Friday, November 19, 2010

A "Perceptual" Approach to Teaching the Visual Arts

photo by Hipnos
In Utah, the state's Office of Education provides two "goals" to direct how and what visual art teachers present in their classrooms.  These are "creating meaning in works of art" and "perceiving meaning in works of art."  These goals are then broken down into four "standards," namely Making, Perceiving, Expressing, and Contextualizing.  These standards are intended to "guide the student toward a deep and holistic comprehension of the Visual Arts."  (See Utah Arts Core.)

Unfortunately, Utah's visual art standards are inadequate.  While they may help students to express themselves and make cultural connections, they fail to demonstrate sufficient awareness of the skills required to create meaningful works of art and do not provide enough guidance for educators. It is this lack of structure that contributes to the devaluation of the arts in schools and is the primary reason that the arts are one of the first programs to be cut when funding is limited.

Something needs to change.

I've spent the past several months considering which standards I believe should guide the visual art classroom.  This has resulted in the following four guiding principles: Perception, Knowledge, Mastery, and Creativity.   I call it a "Perceptual" approach to teaching the visual arts, and it is based on precepts taught by Leonardo da Vinci, who stated that "all our knowledge has its origin in our perceptions."  It emphasizes visual intelligence and technical skills at younger ages and provides opportunities for greater creativity as students mature.

Following is a brief summary of this Perceptual Approach:


Above all, an artist must develop the ability to “perceive” the world around him, which is to gain an awareness of nature through the senses, primarily the eyes.  Perceiving is shaped by preconceptions and biases, so it becomes necessary for the art teacher to instruct the student how to perceive accurately.  Perceptual ability can be simplified into palatable concepts (which I simply call Percepts) that should be emphasized in lesson plans.  These Percepts include the "elements" of art, such as line, value, and color, as well as many more advanced concepts, especially the "behavior" of light and complex visual-spatial relationships .  An extensive, but open-ended list of perceptions should be developed and provided to art educators.

(Note:  "Perception" as used in Utah State's core standards refers to the ability to criticize and evaluate works of art and does not refer to the student's awareness of nature.  This marks a sharp difference between the State's approach to the visual arts and a Perceptual Approach.)


As the artist becomes aware of nature, the door is opened for inquiry and learning. This Standard emphasizes that students should take time to contemplate that which has been perceived. Questions are asked and answers are discovered through inquiry, experience, and reason.  In turn, as one gains greater knowledge of an object or concept, she becomes better able to perceive greater details and gain deeper knowledge.  Therefore, it is the responsibility of the art teacher to pass knowledge (Menes) on to her students and to provide opportunity for contemplation and inquiry so that the student might interpret and adapt the knowledge to their own experiences.


Mastery is the ability of the artist to render his perceptions successfully in his desired medium. Mastery is obtained through practice.  It is the development of technique through imitation, rehearsal, and trial and error.  Without mastery, the student lacks the ability to express that which he perceives.


Creativity is often misunderstood by both students and teachers alike.  Frequently, creativity is mistaken for "self-expression."  Students often complain that a particular art lesson "stifles" their creativity because it requires them to draw or paint a way to which they are not accustomed and does not allow them to complete the work the way they want.  But in truth, the student who limits his perceptions, knowledge, or techniques actually lacks the ability to be creative. For example, an artist who has entirely practiced abstract painting techniques may one day wish to paint a realistic human figure, but would lack the ability to do so.  The artist must then seek knowledge and mastery of new techniques in order to accomplish this new goal.

Creativity is the culmination of choices that an artist makes in producing a work of art, therefore the artist who is capable of the most choices has the greatest creative advantage.  An art teacher should structure lessons so that students first take a disciplined approach to developing Perceptions, Knowledge, and Mastery, and then provide opportunities for the student to use those abilities in  unique and personal ways.

I propose this now, not because I think it is the best or only solution, but with the challenge of discussion and debate, and the possibility of advancing the arts in education.

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