Notes on the Mona Brookes Drawing with Children course

This is a structured drawing programme for children. In the past when I’ve taught kindergarten (nursery school) and elementary (primary) age children art, I came from the philosophy of throwing various art supplies at the kids and letting them play. The Mona Brookes idea is to teach students realistic drawing in a systematic, structured way, and from a very early age; four and five years old. There are two main things to say about the book: In terms of understanding the problems people who have not drawn much face, and practical, useful ways to overcome those problems, it is absolutely outstanding. And secondly, it is a book of ideas and suggestions, not a strictly structured course of lessons, so more suitable for the experienced teacher.

I have not tried her course yet, but I’ll be introducing it to the kids this September. I was a little concerned this would kill their own creativity and artistic style, but she says:

All five-year-olds are ready to add the joy of representational drawing to their lives. They will continue to draw stick figures and wonderful symbolic images by themselves until eight or nine years of age. Symbolic drawing is a natural process, but does not lead to drawing realistically. Teaching the basics of realistic drawing does not interfere with free symbolic expression. The two are different subjects, and you can encourage them both.

Mona Brookes, Drawing with Children, p.20

So here are my notes on how to put her course into practice:

Guiding Philosophy

  • It is acceptable to teach children the fundamentals of visual art, just as we give children basic instruction in music, dance, and all the other arts. There is a popular notion that structured lessons in the visual arts will stifle free expression – I’m sympathetic to this, as in China where I now live it is the norm to see art classes of forty kids all producing identical artwork, every last stroke replicated. However, looking at the work produced by Brookes’ students this doesn’t seem to be the case with her course, and as she says, this doesn’t apply to other subjects (not just music and dance, you wouldn’t let kids play basketball, write a story or do long division without teaching them the fundamentals).
  • In learning to draw, it’s fine to copy other images. This is aimed at the popular myth that ‘real artists draw from their imaginations,’ whereas in fact everyone uses reference images all the time.
  • The skill of drawing should be broken down into basic components, so as to give students tools to analyse complex visual data (in the same way we teach them the twelve basic tones of music): Any object can be broken down into five ‘elements of shape’ (see below). This means the students can interpret these general shapes (and not be intimidated by a complex subject), yet at the same time the details are their own and so they do not lose their personal artistic style. ‘Every child could achieve realistic representation of the subjects to be drawn, and yet every drawing was creatively different.’
  • The learning environment is as important as the technical information provided. It is a noncompetitive, nonjudgmental classroom – there are no comparisons, no criticisms… And no praise. [Note: I praise all the students in my classes frequently, and find merits in all their work. This aspect is going to be very difficult for me to implement.] As far as possible, the students work in complete silence. [Note: This is going to be even more challenging.] Although there are no comparisons allowed, children are encouraged to get up, walk around, and look at other students work in order to learn from each other.
  • ‘Encourage a balance between relaxation and concentration with children, if they have difficulty. Some [children] may not be quite ready [to move on to more sophisticated volume drawing]. Continue with contour drawing projects, and reintroduce the idea every two to three months until they find their way. Their is no “right” age to be “ready”, so there’s no hurry.’ I am a big fan of this.

Lesson plan overview

To give you an idea of how one of her classes works, here’s the lesson overview from page 114, then I’ll go over each bit in detail:

WARMING UP

  • Do body and eye relaxation exercises.
  • Review the five elements of contour shape.
  • Do some kind of warm-up drawing exercise.

PLANNING

  • Arrange your sample materials.
  • Choose the paper and supplies.
  • Imagine your main subject in the drawing.
  • Imagine whole compositions.
  • Project them on the blank piece of paper.
  • Make preliminary sketches of your ideas.

BEGINNING

  • Choose the central point to start with.
  • Project that starting point onto the blank paper.
  • Observe the elements and duplicate them.
  • Go to the adjacent part next.
  • Observe those elements and duplicate them.
  • Draw what is in front first.
  • Draw the general shape of an object first.
  • Draw the objects first and then add backgrounds.

