Using Picturebooks to Teach Art History

By Sipe, Lawrence | Studies in Art Education, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Using Picturebooks to Teach Art History


Sipe, Lawrence, Studies in Art Education


Many children receive their first exposure to art during storytime, as an adult reads from a picturebook and they observe the illustrations. Such reading experiences provide opportunities to introduce children to the world of visual art, specifically to teach about artists of the past, particular artistic styles, or schools of art. The purpose of this article is to discuss the implications of using picturebooks to teach art history, to provide examples that illustrate the artistic resources found in picturebooks, and to consider methods of developing an awareness of artistic techniques through children's literature.

Children's literature has been long valued for its use in integrating subject matter in school curricula. Because language does not have a content in itself, but rather seeks a content (Britton, 1982), literary texts are an ideal resource for teaching various content and subject areas. For example, the literary genre of historical fiction is a valuable tool for teaching about historical time periods. The use of literature in this way need not necessarily detract from the "lived-through" literary experience (Rosenblatt, 1978), but can rather complement it (Beck, Nelson-Faulkner, & Pierce, 2000). The current interest in literature-based instruction develops this natural connection between literature and virtually all other subject areas. One of these areas is art (Mitchell, 1990). The subject of this article is the use of particular types of picture storybooks to teach aspects of the history of visual art.

The picture storybook-that synergistic combination of words and pictures (Sipe, 1998a) where both the visual and verbal texts are necessary to tell the story (Nodelman, 1988)-is a form of children's literature eminently suited to introduce children to the world of visual art. In fact, many children's first exposure to serious art is in the illustrations contained in picturebooks. Children have been found to engage highly in learning about art techniques and media that are used by illustrators (Sipe, 1995), and in learning about illustrators' and designers' choices in their creation of picturebooks (Madura, 1998). Almost any picturebook can be used for teaching children about the conventions and principles of design (color, line, shape, and texture [Richard, 1969]) and the other elements of visual art (Kiefer, 1995). These elements comprise the artist's language or grammar in the sense that artists use them to communicate meaning in a nonverbal and visual manner (Cianciolo, 1984). This visual aesthetic approach to picturebooks has been developed, extended, and refined by various art educators, literary critics, and literacy practitioners (Doonan, 1993; Kiefer, 1995; Marantz, 1977; McCoubrey, 1993; Nodelman, 1988; Roberts, 1996; Sipe, 1998b; Stewig, 1995). These writers conceive of picturebooks as artistic wholes, in which every part contributes to our perception of them as aesthetic objects. For example, the front and back covers, the dedication, half-title, and title pages, and the endpages, far from being extraneous to the text of the story and its illustrations, are all integral parts of the aesthetic experience of the book. As well, all the design choices about typeface, placement of text, page breaks, and size and placement of illustrations contribute to our holistic appreciation and rich interpretation of the picturebook. Finally, the illustrations are not intended to be considered separately, but in the context of their ordered sequence; like comic strips, picturebooks are a form of "sequential art" (Eisner, 1992; McCloud, 1993).

Following and developing upon this perspective, there is a growing number of picturebooks that may be used in a more specialized way: to introduce children to specific artists of the past, particular artistic styles, or schools of art. These books contain references to the history of art in their design and illustration content. Knowledge of these references leads to more textured and refined appreciation of the illustrator's craft, and of the picturebook as an aesthetic object. …

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