Responding to the demise of adolescent artmaking: Charting the course of adolescent development in an exceptional art classroom

Responding to the demise of adolescent artmaking: Charting the course of adolescent development in an exceptional art classroom

Graham, Mark

During adolescence there is the potential to frame large thoughts and deep feelings in a visual language, to recast experience in a new form, and to construct meaning. But, sadly, most adolescents are not expected to be involved in the visual arts in any significant way (Larson, 1997; Persky, Sandene, & Askew, 1998). Could the neglect of artistry among adolescents reflect an ideological bias among educators who see artistic ability as an inflexible trait and who ignore the cognitive dimensions of artmaking by putting a premium on emotion? Perhaps the artistic interests of older children hold important clues to constructing curriculum and instruction that support artistic growth.

The Problem

The precipitous decline in artistic activity among older children is one of the most challenging problems of artistic development (Gardner, 1982). Ask a group of kindergarten students, “Can you draw?” and many will raise their hands. But, very few 12th graders would dare say, “Yes, I can draw.” Adolescence is a time of deep and conflicting feelings about identity, when it is possible to contemplate many abstract notions and when there is an increasing ability to discern aesthetic qualities in imagery (Davis & Gardner, 2000). It seems like a perfect time for artistic expression. Yet the sad fact about artistic development among older children is that there is so little of it. As Pariser (1997) notes, “early adolescence is the graveyard of artistic activity” (p. 124.). Most secondary art programs are designed for students who will choose to become art majors or go on to art schools (Wilson, 1997a). The visual arts are usually seen as the exclusive domain of the artistically gifted.

The abandonment of artmaking is not a problem if graphic representation is viewed as an idiosyncratic aspect of development reserved for the gifted child. But what if artmaking and artistic understanding hold more developmental possibilities? What if graphic expression is a unique way of thinking, understanding, and knowing the world and ourselves (Davis & Gardner, 1992, 2000)? Much of our understanding of who we are comes to us through the visual artifacts of culture (Greene, 1978). The need to shape meaning and construct knowledge is central to development, and visual artistry is a unique way to represent understanding. The mind is a cultural achievement and art education is ultimately about the development of the mind (Eisner, 1997). Furthermore, learning in the arts cultivates habits of thinking that have profound implications for learning in other disciplines and the entire educational experience is impoverished without the contribution of the artistic dimension (Burton, Horowitz, & Abeles, 2000).

An interest in representing three-dimensional reality is paramount among older children and adolescents (Burton, 2001). Cultural influence is a potent ingredient of artistic growth and traditions of realistic representation have particular relevance to adolescents. This study entertained the possibility that deliberately building on existing interests in representation might encourage artistic expression and be a catalyst for artistic growth. This is not a new idea-observational drawing and realistic representation are part of most secondary school art programs. Historically, representation of the three-dimensional world often appears as a goal of art education. Yet this essential aspect of the secondary art curriculum and its connection to adolescent artistic development warrants a closer examination.


A decline in artistic activity among older children has been consistently described, but is variously interpreted (Davis, 1997; Duncum, 1986; Pariser, 1997). There is some agreement that declining artistic activity and confidence is linked to an interest in realism (Burton, 1984, 1994; Winner, 1982). During middle childhood and adolescence there is a growing interest with literalism and acquiring popular artistic conventions (Gardner, 1980; Winner, 1982, 1989; Wilson, 19976). The judgments of older children about the rightness or quality of an image are usually based on faithful representation of the third dimension. But, artistic exploration and expression seem constrained by self consciousness while adolescents search for means of representation that can appropriately convey ideas of personal importance (Burton, 1994). Early adolescents demonstrate increased ability to discern aesthetic qualities in art work while at the same time showing less disposition to engage in artmaking activities (Davis & Gardner, 1992).

Reasons for declining artistic activity among older children include the shift in scholastic priorities away from art (Davis, 1997); lack of opportunities in art (Wolf, 1987); the imposition of adult expectations (Lowenfeld, 1982), and the lack of social relevance for artmaking, (Pufall, 1997). There is often a lack of appreciation of the older child’s interest in popular culture (Wilson 19976), and a lack of appreciation of adolescent artwork (Duncum, 1986).

