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Art Lesson Plans For Blind Children

Editor's Note: Canadian Blind Monitor readers know President Paul Gabias for his work within the organized blind movement. He is less well known for his psychological research on tactile pictures. The following lesson plans were developed for two conferences of special education teachers.

Pictures have always been considered part of the visual arts and therefore, inaccessible to blind people. As a result, blind children have generally not been encouraged to experiment with tactile pictures in any systematic way. These lessons cover some basic drawing concepts such as point of view and perspective. We are reprinting them here with the hope that teachers will find them useful and the belief that Federationists will be interested in learning more about the subject.

A number of museums and galleries have developed programs to increase the accessibility of art to blind persons. Art Education for the Blind is one of the leaders in this area. They have developed some very exciting materials based in part on this research.

LESSON I

A given drawing can stand for the same object considered from different points of view. A child can be shown a raised line drawing of a table. The table can be drawn as a square with a line coming out from each corner at a diagonal. This table could be called a 'star table'. The child can be asked to point out each leg on the drawing of the table. He could also be asked to point out the sides of the table. Then questions about point of view can be introduced.

The teacher can ask, "Do you think this drawing shows the table drawn from any particular point of view? Do you think it was drawn from above, from underneath, or from no point of view?" Research suggests the children will give two kinds of answers depending on their age level.

Younger children are likely to say that the drawing has no particular point of view. It is simply a table with legs. Older observant children may say that the table was drawn from underneath. They may comment that if you draw the table from above you can't really show the shape of the top and all four legs, too.

From here on, the lesson can continue in two directions.

The Younger Child: For those children who said that the table is drawn from no particular point of view, a suggested course of action is as follows: You might agree with the child and say that certainly one way of thinking about this drawing is that, indeed, it was not drawn from a particular point of view. But there is another way of looking at the drawing. This second way requires that you be quite literal about the table and how the legs are connected. You can ask the child to imagine herself sitting on top of the table. Have the child try it out, if necessary. The child should agree that from the top of a table, the legs are not visible nor reachable.

Then you might ask the child to imagine herself underneath a table. You can ask the child if the legs, from underneath, are visible or reachable. Again, you can have the child actually sit underneath a table. The child should agree that from underneath the table the legs are visible and reachable.

Now you can ask the child to draw a table from above, as seen from a plane, and a table from underneath, as seen from the floor. The child should offer a square corresponding to the shape of the top of a table viewed from above. Legs should be added for a table viewed from underneath.

The Older Child: Recall that the question at hand was: Is the 'star table' drawn from any particular point of view? We saw that younger children are likely to answer that the 'star table' was not drawn from any particular point of view. A particular lesson plan was suggested for these children.

But what about the older children? What about those clever children who say that the star tableis the drawing of a table from underneath? They can be asked to demonstrate how the table might be drawn from above. If they draw a square corresponding to the shape of the top, and tell you that the legs are not visible nor reachable from above, you can go on to the next step. You can ask them to draw a table from the side. On the other hand, if they draw a table with legs attached to it, then you can go back and continue with the lesson that was suggested for younger children. Recall that these are children who said that the 'star table' showed a table drawn from no particular vantage point.

LESSON II

A given object can be drawn from different points of view. Recall that the purpose of the previous lesson was to show that a given drawing can stand for an object considered from different points of view. The purpose of this lesson is to show that a given object can be drawn from different points of view.

You can start by showing the child the 'star table' again. Remind the child that the star tablecan be considered in two ways. It can be considered as having been drawn from no particular point of view. It can also be considered as having been drawn from underneath.

Then tell the child, "Now we want to consider a table drawn from the side." Recall that here, only part of the table is drawn. The side view of the table allows us to show the table's length or its width, but not both. It also allows us to show the height of the table and its thickness.

