Art Is Fundamental: Teaching the Elements and Principles of Art in Elementary School

Art Is Fundamental: Teaching the Elements and Principles of Art in Elementary School

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by Eileen S. Prince

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This comprehensive art curriculum can easily be integrated into any teacher's existing instruction and provides thrilling and rewarding projects for elementary art students, including printmaking techniques, tessellations, watercolors, calligraphic lines, organic form sculptures, and value collages. Detailed lessons—developed and tested in classrooms over many


This comprehensive art curriculum can easily be integrated into any teacher's existing instruction and provides thrilling and rewarding projects for elementary art students, including printmaking techniques, tessellations, watercolors, calligraphic lines, organic form sculptures, and value collages. Detailed lessons—developed and tested in classrooms over many years—build on one another in a logical progression and explore the elements of texture, color, shape, line, form, and value, and principles such as balance (formal, informal and radial,) unity, contrast, movement, distortion, emphasis, pattern and rhythm. Each lesson also represents an interdisciplinary approach that improves general vocabulary and supports science, math, social studies, and language arts. Though written for elementary school teachers, it can be easily condensed and adapted for middle or even high school students. A beautiful eight-page color insert demonstrates just how sophisticated young children’s art can be when kids are given the opportunity to develop their skills.

Editorial Reviews


The art curriculum detailed in this book can be easily integrated into your existing curriculum.

Children's Literature - Leah Hanson
Art Is Fundamental is like taking a crash course in teaching elementary art from a master teacher. Not only do readers have access to solid learning theory for why teaching art to young children is so important, but they also get thorough instructions for projects that introduce the elements and principles of art to young artists. Although the author references her previous book Art Matters in establishing the rationale for her curriculum, one can still use this title independently and find great value in the project ideas found here. Prince begins with the basics—how to set up a classroom, what essential supplies to have, how to use demonstrations effectively, ideas for displaying student work and guidelines for judging children's art. Then in a three-year plan, she provides lesson plans and project ideas, introducing children to color, value, texture, shape, line and form. Each year's projects are progressively challenging and build upon one another. Sample projects include "Watercolor Fingerprints," "Paper Bag Puppets," "Tessellations" and "Paper Houses." Since this text is essentially like taking a peek into Prince's lesson plan book, some readers will want to tweak lessons to better fit the needs of their individual students. However, for a beginning art teacher or a homeschooling parent, this guide not only gives the fundamentals but adds the "fun" to creating art with children. Reviewer: Leah Hanson
From the Publisher
"The art curriculum detailed in this book can be easily integrated into your existing curriculum."  —Learning

"Something here for every reader . . . will be inspired."  —Naea News

"Many wonderful hands-on projects . . . successful . . . will inspire current teachers in the field . . . indispensible for new art teachers."  —SchoolArts

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Art is Fundamental

Teaching the Elements and Principles of Art in Elementary School

By Eileen S. Prince

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2008 Eileen S. Prince
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61374-126-9


Getting Started

Classroom Strategies

The following are some fundamental principles you might want to consider before you start teaching. I have explained a little of my philosophy in the introduction, but these are some specific issues that I feel directly impact an art teacher's effectiveness in the classroom. The examples and stories I use here (and throughout the book) are those I also share with the children, unless otherwise noted. I rarely expect students to learn by osmosis. If I want to make a point, I'm clear about it, although I try to avoid talking down to my pupils.

Practical Considerations

Teaching art can be extremely stressful, especially if you have several messy classes in a single day. Unlike some curricula, my program is sequential, and students do not repeat projects. Thus, I cannot do one setup for a lesson that several grades are doing simultaneously, and I do not normally have different sections of the same grade back-to-back. The keys to avoiding a meltdown under these circumstances are organization, planning, and advance preparation. One of the advantages to my curriculum is that I know what to expect: I know what materials and setup I will need weeks in advance, I know the kinds of problems that might arise, and I know approximately how long the different processes take. Although I may repeat the same project for many years, my students never do — the task is always new to them. So while I am constantly on the lookout for better ways to convey an idea, once I find a project that teaches the concept enjoyably, fits my time frame, and is appropriate to the students' age level, I usually stick with it. And while there are always setup and procedural concerns specific to each project, there are many general measures you can take to make your life easier. The following suggestions may not be workable for everyone, but the underlying theories might be helpful.