The detailed, differentiated literalism of middle childhood and adolescence is associated with the child’s development into a formal thinker who is more self conscious and able to interpret and understand aesthetic differences. This suggests that important keys to forestalling the demise of artistic activity are opportunities and instruction that allow children’s repertoire of drawing strategies to keep pace with their growing awareness of the possibilities of artistic representation. They need to be able to create imagery that is meaningful and artistically accomplished according to their own aesthetic and perceptual standards.

The role of culture and artistic conventions in shaping artistry is generally accepted (Burton, 2001; Wilson, 1997b). The mediation of culture through curriculum and teaching is a critical issue for art educators who are determined to give their students a degree of fluency in an artistic language, but are also cognizant of the need for children to construct their own meanings and artistic narratives (Duncum, 2001; Freedman, 2000).

The literalism of older children is often unappreciated when compared to the free, spontaneous art of the young child. Nevertheless, realistic drawing has often been viewed as the endpoint of artistic development (Lowenfeld, 1982; Pariser, 1997). Alternative accounts of artistic growth suggest that it is not realism that is most important, but the need to represent; realism is merely a culturally relevant mode of representation (Winner, 1989). Drawing development has also been described as the acquisition of a repertoire of drawing strategies, each suited to personal intent and situation (Wolf, 1997).

In this study, representational mastery was not seen as an endpoint of development, but rather as an enabling point from which many kinds of outcomes might ensue. Robust artistic growth encompasses a repertoire of styles, conventions, and media that can serve the needs of adolescents to construct meaning and communicate ideas and feelings (Burton, 2001; Wolf 1997). Nevertheless, the preoccupation of the adolescent image maker with realism suggests that a diverse repertoire of artistic fluency may need to be built on a mastery of specific artistic conventions. The relationship between developing representational expertise and artistic growth is an inviting area of inquiry.


This study explored adolescent artistic development in a classroom using a curriculum based on the artmaking traditions of the European Renaissance. Fluency in an artistic language was deliberately cultivated in order to capitalize on the peculiar artistic interests of the older child. A case study approach (Merriam, 1998; Patton, 1990) was used to understand the experiences of six artistically active adolescents during the first semester of their ninth-grade year. Two fundamental questions guided the design of the study. First, how is the process of art making influenced by curriculum, instruction, culture, and classroom interaction? Second, how does instruction and curriculum that engage students in the thinking and representational skills required to depict the third dimension support adolescent artistic development?

The study was conducted in a public high school of about 1,200 students located in a suburb of New York City. Six students in the ninth grade were selected from an art class of 21 students based on their participation in an accelerated studio art course in the eighth grade. The choice of six artistically active students was based on the premise that the experiences of a few, unique individuals who continue to be artistically active would provide a source of data that would illuminate artistic learning and development. These students provided rich personal art histories, commentary, and experiences that furnished clues to the puzzle of adolescent artistic development. The other members of the class were tenth graders who had taken the foundations course in the ninth grade and had decided to take the drawing and painting class as an elective.

A curriculum based on the artistic tradition of the European Renaissance was designed for the class by the researcher in collaboration with the classroom teacher. The course provided explicit instruction in the art historical and aesthetic stance of this tradition. The art class met for one hour, four times each week, over a 20-week period. Instruction included specific strategies for creating the illusion of space and form as well as the craft of using media effectively. For instance, the course began with the process of learning models of representation. These exercises were accompanied by discussion of artwork from the Renaissance, such as Leonardo’s observational drawings. Drawing objects from observation led to more complex drawings involving several overlapping objects, such as the eggs in cloth. The goal of the curriculum was to connect these experiences to ideas that were important to the students, to create opportunities for them to use their imaginations, and to construct visual narratives that were important to them. The students were encouraged to enter into a relationship with culture in order to create images that reflected their own thinking and need to construct meaning.