FINISHING TOUCHES

  • Add the details of the objects.
  • Add colour, shading, and textures.
  • Add background ideas.

Before class starts…

So before you even start teaching there are a few things you need to prepare. To train students in figurative drawing Brookes uses a lot of 2d images. Some of these you photocopy from the textbook, but she also advises teachers to start an image collection – have folders full of animals, buildings, landscapes, objects that the kids can draw from, the larger the image the better. And best to start collecting these as soon as possible.

For a silent lesson you have to win the students over first. Having complete silence during the lesson is going to take some work, so step one of this is before the class even starts get the students enthusiastic about the class. Once they are on your side, and are keen to learn realistically, they should be more willing to have silent art classes if you make it clear it’s a condition of learning. I’m planning on showing them examples of children’s art from her book and saying to the class, ‘do you want to draw like this?’ Then explain that takes concentration, and concentration means silence. Brookes says that she makes a deal with her class, that she won’t talk during class time either unless it is directly related to a student’s artwork. And also that students will be given one warning, if they are caught talking again they are moved. She says that if silence is strictly enforced for a few weeks it will then come naturally, students will appreciate it and can happily go for one and a half hour without talking. I am very skeptical about all this, but at the same time very keen to give it a go.

Art supplies – her medium of choice is quality felt tip pens, plus extra black drawing markers. Two kinds of paper, scrap paper (US = scratch paper) for testing and planning, and thick sketch paper.

Course overview

Start each lesson with five to ten minutes of relaxation exercises, she has examples including an odd ‘eye relaxation’ example. I’m very uncertain about whether this will work or not.

One criticism that I’ve seen a lot of the book is that she’s very vague about actual lesson plans, but there are some online resources for this: This one is linked to a nature journal.

The Five Elements of Contour Shape

The Five Elements are at the heart of Brookes’ course. ‘The elements give you the information you need to re-create any shape, whether simple or complex, on a piece of paper… Students report that seeing the edges of everything in terms of these five elements of shape is the main thing that got them to relax and feel confident.’

(What she means by ‘angle lines’ is that it’s still one stroke of the pen, just it changes direction in the middle.)

So the first few lessons teach should teach these elements with an ‘abstract art’ warm up exercise. You say to the class, ‘Draw a line from one edge of the page to the other, now draw three circles imposed on or touching that line’ and so on, by the end of the exercise every student should have their own unique work that is fun and has reinforced the five elements.

The next step is to draw something ‘real’, so following the same idea ‘Draw a curved line’ and so on, the students build their own bird with the five elements, it should come out looking something like this:

This image is from Curriculum Choice, which also has a great review of the book

Through similar exercises, copying line drawings of animals to create their own compositions, the students should have grasped the Five Elements.

Then there are some great tips, things that I didn’t think about but actually must be a real problem for a lot of students:

  • Where to start a drawing?
  • How to deal with a mistake? (Transform it into something else).
  • Imagining the final image on the blank page (having been drawing for so long, I forgot that non-drawers don’t do this, and it’s really helpful).
  • Use a test paper next to your main drawing so you can try out different shapes, colours and techniques.
  • Vary thick and thin lines for interest.
    And my favourite:
  • She has a few pictures by famous artists that are not physiologically accurate, but through exaggeration of the face and body convey mood. Her point is to get across to students that art is about communicating an emotion and atmosphere, not being photo-realistic (which anyway can kill a drawing). If you want photo-realism take a photo. I’m sure the students will find this as liberating as I do.

Drawing from a still life

Once the students have fully grasped the idea of structure and drawing elements from looking at line drawings, the next step is to use those same skills but looking at a three dimensional still life. Here the main challenge is to get the students to see the elements of shape on real objects.

There are two bits I really like from this section:

She says to let the students arrange the objects themselves. This is a little thing, but I think it shows her experience in the classroom. I know from my own limited experience that letting them do this will completely change their attitude to the task, they’ll feel in control and be more confident starting the drawing.

