In Pursuit of Comfort with Ambiguity

Pencils and eraserIn the art classes that I teach we use pencils that don’t have erasers on them. I also have a giant eraser that kids have the option to use if they need to fix a mistake. However, I recently made a new rule for my students: no erasing.

What I find happens most often is that a student puts a single mark on the page, feels insecure, thinks that they have messed up, and they erase. Over and over again. What  ends up happening is a lot of time spent making a single mark and then erasing it and the student never really gets started and feels defeated then their paper is messed up with mostly erased pencil marks that don’t amount to anything.

My first experience with implementing this new rule was with a class of 1st, 2nd, and 4th graders. We were doing a lesson on Franz Marc and we were using  a few of his animal paintings as reference. The kids were deciding what animal they wanted to draw and before they got started on it I told them that they were not allowed to erase anything. One of the first graders, Sophia, decided that she wanted to draw a puppy. Sophia's puppyHer first move was to draw a circle which she immediately decided was all wrong and  wanted to erase it and start again. So of course I reminded her that this is the type of thing to which our new rule applies. No erasing. I could tell she’d been thrown for a loop and didn’t know where to go from there. I assured her that since she is still in the early stages of her drawing she could use that circle for anything.  She was hesitant but ended up finishing her drawing without erasing anything. She ended up surprised by how much she liked the finished drawing and she even said she was glad she kept working on it.

I took a slightly different approach the next time I introduced this new rule. The next class I taught was a mix of kindergarten and 2nd graders. I told them about our new rule and then when I did my demo I stopped half way through and said “does this look like a cow to you?” Everyone said “no.” I pointed out that it does not look like a cow because I am not yet finished with my drawing. Art doesn’t look finished when you are just starting it. Sometimes it doesn’t look right until the very end. Just keep drawing, you can always use your mistakes or turn them into something else.

Here are some of the results from that class.

Sanvi, 2nd grade, Zebra
Sanvi, 2nd grade, Zebra
Lidya, 2nd grade, Zebra
Lidya, 2nd grade, Zebra

I don’t think this rule is always necessary. Sometimes the students are very confident in their own drawing and art making abilities and they want to erase because it will help them with their vision (as opposed to what usually happens when erasing stops them from getting started).  For instance, one of my classes came up with their own narrative and each week we illustrate a new scene from it in chalk outside on the sidewalk. We’re going to collage photos of the students in the scenes that they draw so it looks like they are in their own illustrated chalk drawing. They are drawing rough drafts of the scenes on paper before we go outside to draw them. One girl, Chloe, who is in  4th grade, is an amazing artist. She has a clear vision in her head of what she wants to draw.

Here she is drawing a penguin:

Chloe's penguin

Chloe was working on a drawing in class the week I decided to implement the no erasing rule. She was drawing the scene in which the group of girls in my class are at the zoo and they go to see the flying puppy exhibit but find it to be empty. It appears that the puppies have escaped. They go to look for the puppies and find them at a pond in the forest. flying puppies at the pond Chloe asked to use an eraser while she was making this. I said no and she just shrugged and continued to work. In her case,  I think it would have been ok to let her use the eraser, her need didn’t stem from insecurity or an inability to get started.

I have had kids who get REALLY upset at the prospect of “messed up” art work. I think telling them my expectations BEFORE they even get started is important and so is telling them WHY I have these expectations. Even at a young age this is something they can understand and I often find that the young kids pick up and run with positive messages. The more logical and positive I sound about this the more likely they are to agree with me and say it back to me in their own words.

I plan to further develop stopping the demo half way through. So far when I stop I have been asking questions about what my drawing looks like, if I’m finished, if it looks like I’ve made mistakes yet and showing them what the process of incorporating the “mistakes” into the artwork looks like. Students may have never paid attention to art being made and may not know that it won’t necessarily look like what they are trying to draw at every step along the way.

Comfort with ambiguity is a big blind spot for a lot of people and kids alike. People in general are very uncomfortable not knowing what will happen or what the outcome will be with their creative endeavors. I think not letting kids erase in this context is a great exercise in making them face the fact that they don’t have to know what the art will look like yet and they will hopefully learn that this is just part of the process.

This talk is very related to what I’ve been discussing.  I am trying to cultivate a comfort with ambiguity in my students early on not because I necessarily want everyone to be an artist but because I want everyone to think like an artist and be prepared for a life of unknowns. Life doesn’t come with directions. I mean, I guess it does, but a lot of times other people’s solutions aren’t necessarily your answer.

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