Are the Elements and Principles Overrated? (Ep. 023)

Tim and Andrew take on a question that every teacher struggles with: how important are the Elements of Art and Principles of Design? AOE writer and choice-based education guru, Melissa Purtee, joins the guys to discuss the “E”s & “P”s. They debate whether getting away from the formal focus on the elements affects the quality of students’ work (14:00), how to run critiques (17:00), and the essential ideas that should guide our program (20:30). Full episode transcript below.

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Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by the Art of Education, and I’m your host Tim Bogatz.

Today, we’re going to be talking about the elements of art and the principles of design and ask the question, “Are the elements and principles overrated?” When we’re talking a little bit about the benefits and some of the drawbacks that comes when you use the elements and principles to guide your curriculum.

There’s a little bit of movement lately to get rid of the elements and principles. My question is if we decide to get rid of them, where do we go from there? Overall, where do these things fit in in our curriculum? They can guide it? Do they play a small part and a bigger picture? Should we get rid of them all together? I’m going to ask that of a couple of great, great art teachers that will be on the show with me, Andrew McCormick and Melissa Purtee.

As I talk to them, I’m going to share with you how my thinking has evolved on the elements and principles where as a beginning teacher I really thought that they were the end-all, be-all, and where they should guide almost everything they did and that common language really sets our students up for success at the next level.

As I talk to Andrew and a little bit as we talk to Melissa as well, I’ll share how my thinking has evolved and where I want to go from there. Where I think we should be as art teacher. Where they fit in, and what we can do with the elements and principles. That’s going to be different for everyone. I think our conversation about that is good to get everyone thinking about where they are personally and where they want their students to be.

I want to jump right in the conversation, we have a lot to talk about today. I’m going to bring on Andrew in just a second, and a couple of minutes after that Melissa will the join the show as well.

Before we get to that however, I want to talk a little bit about AOE’s Choice Based Art Education course. It is a great course for finding just the right level of choice for your own classroom. In that course, you’re going to look at TAB, Montessori, Reggio and all kinds of other approaches to find just the right amount of autonomy for your students that you are comfortable with.

It’s a three credit hour course, it begins on the first of every month. You can check out the for more details. I know a lot of people are going to be tuning in to this show, because both Andrew and, even more so, Melissa, are big names in the world of Art education, our choice based art education. I think having them on is a good segway into that Choice Based Art Education course.

If you like a little bit of what you hear from Andrew and what you hear from Melissa, that class is definitely worth checking out.

Let’s go and jump right in. I want to bring Andrew on right now.

All right, Andrew McCormick, you are here and you were here early today. How are you?

Andrew: I’m doing good man. Running errands with the kids this summer, but I’m doing good.

Tim: All right. Cool. We are diving in to your personal favorite, the elements and principles.

Andrew: Yeah.

Tim: I want to tell a little story here, and I want to just get your reaction to it before we bring Melissa on. When I was in undergrad, we’re having all these discussions about the elements of art, the principles of design. How important are they? I was really passionate about, “Our kids have to know this.” They have to have that common language. They have to be able to converse with that, because that’s how people talk about art.

My professor brought up to me and he’s like, “Tim, are you sure this is how everybody talks about art? Are you sure that the elements of art and principles of design are really that important?” I absolutely freaked out, because … Not in class, I didn’t freak out, but just the whole way home from class, I’m just thinking about this, it’s like, “What if my high school kids go to college and they don’t know about radio balance?” How are they even going to do critiques?” I just thought I was failing my kids if they didn’t know everything about the elements of art and principles of design before they go off to college.

It’s taken me about … What? 14, 15 years, but I finally come around to realize that the elements and principles are not the end-all, be-all. What was it for you? What really mean do you come around to realize that?

Andrew: For me, I’ve been a long time advocate that there’s a whole lot more to art than that. Even an undergrad, I knew that there was more. I want to go back to your story. I really enjoyed thinking about … When your professor asked you, “Is that really all that people talk about when they talk about art, or is that the way that they talk about art?”

I got to thinking, “No.” I know, when I go tot he museum with people and I’ll say, “Oh, I love this color here, or the value here and the way that they use line here.” I feel like I’m a big ol’ fat fraud phony, like I’m a caricature of an art critic in a museum.

What I actually think people at a guttural level talk about when they look at art is this evocative or the message that was conveyed there, the meaning, the context, this association. I’m not saying that’s better than a principles, elements type of talk, but I think there’s a lot more various nuance ways of ways that people talk art and get into art.

Back to me, I think it was in undergrad, I read a book called Air Guitar Nation by an art critique named Dave Hickey and he has an essay called Why Art Should be Bad. It was this essay on, “It’s really good to be daring and to be bold and make a lot of stuff. It’s okay if it all sucks.” It got me to think and work in a much more loose way.