Secondly, she says to skip colour theory, ‘Give free reign to your colour choices. After years of working with people on colour theories, I find they usually know best what they want and are capable of working out beautiful ideas that don’t quite fit any of the theories.’ I have taught colour theory, and it does always seems to restrict students’ creativity, they end up going by the rules. This really gives me confidence in the course: Use rules when it’s a necessary learning tool, as in drawing step-by-step, element-by-element, but when those rules get in the way and sever no pedagogical purpose (like colour theory), skip it.

Once the students have thoroughly grasped contour drawing, they can move on to volume and shading. It’s important (Brookes says) not to rush into this, as students without confidence in line drawing will feel lost if they are thrown straight into shading volume but without the structural basics.

Volume and Shading

Once students have mastered drawing contour edges they move on to volume and shading. ‘In volume drawing, the contrast between areas of light and dark or differences in texture form the edges of objects.’ Brookes begins this by using simple black and white to teach drawing positive and negative space. The students have to draw a ‘photo negative’ version of a diagram like this:

Image fromvthis blog, a family in Santa Monica employing the Charlotte Mason method, worth checking out.

This is a very simple yet very clever way to do it. The next step is to present a still life with a white background and get the students to just draw the negative space around the object. Such a great way to transition into this idea of drawing. Students then progress through grey variations to a full colour still life emphasizing negative space (tiger lilies).

… And the rest of the book

Chapter 5 ‘Widening Your Horizons’ goes over colour mediums (fairly useful) to abstract art (not something I’d use, but it may be your thing). The latter part of the chapter is on drawing people, including portraits and drawing from live models, but considering this is the hardest thing to do in art this seems strangely rushed over. She suggests the ‘circle and tube’ method, where you simplify the human body into spheres and cylinders, but I tried this with the students and it didn’t work – they drew the people as sphere’s and cylinders, but didn’t go back and draw details and muscles and folds of clothing, just left them as a bunch of robots. But again, maybe the students have by this point been given enough of a foundation that they are as confident in tackling a human subject as they are a still life.

That is the end of the course. There are several other chapters at the back of the book, the first of which is Reaching Special Education and At Risk Students, and is an excellent introduction to art therapy for special needs children. Brookes has substantial experience in this area, and clearly lays out the different problems you may face and how to solve them. If you are thinking of becoming involved in this kind of teaching, the advice here reads like pure gold.

The last chapter is on using drawing to teach other subjects. This is something I did when I was young, and it seems to have already been incorporated into mainstream curricula as my son’s school work (various American elementary level home-school programmes) all use it. In literature, they draw characters and scenes, maps of the main locations, that kind of thing. Science class is similarly visual. Drawing with Children was first published in 1996, so it may be the rest of the world catching up with her.

Conclusion

Outstanding, many great ideas that I’m going to use in the classroom. However, the above was written without ever actually teaching the content, I am extremely curious to see if her method actually works, if the students will accept the ideas in this course. If they do, I’ll update here and shout Brooke’s praises.

19.09.04 Lesson 1

Ok, I’m going to sing her praises :) We just had the first lesson, and it went like clockwork, that was completely unexpected – so here’s how it went.

I gathered all the kids outside first, age range 7 – 11, and explained we were going to do a new course that would teach them to draw in a realistic way, but there were a few odd conditions – most importantly no talking during class – complete silence. They were up for it.

Then I did the physical relaxation exercises – stretching, rubbing the temples, etc. I thought this was a bit of an odd idea, but the kids were really into it, and it was a good transition into the class. Then we lined up outside the classroom, and the rule was as soon as they stepped through the doorway there is nothing but complete silence, unless they raise their hand. I’m the only one talking.

And it worked! The students were quiet and concentrated for over an hour. I should have ended it sooner in retrospect, I was just so happy they were into it. So they spend most of the time doing these, the tests, with emphasis on taking their time and copying exactly:

One important tip! Though the students were silent throughout, we played classical music to help them concentrate. It helped a lot.

