Josef & Anni Albers Foundation

Josef Albers

On Teaching Art to Youngsters


Transcript of Josef Albers's talk "On Teaching Art to Youngsters," including examples of classroom exercises for school-age children.

I found the following sentence in an article on finger painting in an art magazine, addressed mainly to art teachers: "When the background has been made, any free, sweeping motion of the hand will create a design.” In a caption under one of the illustrations I found, “Daintiness is a minor factor; freedom of expression is all important."

Reading this and similar well-intended advice, I was reminded of a formulation by Michelangelo saying, “One paints with one’s head and not with one’s hands.” With these quotations we are right in a continual controversy about whether in studying and making art, “feeling” is all important or “understanding” is all important; whether instinct or intellect should lead; whether just so-called self-expression or a controlled study that is of means and meanings is the most promising way of art studies.

More impressed I was with a headline in another periodical for art teachers which said, “Child’s growth is the chief concern.” If we can agree on this formulation, and I think we all can and should, I should like to analyze some art education tendencies of today which in my opinion need revision; and I should like to indicate other methods which seem to me possible and more profitable. Before going into details, first on art education and then on general education and why and how they both should be one thing, let me make a few general statements.

For most of the years I have been with art and art education, I have believed that art can be taught; but the more I paint and the longer I teach, the more I believe that art cannot be taught—at least not directly. I do not conclude that art cannot be learned, or that there should be no teaching which aims at art. On the contrary, experienced guidance is justly wanted and needed in art.

As I see it, art is visual formulation of our relationship and of our reactions to the world, to the universe, and to life. If such definition is acceptable, then all art studies are concerned on the one hand with the development of seeing the world, but not only the visible world around us. In this direction we aim at the ability to visualize and to read the meaning of forms and of shapes. In other words we are first concerned with seeing. On the other hand, there is the constant struggle with the means which convey our feeling, our vision; that is, there is the struggle of getting acquainted with appropriate materials, elements and tools, as well as with their proper selection and application. This all means a concern with formulation. Thus, the two basic aspects we have to deal with and in which we can offer help are seeing and formulating, or vision and articulation.

Since vision and articulation are the parents of art, self-expression in art which is to reveal purposely something through visual formulation is possible only at an advanced level, that is, after vision is developed, and after articulation is acquired, at least to some extent. Consequently, self-expression is not the beginning of art studies. I am aware that many art teachers are not sympathetic to such conclusions. I come to my conclusions through the following premises.

There is no verbal communication before we can produce sounds and words. And there is not writing before we have letters and types. For the same reason, there is no visual formulation as long as there is no visual articulation. Nobody considers inarticulate sounds of a child a language, and nobody accepts his scribblings as writing. But curiously enough, many are inclined to accept such scribblings as self-expression, and so, as art. I am sure we have good reasons to be excited about children’s drawing and paintings, about the directness and spontaneity, their simplicity and forcefulness, in short, the vitality of their trials. But all this and what else we may read into, or out of, children’s work, the child himself does not see nor does he read his work the way we read it.

Of course, children’s work can tell us many things about the child; but seen from the child’s purpose, its revelations are unintentional as self-confessions and are certainly undesired as self-disclosures. If the child would know about our conclusions we can draw from his work, he would be frightened and perhaps would stop altogether producing more. Slowly and finally, teachers are discovering that self-expression is something very different from self-disclosure.

Here we may clarify the vital forces which get the child to work. For this purpose we must distinguish between the urge to be occupied and the urge to be creative. Before I apply this distinction to our teaching of art, let me point to a sad experience which probably you all have had. Namely, many children whose paintings and drawings were most exciting and promising at the beginning are not at all so a few years later. This change occurs with the approach of puberty when the child starts to compare his achievements with the achievements of grown-ups. Then, too often, his work loses directness and spontaneity, and so, vitality, and he, consequently, loses enthusiasm and interest, and it seems, even his talents.

Why? This is my most important question today in analyzing the so-called self-expression attitudes (I refuse to call it teaching). Why do many children lose their interest in a field in which they enjoy so much to work, in which they showed promising gifts? Because, I think, we do not realize enough and do not support enough the natural evolution from the urge to be occupied to the urge to be creative.

