Media & Techniques

Exactly How Do You Teach Drawing? (Ep. 257)

Jenn Russell is back by popular demand, and in today’s episode, she and Tim dive into a long conversation about exactly how they teach drawing. It’s all here, from favorite lessons to best drawing media to motivating reluctant learners. Also listen for a discussion on how skill building can lead to more choices for students. Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Tim: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education University. I’m your host, Tim Bogatz. All right. A few weeks back, I recorded an episode with Jordan DeWilde all about his new book, 30-Minute Drawing for Beginners, which is a number one bestseller on Amazon, by the way. Shout out, Jordan. I spend a lot of time at the beginning of the episode talking about how I teach drawing and how my own education with drawing informed everything that I do in my classroom.

I’ve gotten a lot of emails about that saying, “Tim, we need to hear more about this.” Apparently, four minutes was not enough. We’re going to dedicate this episode all to teaching drawing. I can’t think of anybody better to chat about that with me than Ms. Jenn Russell, who is here now. Jenn, how are you?

Jenn: Good. I’m so excited to be here. How are you?

Tim: I’m doing great. As I just told you, I had some M&M’s for breakfast, which makes my life significantly better and I’m doing well, so that’s exciting. I was thinking back to when you and I first started talking on Twitter, and I don’t know if you remember this, but I think it was because you had a kid doing an incredible colored pencil drawing.

Jenn: Yes.

Tim: I was like, “This is what I want my kids’ work to look like.” I messaged you. I’m like, “This is great. How do you do this?” First of all, do you remember that?

Jenn: Yes, I do. I talked about that with somebody and I was like, “Tim literally DM’d me and has changed my life.” They were like, “Really?” I was like, “Yeah. Really.” Because I at that point just was putting my kids’ art out in the social media world just for my own personal purposes and just so that they were out there. I didn’t really think anybody was looking at it. It just validated what I was doing and it was cool that someone thought it was cool. Yeah. That is a fond memory that I do have.

Tim: Okay. Fantastic. I’m glad to hear that, but I think it was great to connect with you because I think you and I teach drawing very similarly. We need to chat about all of that because that’s what the people want to hear apparently. Let’s just start at the beginning. When you have intro kids come in, or when you have kids come to you for the first time who maybe don’t have their skills developed, where do you start when it comes to drawing?

Are you teaching techniques? Do you have simple lessons? Do you go somewhere else? Where does it begin for you?

Jenn: For us, it’s techniques. We have a ridiculous schedule, and I will leave ridiculous as an open term. I don’t know. Some people use it for good. Some people use it for bad. I don’t know. You decide, world. Where we have semesters and so a class is only 18 weeks for us instead of 36 like it is for most of the world. I always say, “Okay. The first nine weeks are going to be drill and kill and you might hate me and that’s okay.

But you’re going to see the difference in the second nine weeks when I give you free choice of what you want to do, and the stuff that you didn’t think you could do, magically, you can do. Guess why? It’s because I told you how to do it and you did it. You followed instructions and it paid off.” The first nine weeks is definitely technique-heavy. We do a lot of exercises, a lot of exercises. I do drawing bootcamp and it just builds and builds on that.

Tim: All right. I do things very similarly, just a lot of exercises, a lot of drills, a lot of techniques. Like, here’s how to shade really well. Here’s how to make your shading smooth. Here’s what line weight is. It’s kind of boring. It’s not super exciting right at the beginning, but, like you said, you just got to promise that payoff and say, “Guys, it’ll all come together soon. I promise.”

Jenn: Yes.

Tim: I think that really helps. Do you have a couple of examples? What are a couple drills that you do with your students or can you talk about what bootcamp looks like? Give us specifics on what you teach and how.

Jenn: Yeah. The first thing that we do is every day we come in and we draw a hand. The hand drawing, and it’s 15 minutes, and depending on what your classes … If you have seven/eight classes a day, 15 minutes is a lot of time of your 45 minutes. It might be like you’re working on gesture so it’s a lot faster, or you’re trying to get them to sketch quicker. For me, I have an hour and a half and so 15 minutes is really a small amount of time in the span of an hour and a half. We do a 15-minute hand drawing and I show them mine.