I think that’s transferred over to my students and that I pay a little bit of respect to principles and elements, but we’d go over them very very quickly and get on to bigger, deeper things.

Tim: Yeah. I think that’s a really, really good way to go about it. I think Melissa agrees quite a bit with you, and I also want to ask her about discussions, critiques and how she’s teaching that as well. Let’s go ahead and bring her on right now.

Melissa, how are you?

Melissa: I’m awesome. Glad to be here.

Tim: Good. Thank you for coming, we appreciate it. I’m really looking forward to this discussion. Let’s go ahead and jump in. Start with the question we asked in the title of the show. Do you think the elements and principles are overrated? Do you think that art teachers focus on them a little bit too much?

Melissa: Yeah, I think they’re just one of many things our teachers can focus on and they just stuck there sometimes and they focus on them way too much.

Tim: Yeah. I would agree. I think there’s a lot that can go beyond just the elements and principles and so much more that’s there.

Andrew, what are some of the things that you like to do that go beyond elements and principles? Just basic ideas, basic things that you like to do.

Andrew: I’ve done a modified choice. I do talk about themes quite a bit. We’ll come up with themes. One of my favorite things to do is towards the end of the semester … Because I realize, when I come up with themes, it’s still a little art teacher centric. It’s the theme that I think will be good and resonate.

At the end of the semester, the last couple of projects, the kids, we collectively start brainstorming, “What do artist make artwork about? What would those look like as a theme or jumping off point?”

I think that that just has a richer understanding or … It’s a richer way for students to engage with art and it’s communicative abilities, I think, than just, “This is line. This is value. This is shape.”

My big thing is it’s not that I abandon the elements and principles. I still talk about those and I think that they’re still deliberately taught. It’s not just as heavy. It’s not as big a focus.

Tim: Yeah, I think that makes sense. I think the big key, like you said, is not just limiting it to the elements and principles, but weaving them in with the bigger topics.

Hey Melissa, I know we’ve both been advocates for, that as art teachers, we can do more than just the elements and principles. We’ve both written articles for AOE that either specifically or maybe even in a roundabout way, talks about doing more than just the elements and principles. Collectively, on Facebook and social media, art teachers out there have lost their ever loving minds over this. Why do you think that talking about the elements and principles become such a contentious issue?

Melissa: I think people want to its best for their students, and we’ve been told that teaching this is important. People don’t like to be told that what they’re doing is wrong. Challenges, they’re paradigm. I think it takes people a minute to think about it and process it.

What I decided to back away from elements and principles, that was something that happened really slowly overtime. Someone would have said, “Hey, that lesson sucks.” I might be offended. I think in a roundabout way both of you and I have questioned the validity of focusing on the elements and principles as much as we do. Not that we think anyone’s lesson sucks, but sometimes it comes down like that. That’s hard. People want to do the best for their kids.

Tim: Yeah. Just a followup there, I guess I’ll ask you Melissa first and then Andrew you can chime in too. Do you really think that the elements and principles are not valid anymore? Do you think we just need to find a different way to do it?

Melissa: If you would have asked me that two or three years ago, I was at the point where I was thinking, “We just need to not teach them.” No. I think they’re valid. I think they’re part of the language of art. I think when they’re taught holistically instead of just focusing on one in this false context that this lesson is just about line. When really, no artwork is just about line there. You need to be taught holistically.

I think they’re very valid as long as they’re included with an emotional response to art and thinking about art in that context. As long as those other things are included as well, I think the language of elements and principles is Great. Does to have to be called the elements and principles to teach that language? No. Most kids know what the words line, and color, and shape are without that really formal context that we give them, the elements and principles. That’s another subject for debate.

Yes, I think that they should be a part of our curriculum. Actually, in the last year or two, planned some units that use them. My stance on that has changed a bit as well.

Tim: All right. Very cool. Andrew.

Andrew: Yeah, I do think that semantics is a good way, because I actually think that kids have … I’ve seen teachers do this, “All right, boys and girls. Today, we’re learning about the elements and principles, and specifically line and balance.” It’s just like you can watch the kids their enthusiasm drain out of their body.

If you were to say, “Okay, we’re going to study line and balance, because these are really the building blocks of how people make artwork that’s effective and communicates an idea.” That’s a piece of the puzzle. I’ve even heard people refer to them as the rules and tools. The tools are the elements, how you build something. The rules are the principles. Here’s how you arrange things. We’ve agreed this looks pleasing.

What I like about that is you can say, “And now that you know the rules, rules are great to break, and break out of those conventions and you can show students all artists who have done that.”

I want to ask you, because it sounds like you … Even though I’ve been a staunch believer that art is more than just the building blocks and there’s never been a kid who’s been excited to come to school and be like, “Today, I’m going to make artwork about line. Yeah!” That doesn’t really grab their spirit.

