Sasha Bolsoy tapped her digital pen on the art tablet, and the circle on the computer screen turned a bright shade of pink. Another tap, and the circle behind the first turned a deep red. Tapping a third circle, Sasha chose to fill it with a sunny yellow color. And so it went, tapping and filling circles with a rainbow of colors from the warm side of the color wheel.
Art teacher Jan Leppert strolled around her classroom at Yacolt Primary School, peeking over students' shoulders and answering questions as first grade hands shot into the air. Students focused on the task: use either warm or cool colors to experiment with the special effects in an online art application, pausing only to demonstrate something cool to a fellow student, or to ask a question. "They help each other, and learn how to give constructive criticism," Leppert said.
Leppert, who has been teaching art since before computers made their way into the classroom, could have pulled out the paints or crayons and asked students to put the colors on paper. But then, paint and paper come at a consumable cost, is messy, and don't let students back up and make changes so easily as the tap of a digital pen or the click of a mouse.
Today's assignment in Leppert's art class at Yacolt Primary School is part of her desire to immerse students in the technical world of digital art and meets the requirements for Washington Art Standard 1.1.6, which requires students to differentiate between warm and cool colors. It just so happens that Leppert's digital art lesson also meets several Washington state learning requirements for educational technology, namely: 1.1.1, Generate ideas and create original works for personal and group expression using a variety of digital tools; 2.2.1, Develop skills to use technology effectively; 2.2.2, Use a variety of hardware to support learning; and 2.3.2, Select and use online applications.
Yacolt's Leppert began using digital art tools in the creation of her own art projects several years ago, and was so enthused by the medium's creative power and flexibility to do something over, that she began taking her art students to Yacolt's computer lab at least once each week. There, students learned how to create using free art programs such as paint.NET, an open-source image editing program developed by a computer science student at Washington State University.
She loved teaching digital art lessons so much that Leppert was ecstatic when Yacolt principal Ken Evans offered to purchase technical art equipment for her classroom, including pressure-sensitive digital pens and art tablets that let students draw images that appear on the computer screen, much the same as typing on a keyboard. "Technology skills in the 21st century are essential in the fields of architecture, graphic design, computer programming and many other fields," Evans said. "Children at the primary level need to begin developing these skills with continued learning through middle school and high school."
"Now, I can't imagine teaching without it," Leppert said.
Besides the ability for students to quickly undo something in their digital work, Leppert said, one of the coolest aspects of digital art is that even the most mundane computer tasks become relevant. Even the youngest primary students are excited to learn how to use a mouse and save files in different formats so they can share a photographic file (.jpg) of their artwork with their families on a computer at home. All they have to do is access their school account on Google Drive through the web.
Leppert estimates that her art students spend one half to two thirds of their time creating with digital mediums. "Digital is faster," she said, "and students get over their fear of failure because they can make changes so easily on the computers."
As first grade art class draws to an end, Leppert heads toward a student finishing his project on the monitor. "Look at this," Gabriel Deffenbaugh said as Leppert approaches. With a circular movement of the digital pen on the art pad, the circles on the computer screen turn into a rainbow swirl of warm colors.
"Some people worried that students would lose their creativity if they used digital tools to create art pieces, but I've seen just the opposite," Leppert said. "The students get really excited when they get their hands on new creative tools."