Art Language Development



This article was written for Images in Life by Max Darby and re-worked in May 2009. The contribution of Meredith Maher is acknowledged.


If art students are to be encouraged to make and share their personal responses to art, their experiences and to their various environments, they need to feel confident in their ability to express themselves in language that effectively communicates their opinions and feelings. While this is true of the language of studio expression, this article is more concerned with language and expression related to the appreciation of artists, artworks and cultures.


Opportunities for all students to develop and use appropriate language skills and terminology need to be provided both for oral and written communication. There are important differences between oral and written language and both need to be addressed in the Art program. Not only is this important in terms of providing a valid art education for all students, it is also critical in terms of the art teacher’s contribution to general education and how the Art Department is seen by the rest of the school community.


Art teachers need to realise, however, that some students have ‘real’ issues with either oral or written language expression. Some students, for example, who have low literacy skills in written expression and find it difficult to express their thoughts and ideas in that way, can be quite articulate in communicating orally. Both forms of literacy need to be acknowledged as valuable and assessment tasks, in particular, might need to be designed to accommodate the individual learning and expressive styles of each student. This can be achieved while still trying to improve the weaker of the two styles.


Spoken and Written Language

Spoken and Written Language are quite different. Written language is not just speech written down. It has its own conventions and its own particular flavor that identifies it as the language of books, not of conversation. In this it has a long tradition. Neither do we, in most times, talk in the same way as we write (this becomes painfully obvious when we hear someone delivering a speech that has been well prepared – often by someone else – and simply read to an audience). When we read a speech we too often tend to sound pedantic and very formal. General speech and conversation too has its own conventions, particularly to do with interactions between speaker and listener and with patterns of intonation and idiom.


In communicating what he/she has to say a speaker can rely on tone of voice and on hand gestures. This works together with shared knowledge between the speaker and the listener and the assumptions they share. Once some common positions are established much need not be stated at all because each accepts some aspects of where the other is coming from. In writing this does not happen. In talking, the listener, can respond with questions, a nod, a quizzical look or even a smile. These things give feedback to the speaker about how well any messages have been understood and adjustments can be made to the direction the conversation is taking. Where necessary, the speaker can elaborate or clarify what has been said if there’s any doubt about how it has been understood or interpreted. The writer on the other hand, must make explicit more of the context of the writing so that it can stand alone. In all likelihood it will need to be read at a later time or in a different place, by someone who is not in a position to interrogate the writer for further explanations. In those circumstances, the reader has only the text on which to rely. It’s not surprising that young students, whose understanding of how language is derived is chiefly from spoken language, sometimes experience difficulty in learning to adapt to the requirements that written language demands. How critical this is for those students writing for an art examination!


A speaker has to begin somewhere and that always remains ‘his or her’ starting point. The sequence of what is said can not be altered nor can many of the words being said, The brain usually does not work quickly enough to allow such changes of direction with ease, or not for most people and not for many students. Unless the speaker is most fluent and highly experienced, and has a clear structure in mind, it is unlikely that the spoken words will form a shapely and flawless discourse of any length without a hitch or hesitation. The writer has more freedom in determining the final appearance of the product. The written piece can be started in the middle leaving the introduction until last. It can be erased, elaborated upon or re-arranged. Although there will most likely be a structure and direction to begin with, the final product may, through editing, reshaping and adjusted ideas, bear little resemblance to it. Its form is not final until the writer chooses it to make it so, and even then there is the possibility of a later version.


There are quite clear implications in all of this for Art teachers – whether they are planning research topics, assignments, setting and marking essays, leading class discussions, organizing student group-discussion activities or encouraging students to interview an artist. Certainly Teachers must expect students to develop points, change the direction of their arguments, clarify and modify their opinions and to learn by experience as they proceed. In many ways talk and discussion allows students to clarify what it is they actually believe or think. The process of expressing it out aloud is an integral part of the forming of their ideas. Art Educator Eric Newton once wrote The important thing is not that drawings are made by children but that children are made by drawing. That clearly sets out his expectation that the process of doing is a major means of ‘forming people’ and their opinions and attitudes. The same thing could be said about talking. How often do we begin a sentence without being quite sure where or how it will end? Certainly, I often do. I sometimes even wonder as I start talking what it is I’m going to say! I can’t wait to hear what it is I think! So for students to learn and to develop their ideas, beliefs, opinions and attitudes, they need to be able to confidently express themselves and adjust their position as they go.


Art Vocabulary and Terminology

The learning of appropriate Art language skills is far more than just learning and testing Art terminology lists as sometimes happens. Obviously, the knowledge and use of common and correct terminology is necessary if students are to clearly explain what they mean or wish to share information. This capacity, however, needs to be developed in a practical situation where the context of a word’s usage is clearly explained and understood. If you use a term such as chiaroscuro in a discussion about painting, then the class needs to know that you are referring to a method of modeling paint in terms of light and dark qualities or the sense of the talk will be totally lost. Students will gain a greater understanding of the term and are more likely to remember it, if it is introduced in a way that is reinforced practically in the studio.


There are many opportunities for Art teachers to introduce such a word informally during practical studio sessions, or practical activities specifically designed to introduce it. Words introduced in these ways have a greater meaning for students than those learned from textbook glossaries. Such a word that is often misunderstood by students is juxtaposed (or juxtaposition) which means much more than where something is placed in a work. I’m sure there are many others that will come to your mind.


The confidence to talk about Art, to use new vocabulary and to share responses might not come easily for all students. Art teachers need to positively encourage and nurture each student’s language development. Forcing students who lack confidence to take part in large classroom discussions might reinforce their insecurity and preference to withdraw. As mentioned in another article on this website Working in Groups, small group discussions are a more positive way of approaching the problem and the reading of previously prepared written reports for some students might also develop confidence to speak publicly if they know in advance. There is also an article on this website that addresses the task of Public Speaking. Teachers should also by their own example, encourage a willingness to listen attentively to the views and opinions of others. Effective communication is one of the major aims of Education. Art teachers can make an obvious and important contribution to assisting students to develop confidence, poise and the necessary language skills through their own lessons.


Dr Max Darby (Visual Arts Consultant, Asia/Pacific Region).

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One Response to “Art Language Development”

  1. Good day, Cool write-up. I’m likely to issue your website in web traveler and that could test this for you? Your current impressive writing is challenging. Thanks

    Thank you for commenting on my writing. Cheers Max.

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