Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Picture Study Wednesdays

            In an earlier post about our Tuesday Poet-Teas, I mentioned the rhythm of our weeks, and how comforting it is to small ones (and me!) to have certain things in the week to look forward to. Our Wednesday Picture Studies are another fun piece of structure and Charlotte Mason style learning that we all look forward to. I never cease to be amazed at the rapt attention of the children, ages 8 through almost 14,  as they gather around to look at a masterpiece I hold before them, and at their attention to detail and how their observations become deeper as they become familiar with the artist’s style and body of work.

Charlotte believed that education should be a feast for children, exposing them to a rich array of ideas, and that even young children are capable of appreciating fine works of art much more deeply than we give them credit for. She was keen on teaching children to really notice things around them, and picture study is a wonderful way to cultivate that habit and expose them to a culture of art appreciation that they’d not naturally seek out or be immersed in.

“By this sort of culture I mean, not so much the getting of knowledge, not even getting the power to learn, but the cultivation of the power to appreciate, to enjoy, whatever is just, true and beautiful in thought and expression.” (Charlotte Mason, Formation of Character.)

It sounds daunting, but is surprisingly easy, and takes about 15 minutes each week. While some folks use fine art prints made from internet websites, we’ve been helped greatly by a beautiful Picture Study Portfolio purchased from SimplyCharlotteMason.com. In general, one artist per term is chosen for study, and care is taken not to study the artists in chronological order. I chose Rembrandt for our first picture study experience, and ordered a Picture Study Portfolio that held 8 (beautiful!) full-color works printed on heavy, coated stock, and a booklet that contains instruction and a brief artist biography, as well as leading questions and a bit of information about each painting.

We read the biography first, in two short sittings, and began our study. Ideally, each child would have their own copy of each painting studied, and now additional copies are available through SCM. We have just one copy of each masterpiece, and while it’s perhaps not ideal, it’s worked. I slip the week’s masterpiece into a plastic sleeve to protect it from fingerprints (I want it to be handled once we've discussed it), and then I sit in the center of my group of guys, and ask them to silently look at the painting and see what they can notice about it. I don’t tell them the title of the painting or what it’s depicting – that comes later! Sometimes they’re excited and start to gush; they have to learn to wait, and quietly study for a few minutes. When everyone is ready, I turn the painting over, and ask what the kids noticed.

Some take great pains to remember the wardrobe, or the faces, or the expressions. They’ve learned to notice the source of light, and who is most emphasized by it, and to guess at the artist’s motivations. These things didn’t come naturally at first; a few leading questions (some are included in the guide) help jog their memories and spur their thoughts. The Wrestler studied Rembrandt’s self portrait and mused that the artist was honest in his assessment of himself; the Musician has taken a special interest in noting how the artist uses light. My very visual smallest learner takes special joy in this study, and notices things that escape the rest of us.

Once everyone has shared their observations, I tell the children the title of the painting and give them a few more details about it. Sometimes there’s a coordinating Bible passage listed in the guide, as in The Return of the Prodigal Son, and this deepens our appreciation. We don’t go deeply into technique or art history; this is a time to notice and enjoy.

            “We cannot measure the influence that one or another artist has upon a child’s sense of beauty, upon his power of seeing, as in a picture, the common sights of life; he is enriched more than we know in having really looked at even a single picture.” Charlotte Mason, Home Education.

When we’re done with the masterpiece of the day, I place the picture on the wall, along with the others in our growing (decidedly unglamorous) gallery of Rembrandts. If each child had his own copy, he could put them in a binder, and have a small, portable gallery. Many people display just one masterpiece at a time, but we’ve also seen a benefit to leaving the pictures displayed together. Just last week, the Musician was sitting quietly at the table after a meal, studying the pictures, when he observed, “Rembrandt liked to use a lot of red in his paintings. Look at how much red there is in each picture.”

He was right. Not an earth shattering observation, but it showed me that he is looking, noticing and appreciating these beautiful pieces. A visiting friend with a degree in art history commented on the shapes used in the compositions of each piece – see the triangle in that one, the circle in another? Perhaps tomorrow, when the children have all made their oral observations, I’ll ask if they noticed any shapes in the way the figures are arranged, and then our wall gallery will offer a place where they can notice more shapes, should they choose to do so later.

If you've tried picture study at your house, I'd love to hear what works for you; please do share!
Breakfast is calling, and it’s already been noted that apple cider and pumpkin cookies, leftover from last night’s dinner, would be the perfect snack to go with our Poet-Tea today. I agree.

Wishing you a blessed day, and
            Trusting in Him,

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