Have you ever given mirrors to young children? Do this and observe without judgment. What you will notice is one of the purest forms of first hand, primary source research. You will witness curious faces test an array of poses. The mirror wants to play and so the children feel free to play too. Eyes widen and squint, lips pucker, noses twitch and tongues make a cameo each time without fail. Children are exploring how they can manipulate their facial expressions to communicate a feeling, a story, or a silly statement.
While studying the self-portrait with a group of third graders, I offered mirrors before paper and pencil and asked them to study their face for a while. After two or three minutes, I chimed in with some requests: “What do you notice about the shape of your head?” “How far are your eyes from your forehead?” “Do you have bangs? And if so, do they fall straight or swoop to one side?” Notice your eyes. “How far apart are they? Does your eyelid overlap your iris?”
We can go on with a list of questions to help them notice the small yet important details of their face. This observational art activity centered around mindfulness allowed each student to collect visual data at their own pace.
Offering this 5 minute block of time to simply explore, notice patterns and make observations had a noticeable impact on their drawings. They trusted the mirror and used it more frequently to check for visual information because, The Mirror Doesn’t Lie.
Before being introduced to the mirror, we exercised our brain with blind contour drawing. Blind contour asks the artist to refrain from looking at their paper while they draw. There eyes must focus on the object or person they are observing and let their hand travel across the page. It is not an easy task. Your brain is used to having control over your hand, telling it what to do. During a blind contour drawing, you must quiet your controlling brain and TRUST YOUR HANDS.
Here is what the children have to say about practicing blind contour and its benefits.
“Blind contour helps our brain get ready to draw.” -Bianca
“It helps us get better at being an artist who is able to see.” -Vir
“Drawing helps your brain get more focused.” -Meher
Try it sometime. It is a thrill. You will realize how focused we are on how our art LOOKS. We wish to make it look the way we think it should. Remember, this is an exercise focused around process. The goal is to quiet your controlling mind and let your hands record the information, first hand (pun intended).
After our blind contour exercise, we took part in the observational mindfulness activity that I spoke of at the beginning of this post. I had shared that this activity of simply looking first before being given a pencil had a strong impact on the attentiveness of the children. Here are two more examples:
Thinking back on my role as the facilitator, I was involved in a listening activity. My task: listening with my eyes and ears and and using data to make meaningful decisions. No more instructing on how to use this tool, rather listening to how it was being used.
Honor. Assume the good in everyone.
What creative knowledge does each child hold?
What can they teach me so I can, in turn, support them better?
For me, it was no more of “draw an oval, now draw your eyes near the middle of your oval, now draw two lines for the bridge of your nose”. To truly honor their knowledge, we need to instead ask them “What do you notice?” “How would you describe the space in between your eyes?”. Offering the questions up to a group rather than giving out information allows them to process what they see and make related decisions.
When asking students to create a self-portrait or take on any challenge for that matter,
Do we wish that all products look the same?
Do we wish to learn about each individual and listen to what that product tells us about how they view the world?
How do you honor your children and students? What valuable lessons have they taught you?