Copy Cat


As I was helping Rosa with her monthly book report project the other night, I was reminded of debates surfacing in my Art Education in Alternative Sites course this spring.

In the first lesson, students explore the landscape of art education outside of schools.  They map organizations in their own communities, they tour programs throughout the world online (like The Laundromat Project, ArtWorks, and InnerCity Arts), and they read scholarly articles on a range of issues related to art education-at-large.  Hot button ideas emerge on the discussion boards, varying from term-to-term based on the interests and perspectives of the students.  It’s my job to draw out those common interests, and points of dispute, for further examination.

This time around,  we have been circling the related issues of franchised art education programs (like Abrakadoodle) and the value of follow-along activities.  While I’m intellectually put off by the idea of any art program that has students do the same thing as the person sitting next to them, I can’t deny the success Bob Ross had in getting people painting.  As my students noted, the teacher can make or break this type of program.  Bob was charismatic.  He drew people in.  As I previously wrote, Cora and I have been similarly impressed with our Music Together teacher.  Could I possibly have a similarly engaging experience at the local Kidzart?  I’m trying to approach this idea with an open-mind for a moment, even while I am picturing Andy Singer‘s cartoon “BIRTH to DEATH in a Box” and hearing Malvina Reynolds’s “Little Boxes” in my mind..

(No Exit) Birth to Death in a Box

Used by permission of the artist.

The issue of “do-what-I-do” instruction is another aspect of ongoing debate, and here again my views have been changing based on recent life lessons.  In most scholarly circles of visual art education, copying from a master has long been dismissed as denying students opportunities to express their own ideas and emotions through their artmaking.*  I have personally winced walking down school hallways plastered with vases of sunflowers painted like Vincent Van Gogh.  But, as Duncum (1988) noted, there are a variety of positions on copying in art education, and I’ve come to recognize that I’m not quite as far to the anti-copying side of the spectrum as I thought I would be.  I recall, as a child I once followed step-by-step instructions from a book to make a charcoal drawing of a farm covered in snow. I was so pleased to be utilizing drawing techniques like smudging and erasing out highlights to make the scene look realistic.  And, as recently as last month, I dutifully followed sewing tutorials I found online to create holiday gifts.  So what if I was just copying?  I had enjoyed the process of creating things and sharing them with others.

Which all brings me back to Tuesday night, with about 14.75 hours until the book report was due.  These projects have been a nice way for Rosa and I to bond.  Each time they had some visual component that has given us a chance to work together to talk through ideas and imagery, to uncover ways to execute or revise ideas, and to get out the craft supplies -something we used to do together a lot when she was younger but have done less and less as her free time gets swallowed up by electronics and mine by her little sister.

So, there we were preparing to make a box adorned with clues about Scat by Carl Hiassen, the mystery Rosa selected to read.  On the lid, she had to show a scene from the book.  I selfishly suggested that if I were the teacher, I’d rather see her draw her own version of the scene than seeing an image from the computer she had cut and paste.  She conceded and started sketching.  But, she grew frustrated when the cougars she was drawing all looked like housecats.

We pulled up an image of a cougar on my computer and I directed her to look carefully at the shape of the animal’s head, muzzle, and ears to get started.  She gave it a shot but seemed frustrated so I started drawing beside her, telling her what I saw and what I was drawing as I went along.  I was impressed by her drawing, until she told me she made it by copying my drawing, not by looking at the photo on the screen and translating that into her own lines.  I felt like my lesson had gone over her head, like she’d taken the easy way out.  But, I quickly realized that none of that mattered at that moment, because we both agreed that her last drawings were so much improved from her first.  She was proud of what she’d accomplished, and I was too.

* (One exception that comes to mind was Blandy and Congdon’s presentation on their experiences in a Ross-style painting class at NAEA years ago.)

Duncum, P (1988).  To Copy or Not the Copy.  Studies in Art Education, 29(4) p. 203-210.

8 thoughts on “Copy Cat

  1. I really understand your issues with copying, but with so many students who may have to take an art class either as part of their elementary studies or (in my case) as a credit needed to graduate, we need to be sensitive to their abilities. Often copying provides a little bit of security where they are scared out of their wits.
    That doesn’t necessarily mean that I agree with copying, but there are times when it’s not as bad as we thought. Excellent article — I’m looking forward to reading more from you!

    • Thanks for checking in, Colleen! I’ll have to check out your blog. If you are interested in learning more about various perspectives on copying, you really should see Duncum’s article. It’s a little old, but still relevant. If you can’t access it, I can help you get a copy. Let me know!

    • I’m a high school art teacher and while I’m completely against copying at the hs level, I totally think it has a place when you are beginning. You have to start somewhere…it’s like memorizing multiplication tables in a way….if you copy from a “how to draw” book many times until you have memorized how to draw a…cat, dg, horse, person, then later you will already have some base knowledge to use in later drawings. I’m completely for copying art when you’re young, as long as its not TRACED. (Although I think that also has a place when your really young and developing…)

  2. i’ve never considered myself an artist of any kind, not a gift nor skill that came naturally. most of my creations have been copy-cat experiences, following someone else’s instructions/original works and i get as much satisfaction out of the process, the end result (which is often a gift for others – and the joy of giving), as i hope others get out of creating original works.

    • how about with your music, Jess? Do you feel more confident in your abilities to improvise and be original on the keyboard than at the sewing machine??

  3. Once again, Jodi, excellet article. Art is such an interesting topic as is the idea of aestetics. Most likely the average person trying to “create” is looking to produce something that is recognizable, understandable and fairly attractive. If this doesn’t happen, then of course, frustration comes to play. We can talk about skill and we can talk about creativity and the two don’t have to do with eachother, but for children I’d guess they feel comfortable knowing they’ve learned a skill. Kids really do like structure and so often they are not getting it these days. This can translate to students learning to “free write” in school and what I’ve found from being a teacher for SO long is that even in writing basic skills are often skipped over, forgotten or never internalized (and in the end this could detract from a creative piece). How many times have we seen students work hanging filled with grammatical, spelling and typographical errors and heard “we don’t want to stiffle the process”? I think there is a great place for learning from the masters, and in your case for Rosa learning from you. Seeing a work through the eyes of another and trying to immitate it on some level is just one more tool or technique to help a person/artist grow. It goes without saying that individual perspective is essential in the creative process. In any case, I hope the project was a success, but one thing for sure is your time spent together was! Good job.

  4. Pingback: Cats with whiskers | Art Education Outside The lines

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