In the scheme of biological classification, butterflies and moths fall into the Order we call Lepidoptera. Typically speaking, butterflies are brightly colored diurnal creatures. Moths are nocturnal and lackluster. But there are some exceptions. Leave it to Van Gogh to lend his artistic curiosity to the Great Peacock Moth that began with a sketch, and ended in a painting.
We began with a close observation of the artists palate, imitating each color with acrylic paint. We stored the colors in pint-sized mason jars knowing that the paintings could not be accomplished in one sitting.
The apprentice painters began by lightly sketching the composition in pencil on canvas, all the while marveling at Van Gogh’s marvelous composition.
Next came the brushes, the paint. The artists began with the lighter colors, blocking in the delightfully organic shapes, until layer upon layer, the moth began to emerge in its surroundings. The last colors to be painted were the deep blue-green outlines and the popping crimson accents.
The habit of observing is habit worth developing—a Habit of Being. Observation of simple objects is best when you begin your Observation Journal—a spoon, a clock, a marshmallow, an apple.Getting started is easy as 1, 2, 3…
Trace the edges with your pencil follow along with your eyes.
Begin your sketch, following the outline edges (very s l o w l y). Let your hand “see” all the curves and bumps that your eye sees as you look back and forth from your drawing to the apple. Don’t rush. Making a connection between the eyes and the hand is a slow motion exercise.
Simple observational drawings can be embellished with a wash of watercolor. Add a wash of color. And always paint from a puddle, never directly from the pigment tiles.
When creating a wash of color for a red apple Sara reminds us that the red is not the red directly from the tile. “Red in nature is complex. Make a puddle of red and add a tiny drop of green.” It’s the same process for a pumpkin, add drops of the complimentary color into the prominent color of the object to achieve the natural complexity of the object’s color.
Once your observational drawing is complete, do some research on the object you observed, date the entry and add it to the Observation journal.
As you complete the Observation, putting away materials and washing brushes and paint trays, reflect on what was gleaned. It’s likely that what was gained is far more than art far more than science. Developing the skill of observing is a habit of being that invites us to imagine possibility.
A few years ago Sara brought me a handful of pumice from Mount St. Helens and so I began the lesson with research of the volcano. We moved from there to the chemistry of carbon. When it comes to Observation, the possibilities are limitless. At last, directed the group of Observers to create a close observation drawing in conduction with the research in their Observation Journals—including a close focus section.
This little jar of fodder has proved more valuable than any textbook. This drawing by Marlo began with value—organic shapes of darks and lights. Once she was satisfied with the large shapes, she began to look for texture, began to mimic what she saw with varied lines on the page. Smaller still, she added dark marks to represent the deep bubbled areas on the volcanic stone. Most significantly, Marlo kept going—she kept looking. Perseverance is a skill that can not be be taught from a textbook.
Can anyone learn to draw like Marlo?
Yes, yes you can. You can draw like Marlo, but first you must learn to observe.
Observation is a foundational academic. Learning to "look closely" across all domains of learning will strengthen the student's Creative Critical Thinking skills. For this reason, Observation exercises should be integrated into the weekly routine to transform this crucial skill to a Habit of Being.
“Drawing is based upon perspective, which is nothing else than a thorough knowledge of the function of the eye.” -Leonardo DaVinci
We are designed to see and understand an object based on the relationship between the play of light and dark on its surface. Value is the term used to describe the lightness or darkness of an object. As light is reflected off objects, we interpret its attributes. When we draw a three-dimensional object in two dimensions, we are creating an illusion.
Over the years I’ve encouraged many a child to “look closely” by developing a specific Habit of Being—the Observation Journal.
It is always best to begin observational drawing exercises by encouraging the Observer to see the contours or the “lines” of an object. To capture natural organic lines on the page is a lovely skill.
As soon as this becomes a comfortable task, its time to encourage the Observer to look beyond lines that five the object its flat shape toward a close observation of the light and darks of an object. To accomplish this task, begin with a light contour adding a light value or tone by smudging then adding patches of medium darks and dark darks according to what the seer is seeing. The transformation is simple and stunning!
And it’s never too early or too late to start. A six-year-old executed these drawings of the wonderfully sea-tumbled mollusk. Anyone can add value to an observation.
Lore has it that Sandra’s high school watercolor teacher offered an automatic “A” to anyone in the class who anyone who could paint an egg—a trememdously difficult task to accomplish well.
