in kids, I can’t think of any straight answers to your questions.

    On one hand, it’s true that some people have natural talents in some areas; there are always things that one person will pick up faster than another does. But at the same time, ( and this is just my belief- other may disagree) there will always be untapped potential in every individual. And yes, sometimes all it takes to get the ball rolling there is a good teacher.

    But a “good teacher” may come in the guise of someone who isn’t necessarily a Teacher in any traditional sense. It could be a favourite artist; a muse; powerful experiences even. Some people are late bloomers ( not just in visual Art, but in other forms such as writing) ; some begin promisingly but fizzle out, or sacrifice their natural talent in order to pursue that “sensible” career that their parents/ peers/ societies suggest.

    One of my pet peeves when it comes to judging Art- especially the Art of young people- is that it seems always to be measured on technical skill alone. While this is a valid aspect of producing Art ( those examples you show are indeed impressive!) , what of creativity? What of imagination? Technical skills CAN be learned- by anyone who wants them. But creativity and imagination are something that are much harder to learn, if they are possible to “learn” at all after a certain age. In this arena, certain individuals will always have an advantage.

    I do believe that an encouraging, enthusiastic and nurturing school teacher will always be better than an apathetic, lazy, narrow minded, dismissive one. But even the great ones have their limits. My own highschool Art teacher was a wonderfully eccentric lady who’d stop the class to announce that a pair of flies were “making love” on one of the desks, so we shouldn’t dare disturb them ( ! ). She was very quick to praise my drawing and painting, as most of the adults in my life were. I had a “natural talent” for those. But when it came to anything 3 dimensional, ie sculpture and working with clay it was a different story! I was terrible at it, and my beloved teacher made no pretence that it was otherwise:

    ” Sweetheart…that’s REALLY bad..” she said when she laid eyes on my attempt at the clay face we were tasked with one week. I knew it was true. So I just accepted that this was NOT my strong point, and was never going to be. I didn’t bother learning or being remotely interested in sculpting anything. Flash forward about 10 years, and – on a whim- I decided to buy some polymer clay. The first thing I made was an ultra realistic hand. To this day, I have no idea where that came from, or how it was possible. It just… happened. And now my primary Art “thing” is creating 3D things. So, who knows? Anything’s possible.

    Sincere apologies for the essay! But I guess my point is that sometimes things just come from nowhere and there’s no rationalising it. At the same time, yes: teachers should do their best to encourage students- ALL students, but especially the ones who are trying hard and interested despite perhaps not showing immediate “natural” talent. There are an insane amount of exceptionally talented kids out there ( I saw proof of this at my kid’s school last time I visited). But if we see “talent” as a combination of intense curiosity/ enthusiasm + effort/ dedication, then there’s no reason why someone might discover talents of their own in later life.

    Anyway, sorry again for the looooooong comment! I’ve too much to say, always! ( which is why I often don’t comment at all…sometimes that’s just easier for everybody!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, I love your long, thoughtful comment! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. You’ve given me even more to ponder now, and that’s how a good discussion should go, I think.

      Much of my thinking here comes from my personal experiences with visual art. I received no encouragement at all, no real “instruction” in any aspect of art, and my efforts were ridiculed if I did try drawing or painting. I hate to think of any child going through that. Meanwhile, most of my friends were very talented at visual art, and time after time, without fail, their works were held up to the class, put up on display, and I guess what I’m getting at is that THEY got all the attention from our art teacher while the rest of us were ignored. I don’t think that should happen — ever! I think every student deserves recognition and encouragement.

      I don’t know if you’ve read about my “defining moment” with an acrylic pouring workshop. It was a painful experience for me because it took me right back to childhood, to trying to create art and being totally ignored. That workshop almost caused me to give art up completely — and this is as a very grown up adult.

      Interesting story about the 3-D work! You’re right. We never know where we might find ourselves or what we might find ourselves doing. Goodness, I never imagined that I would someday be an artist, complete with an art studio!

      There is so much to think about in how we educate our children to appreciate art, to express themselves, and to develop not just “talent” but a creative spirit.

      Thanks again for sharing your thoughts! I want to do all that I can to encourage every child and to make art an enjoyable experience for everyone.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, I agree very much that children should never have to endure ridicule for their efforts. Such experiences can be very damaging. I remember colouring in a picture of a scarecrow in kindergarten and the teacher holding my finished work up to the rest of the class and saying ” This is what NOT to do!”. My colouring in was very messy and expressive ( and I’m still both, haha!) and for the longest time after this I didn’t want to show anybody anything I ever did. I shudder to think of how many kids out there just stop doing things they love because of such horrible, flippant remarks.

        I will have to check out the acrylic pouring post that you mention. I think it will be relatable, as I still very much struggle with confidence re: my creations. I’m glad you didn’t give up 🙂

        It’s obvious to me that being around a person such as yourself would be a positive thing for the kiddos! You’re obviously very considerate of the experiences of our precious kids and young people, and that’s so important. They need that.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oh, wow! It sounds like you had some experiences similar to mine. I can’t imagine any teacher pointing out a student’s work as a “bad example”. That’s horrible! I laughed a little when you mentioned the teacher who told you your clay work was “really bad”, because I could sense that she was saying it with love, that she was actually acknowledging your talent and saying “this isn’t like you”. Yes, I’ve struggled with confidence in art, having been told over and over that I had no talent, that I was essentially hopeless. Actually, I’m starting to find a little confidence now, and Friday’s post talks about that, so I hope you’ll stop by, read the post, and share a few thoughts!

        Yes, I do want to encourage young artists. Creativity is important, and the more we use our natural creativity, the more we’re able to grow and develop in all creative pursuits. Children need assurance that it’s all right to be expressive.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Haha, yeah, this lady was very honest! Admittedly it offended me slightly for a few seconds, but in the end I did have to laugh, because it WAS really bad, and, as you say, her comments weren’t coming from a malicious place at all.

        I will absolutely drop by and read your next post!

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Actually… no, it had paragraphs. 🙂 WordPress does the same thing with my posts from time to time. I see them as an unformatted block, but then I open it in another browser, and it’s fine. It’s not you. It’s WordPress. And even if it had left out the paragraph spacing, your comments would still have been well worth reading.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Phew! That is a relief to know- thank you! WordPress can be so very glitchy….there are a variety of issues that I encounter with it, unfortunately.

        Aww, thank you. I wanted to comment on your recent “Art fairies” post, but had the old ” too much to say so I’ll just say nothing instead” problem. Perhaps I’ll get around to it at some stage!

        Liked by 1 person

I'd Love to Hear Your Thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s