“Art speaks its own language—soul to soul, heart to heart.”
Vermeer’s “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary” captures a warm moment of conversation between Jesus and Mary. Poor Martha cuts into the graceful lines of their conversation, her face showing her harried state as she offers bread in a basket. But Jesus, his hand extended like a priest giving the Eucharist, offers Mary himself.
How many are the thoughts this glorious picture pours out! The longer one looks, the deeper the sayings in the heart. How do we teach our students to gaze—long and silently—at the world’s great works of art? How do we lead them to intelligently sow thought and humbly reap understanding?
In the Ambleside classroom, Picture Study begins with the print face down in front of each student. They look forward to turning it over and taking a good look. But first, the teacher shares a little on the life of the artist and a little about this week’s print: its title and medium (oil, woodcut, or watercolor), for example. We discuss what artistic elements to look for. Perhaps they will be looking for a focal point—the part of the print that gets your attention. If there are people in the print, the students might look for gesture, expression, or posture. Or, they might look for color relationships, line, or the negative space around objects. We practice looking for the element before we even turn the print over; for example, we might locate diagonal lines around the classroom.
When our minds are ready to look for line, posture, or color, we turn over today’s print. We observe silently for five or six minutes, taking in those artistic elements and the picture’s many details. We make sure the print is securely stored in the “art gallery” of our minds by closing our eyes after a few minutes. Can we see all the parts of the print? Is anything missing? We open our eyes and add a few more details.
Student work: Hatsune Riding Grounds by Hiroshige
When we “narrate,” or tell back, a picture, the print is again face-down as we describe what we saw. We tell what is in the picture, and where. When we have created a clear image of the print with our words, we then discuss the elements for which we searched. What do you notice about their posture? About the artist’s use of color relationships? After this, we ponder what the artist is communicating or suggesting. And we always end with appreciation. What about this print do you appreciate, or find beautiful? Their voices are quiet and reverent as they realize the amount of work which went into this print, or the realistic representation the artist achieved after years of practice. We might also turn the print over one last time, simply to enjoy it and its messages with a greater appreciation and understanding. Then, the students grin at each other. They know that in Picture Study, there is one more response left—a “memory sketch”—and they really enjoy it!
Student work: Madonna and Child by Raphael
They hurry to quietly retrieve their small whiteboards and begin drawing what they know—from memory. Where were the lines? How many trees? What was in the river on the right? They delight in accurately showing every detail. When they are finished, they find that it is very hard to erase those whiteboards! They gaze at them fondly before the beginning of their next class. Once or twice each semester, they will complete their own full-color reproduction of one of their artist’s prints, but for now, the quick lines of the dry-erase marker are soul-satisfying. The image stays in their mind’s eye, lingering for a moment before Spanish class. It has been lovingly added to the “art gallery” of their minds.
Learning in this way takes the mystery out of art. Pictures are for everyone, not just the artistically inclined. Anyone may come to the world’s great works of art and hear them speak— first through the eyes, and then in the heart.