Drawing Sunflowers

I have sunflowers growing in my garden this year. An artist friend who visited spread the seeds in spring. Now the flowers are at different stages of development, their many sizes and shapes dictated by the conditions of their location. They are so symbolic of Fall and the cycle of nature, and are so magnificent I wanted the children in my class to experience this. I picked some that were very different in shape, size and development and put them in a large pot in the middle of the painting table for the children to examine. As I set the flowers on the table, I was already imagining the many drawings these flowers might inspire me, as artist, to make. I remembered the impressionist exhibition I had visited. The pleasure of standing in front of Van Gough’s original paintings and seeing them vibrate on the canvas. I remembered the wonderfully free charcoal drawings I had done while sitting under the end of summer sun and a canopy of enormous golden flowerheads in the company of artist friends. Time stood still. I didn’t want the day to end. Sunflowers hold all the joys of late summer for me, they contain deep and personal meanings. Seeing them and touching them evoke so many wonderful memories. Many of the children have sunflowers growing in their gardens and I expected they might be similarly inspired. I could already visualise some of their drawings and paintings.


Space, setting and introductions 

I carefully chose a place in the room for the table. Out of the flow of traffic in a quiet corner, there would be few interruptions, few distractions. Drawing demands intense concentration. I was thoughtfully aware of the setting while setting out the flowers. The process of setting out the flowers and art materials helped to orient me to the child’s perspective of my invitation to draw. Large heavy heads held firmly in a solid earthenware pot, inquisitive fingers could not easily topple the display. The textures of the seed head and the contrasting frail and bold gold of the petals invited touch. I ran my fingertips over the seed-heads. The tiny stamens on each head gave softly under the pressure of my hand, some caught on my skin falling off to reveal a surprisingly pale unripened seed head beneath. Would the children do the same and notice, with the same kind of surprise, what lay beneath? Some of the flowers I laid casually on the table top lest the setting of the flowers in the pot might seem too formal or too distant for some children. The mass of one head required two hands to lift it to see what hid behind the seeds. The leaves felt rough and prickly. How does one capture mass and texture in a drawing? Do children see mass and texture? Around the flowers I placed some fresh sheets of drawing paper. Enough only for four or five children to work there. Drawing needs space to move your arms freely and to lay your tools around you within easy reach.

I wanted to draw the children to the flowers. As if the ‘drawing to’ were somehow connected to the ‘drawing of’. I set out drawing tools that I knew would invite different children to draw. I wanted to introduce the children to the flowers so they could begin to form a relationship which would enable them to capture the essence; the personal meaning of the flowers for them. I am aware of the relationship each child has with a particular medium. Dana likes the bold and strong marks the oil pastels make. Claire has to have a pencil to allow space in her drawing for the many details she feels are important. Jill enjoys watercolor. Last year she became very skilled at wetting the paper and feeding in the brilliant color then allowing just the right amount of drying time  to  catch the details she wanted before  she finished. Perhaps she will remember some of these skills and bring them to the sunflowers. I am curious to discover what she might do. Just  as  when  I bring special friends  from different  parts  of  my  life together and am anxious for them to connect somehow, so too am I anxious that the children will connect with the sunflowers. Without a connection a conversation is difficult. I am aware that the nature of the connection is not within my control. I can set the scene, I can introduce, I can invite conversation but I cannot make them see in the same way I do.

I have tried hard to set the stage. I hope that, by setting the scene and by carefully selecting the props, I have provided the prompts that will enable the children to engage and move forward, unfolding the play. 


Unfolding  the drawing  scene

These materials are just the props that will guide the participants through the process. What about the actors in this scene? How will they see this scene? What will their relationship and responses be to the objects? Do I have a role to play? As I wonder how I can draw them into representing the flowers, how I can involve them as more than just observers, I see many roles I could choose to play. These roles are defined by my expectations and my relationship with each  particular child. Do I expect every child to take a leading role or will there be, as in a play, some walk on parts, sub plots and stage hands? Of course I want all the children to take the leading role but this is not how a play or life unfolds.

I must respond tactfully to each child’s understanding and experience of what it means to draw, what it means to draw sunflowers. I must beware of drawing them into the limelight too soon. For the play to evolve, to become successful and polished, there must be many rehearsals. What does rehearsal look like for drawing?