Now I’ve never imagined this teacher’s comment as a dare, but rather something more like an Eeyore-under-the-breath-utterance that he hoped might someday come to pass. I’ve never imagined snarky, or cynical, but more someting akin to longing, the longing to motivate.
And I’ve never imagined Sandra’s tackling of this teacher’s offering as anything other than a response to the Muse, a delighted response to the spark of imagination. Sandra simply said, “I can.”
The sheer whimsy of the composition is my proof. There is not one guile puddle in sight.
Thing is, you might look at this painting and respond, “No, I can’t.”
But you probably said that about tying your shoe, reading The Cat in the Hat, or adding five apples and three plums. But you can, right?
Not all children will grow up to paint like Sandra. Not all children will grow up to hypothesize like Einstein.
But many children who might have will not because they are not inspired to try. All children have precious potential. And this is why I spend my days encouraging children to press into their important work.
Children who are encouraged to engage in the right kind of practice over time develop Habits of Being and habits of being give us the gumption to say, “Yes! Yes, I can!.”
Who would have imagined that, all these years later, a teacher’s nudge and Sandra’s creative response would continue to resonate, “You can.”
“Let us dig our furrow in the fields of the commonplace.” Jean-Henri Fabre
Children become science-minded by exploring their observations of the world around them. Science is much more than facts in a textbook. Facts are only a fraction of the picture. Science is a process that allows us to discover how the world works.
I remember one summer my brother being fascinated with caterpillars. One, in particular stands out in my mind. His name was Ralph. Yes, Ralph the caterpillar. My brother kept the fuzzy creature in a Stride Rite shoebox nested with a handful of twigs and torn leaves. What I remember most about the brief time that Ralph spent in my brother’s observation box before being set free, was my brother’s focused attention, magnifying glass in hand. While he did not keep a record of his observations, I know that my brother was honing his curiosity. But, I must admit, I’ve often wondered what his Observation Journals would have contained. How fun it would be to look back on an archive of his curiosity.
All four of my children have numerous journals of this sort and it is wonderful to look back and recognize the diversity and specificity of their unique observations.
Here is how to begin an Observation Journal:
A binder to collect completed observations
Cardstock for drawing
Lined paper for writing
Thick and thin waterproof markers
1. Look at the subject for a while. Look at what you are observing. Pick the object up, turn it around, use a magnifying glass to see texture and detail. Take your time and try to throw out any preconceived notions about the subject.
2. Talk about what is seen. Join the fun by engaging children in conversation about the details of the object being observed.
3. Draw the object with realistic detail. Encourage children to look at the lines, textures, and shapes. Have them think about proportions as they translate the three dimensional object to a 2-dimensional object on paper. When the drawing is complete, have them think about the color of the object and try to match the colors as close to the real thing as possible.
4. Read about the object. Find a book or internet article to find facts about the object being observed. Suggest that notes on a topic wheel might help to organize ideas.
5. Explore the object’s potential. What did you learn? What importance does the object hold in our world?
6. Write about the object. Combine and convey information gained through direct observation and research.
When children observe they utilize diverse reasoning modes that will, in turn, cultivate their ability to engage in the art of learning.
Why not begin the Observation Journaling with a caterpillar? Taking Fabre’s advice to heart, no need to travel to observe nature! Step out into your own backyard in search of a caterpillar or two. And, if need be, transplant a caterpillar from the World Wide Web via your printer!
Provide your child with some colored pencils, a pitcher of ice water, and a cozy backyard perch. Curiosity will do the rest.
“We frequently see, at the ends of pine branches, voluminous bags of white silk intermixed with leaves. These bags are, generally, puffed out at the top and narrow at the bottom, pear-shaped. They are sometimes as large as a person’s head. They are nests where live together a kind of very velvety caterpillars with red hairs. A family of caterpillars, coming from the eggs laid by one butterfly, construct a silk lodging in common. All take part in the work, all spin and weave in the general interest. The interior of the nest is divided by thin silk partitions into a number of compartments. At the large end, sometimes elsewhere, is seen a wide funnel-shaped opening; it is the large door for entering and departing. Other doors, smaller, are distributed here and there. The caterpillars pass the winter in their nest, well sheltered from bad weather. In summer they take refuge there at night and during the great heat.”
