Why I’m bad at art

At the age of 16, I sat my GCSE exams. I gained ‘A’ grades in English Language, Literature, Maths, ‘Double’ Science, History and Geography and I gained a ‘C’ grade in German. I also gained ‘E’ grades in Art and Technology.

The technology result is easy to explain. The rules were changed halfway through the course meaning that my project was no longer valid. I then lost interest and took advantage of the open plan department to dodge work and talk to girls. I have a strange inverted pride in this. The art result, however, is still a source of shame.

Halfway through my final year of GCSE, I switched from drawing and painting to photography – something I pursued as a hobby with my father. I then failed to submit any of these photos with my portfolio, preferring to take them home. Why did I do this?

I had a negative view of art. From the vantage point of 2016, you might say that I had a ‘fixed mindset’. I believed that people were either good or bad at art and that I possessed no talent. What’s worse, my father was quite an accomplished artist in his youth and so I felt I’d let him down.

Looking back, I can only remember being taught one thing in all of my art lessons.

The kind of art ‘teaching’ that I had was, I believe, typical of many. We all did lots of art in primary school. There were plenty of pictures to paint and draw but the focus was the whole activity. The instructions were ‘draw a picture about…’, either as a standalone task or to illustrate some academic work. The methods of doing this were not addressed.

This continued at secondary school. We would be introduced to clay or printing but we were then on our own when it came to figuring out what to cut, shape or draw. 

At fourteen, I had an inspirational art teacher. He welded human size robots out of scrap metal and he played Frank Zappa records during the lesson. For most of the year, we worked in groups to make giant heads but when we had finished that, he took the time to teach us about perspective. I was introduced to the ‘vanishing point’, something I use today when drawing physics diagrams. I realised that there were techniques that you could learn that would improve the quality of your drawing. And so I chose art GCSE.

Unfortunately, it was downhill from there. We would be given objects to draw still-life; trumpets, vases and so on. My friend Paul was really good at this. I compared my drawings with Paul’s and found them wanting. He had talent and I did not. The teacher spent her time with Paul, helping him refine his work – I think there was some discussion of a competition.

I have always assumed that art just is this way. It’s about talent. Despite reading ‘Mindset’, writing about explicit teaching and advocating for a balanced curriculum that includes art, I didn’t join the dots. But two things have changed my view and made me realise that art is just like everything else.

Firstly, my daughter came home with a picture she had drawn at school. I was blown away by it because I had never drawn three-dimensional objects at the age of six. “We’ve been learning about shading,” she explained. She has a specialist art teacher.

And then I read this blog post by the Michaela Art Department and caught a glimpse of how art education could be.

I understand the arguments against actually teaching art; that it inhibits creativity, that art is about so much more than just painting and drawing, that everyone is creative in their own way. Yet my free, creative art education has left me feeling like I have no talent. And nobody claims that teaching shading techniques is teaching the whole of art. Reading is about much more than turning letters into sounds but turning letters into sounds is an essential prerequisite. 

This fluffy, creative approach that prioritises doing art over teaching it is actually quite cruel. It lets nature takes its course. It’s ruthlessly Darwinian. It constantly throws young Greg’s up against young Paul’s, highlighting the chasm in talent and offering no strategies for bridging the gap. It acts like a twelve year selection process; a filter. 

Art is a vital part of our culture. It is our birthright. Let’s teach it properly and open it up to all.


9 thoughts on “Why I’m bad at art

  1. Pingback: Art can be taught: On knowing, doing and thinking Art | the édu flâneuse

  2. Interesting. I gained level 5 in year 6 maths and also an A in Maths Gcse. I suffered from the other end of fixed mindset: believing I was naturally good at maths. I could recall times tables and key facts in a flash and remembered all the strategies I had been taught. However as Maths became trickier at A level, I struggled. I was most certainly taught in a procedural way – show me a strategy and I could repeat it.

    In that way, I appreciate more time for reasoning and problem solving in Primary curriculum – puts a lot more emphasis on using and thinking rather than merely doing.

    Certainly there’s a balance. I’m ensuring the children in my class are fluent but I’m seeing a lot more maths thinking, explaining and solving in this (dare I say it) creative approach for Maths. I wish I’d had that and a little less focus on answers/strategies.

    Still, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    • But you were good at maths. And being so capable meant that you could reason. I taught history and I found that explicit teaching of knowledge allowed students eventually to think about historical events and discuss them. There is not a lot you can say about events without specific knowledge
      Similarly there is not a lot you can do with maths unless you have specific knowledge of its foundations.