To be creative is to compete with the Creator. It proves not only a misconception, but worse, a disrespect, to call doing anything creative. In its real meaning, being creative is to make discoveries and inventions, to have ideas and to be aware of them. If this is overlooked, we will fail to develop self-confidence in our pupils before such comparing of their work with that of grown-ups arrives.

I believe that only the child with self-confidence is able to overcome the danger of such comparing and is able to continue his interest and work. Self-confidence comes from a belief in one’s ability and from the thrill of its recognition. Without this positive belief, that is, without self-confidence, those comparisons will lead to discouragement, ending too often with a complete resignation from any art work.

We need not fear this resignation when we see to it that the child not only feels or guesses that he is learning and improving, but that he knows and, therefore, is sure about that he improves and why. The recognition of growth is not only the greatest excitement, but also the strongest incentive in all learning with young and old alike.

But don’t we force resignation, as I mentioned before, when we continue to insist that children’s art work should be left alone and remain unhampered by any direction and any guidance? When the aims or claims of art teaching for children are (as printed recently in another art teachers’ publication):

"An art expression that emerges from a stimulating intellectual environment"—"An art expression that has aesthetic values"—"An art expression that values subjective truth"—"An art expression that creates new forms"—"An art expression that enables one to meet new situations" and one more significant sentence: "Art that is derived from emotional living will have aesthetic value, and has no national boundaries. It communicates to sensitive people everywhere." In order not to be misunderstood, I must say with emphasis that I am all for a playful, unrestricted exploration at the beginning; but when this beginning is artificially prolonged to the dead end, then I feel obliged to point at the corpses proving such sad end.

Compare our art teaching with teaching in other fields; imagine the four "R’s" taught without direction, without systematic training, or in language, or history, or a study of music consisting only of self-expression without systematic and continuous exercises.

It is a psychological error to believe that art stems from feeling only. Art comes from the conscious, as well as from the subconscious – from both the heart and mind. If art is order, it is intellectual order as well as intuitive or instinctive order. Unfortunately there are people, teachers and students, afraid of the training of the conscious in art, afraid of the understandable in art. For those, I should like to say that clear thinking will not and can not interfere with genuine feeling; but it does interfere with prejudices, so often misinterpreted as feelings—and that’s all to the good. As in any other field of human endeavor, so is it worthwhile also in art to see and to think clearly. There are more reasons, psychological, sociological, and ethical, which keep me critical of an art expression derived from emotional living; but I prefer to turn now to some practical proposals.

I believe that in most art classes for children, there is much too much painting, or worse, too much picture making. There is too little drawing which develops the motor sense which is a very important sense for visualization. We should construct as much if not more than just modeling in clay which, in my opinion, is the poorest medium for the development of space conception. With this I come to direct forming in material, a forming which considers both sides of material, its capacity in construction studies and its appearance in formulation studies.

I know that teaching youngsters if very different from teaching college and university students, graduates and undergraduates.

I taught children exclusively, and I believe comprehensively, for eight years. Though this was not recently, I still have a picture of children, about what they can do, and what they want to achieve. Preparing this talk, I asked myself what I would do were I to teach again first-graders? I would look at them and with what they are most concerned in their exciting or strange new surroundings, namely, the school. So I chose their occupation with letters and words as a point of departure for my following project:

After the class of these first-graders has decided on what letter to work, we will draw that letter independent of its usual or habitual size—large, and extra-large. For instance, reaching precisely from the top edge of the paper to the bottom edge, then smaller and smaller, to very tiny. And making a contrast greater than advertising dares to do. With pencil and brush, crayon and ink, all the same letter, many, many times, all over the paper. After finding them naturally (first) in the middle of the paper, we find other placements; we separate them into groups, maybe with an empty middle of the paper – in groups moving beyond the paper, coming from the outside into the paper. Also, moving along the edges only, looking over the edges. Making them dancing, marching, and what not—all in one direction and in changing directions—left to right, and right to left—upward, as well as downward—quick and slow. Done in dots, interrupted lines, in looped and scalloped lines. Standing, lying, falling—standing on top of each other, leaning against each other, falling over each other, lying on their face or back or side. Or making them looking at each other, talking with each other, fighting with each other also.

