Aquaria, documenting nature, Fish, Sketchbook, tools

Sketching with Children

01.07.09 | 6 Comments

The world is rich with movement and texture and pattern and form, and while a child can joyfully paraphrase his real or imagined world in his art, there will come a time when he wants to capture more. Let’s assume your child has come to you asking for help drawing something difficult, something from life. What do you do?

There are several ways in which you can capture your subject on paper, but the method you choose to capture it will depend on your subject. Let’s talk about the several approaches to sketching that you can take:

  • gesture sketching These are quick studies, and are also ideal for warming-up before a drawing session. The game is to make a series of quick 15- to 30-second sketches that capture just the essence of what you are seeing with just a few lines:
  • Observational Drawing with Children
    Good subjects for quick gesture sketches are those that MOVE a lot.

    Observational Drawing with Children
    Shrimp, snails-an army of antennae!

    Observational Drawing with Children
    We also captured a school of hungry Koi, flapping in the pool below us at the fish store.

  • contour drawing: In this kind of drawing, you do not take your eyes off your subject as your hand tries to capture the form on paper. Deliberate and tenacious, this line stretches the perimeter of the subject. It bends, dips and twists as your eyes flow the topography of your subject, and by the praticed artist, it sinks into the page to give weight to foreground edges, and grazes lightly along edges that appear farther away. Without any emphasis on shading, contour drawing involves seeing from a decided perspective, without straying from this angle, as you carefully follow the apparent distortions that your subconscious eye might otherwise ignore:
  • Observational Drawing with Children
    We finally got around to drawing that Bionicle! Of course, we began at the SWORD.

    Observational Drawing with Children
    A difficult concept for Chas was keeping his eyes on the Bionicle while drawing simultaneously with the other hand. Here he demonstrates “following the outline of the Bionicle” with another pencil. For a four year-old, this is a challenging exercise. But what little kid doesn’t enjoy a game, of sorts?

    Observational Drawing with Children
    Again, I did a little teaching by example. Some educators would call this a stifling effort, but I disagree. Observational drawing is not the same as free drawing, and just like teaching a child to write, teaching the vocabulary of lines is something valuable you can do for your child.

  • shape and volume studies: where you try to represent the height, width and depth of a form. Blurred edges, smudging, shading–these techniques articulate three-dimensionality. Children enjoy learning about volume because the act of creating it involves so much tactile immersion in the medium:
  • Observational Drawing with Children
    Chas was rather fascinated with this color-changing glass paperweight, sunken at the bottom of a cichlid tank.

    Observational Drawing with Children
    Chas starts to denote volume by smudging the edges around the ball. The softer the graphite, the easier this is, and this is effortless with pastel or conte crayon.

  • value studies: which define spatial relationships, are studies in gradations in tone from light to dark, regardless of color. Crosshatching, shading, hatching–all these things give illusion of volume. For older children, this gives them more control but also requires their more mature level of patience:
  • Observational Drawing with Children
    Which is brighter: the flame or the candle? The sides or the pool of wax inside?

  • line drawings: which define an object and express the feelings of the artist by use of line style. The type of line drawing can vary from subject to subject and can correspond to the character or content or mood of the subject drawn. This is a perfect exercise for children because it introduces them to the vocabulary of line, an immediate medium with which they can represent their world.
  • Observational Drawing with Children
    Without instruction, Ford improvises by wetting a finger and rubbing it into the graphite.

    Observational Drawing with Children
    On some petals of this flower he has smudged lines, in another: stippled dots. Way to go!

    Observational Drawing with Children
    Out of convention, he first colored the candle’s flame black. “Aha!”

    Observational Drawing with Children
    The beauty of a good drawing session is that you see the personality come through on the page. With Ford, the outcome is often: Why not?

  • texture drawing: where there is either actual texture (produced by a dimensional material such as a conte crayon), represented texture (made by imitating the structure drawn) or transferred texture (created by a wax crayon rubbing, called frottage). Frottage is a wonderful exercise for children. They enjoy seeing texture appear out of nowhere, with the simple rubbing of a crayon on a piece of paper over something like a coin or a leaf.
  • Observational Drawing with Children
    You can find textured surfaced everywhere.

    Observational Drawing with Children
    Allow them to float around the room, rubbing here and there, trying to find textures on their own, while returning every now and then to add details.

    Observational Drawing with Children
    Not from observation this time, but from memory (he says): a FISH! Frottage usually stimulates the imagination, departing from the observed subject at hand.

  • spatial illusion drawing: where either a linear perspective or a tonal/ atmospheric perspective is created to give depth to a flat surface. Objects getting smaller in size, diminishing in color, clarity and overlapping each other–these techniques create the illusion of space. “Foreshortening” and “perspective” are both terms used to describe qualities of spatial illusion created in drawing.
  • Observational Drawing with Children
    For some young children, this may be a stretch to their perception, but help them to see that objects overlap in front of each other in the visual plane, and that things get smaller the farther away they are from our eyes. Here: pebbles stack in front of the underwater paperweight.


Materials You’ll Need:

  • a series of graphite pencils, HB to 6B (H=”hard” and B=”blackness” with 9B being the softest type of pencil you can get, which will create the darkest lines)
  • conte crayons, pastels, black sumi ink, even ball point pen–any monochromatic drawing implement your child is jazzed on in is really fine to use.
  • kneaded rubber eraser can be used as a good smudger, with graphite, but don’t use as an effective eraser (erasing should be discouraged, unless a fight ensues!)
  • medium- to heavyweight paper is best–nothing too thin that will tear under pressure.
  • baby wipes or rag for quick cleanup (mainly for the younger kids who get distracted and run off)

KEEP IT SIMPLE. Keep it monochromatic if you’re doing observational drawing. It helps you focus on what you’re drawing.

Draw on the biggest paper you can, or whatever you have on hand. Sketchbooks are great with little pencils if that’s what your child prefers, but mix it up with a Biggie pad or large sheets of Strathmore in order to build greater confidence and a larger range of coordination. If you are warming-up with a series of quick gesture drawings, large sheets of newsprint are fine unless you want the warm-up sketches to remain archival.

No erasing! Just keep drawing. Fill up the whole page until your eyes decide the page needs to breathe. That is your creative eye speaking. Then you can start a new page.

Sketch from different angles–you’ll learn more about your subject this way!

Sketch often; daily, if you can manage. Make it a practice and make it fun. Do it together to build synapses, bonds and a library of observations.

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