I used to teach in a very traditional way. You have mentioned that you’ve evolved too. Do you think that there’s been, or that there was a loss in quality control? I used to be like my students’ work was pretty unified and pretty averagely good. When I strayed away from a heavy focus on elements and principles, I got a wide spectrum of quality and all of that. Did you experience the same thing?

Melissa: I think it’s been years since … It sounds to me when you’re talking about your definition of good, you’re thinking about how the work looks aesthetically. My definition of good is really what is it saying? What is it mean? What growth does it show and its abilities, and who came up with the idea and made it happen? How is a student doing and learning about those things?

Yeah, I think that there’s always a variety in success with pieces, especially when you’re talking about aesthetically. I think the definition of good has to include those other thing about process. I, for the last year, have organized all my lessons around something they call design process thinking, that teaches the planning, idea generation, designing, coming up with ideas. I feel like teaching that framework has helped the aesthetic quality of the work that’s produced. It gives students who are challenged by the open-ended format of choice based lessons that gives them a really solid, tangible framework to work from.

I don’t think I ever really focus very solely on elements and principles. In included them begrudgingly, because I felt like I should. At some point, I decided, “You know, I’m just not going to do that.”

Andrew: I love that answer, because, funny, I never though about … I’ve thought that quality has changed, but I’ve never really thought about the definition of quality changing. I think when I taught elements and principles, I thought of quality. I got to admit, I think I was off base now. Does their work look like I thought it was going to look like as I prescribed it? I told them, you have to do this, this, and this. If it looks like this, this, and this, that’s quality.

Now, I don’t know what it’s going to look like. I actually think that’s a sign of quality that they took it in very different ways. A second tier definition of quality is, “How effective were you at communicating your idea?” That’s when you can et in to those ideas of building blocks like, “Why did you use such crappy colors here? Maybe a different color, principles and elements, would have been more effective.

Yeah, I really like that answer.

Melissa: Thank you.

Tim: Yeah, I like that too. I want to transition this into critiques as well, I think that’s a good point that you just brought up Andrew, because a lot of teachers, when you talk about of ditching the elements and principles and like, “How do we talk about art? What about that common language?”

Melissa, you talked a little about what you want to see from kids’ work? What kind of qualities you’re looking for? Can you talk a little bit too about how you ran critiques? Do you talk more about the meaning of things? I guess, if you’re talking to a teacher who’s questioning you. “How would I do critiques without talking about the elements and principles?” What would you tell them?

Melissa: I think you’re referring to group critiques. I teach critical thinking in two ways. The mainly I teach it, students thinking critically about their work is through either blogging, or conferencing, or presentations. Those are how I have students reflect and think critically about their work. I work on using that, the language of this and principles, as well as forming personal connections and thinking about how their work is expressive and communicative, in that way.

As far as group critiques go, my main focus is celebrating the accomplishment and making a personal connection in response to the work. That language of elements and principles, we talk about, and it’s in there, but it’s not a focus for me. I think sometimes we miss the forest for the trees when we have vocabulary be more important than content.

Tim: Yeah, I would agree completely. That’s cool. Andrew, what about you? Your critiques? How do you focus yours?

Andrew: I’d say pretty similar to Melissa, where, really principles and elements come up when we start thinking about the effectiveness of the communication of the idea. I think the biggest thing we get is a gut level reaction to how individual was the response, how unique was it. What are they trying to say? In a lot of ways, I think that as I’ve shifted away from, “okay. They did a good job with all their seven values. Yes or no?” That’s what it used to look like. To what did the artist do here and how is it resonating in you?

That’s what I would consider to be a more authentic art experience. I don’t go to the museum and try to say, “I would like this painting a lot more if it has a better use of value.” I get into it on that more emotional level. I think that my critiques reflect that a lot better now.

Tim: Yeah. I think if you’re just focusing on elements and principles when you do your critique, I feel like you’re just at the base level. There’s not a lot of higher order thinking skills right there. If you’re just going through your rubric and, “Is the composition good? Did you do seven values?” That’s not a good way to critique.

I think you can connect with art, like you said Andrew, on so many different levels, that I think we’re doing our kids a disservice if all we’re talking about is the elements and principles.

Andrew: Yeah. That brings up a question I’m going to spring on Melissa. I know sometimes we ran our questions by our guest. I was going to ask you a question it just seems stupid. I’m going to spring one on your here Melissa. I think we’re all in agreement that if we have a curriculum that really focuses too heavily on the elements and principles, we’re really missing out on a lot.

There’s this great article by Olivia Gude where she puts forth a new set of seven guidelines or principles and elements. Let’s say, in Melissa’s world, she’s going to replace the elements and principles with a new set of guiding ideas that all artists should get and all art should be about. Can you think of big ideas that you think are essential in your curriculum and the work of your students?

