To Mark, or Not To Mark on Student Art, That is the Question

As art educators, we know there isn’t an absolute “right” way to teach art to our students.

There are many methodologies, techniques, standards, and creative ways to impart knowledge and teach our students to be the best artists they can be. There is one belief I feel strongly about, however, and it has become quite the conversation piece with other art educators.

The question? How do you feel about making marks on your students’ work?

Personally, I am adamantly against it. There are several reasons I feel this way, but primarily, it’s because I look at it as cheating.

Imagine a music teacher working with a student to prepare a solo. The student is about to perform, but at the last minute, the teacher stops him. The teacher tells the student he isn’t quite ready, so he should just stand there and mouth the words while the teacher sings in the background.

While this scenario sounds quite far-fetched, isn’t that what art teachers are doing when they draw or paint on their students’ work? Suddenly, the art doesn’t solely belong to the student anymore. Once the teacher adds even a line to the work, it has lost its authenticity.

The dispute especially comes into play when the discussion of modeling comes up. Of course, all good art teachers must model techniques and examples for their students. But, why does this scenario make it ok to mark on a student’s work?

There are many other ways to model strong artmaking techniques. Here are 3.

teacher helping

1. Use a journal or sketchbook.

As you move from student to student, have a journal or sketchbook to show specific methodologies as students need them.

2. Try tracing paper.

When showing how students may tweak a specific line or part of a drawing in a composition, try using tracing paper. Lay the paper down, do a little sketching, then take the tracing paper away. Watch as they creatively use this new information to make their own lines.

student work

3. Set up media centers for practice.

Allowing students to experiment with and practice different techniques before applying them to a finished work helps build student confidence. You might set up an area for students to practice graphite techniques, oil pastel blending, watercolor painting, or other media your students want more practice with. How exciting would it be for students to take their new skills and use them with confidence in an art project?

bike study

In short, I believe when we draw on a student’s work, we are taking their confidence away.

The act of “fixing” another’s art communicates that their marks aren’t good enough. And, if we continually draw on student work, we are telling them we don’t believe they will ever be good enough.

Over the years it starts to become obvious which teachers are manipulating their students’ art because the work starts to look very similar. Do we really want our current students’ work to look like our past students’ work?

Personally, I want my students’ art to look like their own art! I want their “artistic voices” to be heard! Art is about self-expression, and it’s our job to teach our kids to make the best art they can without our additional marks. Let their art voices be heard.

student work

I’d like to end with a story. Several years ago, I had a wonderful student teacher working with me. On Day 1, I was going over our department’s philosophies with her. When I mentioned, under no circumstances, was she to mark on a child’s artwork, she breathed a sigh of relief.

She told me she had had a previous placement where the exact opposite happened. Her cooperating teacher had told her, “Don’t ever hold a student back for extra work time. We can fix the art when they leave!”

Just writing about it makes my heart sad. I realize there are different viewpoints out there. Some of my colleagues have made arguments for why they mark student art. But, is that what art education has become? Do we really think it’s ok to “fix students’ work” without their permission? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Have you ever marked on your students’ art? If so, what were the circumstances?

Do you think it’s OK to submit art that has been touched by an instructor to scholarships or competitions?

Debi West


Debi West, Ed.S. and NBCT, is a retired art teacher with 25 years of experience. She loves sharing with others, and her motto is, “Together We ART Better!”


  • Jennifer Kile Torres

    I have also used old transparencies and erasable markers to lay on top
    of student’s work to demonstrate an idea or solution. (you could also use remnants of plastic from the laminator) This works
    wonders in my elementary classroom and it still gives them complete
    ownership of their art

    • What a great idea! I generally only mark on sketches (with student permission) and scaffolding assignments, or demonstrate an idea/technique on a piece of scratch paper. About once a year I will mark or crop a student’s actual project with their permission.

      • Debi West

        Thanks for sharing!! And thanks for asking permission – sadly too many just mark it up and then the question lies, who’s art is it?

    • Debi West

      That’s a GREAT idea!! Thanks for sharing!!

  • Leo Barthelmess

    I have drawn on practice sketches and preparatory work mostly to correct perspective etc. but never on their finished work. However I was told by a student of Hans Hoffmann that he use to paint, mark and tear his students work and when they’d freak out he said what’s the problem it’s school work not art.