Room Arrangement

If it is at all possible, it will cut down on preparation time a great deal if you can group your desks or use actual large tables. My 24 desks are two feet deep and three feet wide, and I have them arranged in groups of six, creating four-by-nine-foot tables. Years ago, my art students sat at eight-foot folding banquet tables. This clustering of students allows for sharing of supplies and requires far fewer water buckets, tempera paint cups, and so forth. If you are teaching in your regular classroom and have no space for extra tables, you might have the students rearrange their desks for art, if possible.

In the center of each cluster, I have a basket of basic supplies. Since my tables can accommodate six students, each basket contains six boxes of crayons (24-count), six boxes of regular markers, six art gum erasers, six scissors, six glue sticks, a plastic box filled with colored pencils, and 8 to 10 regular pencils. I also throw in a couple of small plastic crayon/pencil sharpeners, although we have two electric sharpeners in the room as well. My baskets are roughly 10" by 16" plastic ones with handles, the kind you might find in the storage section of any discount store. They can easily be removed for certain projects, but for most of our lessons they make preparation a breeze. I find this approach preferable to students bringing individual supplies from their own classroom in personal boxes. If your school's budget does not stretch to duplicate supplies for the art room (assuming you have an art room), consider carrying such baskets back and forth.

You will need to spend some time keeping the baskets tidy. If you use crayons in tuck boxes, I recommend taping the bottom of the boxes to avoid accidents. If your budget allows, buy enough crayons to replace the sets completely two or three times a year. Regardless, encourage students to put the colors back properly. Also, it is a good idea to purchase several one-color refill boxes of black, white, red, yellow, and blue. Find a place to keep old crayons. You can use them to replace lost or broken ones from the newer boxes.

Water and Cleanup

When water is required for a project like painting, I prefer large containers rather than the small individual pans that were in vogue when I was young. The terrific lady who runs the lunch program at our school is very kind about saving me the white plastic buckets that many of her supplies come in. These hold one to two quarts of water, stack nicely for storage, cost nothing, and are easily replaced. I put two on each of my tables, so that all six students may reach one. If I know that I will be using water for a project that day, I simply fill the containers first thing in the morning and leave them in or near the sink. The students empty and rinse them after the lesson. If you have no water in your room, you might put a very large plastic container of water some where and allow students to scoop water into their own containers and dump the dirty water there when done.

Several years ago, our school put paper towel dispensers in each room, the kind that use white, perforated rolls, but I asked them to skip my classes. Instead, the custodian supplies me with cartons of brown, tri-fold, individual towels that I can place in stacks on the tables and on the counters near the sinks, where my smaller students can reach them more easily. I bought plastic shoe boxes for the ones near the sinks, so that watery messes don't cause us to waste any.

Near my sinks, I also have four large plastic buckets with handles. Each bucket contains six large sponges. If a project is particularly messy, I simply run a little water in each bucket to dampen the sponges, place a bucket on each of the tables, and let the children clean up. Using good sponges is a little pricy — perhaps your custodial department will supply you with materials.

Visual Aids

If possible, it is a good idea to have some visual aids on permanent display. I not only have sets of posters that generally explain the elements and principles of art, I have also put up some examples that I find helpful when discussing specific concepts. Having them constantly on view not only saves time, but it allows the children to use them as reminders from year to year. For instance, I have a copy of a painting that depicts a prince in metal armor wearing a velvet cape lined with fur and lace at his throat. It includes satin, carved wood, hair, and a variety of other textures, and I use it to illustrate how artists can create the illusion of texture. When I return to it from time to time, the students remember the concept.