The teacher who participated in this study is an energetic, able instructor who is sensitive to the individual concerns of her students. Although her artistic training focused on photography, she is capable of teaching a wide range of drawing and painting skills. During the summer prior to the study, she participated in the design of the curriculum used in the course. The final curriculum was written by the researcher based on these discussions and was intended to augment the existing studio projects, which were based on Renaissance approaches to image making. The teacher also contributed her observations about students, their work and the curriculum throughout the study during interviews with the researcher.

Students were interviewed at the beginning of the semester, during mid-semester portfolio evaluations, and at the end of the semester. They were also interviewed several times after the course had ended, when they were enrolled in a different art class, with a different art teacher. The researcher observed the students in the classroom twice each week, and discussed their progress with the teacher each week.

Data were gathered from interviews with the students and teacher, observations of the classroom, and student artwork. The first level of analysis was descriptive in nature, exploring the process of artmaking in the context of this particular classroom. The influence of culture, classroom interactions, instruction, and student attitudes were of particular relevance to this analysis. The second level of analysis looked for evidence of how curriculum and instruction focused on the skills and thinking of representation to support learning and development. Evidence of advanced adolescent thinking, personal investment in the work, imaginative expression, and attempts to construct meaning were seen as indications that the curriculum was fostering artistic growth.


The Art Class

The class of 21 students exhibited a wide range of abilities, backgrounds, and approaches. The students were grouped around tables where they could converse while they worked. Social interaction ranged from almost constant conversation among some groups, to other students who worked quietly in isolated corners of the room. The students maintained a high level of interest in all the artmaking activities. They obviously enjoyed being in the art class. When asked to elaborate upon this, several students commented that they felt free in art. This seemed to contradict the attempt to create structure and rigorous study in the course. However, when this question was pursued with the students, they said that their sense of freedom was associated with the atmosphere of the class and the attitude of the teacher toward them. This can be readily appreciated when the art class is contrasted with other classes in the school where students sit in rows, listen to lectures, take notes, and prepare for tests.

The freedom that was so important for these students was the freedom to talk, to move about, see the work of their peers, and to have conversations with an instructor who knew and valued their work. It may have also reflected the nature of the art projects, which prescribed format, media, and certain representational requirements, but left the students free to determine how these rules were applied to their choice of subject matter.

The Teacher

How the teacher mediated the curriculum was an important aspect of the students’ experience. Her comments about the course convey her intent; We’re trying to teach how artists think, we also want them to learn how to draw. Creating the illusion of three dimensionality is important but as far as their thinking goes, I hope that they value their own thoughts. (T/I/3, November 16, 2000)

Her comments suggest that learning an artistic tradition can become a mechanical process if reference is not made to the personal interests of the students. When discussing the study of Renaissance artists she said,

It’s not that I want students to copy someone’s artwork, it’s more that I want them to understand the thinking process of why this artist was trying to express this. They can take that way of thinking and express their own being that way; it is intrinsically motivating. (T/I/3, November 16, 2000)

Her teaching included opportunities for students to reflect on art, including their own artwork, through classroom discussions and writing. She felt that the instructional framework, grounded in an artistic tradition, helped her to direct learning and discussion in ways that supported the students’ creative interests.

The Students

Tyler is a skateboarder. He could speak with passion and detail about the content and characters of Raphael’s The School of Athens with a friend, and be cryptic when asked about the meaning of his own work. At the beginning of the semester, each student created a personal shrine, patterned after a medieval icon. Tyler made an image of a skateboarder, coming down a railing next to a set of stairs, with the label “Misled Youth.” Like the other students in the study, Tyler was concerned with representational fidelity. When discussing drawings done during the seventh and eighth grade, he gave the most value to those exhibiting a high degree of realism. When discussing his figure drawings, he was very critical of inaccuracies of proportion.

