Black & White - Art in the middle grades

The Waldorf art curriculum is smartly designed to meet children where they’re at in each phase of their development. If we provide children with the right tools at the right time, the whole experience nourishes them on a deep level.

In the early grades (1-4) students live in a playful artistic realm. The experience of playing with colors and finding basic form is more nourishing than technique and detail.

Students use art as an extension of their imaginations and the stories they hear. Around fifth grade, students are learning about ancient civilizations and how art was used as a method of communication and story telling. From early cave art to the hieroglyphics of Egypt and the mandalas of ancient India, the painting and drawing styles were full of imagery and color. Early art tends to also be fairly two dimensional. It's primary purpose was to tell a story, honor the gods, and represent culture. This is perfect for a child (such as the average 5th grader) who is on the verge of puberty but still lives in the imaginative world of childhood. 

As puberty sets in, the child moves away from the colorful imagery of these ancient peoples into a world of realism and perspective. From the beginnings of civilization and the golden age of Greece the curriculum moves toward the fall of Rome as children enter the 6th grade. Their arrival in Rome begins the next phase of artistic expression.

Teaching art (or any subject!) in the middle school is challenging yet meaningful work. Students generally are starting to compare their own work with that of others. They are also realizing that they are very different from each other. Each student is on his/her own journey both internally and externally. Most of us remember the battles we faced each day in middle school. The inner struggle to understand how and why the body is changing is contrasted by the outer struggle to find one’s place socially. The child is thrust into a world of polarity. These polarities are often expressed verbally by middle school students. “I HATE my drawing!” “This is SO TOTALLY fun!” “My teacher has NEVER liked me!” “This is the BEST class!”

There may be no better way to meet this moment in their development than to introduce the polarities of black and white drawing along with the multitude of greys that come with studying the nuances of light and dark.

Students begin to study optics in Physics and using a phenomenological approach are encouraged to look at the world as infinite expressions of light and dark. By learning to see light and shadow and positive/negative space, elements of realism and depth begin to emerge. 6th graders are also generally hungry to learn technique. “It doesn’t look right” is the most common complaint I hear from middle school art students. Their ultimate goal is to make their drawing match what they see (either in reality or in their mind’s eye). Learning how to effectively use lines and shading helps the students become better able to draw what they see, as everything we see is based on relationships between light and dark.  Black and white drawing, with it's emphasis on using lights and darks to shade & add depth, is the best way to help them begin to achieve more realism in their art work. This new skill meets the children perfectly as they are beginning to see their social environment through their own internal polarity lenses. Things are fair or not fair, someone is telling the truth or they are lying. That experience was either the BEST, or the WORST. Sound familiar?

Emotions tend to run hot and cold at this age. Socially, students tend to feel “in” or “out.” As teachers, we strive to have the experience of the grey scale between light and dark be therapeutic for them, on a deeper unspoken level. While black and white is the main theme at the start of adolescence, the shades of gray in between hint at the next stages of complexity in the development of the human being. As students move beyond the 6th grade towards the end of middle school, vanishing points will expand artistic horizons and bring an entirely new perspective in the grades to come.

~Brian Wolfe

 

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