Obviously, you will need a large, easily visible color wheel. You can make your own, download one off the Web and enlarge it, or order a nice one from an art supply catalog. These come in a wide variety of formats. Older students can be extremely creative if you have them make their own.

You will also need some kind of storage for the visual aids you use only for particular lessons. Old calendars are a wonderful source of pictures, and of course the Internet can supply you with almost any visual you need.


In some cases, it does not matter which brand of materials you use, but in others, it can make a big difference. Certain watercolors have awful brushes or extremely weak pigments, which makes using them very frustrating. I have found over the last few years that Prang has maintained a nice quality water-color for the price. I like Crayola crayons in packs of 24, because, in spite of the silly names they have given some of the hues, the box does contain an actual 18-color color wheel. It is a good idea to check your supplies immediately when the order comes in each year to make sure the manufacturers have not degraded the quality substantially in order to keep costs down.


After I introduce myself on the first day of each year, I immediately explain the rules for art class. Most of these are pretty generic, reflecting what goes on in other rooms, and you will no doubt have a list of your own. They involve such issues as safety, behavior, bathroom procedures, and being respectful when someone is speaking, and I get through them pretty quickly. There is one rule, however, I discuss at some length, and that is "We never touch anyone else's artwork." I explain that I must know whose work I'm evaluating. Let's say Jenny draws the best horses in first grade and Johnny wants a horse on his paper. Jenny may show Johnny how to draw a horse, but she may not draw it for him on his project. If I missed seeing her draw on Johnny's paper, I might fill Johnny's grade card with a discussion of how well he draws horses, and that would not be true. This, of course, has much greater implications in upper grades.

That is one reason for the rule. Another (extremely important) aspect is that no student may mark on another pupil's paper in anger. If a student accidentally drips or spatters something on a neighbor's project, the victim may not retaliate by making marks of any kind on the offender's paper. "How would you feel," I ask my class, "if you had worked hard on a piece for the whole period (or longer) and someone purposely ruined it? If someone causes a problem with your project, accidentally or on purpose, simply come to me and I will fix it. Accidents happen, although they will happen a lot less if everyone follows the instructions."

Actually, I get pretty intense about the idea of purposeful destruction in any form. Artists are creators. I discuss the fact that anyone can destroy something, but it takes someone special to create. This discussion of destruction applies to materials as well as projects.

Another rule I find very helpful is "Don't touch anything on the tables until you are given permission." Not only is it rude, distracting, and sometimes noisy to be fiddling with things while someone is talking, but students can disarrange items you have set out in a particular way before you have time to explain a concept.

One other subject I discuss on the first day of class is what we mean by "doing" art. I consider that we are doing art from the time we enter the class room. I am very lucky that most of my students have been at my school since kindergarten or earlier and have therefore already experienced a wonderful early childhood art program that involves looking and listening as much as doing. My pupils don't expect to walk in the door and immediately start drawing, painting, or sculpting. I still get a student or two each year who will interrupt a wonderful discovery session with the question, "When are we going to start doing art?" So I think it is only fair to warn students that sometimes — not most of the time, but on several occasions — we will spend a period just looking and talking, and that will count as "doing" art, too.

Finally, when we are doing art, I allow my students to chat. The rule is that you may talk quietly with your neighbors as long as you are working. If the room gets too noisy, I know that the children are talking more than working. If a reminder or two doesn't do the job, that class might lose its talking privileges. Only you will know how much freedom your class can handle, but I must admit I find a totally silent art room somewhat eerie.


As you will see, I usually present very specific demonstrations of procedures in the early grades. Even college teachers offer step-by-step instructions for new techniques. I would like to offer three suggestions about demonstrations.

First, be sure you are extremely comfortable with the project before you present it to others. Even some of the activities we do with young children are tricky if you are unfamiliar with them. Also, materials change over the years. School papers and pigments have gotten steadily worse in quality, and projects don't always work the same way they used to. If you are in any doubt at all, practice before you teach.