    • Debi West

      I heard that one as well – we actually had a teacher at our school (before I got there) who would take his sharpie and “X” out the work he didn’t like – ON THE KIDS work!!! What?!?!?
      Thanks for sharing!

  • Anastasia Maroney

    I mark on my students work just as a math, science, or English teacher would mark on a student’s work. This isn’t “cheating.” With my help, the student is able to easily recognize what could be improved. If I recall correctly, most all of my art school professors “corrected” our mistakes directly on our work. More often than not, it was amazing to see how something I thought was so “wrong” was so close to being correct, but I just couldn’t “see” it, until my prof helped to reveal it to me.

    • Debi West

      I hear you, but I just think there are so many other creative ways to model and teach mark making and art skills. I don’t believe that Language Arts teachers are writing essays for their kids and I don’t believe math teachers are solving test problems for kids, but they are modeling and guiding, which is what all good art teachers do. The question is, is that ok to do directly on a kiddo’s art work?! It’s a different view and a conversation that’s been going on since time.
      I appreciate your thoughts!

  • ericaleefrieden

    Tracing paper- great idea!

    • Debi West

      Thanks!! It really works well!!

  • Patricia B

    I teach Elementary and will only touch a students’ work if they are struggling or made a mistake that they can’t fix themselves. I always ask permission and what I usually do does not do much to alter the overall work. I much rather help the student get past the mistake/problem then to have them shut down or be upset with themselves.

    • Debi West

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts…I agree that we don’t want our students upset or to shut down, this is why I use alternative methods but in the end, it’s all about the kids because we don’t teach art, we teach kids through art. It’s been a great conversation today and if it makes people think, then I’m happy!
      Thanks for all you do!

  • Ryan

    I never touch a student’s art. Ever. I will sit beside them and show an example on another piece of paper to show them strategies on how they can change/improve their work once they explain what it is they want to change. I don’t think it is the art teacher’s job/responsibility to put any marks on the actual work. This way the student has an example they can use and their art is still their art! Good article! #keepittheirs!

    • Debi West

      I love this!!! Great answer to a controversial question. It’s been interesting hearing so many opinions and philosophies today!! Thanks for posting!

  • Erin MacPhee

    Wow great issue. At first glance the answer was easy for me. I’m in the never mark up a child’s work camp. The other teacher in our district is the opposite, She repeatedly changes or marks up her students work and they strongly resent it. We are both on the elementary level. But just as I was thinking it was a no brainer I had a flashback to my high school years and I clearly remember loving when my teacher would sit down and “show me” something working right into my piece.. Not only did it help and often clarify things for me it made me hold him in higher regard as an artist. One key point however is that his input was generally on technique or use of medium and he always asked if it were alright. I never remember him correcting, rejecting, or changing my concept or idea. He just helped me gain the skill to execute it. Maybe that’s part of it. Maybe it’s not that black and white. Maybe it’s like everything else in life each situation is unique and presentation is everything. His presentation never put me in the “feeling like a failure category”. He made me feel like he respected my thoughts and ideas and he was there to support them. What doesn’t work is when we inadvertently tread on the very soul of the young artist by presenting our ideas as better than theirs or that we convey their work is flat out “wrong”.

    • Debi West

      Very well said ErIn! Thank you for sharing!
      I’ve never had an art teacher touch my art but at a state art conference workshop I was in a few years ago I had a presenter start drawing on my charcoal portrait and I was horrified! I asked her why she would draw on my art and she seemed equally horrified that I was upset by it! It provoked a really great conversation among all of the participants and I was surprised that several thought that teaching approach was ok!
      It’s an interestingly conversation and definitely makes people think – again, thanks for your response!

  • Catie Nasser

    I think there is a difference to marking on a students work and fixing it when they are not there. I use many ways to help students, usually in the sketching process. My first choice is to draw with them, me on a post it or scrap paper. I teach k-6. Especially with the littles, I don’t want them to get too discouraged (some is ok!) For example, in still life lessons, I may help with a guide line or a mark to show the angle of a line or height of an object. It is still their work, their idea, I am helping to foster and guide their experience.

    • Debi West

      Thanks for posting – I love that line “helping to foster and guide their experience!” That’s what it’s all about…

  • Julie Sillay Hogan

    When you mark on a student’s work and then grade it, whose work are you grading?

    • Debi West

      Amen!! And exactly! Thanks Julie!

