A Recipe For Success: The importance of teaching the elements and principles of art.


Becoming an artist is a little like becoming a chef..

The Ingredients and Recipe

Much like a trainee chef, visual arts students need to learn about ingredients – the ingredients of a pleasing artwork. The characteristics of ingredients, how they react with one another, and what ingredients they need to add to make their artworks ‘taste’ or look better. Too few or too many ingredients or ingredients used in poor ways, results in an unsuccessful recipe or unsuccessful artwork.

We want our students to be able to look at their own artworks and know what ingredients (elements of art) they need to use to communicate their message and to make it a success. We also want our students to develop the knowledge of how to use these ingredients to put the ingredients together into a successful recipe.(Principles of art.)

Much like chefs with successful recipes or inedible meals, students learn and develop as artists by their successes and failures. In each and every artwork, they learn about what ingredients worked well and what ingredients they would use differently the next time they create. An unsuccessful artwork is not a failure but an opportunity to learn.

As a teacher of the visual arts, over time, your responsibility is to provide making and appreciating activities that:

  • Give the students the knowledge and understanding about these ingredients through direct instruction of their use and through the appreciation of their own artworks and the artworks of others.
  • Give students the skills to put this knowledge of ingredients into practice, through the exploration of different subject matter, art forms and mediums in both directed and self-directed activities.

The ‘Recipe’ to a successful artwork:

The Ingredients: Elements of Art

  • Line
  • Shape
  • Colour
  • Space (2D)
  • Tone/Value
  • Texture
  • Form (3D)

The Recipe: Principles of Art (Composition – How we put the ingredients together)

  • Balance
  • Contrast
  • Emphasis
  • Movement
  • Pattern
  • Rhythm
  • Unity

‘What will they learn?

It is essential to provide students with an understanding of the purpose of the lesson. Yes creating art is supposed to be fun and enjoyable, but don’t waste the opportunity of  learning by just creating a pretty picture with no understanding. What will  they learn from creating the artwork? What will be the skills they focus on and what knowledge especially about the elements and principles will they gain? I always write the learning intention of each artwork on the board as part of my lessons.

‘How will they know they have succeeded?

One of the difficulties of teaching visual arts is overcoming the subjective nature of what is created. We’ve all had a student frustratingly come up after five minutes to inform us that their artwork is ‘done’ with little effort or thought demonstrated in their work. To the teacher, the artwork may seem incomplete. But have we actually provided the class with a clear understanding of what they need to do for the task to be considered complete whilst still allowing them the creative freedom to complete it in their own way?

The way to achieve this is to provide students with a ‘Success Criteria.’ What do they need to demonstrate in their artwork for it to be complete? For each lesson I clearly display a success criteria. This criteria is based on the purpose of the lesson and is usually broken down into three basic headings.

  • Skills: I write one or two criteria based on what I would be looking for to show me that they have successfully learnt the skills being focused on. For example one criteria may be that I am looking for crosshatching to show shading in their drawing.
  • Knowledge: Because the elements and principles are the building blocks of all artworks, I like to include criteria that focus on their use in the task. For example, one criteria may be that I’d like to see a variety of different lines in their artwork; thick, thin, light and dark.
  • Effort: What will show me that the students have put in their best effort? For example, I may include the criteria that the artwork needs to show no white spaces or that they have used the whole page in their drawing.

‘Tasting’ the Recipe

As a chef cooks, they taste their food and make decisions about what they need to add to make it tastier. As an artist, we don’t taste our artworks, we look at them. We look, self reflect and make decisions about what needs to be added as we work on our creations. This ability to self-reflect comes both naturally and through explicit teaching.

When you examine the drawings of very young children, it is clear that even at an early age they make decisions on what to add to their drawings to make it more appealing or to help tell the intended story. A young artist might add a sun or birds in the sky to show that they are drawing someone outside. However, their drawings remain simple. This is partly due to their developmental stage but it is also because they lack the experience with mediums and techniques and also because their knowledge of the visual elements and principles is limited.

By explicitly teaching students the visual elements and principles through a variety of artworks, we give students a back catalogue of ‘ingredients and recipes.’ A catalogue of knowledge and skills and a catalogue of successes and failures on which they can call on to improve the artwork they are currently working on. A student’s frustration or perception that they ‘can’t draw’ comes from the fact that they don’t have the knowledge or that they don’t know how to self-reflect on what they need to do next to make it better.

‘How does this work in the classroom?

The easiest answer, is through meaningful and positive feedback, questioning  and encouragement.

Whenever a student brings their work to share with me or when I am walking around the room assisting them with a task I make sure that my comments are meaningful. Simply telling the student that his or her artwork is nice or beautiful, tells them nothing. I always make sure that my feedback involves their use of the visual elements or principles.

Instead of simply telling a student that their artwork is beautiful, I might say for example, “Oh, Andy this artwork is beautiful. I love the way that you have used both thick and thin lines in your drawing. It really helps to emphasise the different shapes in your work.”

Or if I think a student’s work looks incomplete I might say, “Hey Andy, that’s a great tree but do you notice any spaces in the background where it looks like something is missing?” “What could we put there so that the viewer has something to look at?”

I might even refer to a previous lesson, ” Hey Andy, do yo remember that cactus lesson we did where we learnt how to blend oil pastels? What do you think you may have forgotten to do in this artwork?”

What do you like about your artwork?

My favourite questions by far though are the two that I ask all students to self reflect on at the end of a task. They are:

  • What do you like about your artwork?
  • What would you do differently next time?

By building this self refection into every lesson, it encourages students to think about how they might improve in future artworks. At the end of each lesson, I do this in a number of ways:

  • I may ask a student these questions as they bring their completed work to me. This works great for those students who are shy or lack confidence.
  • Sometimes I ask students to self reflect on these questions but to keep the answers to themselves. I do this to build the understanding that these are questions that we ask and answer ourselves.
  • If time permits, I love to pose these questions but then ask targeted students if they’d be willing to stand in front of the class and share their work. This is a great way to boost an individual student’s confidence. I usually begin the discussion and talk about why I like the artwork. I then ask the remainder of the class what they like about the artwork being shared. I encourage peer feedback to be on the use of the elements and principles or on the success criteria not just comments such as ‘It’s nice.’ Through my experience, this practise really helps to boost a young artist’s confidence. Hearing their peers identify positives about his or her work may help a student to see that there are many great aspects to their work when previously they may have thought there were none.
  • I never allow the student’s peers to comment on what they don’t like about the artwork. Rather, I ask the student who created the work to share what they think they would do differently next time.

How do we show others what we’ve learnt?

Written student reflection accompanying artworks and in particular on their use of the elements and principles is a fantastic tool for demonstrating evidence of student learning in the visual arts. Whether this be for an assessment work sample or as part of the artwork display. Students can write on coloured shapes or bubbles what they learnt from completing the task or comment on how they used the elements and principles. When other people see what the students have written they will see that real learning has taken place and that it’s not just a pretty picture.