Also, a brief word about color theory. When an artist says, "Blue and yellow make green," that is a generality. Actually, there are two sets (or more) of primaries: warm and cool. The violet you get by mixing a warm red with a cool blue is not the same as the one you get by mixing a cool red with a warm blue. This is why I often recommend using magenta and turquoise in demonstrations and another reason you need to practice and be prepared before you do them. I discuss this briefly with my classes. If you are working with older students, you might want to study this and go into it at more length.

Second, begin with a thorough, start-to-finish demonstration, then remind students of each step along the way. Some people learn sequentially and others need to see the entire process in order to understand what you are saying.

The third aspect of demonstrations that you will want to consider is copying. When I illustrate a process, I always explain to my class that their images should not look like mine, but that admonition is not always sufficient. If I see a student using similar elements, I will talk to them about making sure their project looks very different before it is finished. One way I discourage copying is to use abstract shapes or forms, but when I draw realistically, I use the same image over and over for my demonstrations, until it is simply too boring to copy. I use a house, ground, a tree, a mountain, a cloud, and a sun, or some combination of those, until it becomes a class joke. That does not mean that a student cannot draw a house or a tree as well, only that their results should be personal. You might find some combination of images that work for you or a different method entirely, but try to discourage copying.

Describing Folds

There are three basic types of folds we use in art class. If you fold a simple 8½" by 11" piece of paper in half so that each half measures 8½" by 5½", we call this type of division a "hamburger" fold. Were you to fold the piece in half the long and narrow way, that would be a "hot dog" fold, and when you fold a square piece of paper on the diagonal, that's a "taco" fold. When you fold a piece of paper, the part that sticks up is called the "mountain" of the fold, and the other side is called the "valley." These terms help the children follow the instructions more easily.

Class Review

Because I give very few tests during my eight-year program, I rely heavily on repetition to help my students remember the material. I usually achieve this repetition through a review at the beginning of each class. Such an exercise is especially important when a project continues for more than one period, in order to remind students of the instructions and the concepts being covered, so even if you do plan to test your students, reviews can be helpful. These brief sessions at the beginning of the period have the added advantage of settling the students and helping them focus on the subject at hand. They also create a certain consistency for the children. As you read the book, you will find suggested formats for these reviews, and important review topics are included with each lesson.

Of course, throughout this question and answer period, I try to call on as many different children as possible and to be fair to both genders. After calling on a student, I give him or her several seconds to answer. Even some children who know the material need time to collect their thoughts. When a student answers correctly, I reward that success with a smile and some congratulatory word like "great" or "excellent," but I try not to make a big deal out of wrong answers, although I do acknowledge the mistake. A simple "nope," or "That's a great example, but not a definition," is more than enough, and if I feel she will be more successful, I will often ask if the child would like to try again. The point of all this is that I try to keep the pressure to a minimum. If you make a mistake, you learn from it and move on. I want my students to feel free to take a chance. After all, that's what art class is all about. As I frequently remind my class, art is constant decision making, and we don't always make the right choice.

Just a brief clarification: there is a difference between taking a chance on answering a new question or making a legitimate mistake, and giving an answer that indicates you have not been paying attention for the last few days or have completely missed the point. In spite of certain modern philosophies about this, I have no trouble identifying a wrong answer as such, I just do it with a minimum of fuss and attention.


Excerpted from Art is Fundamental by Eileen S. Prince. Copyright © 2008 Eileen S. Prince. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Eileen S. Prince has been an art specialist in the Indianapolis-area schools since 1970 and is the author of the bestselling Art Matters. She lives in Indianapolis, Indiana.

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Art Is Fundamental: Teaching the Elements and Principles of Art in Elementary School 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am a middle school art teacher.  Even though my students are older, they still don't know, or have yet to learn, the concepts presented in this book.  The art projects provided are more for the elementary levels; however, they can be easily adapted or substituted for higher level projects.