In rows, with increasing and decreasing size, again in many directions, all in the same thickness of line, alternating in thin lines and thick lines, or increasing the thickness of line. With very courageous pupils, I would even try to write in the letters backwards, and in reversed direction. We emphasize precise shapes—we distort them after having the normal appearance, that the letters may indicate different moods, so that we can see them as human beings with different faces, different expressions, different behaviors. We might build with letters, fences and houses, group them into gardens or cities, in short use them with lots of imagination—with all tools available, in all the colors, and then with restricted colors—maybe pencil and only one color.

But, most important, every 10 minutes all work is put together in the middle of the floor as an exhibition, and we all sit around and relax, and compare, and criticize, to see where something exciting happened, where there are new ideas for trying something else. No matter whether the studies are finished or not, let’s see how different their approaches are, how different their successes are, their failings are. At another class, we choose another letter or two, and again make them behave in as many ways as we can think of, and we do them not only with pencil or with brush, but also in material, in string, in wire, in masking tape, in sand, and we will learn that the different materials dictate different kinds of form and shape—but we learn something of which we are aware.

Or at another time, we take a word—love, for instance—and we draw that word many times again, up and down, forward and backward, in all shapes and characters we can think of; or we all write the word love once on the paper as large as possible and decorate it as fancy as possible. Then we repeat the exhibition for comparison, and we find out which presentation (not representation) is the most "lovely" one, which reveals most care, which one evokes most attention.

After working with the letter and printed word, we may take up the symbol—the heart shape—which is a beautiful shape and not hard for the children to do. We do the same again as we did before, varying sizes, placement, different colors, in material, etc., etc.—all in hearts. The child, after some time of training, knows he can create and doesn’t need any papa or teacher to tell him “that’s well done”. If we don’t achieve that in a child, that is, he is sure about something that he can do, we will lose them all at thirteen or fourteen years.

I think it’s not hard to imagine that the aims and results of such directedfun and work are led by comparison and consequently by evaluation right from the beginning. By making writing and printing characters free from being looked at factually, namely as slaves doing nothing more than carrying words, we present a challenge to produce our own stories instead of following other stories by imitating or illustrating them. The children will early become aware of competition which will confront them all their lives, and that they have to justify their doings by finding out about more or less success and failure. The child will learn to compare not only work but people, and himself with others, and will discover what is easy or hard for him to do, what are his strong sides, his preferences and inclinations, and also his weak sides, and will come to some conclusions. We teachers will learn this way too, about children and about ourselves.

You see also that I prefer class projects to individual criticism, because it forces comparison which is the means for evaluation. With emphasis on placement we correspond to a constitutional and therefore important inclination of children, namely for order and orderliness. Any child confronted with a disorderly pile of things that his hands can easily move, will start right away to produce some order, and significantly, not on the flat dimensional plane on which he finds that pile, but perpendicular to it – in three dimensions – in space. Without being asked, he feels the urge to construct. Watch children doing something – even with the little dominoes which are supposed to lie on the table top. They don’t place them next to each other on a flat plane—instead they put them on top of each other. This proves the discovery of Gestalt psychology that the perception of volume is earlier and easier than the perception of planes, of shapes, of two-dimensional forms. But still, in most school programs, two-dimensional studies are placed before three-dimensional studies. Think it over.

My main advice is: instead of using paint exclusively and all the time, let us make things more than just perceiving them. All children will enjoy making dolls, for instance—making them from material of all kinds: from potatoes to buttons, from straw and paper to apples, etc., much more than only representing them.

Let the children make animals and flowers in three-dimensions before projecting them on a flat plane. Then cut them; then tear them; then paste them in paper, cardboard, corrugated paper, foil, etc., etc.

Have them build houses or gardens, circuses and fairs, or parts of them, etc., etc. And for a change make linear drawings from them, afterwards.