The child should be encouraged to draw a table from the side. One way of proceeding, for the more adventurous child, is simply to let the child draw what she considers to be a table as well as the lines corresponding to the edges of the table. The edges are the top edge and bottom edge of the side, and the two connecting edges at each end. The child may only have drawn one line to stand for both edges, the top and bottom edges of the side. If that is the case, you can ask the child to produce another drawing. The drawing can show how thick the table is. Then ask the child to point out which lines correspond to which edges.

For the more cautious child, you can start by showing the child a drawing of the side view of a table. Ask him to point out which lines stand for which edges. It may be helpful here to have an actual table at hand, to which the child can refer and compare with his drawing.

LESSON III

Through convergent perspective, a drawing can show what is near and what is far.

Suppose you wanted to draw a top front view of a table. It would be important to distinguish the near front edge of the top from the far back edge of the top. Two oblique lines, corresponding to the side edges of the table could connect the front and back edges of the table. The two front legs of the table could be shown by dropping two vertical lines from each corner, perpendicular to the front edge. You would have a trapezoidal shape for the top, and two lines coming down for the legs. The back legs need not be drawn, because they would not be seen from a top front view of the table

A child who has mastered the first two lessons can be shown a drawing of this sort. The child can be asked why the back edge of the table is shorter than the front edge. If the child replies, "Because the back edge is further", you can go on to probe more deeply. You can ask why it makes sense to show the back edge of the table shorter than the front edge, just because it's further away. Most people, blind or sighted, would find it difficult to give a straight answer to this question.

Here are some exercises which may help blind children understand this principle. Ask the child to place each palm on the near left and near right hand corners of a table. Then ask the child to reach forward to the back of the table. You will find that it will be necessary to narrow the angle between the two arms. Ask the child if the space between his left and right hands in smaller, when touching the back of the table, versus the front corners of the table. The child should agree that it is necessary to narrow the space between his two hands in order to touch the back edge.

Another example rests on the same principle. Ask the child to point to two imaginary trees. From left to right the trees are ten feet apart. The child is between the two trees. In effect the trees are on each side of the child, in line with each shoulder. The child is asked to point to both trees. The child should extend his arms on each side at shoulder height. Then the child is asked to imagine that the trees have moved forward, not sideways but only forward in the direction the child is facing. (If the child understands compass directions you may position him so that he is facing North, and then explain that the trees are moving North.) The child should narrow the angle of pointing the further away the trees are imagined to be.

Another exercise along the vertical plane may be helpful as well. You can ask the child to imagine herself standing in front of a building. Any inside wall will do for these purposes. Ask the child to point to an imaginary bird on top of the building, perched at the edge just above the child. The child should extend her arm above her head. Now ask the child to imagine that the building is further and further away. Pick some arbitrary distances and ask the child to point to the bird sitting on top of the building. As the building is imagined to be further and further away, the child will progressively lower her arm toward the horizon.

The same principle can be demonstrated with respect to space between the ground and the horizon. You can ask the child to imagine she is, once again, standing right in front of a building. You can ask her to point to an imaginary ball on the ground. The ball is at the edge of the building. The child should point straight down toward the ground. As the child is asked to imagine herself further and further away from the building, her arm will progressively raise toward the horizon, with increasing distance.

These examples show that principles of perspective are dependent on a geometry of direction. Vision is not the sole means by which these principles can be understood.

So far we have shown that a given drawing can stand for the same object, considered from different points of view. We've also shown that a given object can be drawn from different points of view. We've also seen that, through convergent perspective, a drawing can show what is near and what is far.

The types of drawings we have considered so far are based on principles of projective geometry. That is to say, they are based on the same principles as those which govern the way outlines of forms are projected on a screen. But these principles will not do when the artist wants to draw events such as objects moving and states such as pain.

LESSON IV

Metaphor may be used as a way to show movement in drawings.

A metaphoric device is a technique which alters the structure of a drawing deliberately in order to suggest an idea which is difficult to portray in a static picture. The drawing is metaphoric because certain aspects of it are not to be taken literally.

