A Guide for Teachers
Teaching art history to kids can seem boring or difficult, but it doesn’t have to be. Art history is full of colour and vibrant stories. Ears will perk up and eyes will widen if students can RELATE to it rather than it being something “old” or outdated that they have to learn! If you’re a teacher who struggles with keeping students captivated while teaching art history, this list of ideas will help you engage students and exceed curriculum standards!
#1 Discuss Art From Different Cultures
One way to make art history interesting is to break down how art history changed around the world. Classrooms are filled with students from all different backgrounds, so bringing in different cultures can help students relate to the artwork — even if they’re not from that culture, they might have a friend that is! Learning about art history around the world will help your students be culturally aware, more compassionate, and might even make their love for history blossom. Break down why certain cultures have different art: - What materials were available at the time? - How did religion or tradition play a role in art? - Who was the art made for?
These are all great questions you can answer for your students to gain a wider perspective of the context for a famous artwork or movement.
Some cultures to explore:
African Art — African sculptures and masks have flooded history with their unique stylization. They influenced artists like Pablo Picasso and actually inspired the Cubism movement.
Greek art — Greek sculptures inspired the art world for thousands of years. Although it took place in ancient times (over 2000 years ago) Classical Greek art actually inspired the famed Renaissance period in the 14th-17th centuries.
Japanese Art — Anime culture has influenced the world and is growing more popular by the day. Hayao Miyazaki is one of the revolutionaries in this area and is considered the best animator in the world.
Islamic art — With a rich history, Islamic art is identified with the rich patterns and designs it creates. Unlike Christian art, Islamic art doesn’t feature people, but is inspired by nature and abstracted repetition. Dive into Islamic architecture, where revolutionary buildings like the Taj Mahal and the Alhambra exist.
Indigenous art — Artists like Norval Morrisseau and Christi Belcourt have brought attention to Indigenous culture and stories through visual representation.
The list truly goes on.
#2 Introduce Different Art Mediums and How They Were First Used
Mediums are a great way to get students interested in art. Don’t just focus on artwork made in a single medium, but move between paintings, sculptures, prints, architecture, photography, and engravings to add variety! Introduce clay, acrylic paint, oil paint, watercolour, and charcoal — and the history of each of these mediums. Where were they used? How were they made throughout history? What are some famous artworks that are made with each medium? If you can, bring in a sample of each medium so that students can get a feel for the different qualities and become inspired by them!
Fun Fact: Before oil paints were sold in tubes, artists (like Vermeer) had to buy raw pigments from an apothecary, grind it up into a powder, and then mix it themselves with oils. The invention of tubed paint took place in the Impressionist era (with artists like Monet and van Gogh) and allowed artists to work outdoors, whereas before the powdered pigments would blow away and were hard to transport.
#3 Discuss Exciting Art Movements
There are tons of interesting art movements that have filled history. They each have their own distinct style and can be a really fun topic to introduce to your students. You don’t need to cover every movement at once, since that can be overwhelming. Plan ahead to choose the art movements that you think will captivate your students the most.
Some art movements that you can consider are:
Renaissance [14th-17th c] — It marked the revival of classical Greek and Roman art. It focused on realism, beauty, illusions, and promoting Christianity. Some famous artists from this era were Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael.
Surrealism  — It was centered around art that depicted dreams and the unconscious mind. Artists like Salvador Dali, Frida Kahlo, and René Magritte are some of the people associated with popularizing the movement.
Cubism [1907-1914] — It focused on abstracting figures and forms into shapes (often so that viewers could see multiple angles of the same thing). It was largely influenced by African masks, but artists Pablo Picasso and Georges Braques are considered the founders of the style.
Impressionism [1867-1886] — The focus of impressionists was to capture fleeting scenes (an impression) often using loose and short brush strokes to capture the effect of light. Artists that are known for their work in this movement are Claude Monet, Mary Cassatt, and Vincent van Gogh. Impressionism still continues to be a popular painting style today.
Pop Art [mid 1950s-1970] — It used images from pop culture and mass production with bright colours, usually to create an ironic or satirical piece of art. It could include comic books, ads, and mass produced items. Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Yayoi Kusama are considered to be the most famous artists to come out of the movement.
