Why Art is Essential for Learning

Have you ever seen Saturn's rings? I mean in person? I have. Once when my science-obsessed son was passionate about astronomy (and the technology for studying it!), we went out to share the moment of Saturn's proximity to the earth with some other enthusiasts and an enormous telescope. It took what felt like far too long to set that telescope up - over an hour, as I recall - as I stood with my young kids in the freezing winter field, assuring them over and over again that that one particular bright point of light we could see was, in fact, Saturn. I knew it was. My research on the Internet and some of the other people gathered that night had confirmed it. And I had faith in science to be right. I knew this was an exciting event because everybody told me so. But it was also cold, frustrating, and as the time dragged on, and the thing they said was Saturn kept marching across the sky, ever out of the continually readjusted telescope, I was losing my faith. 

Finally the telescope was properly set up, and we awaited our turns to look. By the time my turn arrived, Saturn had drifted out of view again and the telescope had to be adjusted. Again. Then I looked. It was like someone was showing me a cartoon. There was Saturn with it's rings (I could even see the dark gap between them), and three of its moons clearly visible. I struggled to link the tiny white image I was seeing, which looked so rudimentary, with the immaculate photos and renderings I'd seen in colour in movies and books, and with reality. I looked from the eyepiece of the telescope back up to the point of light in the sky. I looked along the length of the telescope and confirmed that it was, in fact, pointed at that same point of light, and that by all reason I was truly seeing the same point, magnified by a series of lenses. I gazed into the eyepiece, and after a few moments realized that I could see the three-dimensionality of it. I could see a slight shadow from the planet on its own rings. the little logo-like image drifted to the edge of my view again, and I realized that, not only was I looking at a real planet dancing unfathomably far away from our own, but also that our own was slowly turning away in its own different but intrinsically connected part of the dance of our solar system.

I would have said Mind. Blown. But that wasn't a thing yet back then, or my kids weren't old enough to have taught it to me. My previously-limited mind opened in that freezing cold moment, and the solar system became interesting to me. Gravity became interesting to me. Telescopes and people who use them became interesting to me. So much that I had never even wondered about who we are as humans in this beyond-huge infinity of the universe began to preoccupy my thoughts, until I found I looked at earth, and humanity, and my children, and me, differently than I had, before.

Then we all began to freeze in earnest, and we went home to our fires.

Art is like that telescope, that night. It's what brings us to the world and helps us understand it. Art is about learning to see. So often this basic truth goes unnoticed as we imagine that art is for artists; that art is a frivolous pass-time, or that art should take a backseat to more essential activities like learning to read, solving equations, and developing the ability to recite stories from human history. Many of us have heard, by now, that music enhances math education, and that children who learn through music and dance retain information better than those who only learn through verbal instruction. But how often do schools offer visual art as an essential learning tool for all students? We all suffer the consequences of blindness as a result of not learning to see. 

As someone who sees breakthroughs of discovery and understanding on a regular basis when I teach art, I want to take some space to explain, a little. The examples I'm going to talk about aren't the end of the equation; there are so many ways we can learn to see. These are just a few of an infinite variety of ways that our species opens our minds through visual art. I believe very strongly that gaining visual and creative literacy is an essential part of learning and retaining all that information that our culture values so deeply.

Line Drawing
Fundamentally, line-drawing requires a mental translation from an understood three-dimensional concept to a two-dimensional surface. We know what we know more than we are conscious of what we see. Line drawing requires and promotes development of conscious observation. Have you ever seen a child draw a picture of a house with all four sides visible, as if the four walls were unfolded onto the plane? We can't see the back of the house, but the child knows it's there, so draws it. Similarly, they often draw the sky as a blue line, because they understand the concept of there being a sky above, but they don't conceptualize the idea that it's unending, and therefore, in a line-drawing, invisible. All of these things require observation to discover, and training and practice of observation and line-drawing promotes this discovery.

There are so many ways to translate observation into line, from the rather mathematical calculation of perspective to the deep inquiry needed to document tiny things we might otherwise not examine (like the texture of a leaf), to the intuitive, emotional research needed for blind contour drawing of people we know. All of these things allow us to look and see in new ways, and then we take these new ways of seeing into other activities. Learning to draw a street with linear perspective, for example, not only helps us understand observation, relative size, and laws of physics, but also helps us understand the vastness of our world, and opens our eyes to see more consciously when we're out in the world. So in the end it gives us a deeper understanding of everything.