The teacher as artist

I remember my own drawing rehearsals. An image of the art studio where I studied drawing. Easels and boards were scattered seemingly at random around the model. First, I had to choose where I wanted to be in the room. How I chose my space depended very much on how I was feeling at the time, who else was there and which aspect of the model most called to me. I wandered around the room looking at the model from different angles, aware all the time of where other people were in this space, where they were placing themselves in relation to me and the model. The lady who chattered annoyingly had settled herself on one side of the room and so I was able to discount that space. The man who watched every move I made and often tried to imitate me was moving in just behind me. Did I feel confident enough tonight to withstand such scrutiny? But here I had found the view of the model that spoke to me, so I set down my box of tools and studied the model more closely. Standing where I was I enjoyed the view from above her, it reminded me of coming across someone sleeping and stopping to watch the peacefulness, the soft flow of a relaxed body. I could feel a relationship with the subject beginning. I was relating what I saw to my own life experiences, making connections with my memories. Drawing is not just about what we see, it is also about all our experiences and memories. A thousand memory visions of skin and light and sleeping and bodies had flown through my mind but one or two stood out loosely connected waiting for me to draw them together into my drawing. However I am not yet ready to start this relationship. First I have to arrange my space, become comfortable, so nothing stands between me, the model and my drawing. I like to stand when I draw. It allows me freedom to move around. Moving keeps me both relaxed and alert. Moving back allows me to see my drawing as another might see it, to check that my message is clear. I choose an easel and set the board at a comfortable height for my arm to move freely. I don’t draw with my hand as I might if I were writing. Drawing is a kinesthetic experience for me. I become what I am seeing and the drawing flows through my body. Some artists take their images into their minds and allow their thoughts to play with them, the images become mixed with language and the drawing flows slowly and tentatively like words from a more controlled pencil. A drawing created this way requires a different reading. I choose vine charcoal for its immediacy and boldness, it’s life. Vine charcoal was once a living twig and  it demands that you feel the subtleties and respond to it through all your senses, intuitively. The paper has to have just enough bite to it to catch these subtleties; too smooth and they would slip away, too rough and the vine snags.

The stage is set, I am ready to begin. I open the curtains on my conversation with the model, the charcoal and my drawing. I stand at a distance outside the model, I don’t ‘see’ the model clearly yet. I am looking at the model, but I am still looking at her casually, superficially. I have to look differently. I look more closely, carefully, but there are too many details that my eyes get caught on, and the images become fragmented and disconnected pieces. So I screw my eyes up and squint out of focus; the fragments merge into a whole, the image is simplified and it seems more possible to capture it. Which lines and shapes will be the first to meet the paper? How do I choose where to begin? There are so many decisions to make: Where on the page do I begin? How big will it be? Which part will I focus on? Do I use lines or tones? This is the moment when I feel most insecure. I am being asked to invest so much of myself in something that may not work out, how can I take such a risk?

The paper glares at me threateningly and I cannot bring myself to the commitment of putting marks upon it, so I begin instead to draw in the air. My hand rehearses the movements through the air in front of me tracing the flow of the model’s body. It is as if by mentally touching her I can capture the kinesthetic awareness of  her, the tension in her muscles, the weight of her hips on the floor, the flow of her hair as it lies spread around her head. I bring my hand back over the paper and still moving, still carrying the form of the body, it touches the paper and leaves a mark. This mark is not enough though, there is still much more information to unload from my tracing, my mental touching. Again my hand moves over the paper, touching it here and there, until I see the form emerge from the marks I leave behind. Now I have to look again. This new look changes, it contains an element of evaluation. I compare what I see on the paper with what I see before me, but it is not a direct comparison; between these two elements lies myself. A translation occurs when the images enter my mind so that what transfers onto the paper is me, the raw me. It is the essence of myself I have captured, and thrown on the paper for all the world to see and I feel more naked than the model I am drawing.

In drawing we are creating representations of our world, our life. We are REpresenting the world as we see it. I am presenting my drawing to you, the audience. As in a presentation I have to be sure it contains all the elements I feel you need in order to understand my message. I have captured the present, as it is lived by me, and now I present it to you. I hope you will understand at least some of it.