For a full list and breakdown of all of the art history movement, visit our Art History Timeline.
#4 Choose Important Artists to Focus on
The list of amazing artists that have flooded history is definitely a long one. It can be tricky to choose which artists are most important, but there are some easy steps to choose the right ones. First, narrow it down to the art movements you’ve chosen for your class. Then, choose one or two of the leaders of that movement.
One issue you may find when looking for artists is that most (if not all) of the leaders of art movements are male and white — not because no artists were female or non-white, but because they often weren’t credited or appreciated during their time. If that is the case, you can plan to include an artist from each movement that was equal in talent, but was not as recognized. For example, if you choose surrealism, Frida Kahlo is a perfect artist to explore. For impressionism, Mary Cassatt is a wonderful artist to profile.
Some other famous BIPOC/female artists to explore are:
Norval Morrisseau — an Indigenous Canadian artist famous for his x-ray paintings
Mary Blair — a Disney animator and designer
Ai Wei Wei — a Chinese Contemporary artist and activist
Hayao Miyazaki — Japan’s anime legend
Georgia O’keeffe — one of the developers of Modern art in America
Yayoi Kusama — an installation artist that creates immersive experiences
Faith Ringgold — known for her quilted narratives that reflect her political beliefs
Take a look at our list of 10 Famous Paintings Every Artist Should Know for more inspiration!
#5 Show Lots of Images
Art is one subject where there can never be too many pictures. Use it to your advantage! Just talking about art history can get boring; seeing is where the fun is! You can use pictures of artwork, architecture, or even self-portraits of some artists to make it more interesting. Search for pictures that are visually appealing and will impress and spark conversations with your students. This will help them remember the artwork they studied long after the class.
#6 Combine Art History With General History
Art has always been a way for people to document what’s happening in the world, whether it is political, social, or environmental factors. These are the issues that define history. For some students, general history is boring, so combining the topics with relevant art that was produced during the time can offer you an opportunity to teach two subjects at once and for double the marks! This can also help with the organization of the subjects, since it might be confusing for students to be learning about two different time periods in different subjects. Students won’t just learn about a painting or an artist, but about the social conditions that encouraged them to create the art.
#7 Quote Famous Artists to Inspire Creativity
Featuring artists’ quotes can be a great way to inspire students. Creating a quote of the day or week can be a fun way for students to receive creative advice and understand the importance of the arts. It can also be the way you introduce a new artist, since it will give students an inside look into who the artist really was.
Some notable quotes by famous artists:
Take a look at our Famous Artist Posters with creative quotes to inspire your classroom!
#8 Make Art History Relatable!
The easiest way to make art history interesting for your students is to make it relatable to their everyday lives and modern culture! Help them connect to artwork that might otherwise feel foreign to them. Some steps you can take to do this are:
1- Relate it back to a different subject they’re learning. Are they learning about Greek mythology? Then give a lesson about ancient Greek art. Are you studying Canadian Indigenous traditions? Intertwine some notable Indigenous artists like Daphne Odjig or Christi Belcourt. Language arts and literature? Norman Rockwell and Beatrix Potter are two illustrators you could reference!
2- Play an ‘imagination’ game to help students picture themselves in the lives of artists in history. Example: “Imagine painting in the 1500s... there was no electricity, and photography wasn't invented until nearly 400 years later! Artists had to paint from sketches and daylight... and many were forbidden to study anatomy because of religious restrictions!
3- Intertwine art with topics your students are already interested in. Connect it to pop culture, internet culture like memes, cartoons, and anime! A figure to use as an introduction for students is Banksy — an anonymous artist that has risen to fame for his street art and memes of famous artwork, like the Monet rendition below!
Bonus Memes for Teachers: Take a look at these memes made from classical art!
If you’re a teacher that’s looking for classroom content centered around art history, visit these quick and easy resources!
If you’d like more worksheets related to art, check out our teachers pay teachers page where you can get worksheets and lesson plans for your classroom! More classroom resources like this can be found on our art resources for teachers page, where we break down the elements of art, art history, and more!
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