What is open ended art?

Elementary art education is usually approached a couple of different ways. One way that is really common is to do an activity that has instructions and a sample of what the art should look like when it’s done. For example, you might find a tutorial on pinterest that says: draw the fish like this, put it here on your page, add the ocean waves like this, use this color, draw a seashell here. And if 30 kids do this project, you’ll see 30 slightly different versions of the example. Using a tutorial or a step by step guide teaches the child one specific way to draw, and depending on their attitude toward experimentation, they may feel like this is the “right way” and other ways are somehow wrong. When they are trying to make something look like a sample, they are missing out on utilizing their powers of observation, and their creativity!

This is not open ended art.

While this approach to art can be fun for some kids (and it definitely feels safer, because you are guaranteed a great looking finished piece), it’s really more of an exercise in following instructions than exploring your creativity. 

And, for some kids who’s project doesn’t end up looking just like the sample, they can end up feeling bad about their art, like they somehow failed. Kids who want to make their project look like the example might not explore their own ideas if they see a finished piece before they even begin. So, if you are doing a project with instructions, you can adapt it to be more open ended, and try to keep your kids from seeing any examples until they are finished, and allow them the space and freedom to discover their own way of doing it. In the activities I create for Art History Kids, I deliberately never show an example of what the end art might look like for this exact reason. 

I really believe that any child who wants to learn to draw – realistically or in an animated stylized way – will learn it on their own if their curiosity is nurtured, and they spend the time practicing.

They don’t need tutorials. They just need guidance and encouragement. And the desire to keep at it.

There is one exception to my open ended art philosophy… and that is if your child is interested in copying the masters.

This is a common activity that art students do in college, where you’ll use a masterpiece as your guide, and you’ll try to replicate it as closely as you can.

In this case, the actual goal isn’t really to complete a perfect replica… the goal is really to allow you to “see” like the artist you’re copying. So, it helps you to get a new perspective. 

Now that we’ve identified what isn’t open ended, let’s define what it is.

Open ended art invites a child to interpret the project in a way that uses their creativity. They are engaged in thinking, making choices, and discovering ways to get their ideas out in their art.

Here's an example. When we studied Van Gogh’s The Bedroom in The Studio, we began by looking at Van Gogh’s painting. The kids were invited to spend some time observing the art before they learned anything about it. The next step was for the kids took a look at their own bedrooms. They considered:

  • composition (where they would stand in the room to show their room in an interesting way), 
  • whether they would paint their room just as it is, or if they would embellish it to communicate more about who they are to the viewer (allowing them to become visual storytellers), 
  • how to paint their room in a way that shared a feeling with the viewer. 

This project is open ended because the kids could interpret these ideas in multiple ways, and they made conscious decisions as they were making their art. 

So if 30 kids did this project, you would see 30 very different pieces of art at the end.

There were no step by step instructions about how to draw a bed. There is no right or wrong way. Kids could use the prompt as a jumping off point to observe, think, and use their creativity to make art that is personal and meaningful to them.

So that’s it! Try it out the next time you’re planning an art study, and watch as your child's creativity shines through when they have the opportunity to explore open ended art.

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