I give it to you, as one would give a present, chosen carefully with someone in mind. I hope that you will appreciate it. I know you may not. But are not most of the presents we choose to give away the very presents we ourselves would like to receive? Is my drawing my present to myself? After drawing I experience the same feeling of being recognized that I also feel when receiving a present. My drawing is my way of understanding myself. 


Children’s conversations around the sunflowers

The first few children approached the table with the sunflowers. They leaned over the table to touch them just as I had. Intrigued, they stayed relaxed and open, looking at the flowers, touching them and commenting about how they felt, the  color, the size. I engaged them in conversation and discussion about what they saw. They wanted to know who had brought the flowers and why. Then they started to notice they were all different. They discussed the  possibility that they might  be different species until one child suggested that some were older than others. She knew because she had them in her yard last year and the most enormous heads had been dried and the seeds eaten by the bluejays. We looked for the seeds in the biggest head and because they were all arranged on end several children did not believe they could actually be the sunflower seeds they knew, so we had to pull one out to see. Another child told how the sunflowers in her yard were even bigger than mine; they could see right over the fence that was even taller than her father. Another child told how the sunflowers in his yard always looked over the fence and never into the yard because they liked to face the sun. No one had yet started to paint or draw them. Some children noticed the new boxes of crayons and, not recognizing the different packaging, asked how to use them. The first few children to put crayon to paper were most interested in the medium of oil pastel. The range of colors was alluring and much experimentation with colors in random rubbings and merging on the paper took place. No one even seemed to remember the sunflowers in  front  of  them; they  were  so  absorbed  with  their  explorations  of medium and color.

I put the flowers there for the children to draw. I expected them to come to the table and almost immediately begin drawing. I was led to expect this partly because the children were in my class for a second year and have already done a lot of observational drawing with me and know something of my expectations. I assumed that if I was inspired by the flowers so would they be. However, I forgot that the children had not been a part of the planting, growing and gathering of the sunflowers. I was surprised when one child asked where they had come from.

Fortunately I was in no hurry to obtain drawings. This was not an art lesson scheduled in a timetable, so I was open to  interpret the children’s responses to the flowers. I became more curious about their responses to the flowers than I was about eliciting drawings. I allowed time and my openness let the children take whatever path they needed to get to the drawing. I had to listen very carefully and actively to what the children were saying though because I sensed that they might wander off if I were to bypass too quickly what they were bringing to me in their conversation. It was more important and relevant for them to tell me all their stories about sunflowers than to begin drawing them or to hear my teachings about them. They needed to re-experience sunflowers before they could ‘re-present’ them. While they talked about their memories they were also touching the flowers. As their fingers moved gently over the flower heads they seemed to be ‘seeing’ the flower more specifically. The movement of their hands seemed to slow the movement of their eyes down sufficiently to allow more questions and comparisons to surface.

There were only four or five children in the group and this allowed for a more easily sustained conversation. The conversation wove its way around loosely, following the direction of the children’s thoughts and memories. It was not a conversation guided by me towards specific answers. My responses reflected back to the children’s restatements of what they were saying. My synthesis gave the group a shared understanding. Touching and talking about the plants helped the children remember all they knew about sunflowers. Only when they had remembered all they knew were they were ready to take another look at them, perhaps from someone else’s point of view but maybe more as an expansion and extension of their own view.

As I become more aware of my teaching and my expectations for the children, I begin to see how I can allow space for the children’s varied approaches to the drawing process. Reflecting on my expectations reminds me of a passage by van Manen in ‘Researching the Lived Experience’ (l990).

‘Teacher expectations and anticipations associated with certain aims and objectives differ from having hope for our children in that expectations and anticipations easily turn into desires, wants, certainties, predictions. As teachers we tend to close ourselves off from possibilities that lie outside the direct or indirect field of vision of the expectations. To hope is to believe in possibilities. Therefore hope strengthens and builds. On the other hand, the phenomenology of specific educational objectives or broad goals is to be involved with the future of the children we teach in such a way that we always see the past as present and the present as past. And inherent in such living with children is always treating the present as a burden, as something which must be overcome. There is little dwelling in such living.’ (p. 123)


For more information about the International Association of Art in Early Childhood and our teaching resources, please contact us.