Once that was done I introduced the 5 Elements (there’s a poster up on the wall to) and we went round the classroom matching real things to the shapes (so the globe was the dot, a cup was the circle etc). Then we practised using the 5 Elements with this sheet:

I told them to (silently) mouth the words for each element as they drew it. This was overrunning the hour, and they started to lose concentration. In retrospect this part should definitely have been moved to the next lesson. I’ll know for next time. But all in all, outstanding. And they all had a sense of accomplishment. Fingers crossed it continues this way, and wasn’t just the novelty of something new that made them concentrate so.

19.09.18 Lesson 2

Overall the students were not as settled as the first lesson: They now know what’s involved, and so the magic and expectation has worn off. But still, most of them stayed silently working for an hour which is something of a small miracle.

So we started off with exercises, as to my surprise this worked well and was a good way to ease them into the lesson. They could still chat and make jokes during the body exercises, but it was all quiet for the face exercises.

Warm-up: Body

  • Hands in the air in a “w”, then push arms directly back as far as possible.
  • Hands on hips, lean back as far as you can go.
  • Kneeling in the ‘marriage proposal’ position, lean forward over the knee.
  • Touch toes.

Warm-up: Head

  • Rotate head as far as it will go x3
  • Scrunch up nose as much as possible
  • Form mouth into a stretched ‘o’ in a silent scream.
  • Massage temples.

Then into the class, the rule being as soon as they cross the threshold into the classroom there is absolutely no talking. They can raise their hand if they want to ask a question, that’s it.

First thing was doing the ‘mirror exercises’, completing the following images:

(A print version is at the end of this lesson review)

For the last two blank ones, they had to invent a simple mirror image for the person on their left to do (limited to a maximum of five simple shapes).

Next we went over the 5 Elements again, and this time used them to make abstract images. Important note: For this exercise use A5 paper – we used A4 and it’s just too much space to colour in with felt tip pens.

  • Draw three straight lines from one edge of the page to the other (parallel or crossed).
  • Draw three dots (= filled in circles).
  • From the centre of one of the dots draw a curved line (or a series of curved lines = a wavy line) to the edge of the paper.
  • Draw a circle. It must touch something you have drawn.
  • Colour it in. As noted, we were using A4 so skipped this part.  

And amazingly that was it, that took us through the first hour. I asked for feedback, and they said it’s very interesting, but they find the imposition of silence (I had to hand out warnings and a timeout) too strict.

19.09.25 Lesson 3

Today was tricky because we had many new students, so first I got the students who’d been through lesson 1 and 2 to explain what we were doing, how classes were run (silence etc) and what the purpose of this course is (realistic drawing skills).

Then for the benefit of the new students I showed them the basic idea of Monart, that anything can be broken down into basic shapes, through the medium of… Fuzzy felt!

Then I let the students have a go. I handed out bags of shapes, each bag having duplicates of every shape:

And then told them to create two images using an identical selection of shapes. This was not so successful, most came up with an abstract mess or ‘fruit bowl,’ the clearest images were these two:

This section had all been done in the usual atmosphere of chatting and laughing. For the next section, I got them to first do the exercises, and then come back into the classroom in complete silence. We then drew the bird from the Monart textbook:

Image source.

The drawing section went well, the bird image reinforcing the five elements. However, I asked them to use watercolours to colour in rather than felt tips (last time A4 was just too much space to cover with coloured pens). But this changed the atmosphere – the paint is hard to control and the students became slapdash. I see now why Brookes insists on felt tip pens, and won’t veer from these in the future (though I will use small pieces of paper).

And that was it. The watercolour broke the mood of concentration, we moved onto crafts instead.

19.10.02 Lesson 4

Before the silence of the ‘quiet time’ art lesson I first got the students to discuss what they knew about coral reefs and their experiences snorkeling on holiday. In the background I played a video of a real coral reef: The kids are always mesmerised by a screen, and it put them in the right frame of mind.

I then had a powerpoint of a series of images of reef fish and coral, and we went through a few looking at the 5 Elements, where’s a circle, where’s a curved line and so on.

