4 Tips for Fostering Authentic Art Experiences in the Classroom

Recently, I’ve been hearing the term “authentic art” used in the art ed world more and more. People talk of “authentic art experiences” and about how specific pedagogies are designed for authenticity. The concept of authentic art signifies an important idea in art education that has broad implications for how we teach and what we want students to learn. So, what does it mean and how can it shape our teaching?
authentic art
Authentic art is work created and planned by the student to express ideas that are personal and meaningful. It’s what all the historically important artists we admire did and what visionary contemporary artists continue to do today. It’s also a teachable behavior and an appropriate and necessary part of visual arts curriculum for all age levels.

In The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics, Dennis Dutton writes, “Whenever the term “authentic” is used in aesthetics, a good first question to ask is, Authentic as opposed to what?” One might think that everything students do in art class is authentic art. It is called art class, after all.

In fact, a good portion of the work done by art students falls into a different category – exercises.


Understanding the differences between authentic art and exercises and how they each can be used to support contrasting types of classroom learning is critical for teachers.


color mixing exercise
Color mixing exercise: students mix colors from primaries to match paint samples


So, what’s the difference?

Authentic art is about meaning and creative thinking; exercises are about replication or building skills. One isn’t better than the other, they are just different aspects of learning and understanding visual arts content. Exercises are important for developing aptitude with media and technique while authentic art experiences are essential for teaching creative thinking. Creating authentic art also provides opportunities to apply skills learned in exercises. We can draw a comparison to the act of learning vocabulary versus writing an essay. Students need both types of activities to fully learn about making art.
authentic vs exercise
A good example of an exercise is an assignment that asks students to create a color wheel. The goal is to learn color mixing and color theory. Students are asked to replicate specific colors to build skill with paint. Most of the content is teacher-directed and the results are expected to be uniform. Students are asked to replicate a pre-determined outcome–specific colors.

On the other hand, an authentic art project that builds color theory knowledge could be the task of creating a painting based on a theme. Students are asked to think creatively to interpret the theme and produce a work that has personal meaning by applying knowledge of painting, including color theory. In this assignment, the student is asked to mix all colors from the primaries, but the results are expected to be varied based on the specific needs of each artist. To accomplish this task, information about color theory must be recalled and then applied to mix the colors needed for the artwork. The knowledge from the exercise supports the success of the authentic art experience. In the same way,  just as making authentic art gives the student an opportunity to apply new skills and the teacher the opportunity to assess learning.

authentic painting
“Arab Spring” by Sarah, Art 1

The colors of the painting above were mixed from primaries and the theme of the assignment was “Identity.” About her work she writes, “This artwork represents my ethnicity as an Egyptian and reveals the emotion of the people and of me (the artist) towards the revolution.”

4 Tips for Fostering Authentic Art Experiences in the Classroom

Including a combination of exercises and authentic art experiences is important to teach both creative thinking and to build skills.

1. Teach skills separately.

So often we try to make projects out of skill exercises in an effort to fit everything in. This makes for projects that lean heavily on teacher direction, are low on creative application, and create un-clear learning goals for students. Is a monochromatic painting essentially different from a value scale? Why spend weeks on information that can be taught quickly?

2. Let students apply skills with open-ended tasks.

First teach the exercise, then let them apply it to artwork that is personally meaningful.

3. Consider theme-based authentic art experiences.

Giving students themes to work with is a great way to give parameters to an open-ended task and the perfect place for students to apply what they’ve learned in exercises.

4. Use master examples.

Talk with your kids about how great artists (past and present) used skills they developed to create authentic art. Try to use a limited selection of examples to encourage creative thinking instead of replication.

The Takeaway

Both authentic art and exercises are important parts of a well-rounded curriculum. Students at all levels must be challenged to make real, authentic art. We learn by doing. To learn about art, students must do the work of artists–plan, develop ideas, and apply concepts to communicate personally meaningful ideas, as well as to develop skills. When exercises become the main focus of instruction, students lose out on valuable learning.

Do you think authentic art is appropriate at every level?

How do you incorporate authentic art experiences in your lessons?


Melissa Purtee


Melissa teaches at Apex High School in North Carolina and is the author of The Open Art Room. She’s passionate about supporting diversity, student choice, and facilitating authentic expression.


  • ian sands

    I saw a quote on a teachers website the other day that read, “Copying me or a classmate doesn’t make you a more creative person, it makes you good at copying.”

    I wonder were a more teacher directed lesson, one that is less and exercise but rather a follow-along-project, falls in this conversation.

  • Kris

    There is such a fine balance here between authentic art and art exercises. They are both needful and important to each other. I am a firm believer in teaching skills and concepts. This allows the artist (child) the freedom to be more creative and expressive. Too many times I have watched the frustration of a student that wants to be authentic and creative but feels they are lacking the skills to express what they would like to express.

    • I agree, it’s a very fine balance. On the flip side of your example you risk students not learning how to think creatively due to lack of opportunity.

      • Kris

        I agree. Like I said, it’s a fine balance. And I do believe there needs to opportunity for creativity. I’m just of the opinion that the more tools one has, the more creative they can be whether it be in drawing, painting, music, etc. The skies the limit!

  • Diane

    Melissa, This article makes a valuable distinction about lesson objectives – creative expression through authentic artmaking or skill building through exercises. I agree that both are essential to a fully developed art program and appreciate your care in explaining the differences. The chart clearly shows the criteria of each type of lesson. I am curious – can you explain why “assessment” is placed under Authentic Art but not under Art Exercises?

    • melissa purtee

      My thinking is that exercise teach skills and authentic art experiences assess them. To really assess learning the activity has to be open ended, or you’re just assessing how well your students follow directions.

  • Mr. Post

    I never understand why art teachers ask students to mix all their colors from primary colors. Primary color paint tubes are the most expensive. My friends who are painters would never use blue and yellow to make greens when so many vibrant and muted greens are available for a lot less money. The idea that you can make secondary colors from primary colors isn’t how professional artists approach painting.

    • melissa purtee

      That’s interesting. For student work it’s more about understanding color theory through repetition and practice.

  • Nina Isabella

    I really enjoyed this article breakdown! I am trying to create more authentic opportunities for my kids to create like the artists they are, while also teaching skill building lessons. For example: Maybe practice shading+value using plaster casts, now create your own drawing using value that expresses a memory regarding your body (the time you slam dunked, broke your knee, had shoulder surgery, painted your nails) Art21 is a great resource for themes!

    Or for little ones: practice 3D paper construction techniques, and then create your own amusement park surrounding the theme of Fun+Play that artists tend to experiment with

  • Thank you for your thoughtful approach to this topic, Melissa. I have to say that I often bristle when I hear the term ‘authentic’ simply because the term is posited in an either-or dichotomy versus a both-and, inclusive perspective such as how you present it here.

    As I reflect upon my own practice and begin introducing more choice into my K-3 curriculum, I hope to find the words to speak to my kids in such a way that nurtures aspects of their creativity while still reminding them of the importance of study and practice of materials and technique.

    So, thanks again for this piece! I just printed out your graphic and plan to put it on my desk as a simple reminder during these next couple of months of school.

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