I didn’t fully understand observational drawing until I was in college and I was learning in college too. It was like junior/senior year and I was forced to take a figure drawing class. The first thing that we did was draw a hand. I was like, “This is so stupid.” Then I realized that I had never actually looked at my own hands. It’s a very weird thing because you’re like, “Oh.” Like for me, I’m like, “Oh, I have short, chunky fingers. Oh, okay. I don’t want to look at that.”

It’s like looking at your face, but to a different degree. We do a hand drawing every day. It focuses on observational drawing skills and also the idea of looking at your subject and drawing. That immediate turning of the head. You’re focused. Okay. Then you draw, or you’re just focused on your subject. You don’t need to look at your paper because it’s right there. It’s not moving. You’re not doing anything. We do that and that’s how we open up class. I turn down the lights. We have spotlights.

I turn on the spotlights. It casts some pretty cool shadows. Eventually, for the first week, week and a half, I’m like, “Okay. I just need a contour drawing.” We go over contour drawing. We go over gesture drawing. We go over just all different types of line. Then we get into value. Now, okay. We’re focused on value. Your hand drawing today needs to have let’s stipple this hand drawing today. They’re like, “Urgh, stippling.” Right? Because it takes forever.

Some of my kids really pick it up. Some are like, “Hey, I like to crosshatch.” I’m like, cool. Crosshatching is on Wednesday, so wait your turn.” Yeah. They pick up all these different skills. They pick up on what they like, what they don’t like, what they find useful. I don’t let them use blending stumps until further along.

Tim: Oh, I want to talk about blending stumps. We’ll save that but go on. Go on.

Jenn: Yeah. That really opens up my class. Then we do basic old school value scales, shading of a sphere. It’s repetitious so, “This isn’t quite great. Do it again.” They’re like, “Okay. I just did two.” “Great. Now we’re on three. By the end of today, you’re probably going to do a cool eight.” They’re like, “Seriously?” “Yep. Okay. The next one.” They’re like, “How many do we have to do?” I’m like, “Uh, I don’t know.” They’re like, “What do you mean? You’re not …” “I don’t know. Until it looks good.” Right?

Tim: I was going to say, “Until we get it right.”

Jenn: Right. Until it looks good. I used to coach cheerleading and a lot of them don’t know that until that moment. They’re like, “Why?” I’m like, “Well, you’re not puking, so that’s good. You’re good. We’re good.” Yeah. Fun fact about me guys, if you didn’t catch that vibe. Then I do bootcamp and that’s a still life drawing and that’s after all the value exercises. We do the same still life from … They just circle around my room. They have to do a contour still life.

Then they have to do a full value still life. Then they have to do a crosshatched, a stippling and just a regular hatching. Some will go faster than others. I usually bank two weeks for all of these things. All of this is a major grade and I do count them as different daily grades so that they are getting validated per the day because if not, they’re like, “Oh, no. I’m not going to participate today. It’s all due on the 27th. It doesn’t matter.”

They do get a daily grade, and sometimes I feel spicy so I’m like, “Oh, you know what? Today, this is a quiz grade.” They’re like, “Oh my God.” It just depends on the day, but they really get a sense for viewfinders and how to use your pencil to measure and what angle do you like? Once I see that they start to get comfortable in a certain angle or drawing certain items, I’m like, “Awesome. Today, you specifically are going to move over here.” They’re like, “That has the horse head that I don’t want to draw.”

I’m like, “I know. You avoided it in the last three drawings. I saw it.” That takes up a good chunk of my first nine weeks. They hate it, but…

Tim: They do, but it’s just about keeping kids motivated in different ways, whether that is daily grades or you being mean and giving kids grades or whatever the case may be. I don’t have a lot to add, but I do want to share one exercise that I do. When we’re first beginning drawing, whatever the subject is. I’ve done this with hands. I’ve done it with shoes. I’ve done it still art. We do 15, five, two, one.

We do a drawing that takes 15 minutes and then we draw that same subject in five and then we draw the same subject in two minutes and then in one minute. That 15-minute drawing, for everybody who likes to draw really quick, that forces them to slow down. Then by the time you get down to the two and the one-minute drawings, everybody who loves to take their time really needs to speed up.