Since they’d been running around anyway in the break, we skipped the exercises and went right into the class – dead silence, classical music playing. The first exercise was to copy a line drawing of a reef fish as accurately as possible. They could each choose a different one, youngest choose first:

Just images I grabbed off google and printed on A4

This they did fairly successfully, and there seemed to be a lot more confidence in execution. Occasionally I’d point out where a copied image was glaringly out of proportion and get them to correct it, but on the whole really not bad.

As I’d explained in the beginning discussion, the idea was for them to create a combined class montage of a coral reef. So I gave them A4 white cardstock, and got them to create their own fish and coral images, and told them to colour in their designs (leaving the ‘water’ blank as that would be cut away).

I also explained (as per the Monart book) that artists visualise their final piece on the blank page before they start, this planning prevents things being squashed into the corner of the page or having too much space elsewhere. This didn’t seem to sink in – have to figure out a way to get this across in a later lesson.

This had mixed success. Some of the students collected the reference line art from the first part of the class and created careful reef images. Others went back to their old way of drawing, the most extreme example being a seven-year-old who made an undersea city (Spongebob-style) of wonky block buildings, with no fish and no coral.

That wasn’t so important, as what I wanted to concentrate on this time was the colouring in. So I explained we were trying for blocks of colour, to carefully outline the interior of shapes and then speed up toward the middle, rather than a rough scrawl with lots of white space. Some students got it first time, others had to be reminded several times before they went back and filled in the shapes carefully. This is something we’ll need to repeat.

19.10.10 Lesson 5

Before the lesson proper I held up images from several books – a realistic illustration of a princess’s horse and carriage, a photo of a frog and a shark, and went round the class pointing to each section getting them to say which of the five elements each piece is.

Then we did the physical relaxation exercises, but in the classroom this time – it worked fine, and the students are getting into the swing of things now, there was much less joking, it’s become part of the routine.

I then gave them this image from page 101 of the Brookes textbook:

An A4 print version is available below

I printed this out on A4 for each student, gave them an A4 blank page and told them to copy it exactly. This is very challenging, a big step up from the bird from Lesson 3 which looks like this:

Source: Basic Drawing Skills on halfahundredacrewood.com, this is a great page worth a visit

And I made the comparison to the students, saying this is a lot more challenging but look at your progress, look at how in just a couple weeks we’ve already made this big leap toward more realistic drawing. And it sunk in, I could tell they were proud of their progress and keen to continue. Which was just thrilling to see.

So they needed very little nudging to get into the silence of the lesson, nearly the entire class went dead quiet, concentrating hard on copying the image. There were two really interesting takeaways from this lesson:

One: Two students out of ten found the task too difficult, and went back to the simpler coral reef images to practise. This I half expected, but what was interesting is that it was not determined by age, one was seven years old and one was nine, but the youngest kids in the class are six.

Two: Some students take to this method like ducks to water. The youngest student in the class, six years old, has no real confidence in drawing and often does rough scribbles just to get through the task, putting no effort into their drawing. However, he concentrated really hard on this mechanical copying and did a great job, producing one of the best reproductions in the class. Just amazing. For me this means that while this practice is a necessary step toward learning realistic, figurative draftsmanship, as with all things it suits some personalities more than others.

I showed them the sample completed image from the book:

Sample completed image from p100

And explained they had to copy every line from the original exactly, but that after that they cold embellish the image (give the parakeet a crest etc) and add the leaves and branches as they wished. None of the students finished their drawings within the hour, so we will continue with this next week.

This is the first week I felt the students really ‘get it’, get what the course is about and how it works. The thing I’m curious and a little nervous about is going from copying 2d images to observing still life. If that works, if they can make the jump from copying to observed drawing, then the course will have worked.

Oh, another quick thing. Starting from the last lesson several students saw the complexity of the task and tried tracing, putting the blank paper over the image to be copied. They tried it this week too. Very important to explain that tracing accomplishes nothing, and that copying the image is what improves their drawing skills.

Other resources:
A 25 lesson course for Drawing with Children (very useful, unfortunately I found it after I’d made my own)

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