Melissa: Ooh! That’s a tough one, and I don’t know if I can list them, but I definitely thought Ian Sands and I developed this list of artistic behaviors. There are definitely more than seven at this point. I guess hearkening back to Katherine Douglas and the development of TAB, for me, it would start with artist can have an idea and pursue it. That idea of teaching for creative thinking is essential.

Solving problems and experimenting. Knowing how to make design solutions is also a key. Making work that is expressive and has a personal context. Moving from making artwork about things that you’re excited and to artwork that says something and connects with people and has personal voice is something that’s really exciting to me.

Tim: Yeah. I think that’s really good. I think, Andrew, that’s a really tough question to spring on somebody with. No warning.

Andrew: It totally is, but man, Melissa, you nailed it. Don’t even think about it, “Oh, that’s going to be hard, da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da.”

Melissa: I’ve been doing a lot of writing this summer.

Andrew: That was awesome. That was awesome.

Tim: Let me go ahead and wrap things up though. One last question for you. If you are focused on personal expression, and communication, and student voice and all of those things, where do the elements and principles fit in at that point? Where can they or where should they? As we’re moving forward, we’ve agreed that we don’t want to ditch the elements and principles completely. Where to they fit in for you?

Melissa: For me, they fit in elementary and high school. Sorry, middle school- I’ve never been there. In elementary, they fit in in student directed lessons. Posting them, talking about that vocabulary. Instead of showing a Van Gogh painting and saying, “Let’s make artwork with lines.” Say, “What do you see?” “Talk color.” All those things are there.

Not just talking about the elements and the principles, but also the personal connection to the work I think is essential there too. Not limiting it to the elements and principles, but having those be present and introduced and the teacher modeling the language.

In high school, finding work that students see those things evident is a way that I’ve done it that I really like. I do a unit called artist understand elements, where I have my art one students and I put them in groups and have them research an element and do a presentation about it and find work from different time periods and across from a wide variety of cultural context periods that exemplifies it to them.

All the groups, all the elements are represented, and groups do presentation. They build a student directed common knowledge of what the elements are. Afterwards, the students individually pick from any of the elements presented and do an artwork inspired by them. I think that’s a good student directed holistic way to do it.

Tim: Yeah, that’s awesome. That sounds like … Yeah, excellent, excellent suggestions.

All right. Andrew, any closing thought before we sign out here?

Andrew: Yeah. I think we’ve said this a number of times. It’s not an either or. It’s not like you have to either do elements of principle or something new and different. You can have the best of both worlds. It’s a bouncing act in knowing what you think is best for your students.

To answer the question you pitched to Melissa, I’ve been doing this one week long many project exercise where I get my elements and principles done and talked about and practiced, and then it’s a jumping off point to a bigger project that’s more individual on.

That, for me, has been a good way to have my cake and eat it too.

Tim: Yeah, I think that’s awesome. Cool. Thank you Melissa. Thank you Andrew. It’s been an awesome conversation. Hopefully we will talk to you again soon. Thanks.

Melissa: Thank you.

Andrew: Thanks Tim. Thanks Melissa. Bye.

Melissa: Bye.

Tim: All right. That will do it for this episode. A big thank you for Melissa and for Andrew for coming on the show. It was a great conversation, and obviously we’ll talk to Andrew quite a bit. Hopefully we can have Melissa back on as well.

I really hope more than anything that everybody who’s listening to this can take away a few ideas. Not necessarily to change what you do in your classroom, but at least spend some time thinking about reflecting on how you use the elements of art and the principles of design in your class.

As you reflect, maybe you find out that you are using them the best way for you and the best way for your students. Maybe you’re finding out that you need to change what you do. Either direction is fine. Whatever you decide works best for you is what you should be doing.

My hope is that this conversation spur a little bit of thought and a little bit of reflection. Take some time. Read some articles by Andrew, by Melissa. We’ll post them in the show notes. You can link to those and check out some more things, and be thinking a little bit more about how you deal with the elements and principles in your room.

Like I said, what you can do to best serve your students. My thinking is I’ve all done it quite a bit since I first started teaching. Maybe yours as well. No matter what you do, no matter how you decide you’re going to approach them. Like we said, what you think works best for you is what we’re going to support.

Art Ed Radio is developed, produced and supported by the Art of Education with audio engineering by Michael Crocker. Please subscribe to Art Ed Radio on iTunes or your favorite podcast. You can also find us on where we’ll put up the show notes, some great articles from Andrew and Melissa. You can also sign up for the e-mail where every week, Andrew and I come to your inbox with a little intro to the show, a little bit of humor, and a little of behind the scenes look at what we do and some good recommendations for some other podcasts, articles, videos, reading, all sorts of good stuff.

Anyway, make sure you subscribe to the e-mail list and to Art Ed Radio. New episodes are released every Tuesday. We will see you again next week. As always, thanks for listening.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.