  • mary kernan

    I always demo and draw on my “unfinished” example. I have several of them! Or I would grab a scrap paper. I had a college art teacher actually draw on my almost finished pen and ink project, because i was not drawing the lines “correctly” I was extremely upset especially since it was suppose to be a holiday present for my parents and Christmas was just a few days away! I stayed up all night redoing the 18×24 pen and ink because he put his mark on my work.
    I always tell kids that story when they want me to draw for them.

    • Debi West

      I love this Mary – well, actually, it makes me sad because I hear it so frequently, but I love that you shared it with us! It’s all about the creative ways we, as art teachers, demo and teach technique and it’s seeming more and more obvious that it certainly doesn’t need to be directly on a child’s personal art!
      Thanks for posting!!

  • Katy Bernheim

    I feel VERY strongly that we shouldn’t mark on a student’s work. Right now I teach high school, and I carry around scrap paper to show a student how they might approach a problem drawing area or technique. When I taught at the elementary level, I would occasionally draw dots on the work of students with special needs for them to follow. This way they could have some success, and not get so frustrated.

    • Debi West

      I agree Katy, and appreciate your thoughts! I’m truly enjoying the discussion!

  • Anetz

    there’s a fine line here and a middle road one can travel on this issue. It isnt all or nothing. Having my bachelors in Fine Art I am very used to work being corrected because, as a classroom piece, it is actually just a practice. I tell my students the same thing. I am showing them where the lines might go and then I usually erase my lines so they can go over it on their own. I only use pencil; I never mark in anything else but that is only in the classes where I am teaching actual technique. I do not mark on Student independent pieces. I think you have to make a distinction between practice pieces and actual student independent artwork. There is a point to marking on practice work. Most of my professors did the same thing (except for one who refused to draw on your artwork because he was mildly well known and said I would go and sell his sketch ?). To sum it up, practice work – yes, but in pencil; Independent work – never. As far as actually fixing the students work when they are not there, NEVER.

    • Debi West

      Great answer! Thanks for taking the time to share!

  • Brooke Gravett

    You can also use transparencies, left over lamination scraps, or page protectors (cut in half so you have just one layer) and vis-a-vis pens or grease pencils. Lay the clear material directly on the student’s work, draw what you want to show them, and lift off your suggestion. I think it would be easier to see than tracing paper.

    • Debi West

      Love that idea! Thanks for sharing!!

  • Jane Taylor

    I never mark a student’s work, but I often show them possibilities with tracing paper.

    • Debi West

      That’s GREAT teaching! Showing them you care about their personal work while modeling and guiding them! Thanks for sharing!

  • Shelley Menhennet

    My students from grade 1-6 have an art journal and that is where all their art work starts, with rough drafts and experimentation. I then ‘conference’ each child when their draft is finished, which includes writing and drawing on their draft. This is as much about teaching the students that it is a draft and they can go over bits of it rather than put huge crosses on what they believe are their mistakes (who teaches them to do this???) For example, the grade 1 students had to do a draft for their ROY G BIV, a complex piece which required 4-5 sessions to complete as I do not do one session art works!. Roy needed a head, neck and shoulders to fill the space on one journal page. I drew over the top of their drafts when they had not filled the space to show them what I meant and most of those children asked if they could do another draft to fill the space better, knowing that their final piece was going to be on an even bigger piece of paper. This was totally their choice.
    This year our school has a big push on giving students quality feedback which is why I am also writing encouraging statements or where you can go next on their drafts.
    It takes a while to train the students that a rough draft can look a bit scribbly and experimenting is OK and changing and developing ideas through the process of your art making is also fine. Even my grade 5s and 6s need to be reminded from time to time as this is just not acceptable in their classrooms. When final artworks are finished I like the students to go back to their first draft and talk with a partner about all the ways their art work changed from their draft. Their faces light up when they look at their draft and finished piece side by side! They also chat about what they might have done differently if they did the work again.
    And I NNEVER, EVER, EVER draw or write on a student’s final finished art work!

    • Debi West

      Shelley – I love everything about this!! Great lesson – great ideas and absolutely love how your kiddos have time to really reflect and see their draft and ideas become final pieces they are PROUD of!! Brilliant!
      Thank you so very much for sharing!!