It just shows them how they can vary their drawings, how you can capture details quickly versus how you add so much detail and so much shading when you have more time. That’s a good lesson that I think works well to just show them the variety of what you can do.

Jenn: These are fun little things in the ‘boring’ unit of teaching technical drawing, right?

Tim: Right.

Jenn: Those are the fun little things to like, yay, spice it up. Like when we do blind contour and it’s like so funny.

Tim: Yeah. It’s hilarious-

Jenn: It’s so funny.

Tim: … the first time you demonstrate it.

Jenn: I know.

Tim: Like, “This is blind contour. Everybody laugh at it …” I encourage kids to laugh at me.

Jenn: I know.

Tim: Then they don’t feel so bad about creating their own terrible drawings, but then you just get tired of terrible drawings after a while. It’s tough to keep going with that. Okay. I wanted to ask you next about your favorite materials or favorite mediums to use. I was going to say blending stumps for mine. We need to talk about that in just a minute. I’ll go to you first. What are your favorite mediums, favorite materials to teach with?

Jenn: We are sticking to you obviously drawing, right?

Tim: Yeah. Yes.

Jenn: To just regular drawing. I have been playing a lot recently with graphite sticks. It’s like the chunky-

Tim: That’s a good answer.

Jenn: … graphite. I mean, it … And I have this issue. I don’t know if it’s a Texas thing. We’re going to blame it on Texas and also my personality, but I’m a massive drawer. Physically, my drawings are just huge. My handwriting is huge. I’m loud. It’s just-

Tim: I was going to say it fits your personality.

Jenn: I know, right? It’s just big. Everything I draw is big and my kids are always like, “Why is your whole face taking up the whole board?” When I show them my parts of the paper. I’m like, “I need the whole board, okay? I need the whole board. I’m sorry I’m not drawing a dinky drawing in the middle of your paper. I’m not doing it.” Yeah. When I demo, I have to demo on like 18 by 24. Graphite sticks for me are great because I can cover so much, but also I draw really dark anyway.

I never have problems with darker values. I always have trouble picking up the pencil because I put so much of it on. A lot of my kids are the opposite where they’re scared to add value and make it darker. For me, right now, graphite sticks are really where it’s at and I’m using Lyra. Lyra, L-Y-R-A.

Tim: I’m mean just, we’re on camera. This is terrible for a podcast.

Jenn: Oh, yeah. I was like, “Yeah, those.”

Tim: I have to show you. I have them sitting on my desk right now.

Jenn: I love it. Yeah.

Tim: Yes. They’re amazing.

Jenn: Yeah. I was pointing. I was like, “Yeah. Those guys.” Like if you guys can see me. You can’t see us. Yeah. Those. I love those and I mean the blending and it’s so smooth. I always talk about pencils being creamy and my kids are like, “You’re weird. That’s not a thing.” I was like, “Yes, it is.”

Tim: No. Then you’re like, “Just draw with them. Just draw them.”

Jenn: I was like, “I promise. You’re going to feel it.”

Tim: Then they do and they’re like, “Oh, I get it. I understand.”

Jenn: Yeah.

Tim: Yes. Yeah. You’re right.

Jenn: I know. They’re like, “Pencils are not creamy.” I’m like, “But they are though if you just trust my judgment, which is why you signed up for this class. Trust me, they’re creamy. They’re smooth.” It’s like, “Yeah.” Graphite sticks are for me.

Tim: Yeah. I love it. All right. Blending stumps for me. I think they’re so spectacular. First, you have to learn without them. You have to learn how to just smear with your finger. The super gross thing, I don’t know if you do this. My kids think I’m weird anyway, but if you just get a little bit of grease off your forehead or a little bit of grease off of your nose, just take your fingertip and smear it on there and then your graphite blends so beautifully. The kids are like, “I’m not doing that.” I’m like, “Just try it.”

Jenn: I know.

Tim: They’re like, “No. It’s gross.” I’m like, “Just try it.” Then they do and it’s amazing. Plus, they’re teenagers so they have a lot of oil on their forehead, a never-ending supply and it makes the drawings look spectacular. After we learn to do that, then I always go for the blending stumps because they are wonderful. I also do lessons where we draw crumbled pieces of paper or crushed soda cans.

