Training a Young Person's Observant Eye - Kingswood Oxford

Big Thinkers Blog

December 13, 2022

Training a Young Person’s Observant Eye

by Katie Burnett, Chair of the Upper School Visual Arts Department 


Look around. Pay attention. Notice the details. Seek out the beauty in the world around you.


I try to nurture these skills of keen observation in my studio art classes. By engaging students in a wide variety of experiences and explorations, I challenge them to stop, take a breath, and intensely examine their environment’s details – its colors, shapes, contours, tones, and textures. 


Today’s electronic media – cell phones, computers, television – continually bombard young people with synthetic, commercial, and coercive images that distract them from authentic and direct experiences with their actual physical surroundings. 

Instead, I encourage each student to immerse themself in their own unique universe – in its details, subtleties, and complexities – to see, in the words of the poet William Blake, “a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower . . . to hold infinity in the palm of your hand.”


I’ve created a wide variety of projects and exercises to empower students not only to explore their surroundings but also to create their own personal interpretations of them and discover something about themselves: 


  • Beauty Hunting – To encourage students to pay attention to their everyday experiences, I challenge them to find seven things they see, touch, hear, smell or taste in a single day that light a spark in them. Then they return to the classroom to discuss these experiences and their meaning.
  • Photo Hour – I ask students to take a photo of where they are once every hour for an entire day, no matter how mundane their location is. This encourages students to notice their surroundings, whether a maple tree or a piece of litter on the ground. Sometimes litter can fall into interesting shapes!
  • Color Match – I’ll sometimes give my painting students swatches of 20 different colors and ask them to find an object on campus that exactly matches each color. This challenges them to search areas of campus they’ve never visited and to see objects they might never have noticed.
  • Buddha Board – A Buddha Board is a small gray board with a special surface. When students paint on the board with a brush dipped in water, the images they create last only for two or three minutes until they slowly disappear. This experience of creating something that is ephemeral reminds students that art is a process not a product and encourages students to appreciate what’s present in the moment.
  • Journey Mapping – I ask students to draw a map of their geographical journey to the art studio that day – from home to campus to classes to lunch to sports. The composite images of the paths they’ve taken not only place them in the world physically but also create an abstract image of their daily lives.
  • ’Pen’tathlon – Did you know that a Bic ballpoint pen contains enough ink to write a line three miles long? I give students a Bic pen and challenge them to empty it in one week by writing or drawing in a notebook. This underscores the merging of verbal and visual creativity and the joy of whimsical improvisation.

All these exercises inspire students to view their entire environment as a work of art, enabling them to appreciate the richness and transience of the seen environment and to develop the sharp and discerning eye of artistic observation. This enables them to approach the making of their own art with awareness, sensitivity, creativity, and joy. 

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