Emma is an excellent academic student and a soccer player. Her icon was a flower, which she described as being “so pure and sweet, yet so seductive.” She said that she often felt stressed out because of the pressures of her academic classes and extra-curricular activities. In the art class she always talked while she worked. Her conversations revolved around social events, sporting events, weekend activities, and people. Emma admired artwork that reflected craftsmanship. Her top criterion of excellence was “time spent and accomplishes what the artist set out to do” (EM/I/1, October 10, 2000). She believed that artistic excellence has a subjective side that is connected with the intent of the artist. She felt that art instruction should not invade the student’s personal artistic direction and should not be too rigidly imposed on students.

I have to feel comfortable… tell them what you think and show them all the possibilities so they can try things and practice things. You should never tell them that their art is good or bad, you should tell them it needs work. (EM/I/2, October 19, 2000)

Josh is an actor, writer, and a director; his icon featured an image of William Shakespeare. He is a member of the school orchestra and does well academically, although he felt that school gets in the way of his artistic interests. Josh never seemed to have enough time to finish his artwork. His art teacher described him as:

A funny young man… He’s creative and takes responsibility for solving problems. At the same time, it’s not simple for him to solve problems. He’s not a rocket scientist but he puts a lot of effort into his drawings… I don’t think he’s insecure at all… He wasn’t afraid and he didn’t care what anyone else in the class thought… It’s pretty unique for a ninth-grade boy not to care what other people think. (T/I/5, December 12, 2000)

In contrast to her carefully fashioned appearance, Christine expressed personal interest in things she described as “gruesome bloody stuff, and war,” a common theme of the musicians she listened to. Art was the high point of her day; “I come to school for art and my friends.” She felt that art is more a matter of intrinsic motivation, and that grades did not matter as much in art as in other classes. Christine associated art with feelings and emotions.

When I’m in a bad mood I draw bad stuff. That’s how a lot of artists are, they draw the way they feel. There are things that cannot be expressed otherwise. (C/l/1, October 12, 2000)

The teacher described Christine as her problem child, a female version of Tyler:

Not as physically active, but just as easily distractible… She can express herself physically with her hands… She is stubborn and impatient, late to class, but surprisingly, she never cut class… She asks very direct questions and usually wants technical help. She tries to show her toughness, like when she draws her lighter. (T/I/I, October 20, 2000) Although Christine maintained a high level of engagement with all the art projects done during the semester, she felt most satisfied with a self– portrait drawing, which brought to the forefront her interests in accurate representation, self-decoration, and fashion (figure 1).

Eduardo is a soccer player. He is from Chile and speaks fluent English. He reported that he is good at reading, writing, gym, and computer graphics. He said that he occasionally gets in trouble for drawing while he is in other classes. His art teacher described him as being distant and difficult to reach.

It seems to me that he has a hard time focusing in class, as if something in his head is bothering him… Generally his feelings about the projects are that they are outside of him, and sort of boring and not part of him… He is paying attention, but he acts like he’s not. When we were drawing eggs he was like, Why are we drawing eggs? He doesn’t want to buy into what I am trying to do. He is a tough cookie. (T/I/2, October 24, 2000)

Eduardo believed in the utility of practice. His attitude toward artistic achievement could be that of an athletic coach: if you work hard and believe you can do it, it can be done. His notion of artistic quality reflects a combination of personal subjectivity and realism.

Eduardo: Everybody is different and think different things. I might think it’s great and somebody might think it’s not art.

Author: What about your work? Eduardo: If it’s realistic, it’s good. You have to try harder to make it realistic. (E/I/1, October 23, 2000)

Laura is a writer, an actress, and an excellent student in all subjects. She reads widely, plays the flute, and is a member of the high school band. Laura was quiet during class but displayed a cynical, dry sense of humor during our interviews and in her conversations with classmates. She liked to work alone, in contrast to Emma, Tyler, and Christine who were almost continually involved in conversation. Laura’s personal icon was a small shrine dedicated to her dog. More than any other student in the class, she enjoyed the study of artists and art history.