  3. Tempe says:

    Great approach. Those examples from Michalea are very good. At our schools art is depressing. Talk about lack of creativity. It boarders on colouring in. Teaching students to “see” and techniques are ignored.

    The greatest artist tended to be those who were draftmans or learnt traditional techniques which, once mastered, became confident to “break the rules” and follow their own creative spirit. I’m inspired to take up classes myself if they were proper ones.

  4. Bess Chilver says:

    My experience of art in school was very similar – which meant I did not choose to follow it as a course of study at GCSE, opting instead for Craft Design and Technology. I had been drawing and sketching very well from a young age but the art in school never honed those skills.
    In my last year at primary school, I found the hobby of Calligraphy. My dad found me books on the subject so I could teach myself.

    In my 6th form I was asked by another teacher to do a few pieces of calligraphy for her and another teacher asked if I’d do a piece of poetry in Calligraphy in memory of one the students at the school who had died in a car crash two years previously. I was allowed to use the Art room to do the various pieces of work in some of my spare periods. The Head of Art loved what I was doing and asked me why I had not taken up GCSE or A Level Art.

    I said that what was being “taught” in Art in either course was not the kind of Art I did. There was no instruction on HOW to draw or paint or whatever. CDT did introduce me to what originally was called Technical Drawing so I had some kind of foundation. Yet I STILL was unfamiliar with anatomical drawing which is a discipline in itself. I did not like the wishy washy idea of a “express yourself” without some kind of firm foundation to draw on.

    I was pleasantly surprised but rather sad, to find out from the Head of Art that he absolutely agreed with me. He didn’t like the curriculum he had to teach and wanted to teach proper art. He said that learning the foundation skills of perspective, anatomical drawing, shading etc etc would allow students to find their creativity as they could then “break” the rules in their art work.

    Struck me as very sad that a person who chose to teach art was not allowed to *teach* it. In my case, I don’t do calligraphy and illumination any longer but thats more to do with serious lack of time and space. But my “art” has moved into other areas particularly in textile arts. I make historical costumes, lace and embroidery. But again, when I took textiles in school, it was all wishy washy and not teaching the basics (I learnt those from my mother).

    When supporting and guiding my niece in her A Level Textiles, I was horrified to learn that none of the students had been taught the properties of different fabrics, what they are best used for, how to manipulate them and sew them etc. Nor were they taught how to make patterns, how to drape fabric to make patterns on the body (or dummy). Nor hand sewing stills or even how to use a sewing machine. Emphasis was on “Environmental” concerns or “creativity”. A brief was given such as “Pop art” or “gothic” and the students were told to make something. I had to teach my niece all the above as well as explaining how to research which topic brief she had selected. It was very frustrating for all concerned. (The teacher didn’t seem to know ANY of the above skills either. She was good at “printing” on fabric!).

    Its a sad indictment of modern western education that the foundation skills of any given subject area are NOT being taught. The excuse being it will “hamper” or constrain the learner’s “creativity”. My findings are if the foundation skills ARE taught, it provides the learner with the ability to be creative. This also covers basics such as literacy and numeracy. Education is doing a serious disservice to students.

  5. Janita Cunnington says:

    It seems to me that educational theorists have stretched the meaning of the word “skill” to the point of meaninglessness. In standard English, “skill” means things like the ability to: write legibly and with ease, touch-type, recite the alphabet backwards (I can do this), whistle, stand on your head, swim, ride a bike, read music, play the C major scale on the piano, execute a perfect grand jeté, do shorthand . . . and so on. It doesn’t mean the ability to reason, analyse, think critically, conduct research, comprehend texts, write essays, solve mathematical problems, all of which involve a much bigger component of knowledge and understanding. In other words, skills, once mastered, are largely automatic. Thinking is not.

  6. Great post. I was taught much of the technical stuff about art (and sewing, and cooking) at school but noticed with shock that my daughter, learning textiles at GCSE in the nineties learnt nothing about the mechanics of constructing a garment, making or cutting a pattern or any of the techniques I had learnt and later used in making clothes and soft furnishings, wall hangings etc. Result is someone who has a GCSE in Textiles who cannot sew. The same has happened with art and the results are crippling for many students. They either think they have no talent or, as bad, believe they do but have no techniques to express their talent so can never break the rules successfully. I get furious, for example, with the NEU who espouse art as a way to get messy. I also suspect that the arts have been downgraded as not academic by the creative approach , and this is causing many schools to sideline such subjects to the loss of students but also to the loss of society and the economy.

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