So begins the march of the Processionary Caterpillar. While children’s author/illustrator Eric Carle might say, “Out pops a very hungry caterpillar,” in this particular case, out pops, single file, not one, but a large family of very hungry caterpillars.
When Fabre observed this caterpillar’s strong instinct to follow-the-leader, its steps locked to the caterpillar being followed, he decided to hypothesize and to test his big idea by setting up a simple experiment. In 1896, he coaxed caterpillars to march in a chain around a flowerpot. And there they circled for days. Round and round and round.
And what did he observe?
Not even food set inches from their proverbial noses distracted the caterpillars from their mindless following.
There was no leader.
And so the caterpillars earned their name.
Scientific observation involves much more than seeing. Providing opportunities for students to observe allows them to practice such skills as collecting, predicting, constructing, perceiving. The art of observation helps students to risk and ultimately lead.
Jean Henri Fabre’s acute backyard observations laid the foundation for entomology. His earnest observations and insights are collected in ten volumes entitled Souvenirs Entomologiques.
Micropolis, at St Léons, France, is a wonderful destination dedicated to etymology and Fabre’s contribution to this significant branch of science.
Ever marveling at the power of the neologism, I clicked around on the World Wide Web until I came across the Micropolis website. Unfortunately I don’t read, write, or speak French. Still I couldn’t help but poke around a bit as I pondered the word—Micropolis.
And then it struck me.
What a wonderful testament to Fabre. In a single word—Micropolis—the museum communicates the life of a man dedicated to unearthing the diversity of nature in his own backyard.
Da Vinci Summer 2014 is only weeks away. Join the fun as we conjure big ideas for observing the small worlds brimming with diversity that we take for granted, the simple spaces in our very own backyard. Let’s think small. After all, the Renaissance Man himself reminds us, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
Chemistry is much more than a table
of elements, complicated theories, and experiments in the lab. Chemistry is the
foundation of literally everything we know. But for our children, chemistry is
at best a daunting subject, at worst downright boring. Mention the word
chemistry and they will run! That’s
why this year I chose to introduce my elementary and middle school apprentices
to the subject before it was too late.
Honestly, chemistry is no
more daunting than any other subject to be mastered. And chemistry is certainly
NOT boring! Developing an imaginative view of chemistry is the key to unlocking
Here are some ideas to
1. Transcend the Textbook There are all sorts of
wonderful books available to help simplify this expansive subject. Chemistry: Getting a
Big Reaction, by Simon Basher, is a really good introduction for children.
In his book, The Periodic Kingdom, P.W Atkins transforms the periodic table to a
fictitious kingdom where we can explore the potential of its topography. This
is the perfect, albeit heady, way to move beyond the mundane and journey into
the wonderful territory of chemistry.
2. Go Digital One of the best resources
available on the web is hosted by The University of Nottingham. Trust me, The Periodic Kingdom of Videos is AMAZING, crazy-haired scientist and all! Your apprentices will want to watch
every single video and once they do, they will never be bored by chemistry
3. Demonstrate Virtually These ChemDemos from James Madison University help kids to visualize chemical concepts. (The Gummy Bear Sacrifice is particularly dramatic.)
4. Experiment Experiencing the wonders
of chemistry is to experiment. But keep it simple. Focus on the concept of
chemical reactions. Teach the budding chemist to hypothesize.
You can purchase a
chemistry kits all over the Web: Thames & Kosmos and Carolina both have tons of great resources.
7. Research and Make! This past week I assigned each of my 22 science
apprentices an element to research. Each would write a three-part paper. The
research paper would begin like all good research papers should, by
communicating the history and basic scientific characteristics of that element.
The paper would move on to discuss the element’s purpose and uses in the wide
world. But I saved the best for last. The third section of the research paper
would move on to a larger discussion of what the element teaches human kind
about human nature. I helped them to begin this consideration by asking, “If
you were an element, what element would you be and why?” The group smiled and
the conversation got lively. Ultimately, this is the challenge that my
apprentices liked best of all because this is the sector of their research
where they were invited to engage imagination.
I provided each of my apprentices with a frame from
my local craft store—only $1.00 each—and gave them specific instructions to
stain the frame with a color that would best represent or compliment their
element (I, of course provided the watercolor). They were to put periodic table
information on the front of the frame and amazing facts on the back of the
frames. The frames would not only guide them in an oral presentation of their research,
but in the end become a larger than life game for our guild, “Scramble them up
and see how fast you can order them!”