Adolescent Culture and Artmaking

Popular culture was a medium for thought, feeling, and communication among the adolescents in this study and was an important feature of Tyler’s artwork. His choices of hard-core music and skateboarding are closely related to the ongoing construction of his personal identity and often appear in his drawings. For example, his notebook papers are covered with numerous small drawings based on symbols and icons adopted by popular musicians, advertising logos and calligraphic notations (Figure 2). Tyler was rarely troubled with questions of originality. He freely borrowed images that were able to convey his meanings, ranging from comics, photos, and museum paintings. Many of Tyler’s drawings carried symbolic content as well as being emblematic of other aspects of his development.

Eduardo’s work was influenced by the images found in comic books and graffiti artists. Among his peers, the ability to draw in a linear, cartoon style was considered a notable skill. Popular urban culture is reflected in the careful line drawings he did outside of class, such as the one on his notebook. This is a drawing of a viaduct or subway and a young man drawing graffiti on the wall, with a city skyline in the background (Figure 3). Although Tyler had a graffiti “tag,” which he occasionally included in his marginal doodles, Eduardo was the only student in the study who actually engaged in graffiti-style drawings. In contrast to Eduardo and Tyler, the visual content of the other students’ work was more closely linked to traditional art forms.

Student Thinking and Depicting the Third-Dimension

For these students, depicting three-dimensional space on a flat surface was a complex process involving an ensemble of thinking activities. Making a picture included adopting the single viewpoint characteristic of Renaissance perspective. It involved organizing perceptual cues to conform to these conventional constraints and seeing how other people solved visual problems. Depicting the third-dimension involved trying out different drawing strategies and making judgments about the rightness of an image. It included the process of careful observation, graphic translation, and dialogue with peers and teacher. It involved appropriation of images, fashioning meaning, and constructing a visual narrative.

Laura struggled with the drawing assignment involving overlapping objects. When reviewing her drawing, she observed, “I think my drawing of the eggs was not very well rendered because while I think I observed the eggs accurately, it did not transfer well on the paper” (L/I/2, October 23, 2000). While creating this drawing she was focused and determined, working alone in one corner of the room. In spite of her attention to detail, many parts of the drawing are spotty and do not convey a consistent sense of form. Her comments reflect awareness of the disparity between her sense of how the drawing should look and her ability to create a complex three-dimensional image. Emma’s egg drawing demonstrated a more assured grasp of the abstract language of representing form on the flat surface (Figure 4). She rendered her image using pastel rather than pencil, and was able to achieve a greater sense of form and drama of light and shadow.

Christine’s thinking while working on this drawing assignment is illustrated in the following conversation:

Christine Eggs are really hard to do. At first I was looking at them and towards them and it looked like I was looking over them. I do really good at fabric. It was really hard to get the box proportionalized because every time I looked at it it would be at a different angle

so I couldn’t draw the corners.

Author:Is there anything that helped you do it better?

Christine: Looking at other kids’ examples.

Author:How did that help you?

Christine. When I was drawing over it, I just drew the whole circle of an egg, but when I looked at the ones on the wall, I saw that people had drawn folds over the eggs. It looked like they were looking at it down more. I tried doing that.

Author:How did you figure out the angle?

Christine. I was sitting on a really tall stool. Then I switched to a shorter stool, but it didn’t make much difference, so I just leaned back. (C/I/2, October 23, 2000)

Eduardo said that drawing things from life challenged him and was more difficult than copying from magazines: “It takes more skill and ability to draw realistically.” He expressed concerns about effectively handling media, and felt that one of his big accomplishments was mastering charcoal in his rendering of the eggs (E/I/2, October 24, 2000).

An example of the thinking going on in representing the third-dimension is seen in Tyler’s skull drawing (Figure 5). Compared to his earlier drawings, the skull displays a higher level of graphic drama, craft, sustained effort, and inventiveness. The craft of the pencil medium using the conventions of observational drawing is evident in the high degree of contrast and the illusion of form. In addition, he has kept the intricate details of the object confined to the overall value progression, giving the entire drawing a sense of unity. Although the skull is drawn entirely from observation, its graphic drama goes beyond copying, suggesting that Tyler was progressing from routine exercises of technique into artistic thinking that required him to imagine the graphic impact of the drawing. For example, he took great care in positioning the skull, placing the jaw at an unusual angle, in order to increase its expressive impact. This drawing was his favorite and embodied his ideals of representational effectiveness.