To get the shading inside of those little tiny areas, you really need to do that with blending stumps. I guess that’s a very long way of me asking you, why do you not let your kids use blending stumps?

Jenn: I don’t let them use them at first because they rely on blending sticks and blending stumps as if they had graphite themselves. Because they see that there’s a dark tip to it because it’s been used, they’re like, “Oh, I’m not going to add pencil. I’m just going to use this.”

Tim: Just use that on its own?

Jenn: I’m like, “That’s not how it works.” [inaudible 00:15:36] literally. I actually just had an argument yesterday and they were like, “Well, I technically can’t.” I’m like, “Oh my gosh, technically yes, you can. Eventually, I mean, really, if you want to be super technical about it, what you’re doing is you’re cleaning your blending stump. Every time you put it on the paper without graphite, without pencil on it, you’re cleaning your blending stump. That little tip that you’re depending on is going to go away.”

They’re just like, “Well.” I’m like, “Okay. Well, whatever.” At that point, you just have to let them live and learn because I’m like, “You do you, boo, because I’ve already told you twice. A third time is not a thing that I practice a lot.” Then at the end of the class, he was like, “Okay. I see what you’re saying when you say I need pencil.” I was like, “Pencil first. I’m not telling you not to use it, but you need pencil first.” He had a really light spot and he was like, “It’s like the lightest shade of gray.

If I put any sort of pencil on it, it’s going to be too dark.” I mean, and my kids are just perfectionists anyway so they’re just trying to do their best to make it like the picture or like the … Well, he’s drawing a sculpture. Yeah. Yeah. I’m like, “Well, that’s a hard lesson you’re going to have to learn, bud, because I told you and you didn’t take it.” Yeah. I have put them-

Tim: Go figure.

Jenn: … in my desk, in my shelving area.

Tim: Interesting.

Jenn: Then dispense when they’re ready. I mean, I also use it as a treat too. I’m like, “Well, if you guys get here, then you get to use the blending stumps.” Yeah.

Tim: That’s excellent motivation, to be honest. I like that idea.

Jenn: I mean, we know high schoolers are big kids.

Tim: Yeah. They really are. They really are. Okay. You did mention really briefly your giant demo drawings and that got me thinking. How important are demos for you? How often do you do them? What kinds of things do you demonstrate? What role do demonstrations play in your classroom?

Jenn: I demo a lot. I do one big … Well, not one big demo, but I have demo days and lesson days on Mondays. Because we’re on 18 weeks, I try to give them as much time, independent work time as possible. How I structure my class is on Mondays it’s full lecture breakdown. We’re talking hour. Let’s figure out what we’re doing. This is what the project needs to look like. If you do have adjustments … Because I typically let my kids make adjustments on their own depending on their level because I have mixed bags all the time.

I demo. I do one big demo at the front while I’m lecturing and explaining. Then I go … Back in the day when you could have a table.

Tim: When you could get close to kids?

Jenn: Yeah. When you can get close to kids and you can have tables. Yeah. I go and I sit at the table and then I draw with the kids. I do a small version of the project of what I want them to do. Usually 15 minutes at each table. I have like four groups of tables. Right now all my tables are separate. I’m looking at them, makes me kind of sad. Yeah. I demo in small groups.

I do one big group demo with all of them and then I go back and demo small groups because a lot of times they do have questions, but they don’t like to ask them out loud, especially in art class, for whatever reason, even though I’m like such a Goob and whatever and weird and encouraging them of asking questions. But they feel a lot better in their own little pods and islands.

Tim: I’m going to interrupt you really quickly here.

Jenn: Yeah.

Tim: Sorry. Because I just want to throw in one thing that always works for me is if I’m sitting down with kids and doing that project along with them, doing the drawing with them, then I just do, I guess what we call a think aloud where you just talk about what you’re seeing and what you’re doing. Like, “Oh, that part is really difficult to draw.” Or, “Oh, I’m struggling with this. Here’s how I’m going to work through it.” Or, “Oh, did you guys have any difficulty with this part of it?”

Then that really opens up the conversation. If you share your thoughts, then they can chime in there and it really breaks down whatever weird barrier that is, that keeps them from asking questions. I know that’s always really helpful for me.