For arrangement studies (composition) give them again buttons, nails, toothpicks, or hairpins, etc. to be pasted on paper or board.

And play with finger paints, colorful fall leaves for decorative purposes, or strings and wire as linear means.

This is all to make the child aware, right from the beginning, that art is not merely flat projection or representation, but order of innumerable kinds. And most important, that fantasy and imagination, choice and selection, are the magic forces underlying all art.

Education, I believe, is the adjustment of the individual as a whole to the community and society as a whole. If this definition is comprehensive, then sound education is neither measured nor accomplished by academic standards. The prevailing system of education is antiquated. It carries still the pattern of the first organized education of the middle ages which was designed for small groups of highly selected intellectuals. Remaining in this pattern, it is unrelated to the mental and physical constitutions of the masses of students we are dealing with today.

If we want democratic education that is fair opportunity for all, then we must consider the manual type of student and the visual and the auditory type as much as the minority of intellectuals. To say it in a simpler way, we need to consider also the hand and eye and ear people and must provide development of their abilities. Concerning brain people, it seems significant that too often, those with the best memories hold the priority of success—that is, success in schools. And we are inclined to overlook that such success just as often ends with the end of school. Mere accumulation of facts, mostly so-called facts, I call possessive and uncreative teaching and learning.

On the opposite side, in creative, productive education the individual, the student, is the education material, its primary concern. Here the aim is alike for both students and teachers—namely, to discover and develop ability as well as to discover and develop human relations. In order to develop productive students, we need productive teachers. This is, to say it again and again, that the example of the teacher is the strongest medium of education. The indirect and therefore less obvious influence that is, the unintentional personal influence of the teacher’s being and doing is more effective and more contagious than many like to believe. Therefore, we may develop others best by developing ourselves. And, we as teachers have no right to demand from our students what we are not able or not willing to do ourselves. He who is and remains a student himself is justified to teach students.

How can we develop others when our own growth is arrested? If growth is the aim and the measure of development on the teachers’ as well as on the students’ side, it is also its excitement without which teaching is only a hard job and a sour bread.

All knowledge, theoretical and practical, is dead wood when it does not result in a positive attitude proved only in action. That is to say that the development of the will distinguishes education from information. Whitehead says that, "a merely well-informed person is the greatest bore on God’s earth".

The necessary counterbalance against one-sided over-intellectualization, over-memorizing and unrealistic retrospection is practical work. As long as education is not to be divorced from life participation in laboratory studies in experimentation and production, provided in schools so far mainly and unfortunately only in craft and art should be obligatory in all education, particularly in the so-called higher levels.

Practical work connects very directly with reality; it fulfills actual needs and provides easily the educationally so-important satisfaction of achievement. It responds to curiosity for experience as well as for information. It connects intellectual and manual work and workers. It develops judgment of usefulness, of quality, besides respect for material and labor, and so improves cultural and social conditions. It provides besides physical exercises, coordination within ourselves and with others better than any sport can do. It teaches by experience that insight and skill depend on observation as well as on thought. Through practical work and through art, we realize again that there is besides thinking in logical conclusions, a thinking in form and action which is just as important as thinking in figures and verbal terms. It may take time to convince a majority of pedagogues that practical work and practicing art represent essential parts of general and democratic education. More and more schools realize what the war and particularly its consequences have taught us, that the teaching of manual work and art answers a need signified by psychological and social, and therefore, basic conditions.

Historically seen, the task of education has remained the same – namely, human development. But it has changed in emphasis and methods. In its contents from a belief, to knowledge. In its aim from a spiritual, to an intellectual attitude. After having forgotten, so to speak, for too long, to care also about senses and hands, we recognize that we cannot neglect them much longer.

A tremendously growing interest in art everywhere reminds us that art remains the means and the measure of culture. The means for developing, and the measure for judging, culture. So, any education without art is no general education; and any art education not aiming at general education is no education. I conclude that the integration of both general education and the productive art education is a whole, namely education.

Paper presented at the Conference for Elementary and Secondary Teachers and Supervisors of Art, University of Illinois, Urbana.

March 15, 1952