How Curriculum and Instruction Support

Learning and Development

Josh’s work shows a consistent evolution from his earlier rather mundane studies to the more imaginative, almost surreal final project (Figure 6). When discussing the final piece, he remarked that he felt great satisfaction in developing the image so that it felt finished: “I like starting a drawing, then getting into the groove, when it begins to look like something” J/I/3, December 7, 2000). Like the other students, Josh was very concerned with technical and media questions, such as whether to smudge or not to smudge, how to use pencils, or how to apply perspective. But he was also learning to move beyond the technical problems of observational drawing to thinking about the graphic coherence of his drawings. His teacher observed:

He really works at his drawings… He’ll bring in a drawing that is 85% there and it looks like he spent a long time on it, yet it looks unfinished. When I guide him, he’ll sit in class for 45 minutes and the whole thing comes together. That has happened with him at least five times. (T/I/3, December 11, 2000) Like all of the participants in

the study, Laura was very critical when reviewing her own artwork. When looking at her work from the eighth grade, she said that she didn’t like anything she had done. She felt the same way about the work she did during her ninth- grade year. But a self-critical attitude did not seem to hinder her willingness to engage in drawing activities. Although Laura never completely reached her ideals of artistic excellence, she was able to come closer to them. Perhaps it was this sense of progress that motivated her to persist in spite of her critical view of her artwork. She was especially satisfied with her charcoal cup drawing (Figure 7). “I’ve never done anything good in charcoal before” (L/I/4, December 8, 2000), she commented. It is interesting that what might be considered mundane subject matter provided so much satisfaction for her. At least in this stage of her development, representational impact and accuracy was important to her sense of artistic accomplishment. Her feelings about this drawing suggest that a major motivation for her artistic endeavors was mastering certain aspects of realistic depiction.


Abstract thought is associated with adolescent cognitive development (Keating, 1990). If student artwork contains issues of personal importance and abstract ideas reflecting advanced cognitive dispositions, then it can be inferred that artistic growth is advancing beyond the simple application of a formula for making pictures.

Tyler’s representational skills were used to explore issues of personal importance including questions about identity, good and evil, and personal choice. His work reflects the evolution from concrete representational thinking to more abstract, self-reflective, and multidimensional thinking. His dragon drawing combines symbol, perspective, vestiges of images from popular media, illusionist devices, and imaginative interpretation. Tyler’s ability to apply and interpret graphic strategies in a transformative, creative way suggests that the curriculum was fostering artistic growth. Riot (Figure 8) reveals a similar artistic evolution. The assignment stipulated that perspective be used to create a sense of deep space, that there should be an object in the near foreground, and objects in the middle distance. How these elements were used was open to personal interpretation. This drawing brings together several aspects of Tyler’s visual repertoire, as in the graffiti created on the walls. He has used the window construct of Renaissance image making in combination with an overall graphic pattern, which then becomes part of another object, the large head. Although Tyler was not willing to elaborate on the meaning of the image, it contains themes of personal importance, and a reprise of the themes of good versus evil and creation versus destruction that appeared in earlier work. Tyler’s graphic fluency allows us to see his visual thinking in its complexity, not as mimicry of convention or imitation of style. Riot and the dragon reflect consistent attempts to connect his artwork with meaningful subject matter.

The other participants in the study had little trouble in making the transition from an exercise in representation to more imaginative, creative applications. It was evident, when looking at the complete portfolios of work, that curriculum structured around a specific artistic tradition was not an impediment to artistic activity or invention. Continued artistic activity did not seem to be a problem with these students. They were active image makers before, during, and after the semester of the study. There was evidence that developing expertise in representational strategies contributed to their continued artistic activity. They thrived in an instructional environment which had boundaries and defined domains. Tyler’s reflection on instruction is significant. During the second semester, he took another art class with another teacher and complained about the lack of instruction;

Author: What are you learning now?