  • Meg Olsen

    I used to do clay workshops and residencies and, especially with the little ones, once I was back in my studio if a clay piece was falling apart I would slip and sore the clay and put it back together. I didn’t have much time with the kids I worked with and I thought they would rather have a clay piece that looked how they left it rather than have me return pieces of a clay because they were new to the process and didn’t realize they weren’t slipping and scoring properly. Now that I’m a full time art teacher I keep scrap paper with me so if a student asks me how to draw something I can show them on a scrap piece of paper. However, there are occasions, for example, when we were painting self portraits, that students needed help mixing their shadows and highlights and were getting frustrated because they couldn’t get it. At that point I ask if I can paint on their work, if they say yes, I show them how to blend the colors, and then I give them the paint brush back. I don’t think that means I’m doing their work for them. I don’t want my students leaving my class in tears, or hating the work they do because they are feeling frustrated about their painting compared with their peers, or worse, hating art class because they don’t think they can get it right. I would rather have my kids love art class and want to come try something new because they know they can get help if they need it. Not everyone is going to art school… When I am in the library (the other half of my job) when a student asks me how to spell a word because they are writing descriptive words for their project, if I tell them how to spell the word it doesn’t mean I did their worksheet for them. (1st – 2nd, rarely 3rd – dictionary skills begin in 3rd grade). The critical thinking skills are in the design of the project, the technique needs to be taught. If that means I make a few marks on my students work to teach the technique then I think it’s worth it.

    • Debi West

      I mentioned on the FB link that I haven’t had the clay issue since I primarily work with 2d projects so thanks for sharing. And I agree that we don’t want kids upset, which is why we model and guide and teach. I have a large sign in my room that says “Comparison is the thief of JOY” and remind them that their marks matter and practice and experimentation can be the key.

  • Meagan Brooker

    I, as well, am adamant about not doing it for them or touching their work. I keep the tracing paper company in business! It’s important for us to model how to do it correctly while also giving them space to “work it out” on their own. Quoting Bob Ross, “We don’t make mistakes, just happy little accidents.”

    • Debi West

      Awesome!! Thanks for sharing!!

  • I find it best to say, “might I make a suggestion?” and then talk with them about choices they have to proceed. I think using the word, “Suggestion” gives the artist a choice and lets them take ownership of their decision.

    • Debi West

      I love that…often it is in the way we teach and suggestions are always important. I tend to say, “as the art guide, here are a few thoughts, but remember, YOU are the artist, I am the guide so ultimately your way is going to be best” … it’s just so exciting to see how they take our modeling and guidance to the next level!
      Thanks for posting!

  • kmillett

    I agree – never on something that will be a completed piece. If I can’t get to all students during my 1x/week classes, I may collect papers and, for instance (with a different color for the students’ benefits), correct lines, if needed, for 1 or 2 point perspective. Most students are ready to move on and apply that, while a few may need extra attention in that area. The tissue paper idea is new to me. I can see that being useful as a ‘how to’ aid.

    • Debi West

      Thanks for sharing! I do love hearing how people deal with this and the whole “perspective thing” came up on the fb chat a lot so I hear you.

  • Amanda C G Rumpf

    I LOVE the idea of tracing paper. Even at the elementary level.

    I am an adamant “non-marking” teacher, but I had a similar experience when doing my HS student teaching. I remember thinking, “WHY is he doing their entire project for them??!?”

    I feel the same way when little kids (or even big kiddos) have contests or school projects. I have seen time and time again when parents CLEARLY do the project for them. It would be quite rare to see a K5 student draw a highly detailed, realistic drawing of a fire hydrant with shading, etc. in a Fire Safety Week poster contest…and then they win.
    WHAT is that telling that student?
    What is that telling the *OTHER* students who actually did the work themselves? It makes me completely batty. My heart just sinks when I see that.

    • Debi West

      Amen Amanda! I think it’s a real problem! And sadly, it’s not only parents creating the award winning art, more often than not, it’s the teachers! It definitely doesn’t bode well for the profession. I do think there are some good arguments but I personally don’t think student art should be touched or altered by anyone other than the student. There are so many other great ways to model and demonstrate and teach!
      Thanks for sharing!!

  • K.S.Rabert

    Apples and oranges…LA and math is a different circumstance and we can’t compare. I agree that we shouldn’t fix a completed work. I gave my art teachers and professors permission to incorporate their knowledge into my work and it helped me tremendously. ALWAYS ask first!

    • Debi West

      Thanks for posting…

  • Pingback: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Teaching Art Online - The Art of Ed()

  • Pingback: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Teaching Art Online - Alphi Creative()

  • Pingback: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Teaching Art Online | no mad culture()