As was shown earlier, there are several drawing devices that blind people have invented to show movement. Research has shown that these devices are meaningful to the sighted. As we saw before, these can be classified into context devices, postural devices, and additional graphics, as well as shape distortions. The reason why these devices work is because they rely on principles of communication in addition to principles of projection. An apt device may work because it takes something of what we know of language and the world and applies this knowledge to the drawing in an imaginative and systematic way. These devices are individual inventions created on the spot for very specific communicative purposes. They are not so much based on drawing skills but rather based on clever uses of communicative skills. They are based on the ingenuity of the artists, his own knowledge of the world, and his ability to predict what others are likely to understand from his communication.

Blind people are taught principles of communication from the time they learn to speak. There is no reason why blind people should not be encouraged to apply these skills in drawing.

It is not easy to teach children how to use metaphoric devices in drawing. This is because metaphoric devices rely so heavily on individual inventiveness. The same problem arises when trying to teach children uses of metaphor in language. There are a few common ones which most children have heard or read by high school. "Examples are, she has a heart of stone" and "He's a real snake." But, for the most part, good metaphors must be invented and the more clever they are the more apt they are likely to be.

The best that can be done here is to suggest a few which have been tested and seemed to work fairly well, with both blind and sighted adults alike.

Blind and sighted adults were shown drawings of five wheels. In each wheel the spokes were either curved, bent, wavy, dashed, or sticking out beyond the rim of the wheel. They were also given the following motion options for the wheels: spinning, jerky rotations, wobbling, too fast to make out, and brakes on. The task was to match each option with each drawing.

Fifteen blind and fifteen sighted subjects responded as follows:

The subjects agreed that the curved spokes were best at suggesting spin.

The bent spokes were best at suggesting jerky rotations.

The wavy lines were best at suggesting wobbling.

The extended lines were best at suggesting 'brakes on'.

You can try this exercise with blind and sighted children. With younger children it may be necessary to restrict the number of options.

Alternatively, you might want to ask children to invent their own metaphoric devices. For example, you may ask children to invent drawing devices for depicting a hand in pain. Or, you may ask them to try their hand at drawing bad-smelling garbage or imaginative solutions for these problems. These explorations in graphic communications will prove to be excellent catalysts for creativity and endless sources of excitement and wonder, both for you and your students.

Concluding Remarks

The purpose of Lesson I was to show that a given drawing can stand for the same object, considered from different points of view. We saw that the drawing of the star tablecould be considered as having been drawn from no particular point of view, or as having been drawn from underneath.

The purpose of Lesson II was to show that a given object could be drawn from different points of view. A table could be drawn from the top, from the side, or from underneath. A different drawing would result in each case.

The purpose of Lesson III was to show that, through convergent perspective, a drawing can show what is near and what if far. We saw that principles of perspective could be easily understood by blind children, based on their own experience.

Lesson IV showed that when blind people are asked to draw events in a static picture, several types of devices are invented depending on the particular event. We saw that the devices are metaphoric because they are not to be taken literally. We saw that, although the devices are not literal, they are nonetheless effective. They are effective because they are based on principles of perception and communication. These principles use to advantage our common knowledge about the world. They are understood by the blind and the sighted alike.

Not much, so far, has been said about what to expect from children at different ages. It is difficult to specify exact ages at this point. All that can be said is that research suggests that the order of the lessons presented follows a developmental progression. Seven to eleven year olds would likely be more interested in Lessons I and II. Eleven to fifteen year olds would be interested in Lessons III and IV as well.

One final comment is in order here. The lessons that have been suggested here are simply guides. Use them as fruitfully as you can but do not be bound by them. Let your imagination interact with that of the child. The children are likely to teach you much more than you could even imagine. They will be proud of their accomplishments. They will also be particularly happy to realize that drawing can be, for them, just as much fun as it is for sighted children. For the younger children this will be enough. The older children will also be motivated by the problem solving aspects of drawing.

Drawings can be considered as problems to be solved. Just as many children enjoy working on models of toy cars, children can be encouraged to draw objects. The objects can be drawn from different vantage points or in different states over time. Objects can undergo different kinds of motion and these can also be challenging to depict.