Jenn: Yeah.

Tim: Well, all right. Cool. One last question here before we wrap things up. After your nine weeks of skill-building are over and you start to transition into the big projects, what does that look like for you? How do we turn the skills that we’re developing into finished work that kids are excited about, kids are interested in and things that they’re making look good?

Jenn: The transitional project for me is their self-portrait because it’s the end of the things that they hate, and for whatever reason, they hate nothing more than their own face. I try to tell them like, “You guys are so beautiful and lovely and I just love the rainbow mixed bag that I get.” But they hate it. That is a transitional project because drawing your face requires all of the skills that we’ve talked about. You have to put those skills into play or else your face is going to look … And this is the only case that I use a Picasso.

I hate it when my kids are like, “I’m not Picasso, I can’t do this.” I’m like, “You’re not using that in the right term. You’re not using it correctly.” This is when I am like, “Remember those times that you were like you’re not Picasso? Okay. We’re going for not a hyper-realistic portrait, but we’re going for a realistic portrait here with value.” Typically, I don’t intro color until this moment so that if they want to use color, they can.

I’m like, “But okay. Spatial awareness, parts of the face, all of your value, observational skills, how far apart are your eyes? How below your eyes is your nose? Let’s look at all of the things. Measure with your pencil. All of these skills are going to be in your portrait. Now, you have choice on how you tell me about yourself. Everything that you do in my class should tell me something about you. This is a transitional project.

You have skill, but you’re also having some choice and you’re going to tell me something about you or this portrait is a snapshot and who you are today, whether you are a sophomore, a junior, or a senior, what does that look like for you? Your face needs to be there somewhere.” Then we talk about angles and all that stuff. Really, it’s like marriage of the two, of choice and the fun things that they think that they can do and they want to do, versus the skill that we have just practiced for a ridiculous amount of time.

Tim: Yes. Yes. Now, my transition lesson, as you call it, is similar, except we smash our faces up against the glass. We do smashed face portraits. I have the kids smash up their face against the window and then we take pictures of that and they have a great time doing that. Then the pressure’s off to make the proportions exact or make the nose exact. You’re supposed to look crazy because your face is smashed up against a glass.

Jenn: I love that.

Tim: It’s a good transition one because it’s fun, but you can get a good finished product, and like you said, it’s using all of the skills that we’ve been developing. I think that’s a good one. All right. Jenn, we will wrap it up there. Thank you so much for chatting drawing with me. Always great to talk to you and hopefully we can have you on again soon.

Jenn: For sure.

Tim: Thanks to Jenn for coming on and talking about all of that with me. Before we wrap up, just a quick read from the Art of Education University’s studio drawing graduate course. Are you looking to simultaneously push the boundaries of your personal drawing practice, while attaining new strategies for teaching drawing in the art room? If you answered yes, then this course is for you. Not only will this course help you grow in your own practice, but it will address and offer solutions for the challenges students face in the art room as they explore drawing as a skill.

During this course, you will revisit your role as an artist and share your drawing evolution with the instructor and your peers, while analyzing best practices for drawing instruction. Your journey will include visual journaling using a variety of media and skill development as you work toward creating a drawing portfolio. If this conversation interests you, if this is a topic that you want to explore more, I cannot recommend the studio drawing class enough.

It’ll be a deep dive into a lot of the topics we talked about. Plus, you get to create a ton of your own art, which is a fantastic thing to be able to do, especially when you’re working on your own professional development. If you’re interested in studio drawing, new eight-week courses are beginning every single month from April all the way through August and beyond. We will link in the show notes and you can find more details at Finally, I would love to hear from you.

What other great ideas do you have for drawing? What are you doing in your classroom? What are your kids finding interesting? How are your students being successful? What did Jenn and I miss? What else do we need to discuss on a future episode or what else do you want to know? I’m sure there is plenty more out there and I’m curious to know where else this discussion could go because helping kids discover and develop their talent with drawing, gives everyone involved an amazing feeling and I think that’s something that we can always be working on.

Art Ed Radio is produced by The Art of Education University with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Thank you, as always, for listening. We will see you next week.

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.