I receive many questions about picture study, including how to do it and why it matters, but one question popping up more recently is “which artists should we study first?” This is a valid question as moms tend to hit the ground running when they first begin their homeschooling journey and want to start everything well. Naturally, we all hope that whichever artist we choose to study first will be especially engaging for our kids, but how do we know which artist that will be?
For those who have already begun doing picture study, maybe the kids don’t seem nearly as interested or excited as we think they should be. Did we pick the wrong artist? Is there an artist out there who might be better? Should we switch?
And of course, there is also the factor of our picture study selections being made for us. When we choose to use a specific curriculum, sometimes we feel like we have to use the artists and artwork selected by that particular curriculum. Even in cases where there may be an artist we’d really like to learn about or think would be appealing to our students, we still follow that curriculum schedule because maybe we have to? Is it okay to go another route?
Today I’m answering a few of these questions related to picking artists for picture study!
What should you look for when choosing an artist for picture study?
One of the fundamental reasons we include picture study in our homeschool is to expose our children to beauty and great ideas. When you find art that displays those ideas and your own values in beautiful ways, then that’s an artist who you probably want to include in your picture study time.
Along with that, I think one of the best things you can do when you’re trying to figure out which artists to study first is to go with artists who appeal to you. You’re more likely to have a positive influence on the way your children look at art and take it in if they hear the enthusiasm in your voice when you’re speaking about an artist or about their art. (But don’t take it personally if they don’t like it as much as you do!)
I also don’t think that there are necessarily any artists, movements, or styles that specifically appeal to children over any others since art and the eye for beauty are such personal things. I have often been surprised when my children and the students in our homeschool co-op have found artists that really resonate with them but aren’t necessarily extremely popular or easy to interpret. If I had only chosen artists I thought they would “like” or are more popular, they would’ve missed out on getting to know the work of another artist they possibly appreciated even more.
Do you need to match your history time period? Or do you need to stick with the artist scheduled in your curriculum?
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with matching your picture study to whichever time period you’re currently studying for history, especially if you find an artist who ties in well (e.g., Winslow Homer and the American Civil War or the Yuan Dynasty and Marco Polo). But if you want to look at different time periods, which often means being able to include different styles or even different areas of the world, I highly encourage that. Doing “unit studies,” where all the subjects tie together into one overall theme or topic, is generally not practiced in the Charlotte Mason world. If you want to study an artist who does not fit into your time period, or whatever your particular curriculum happens to be studying at the time, that’s fine! Your children will make those connections on their own. It’s very gratifying later on when you’re studying something else, and all of a sudden, your child remembers, “Hey, I remember this painting that we looked at two years ago that was about this topic!” For these reasons, I don’t think placing these limitations on your picture study choices is necessary.
What if the kids don’t like the artist we pick?
Students not liking an artist chosen for picture study does happen, even with kids who have been doing picture study for a while. It has happened in my own homeschool, and it has happened in my homeschool co-op.
While I know this can be discouraging, picture study is not about trying to find a favorite artist or type of art. Those are definitely side benefits, but they are not the primary goal. The point of picture study is to expose our children to fine art, and with this practice, we’re learning about beauty, great ideas, and improving our powers of observation. Because these are the main purposes of picture study, if your students don’t like an artist or an artist doesn’t resonate well with them, that’s okay.
If you do end up choosing an artist who is less popular with your students, sometimes all you need to do is change the painting. I have experienced this in our homeschool co-op with the first two paintings from an artist. There wasn’t much discussion or engagement, and the narrations were very basic. After those two, however, we looked at a piece that was more interesting visually. The students were much more engaged with that painting, so it was not necessarily that artist in particular, but it was most likely more about the subject matter in this specific case.
I do want to add, however, that because a painting may look “boring,” or because the artwork doesn’t include many things to look at, doesn’t mean that we should exclude it or that our students definitely won’t like it. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer, which is just a portrait, is an excellent example of this. The painting includes a girl’s head with a dark background, and that’s it. Even with its simplicity, though, we had a lot of really great discussion about it in our co-op.
Give your children the chance to develop those opinions on their own. And give the artists a chance to show everything they can do or everything they’ve done with a variety of their paintings. If your students still don’t like that artist at the end of the term, that really is okay! You can ask them why they didn’t like that particular art and encourage them to articulate that well which sometimes gets some very good discussion going. As long as you’re exposing your children to fine art and they’re looking at those paintings, you are doing picture study.
A Few Suggestions of Artists if You Don’t Know Where to Start
If you don’t have any favorite artists or you just want some ideas from which to choose, I’ve got a few suggestions of some of my favorite artists as well as ones that my students have particularly enjoyed.
Henry Ossawa Tanner
Henry Ossawa Tanner is at the top of my list because I love his art. He was supremely talented, and his art conveys beautiful ideas, so we have those two goals of picture study covered. One of the things my students enjoyed the most about him was his recollection of his childhood when he first decided to become an artist. He had a wonderful sense of humor, and that shines through in his writing.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Pieter Bruegel the Elder was a master of making paintings with many figures in them all doing different things. He kind of made the “Where’s Waldo?” paintings of the Dutch Renaissance. You can study one of them for a very long time and still not see everything that’s happening in them. “Children’s Games” in particular is appealing to children.
Vincent van Gogh
Another one that I can recommend is Vincent van Gogh. His colors, the things that he painted, and the way he painted are a beautiful introduction to the world of art. His life story is not necessarily something that should be shared with younger students, but you can enjoy his art without diving into his depression. However, with older students, tying that into his art can lead to good discussion.
Mary Cassatt’s work includes many pictures of mothers (or models pretending to be mothers) with children. She is also a wonderful introduction to the impressionist style of art.
Another artist that I mentioned earlier is Johannes Vermeer. Most of his paintings were glimpses of everyday life and things that were happening around him and offer many opportunities for observation and discussion.