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What Is Picture Study?

Picture of Susan Wise Bauer
Susan Wise Bauer

Picture study is a powerful yet simple way to acquaint young students with great works of art.

The method was first described by Charlotte Mason, the educator who also originated narration as a teaching tool. (See “Writing Without Fear” for a fuller explanation of narration.)

In Charlotte Mason’s own words, from her seminal work Home Education (1906):

They should take one artist after another, term by term, and study quietly some half-dozen reproductions of his work in the course of a term…  The children should study a subject quietly for a few minutes; and then, the picture being removed, say what they have seen in it…. Something definite [of the content of the picture] remains with a child after his studies; but this is the least of the gains. We cannot measure the influence that one or another artist has upon the child’s sense of beauty, upon his power of seeing, as, in a picture, the common sights of life; he is enriched more than we know in having really looked at even a single picture.

As we describe in The Well-Trained Mind, art for elementary students should involve basic training in two areas: learning about art techniques and elements (drawing, color, and so forth), and learning about great artists. Picture study can do both— familiarize students with techniques and elements, as well as helping them associate great works with the artists who produce them. Whenever you read an artist’s biography, be sure to use at least one of her or his paintings for picture study.

How do you do picture study? Simple. Ask the child to look intently at a painting for a while—two or three minutes for younger children, up to ten for fourth graders. Then take the picture away, and ask the student to tell you about it.

At first, you may have to ask leading questions such as:

“What color is _ ?”
“What is the man at the side doing?”
“Are there people? How many? What are they doing?”
“Can you see anyone’s face? What are the expressions like?”

“Are there buildings? What kind? How many?”

“Which color do you remember the most?”

“Are there trees? What color are the leaves?”

“Is it day or night? Can you tell whether’s it’s morning or afternoon?”

“Is the light bright or dim?”

“Is there any food in the picture?”
“What are people wearing?”
“Is there sky? What color is it?”

“Do you think any of the people in the picture are related?”

As with all narrations, encourage students to answer you in complete sentences. If they answer you in fragments, rephrase the answer as a complete sentence and ask them to repeat it back to you. Your dialogue might sound like this:

Parent: What color is the big barn?
Child: Red.
Parent: The barn is red? Say that back to me.
Child: The barn is red.
Parent: What color is the edging around the doors and windows?
Student: White.
Parent: The barn is red with white edging? Say that back to me.
Student: The barn is red with white edging.

With practice, the student will start to notice more and more details and retain them longer and longer—and will be able to phrase her answers in increasingly complex sentences. Picture study acquaints students with great artists, trains them to look carefully, improves their verbal skills, and immerses them in beauty.

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Susan Wise Bauer

Susan Wise Bauer is an educator, writer, and historian. She is the co-author of The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home (now in its fourth edition), and the author of (among others) The Well- Educated Mind, The Story of Western Science, the Story of the World series, the History of the World series, the elementary series Writing With Ease, and the pre-rhetoric series Writing With Skill. Susan was home educated through high school and has taught all four of her children at home. She has a B.A. and M.A. in English language and literature, an M.Div., and a Ph.D. in the history of American religion from the College of William and Mary in Virginia, where she taught writing and literature for over fifteen years.

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