Tyler: I’m not really learning anything, I’m just doing stuff.

Author: What do you mean by stuff?

Tyler: He tells us paint so we paint. We don’t learn anything.

Author: Does he explain anything about painting?

Tyler: Well, right now we are doing lots of stuff like ‘I want you to interpret this and I want you to interpret that’ and I’m not really learning anything from that. (T/I/6, February 7, 2001)

His remarks suggest that he was looking for instruction that would support his ability to solve specific representational problems. “He doesn’t teach us anything, the last thing I learned was two-point perspective. It can’t be that hard to be an art teacher, just tell everyone to paint.” Tyler remarked that he can draw on his own without any problem, but that he needed more instruction to depict what he had in his mind. When Christine was asked about her learning experiences, she said that she liked difficult, challenging projects, such as perspective. “I never really knew how to draw like that because I was never really asked to. When I learned to, it was really fun” (C/I/4, December 15, 2000). She remarked that she was interested in specific kinds of help, and appreciated written critiques more than just a letter grade.

Representational skills appeared to contribute to their artistic interest and the quality of their graphic efforts. This was evident in their sense of satisfaction in achieving an effective realistic drawing, as in Laura’s cup drawing (Figure 6), Tyler’s skull drawing (Figure 5), or Christine’s selfportrait (Figure 1). These students were deeply invested in their work, as indicated by the hours of their free time they spent developing their images. Maintaining a dynamic balance between skills and challenge is critical to personal growth (Csikszentmihalyi, 1984). For adolescents, the motivation to continue artistic activity is often crushed by the perception of lack of skill in the face of the challenge of graphic representation. This seems to be particularly true with graphic conventions of third-dimensional representation, which is both difficult and valued by adolescents. The gradual acquisition of skill, balanced with increasingly more challenging tasks, sets the stage for personal growth (Csikszentmihalyi & Schiefele 1992). In spite of their critical acuity, these students managed to learn enough skills to keep pace with their own critical awareness and sense of artistic quality.

Adolescent artistry is complex, idiosyncratic, and is manifest in diverse ways. It is influenced by the contexts of visual culture, individual background, instruction, and the social relevance given to art by school and society. The divergence of individual artistry during the semester of instruction suggests that the instructional program based on the mastery of representational strategies fostered individual, creative responses. An important question that was beyond the scope of this study was how their experiences in learning graphic strategies for depicting the third dimension would influence their artistry in the future.


Cultivating artistic activity is more complex than simply teaching students pre-packaged conventions for drawing. Without meaningful connections to issues of personal importance, these skills would have withered. A key to fostering artistic growth is instruction that will scaffold the transition from learning exercise to personally meaningful expression. Art instruction involves the complex intermingling of visual worlds and ideas. The role of the teacher, sensitive to individual differences and nuances, is extremely important. Throughout the study, the value of making connections between artistic conventions and the personal artistic interests of individual students was evident. When this connection was made successfully the results were personal satisfaction and a sense of artistic growth.

The students rarely questioned the relevance of mastering a tradition that embraced the artistic conventions of the European Renaissance, particularly strategies for depicting the third dimension. This approach to image-making was valued among these adolescents as a fundamentally important part of being artistically proficient and appears to have social developmental significance for them. The fact that they were proficient in an art form that served a relevant social function may be one reason they continued to be artistically active. It was apparent that an immersion in a structured curriculum designed to cultivate specific representational skills supported artistic learning and development, leading the way toward acquiring an array of different artistic tools that could serve many individual purposes.

This study argues for sustained, engaging artistic experiences that have mastery and artistic empowerment as a goal, mediated by a skilled teacher who will help students acquire craft, convention, and understanding, and then guide them toward the construction of their own artistic narratives. Students also need to enter into a relationship with culture in order to create images that reflect and challenge their own thinking. Making this happen for students as they approach and enter adolescence could forestall their sense of artistic inadequacy, and motivate them to continue their artistic explorations.

Copyright National Art Education Association Winter 2003

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