Technical and Psychological Colour Theory
My daughter still talks about the time she learned from her very clever friend at preschool that mixing red and white would make pink. So she tried it, but used red and yellow... and it turned out orange! She was painting a sculpture of broccoli, and decided that while pink would have been an acceptable colour for her broccoli, orange was definitely not. She was three at the time, and at fifteen this memory still comes back to her at regular intervals, because it had a huge impact on her. Not only did she make some discoveries about colour-mixing (technical colour theory), but she also discovered something about which colours jive with the concept of broccoli in her mind (psychological colour theory).

Tie-dyeing is a great experimental colour theory activity.
We are influenced by colour every second of our lives, from the clothing we choose, to the hues emitted by our light bulbs, to the design and advertising of commercial entities. We can grow up blind to this, or we can learn to recognize how we respond to colour and, using this knowledge, make wiser choices. For example, turning on the night screen mode of your devices can have a noticeable impact on your mental and physical health, since the blue light emitted by our screens changes our brain chemistry, affecting our sleep and various body systems. I also just recently discovered that blue light actually triggers our retinas to kill off photoreceptor cells, eventually leading to macular degeneration. Literally, blindness. Light really does have a physical effect on our bodies, and colour is light. Having an understanding of not only how we are affected by colour, but how we can manage it, mix it, and use it in our worlds gives us agency in our own lives and health.

An understanding of colour can open our eyes to the rest of the world, as well. If we start noticing colour in all its capacities in our lives, we notice things we didn't before. As with all of these visual discoveries, we learn to see, consciously.

Three-Dimensional Form
How often do you look at the wall of your house and wonder how it was put together? All the layers, all the varied materials and their unique functions -- do you wonder what kind of insulation is in there, and why? Do you look at a couch or an upholstered chair and wonder what's under the fabric? Do you flip through a hardcover book and then peek down inside the spine to see how it's constructed? I teach bookmaking because it opens our minds to three-dimensional form and material use. Building a hand-bound hardcover book requires a slightly complex series of construction steps, including folding and tearing or cutting pages, sewing them together, creating a sturdy, flexible spine for them with starched cheesecloth and glue, then building a hard cover out of board and paper or fabric, then embellishments, then attaching the book to its cover with perfectly-fitted endpapers. And then suddenly there you are holding a real, honest-to-goodness book, and understanding not only what all the parts are, but why they're there.

Our world is full of constructed objects, and understanding how and why things are built the way they are allows us to see everything more deeply, and also gives us the insight needed to repair and build things, ourselves. Learning how to knit a sweater, construct a pie or a complex cake, fix a bike or cobble a fix on a broken backpack are all essential in the same way: Instead of replacing broken goods, we can repair them; instead of relying on others to provide for us, we can be self-reliant. Understanding how things are made gives us confidence and courage to take charge of our own lives.

I can't write about learning without mentioning how important it is that experimentation is a part of the process. Remember that orange broccoli? My daughter's experimentation in grabbing yellow instead of white, and the consequential discovery that different parts make a different whole, is probably the reason she remembers the incident at all. When somebody tells us something, we may take it or leave it, but there's not much emotional pay-off in just following instructions. There's a huge emotional pay-off in discovering something ourselves!

The other day I took my son's snowboard in to a local ski and board shop, hoping to replace a lost toe ramp. Apparently the bindings are an older model, and the toe ramp is not something we can just order and replace. And no way on earth can I afford new bindings. So this amazing person at North Shore Ski and Board examined the remaining toe ramp on the other binding, disappeared for a few minutes, and came back with some handfuls of padding, boot inserts, and double-sided tape paper. He gleefully experimented for a few minutes with different materials and placements, until he came up with a solution that most closely matched the other toe ramp. Then he started measuring, cutting and gluing, and in less than an hour, total, he had repaired my son's snowboard. He charged me for the parts and time, which was far less than any binding replacement part would have cost, if I had been able to buy one. And then he posted about his awesome customer service on social media, and showed off his handiwork to his boss. His pride was glorious for me to witness.

Like Icarus' experiment, this one didn't go as expected, either. He learned many things, that day!
Art leads to experimentation, and humans need to experiment. It's how we learn and evolve. Trying new things, failing, and trying again is how we learn to keep trying; how we develop resilience and courage and grit. All of the important skills that art gives us are made more accessible through experimentation. It's not enough to teach someone how to draw a street scene with accurate perspective; we need to allow children to make perspective drawing part of their personal experimentation, without criticism, direction, or correction, so that they make discoveries and carry that learning on into the next things they play. We need to give them time and space to make a big mess; to scratch up clay from the creek and see if they can build something of it; to take apart their toys because what's inside is more interesting than what's outside. We need to give them resources and time and encouragement, and then stand back and just allow them to experiment. That is how they will grow up to see the world around them as a great big fascinating opportunity for growth. That is how our children will grow.


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