Jennifer C Vigil

Teaching art

The Magic of Using Analogy When Teaching Art

Ever wonder what makes one teacher good and another one great?

We’ve all been there. You are trying to learn something new, a new art technique, medium, or process and you just aren’t getting it. Why does it seem that one teacher can quickly get you to that “aha moment” while another can’t? What are they doing differently and how can you leverage that skill so you can become the great teacher you were called to be?

Enter the power of analogy

The magic at play here is the power to create effective elucidating analogies when describing techniques or what a student needs to do to improve their composition/ work.

What is an analogy and how do you leverage it in your teaching?

a·nal·o·gy (noun): a comparison between two things, typically for the purpose of explaining or clarification

We all remember fondly that one teacher from our childhood that inspired us and made us feel special, that made us feel our potential welling inside of us. That teacher “got us.” We had a connection and she saw us, knew that we had amazing gifts waiting to be nurtured and encouraged. She brought them out in us. Everything seemed possible. I can bet it was because she was able to connect with you, make you see things in a new way. She gave you “aha moments” where you felt the clouds part and a shaft of light shine down on you in a moment of radiant illumination. And my guess is that she did that through analogies.

So how can you leverage analogies in your teaching?

One of my dear friends and professional colleagues, Cerese Vaden, happens to also be an amazing teacher AND she is a master at developing powerful analogies for her students. Cerese and I got together the other day for an enjoyable afternoon at the local arboretum where we had another lively discussion about teaching while we watched a pair of Cooper’s Hawks build a nest.

Tohono Chul Tucson, AZ

It was a lovely day sitting in the shade with dappled sunlight dancing on the small brook and the perfect setting to discuss teaching strategies and best practices. And it was where the seed for this post was planted.

We were discussing my course, Creating Courses That Fill , and some of the challenges of teaching art, in particular, issues of intellectual property. As all good discussions do, it meandered much like the brook we were watching and soon turned to bridging concepts with students and the power of analogy.

Teaching is much like farming. You plant a seed (an idea) in fertile ground (your student’s imagination) and water it and nurture it for the time you are together. You may see it sprout and develop but often you don’t. You trust that others will nurture that seed and at the right time it will grow and blossom.

Analogies are one way that we can nurture the “seeds” we plant and encourage them to take root and maybe bud before our eyes.

Cerese shared a story about how she had been trying so hard to have a student understand what was not working in her composition. She wanted her to “see” the problem so she could come up with solutions herself. If this young woman was ever going to become the painter she longed to be, she needed to learn to “see” what good compositional structure was and how to fix it when it has gone off the rails.

The first analogy that Cerese used, she admitted, bombed. She painted this picture for the student, “Imagine that you have this beautiful ruby and you really want to show it off. Would you put in on a black background by itself or would you place it with all kinds of other sparkly and colorful gems?”

teaching art

Her aspiring painter paused quizzically, “Should I add black to the background?” Disappointed her analogy fell flat, Cerese didn’t want to tell her the answer but for her to truly understand it. Back to the drawing board (pun intended).

Appealing to the young woman’s fashion sense. . .

“Imagine that you had a beautiful string of pearls and you really wanted to show it off. Would you pair it with a dress with a large floral print, bright turquoise pumps, a floral hat, and a patterned belt? Or would you wear a simple black dress?”

the power of analogy in teaching art analogy and teaching art

Excited now, the student had her “aha moment.” She instantly got it. “Oh no. I would wear the pearls with a black dress for sure. If I wanted to wear the floral dress, I would go with say simple jewelry and figure out what the focus of the outfit should be. . . OH! You want me to figure out what the focus of the painting is and not have other elements fight with it for attention!”

“Yep! You got it :)”

Now, this analogy wouldn’t work for everyone (especially me when I was in college since I more resembled Pat the androgynous person from SNL than a Vogue fashionista. If it is any consolation to my ego, I have culled together a meager fashion sense over the years.) The key is to be creative. Figure out what your student’s opening is.

What type of analogy would get across your idea in a way she would understand, in a language they speak?

Effective comparisons aka analogies abound. The trick is to find the one that connects with the student and creatively teases out the exact point you want to make.

Possible options:

  • sports
  • music
  • TV, movie, or novel plots
  • cooking techniques (great for demonstrating techniques like how to use palette knives to spread paint on a canvas like you would frost a cake, here it is a touch or feel you are trying to convey)
  • dance or other forms of movement to get the notion of gesture in drawing or painting (feel the same types of movements)
  • framing techniques from another medium like photography in relationship perspective, foreground, middle ground, background; focus, etc.

The possibilities are endless. This takes a creative approach and it helps if you share ideas with your teaching colleagues like Cerese and I do. I am sure to credit her for her great ideas every chance I get.

Do you have any great analogies that you have found effective in teaching? Share your favorites in the comments.

P.S. If you ever get a chance to take a class with Cerese Vaden, jump at it. She is a printmaker (intaglio is her specialty) but also is an amazing watercolorist and book artist. So much to learn from her teaching style and her approach. She really pushes her students and even in short workshops, students come away with a host of new techniques and a fresh approach to their work. You will definitely grow as an artist if you work with her and in ways you would never have imagined.


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