Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: visual arts from Collins English Dictionary

pl n

1 the arts of painting, sculpting, photography, etc, as opposed to music, drama, and literature

Summary Article: Visual Arts
From The SAGE Encyclopedia of Out-of-School Learning

Cave paintings and designs etched on seashells from tens to hundreds of thousands of years ago suggest that the visual arts have long been a part of the human experience. And humans have been creating visual art ever since, typically without the auspices of formal art education. Learning to create and appreciate visual art forms has a long and varied history outside schools. In more recent history, through opportunities in museums, community art centers, collectives, galleries, open studios, and through use of how-to books and other media resources as well as more self-directed arts creation and consumption with family and friends, people independently and with others regularly craft visual arts education outside schools.

Visual arts learning is often considered to have two broad dimensions: (1) creative production and (2) critical response. Creative production may entail learning to make visual art, whether in 2D, 3D, film, or digital/new media forms in a variety of settings. Critical response involves coming to understand and evaluate different visual artistic forms. This entry discusses the environments where people learn about the visual arts, self-directed arts learning, the role of visual culture in visual arts learning, and the purposes of informal instruction in the visual arts.

Learning Environments

Visual arts instruction is a mainstay of informal education across ages and in many different media and processes. Creative production learning environments may be developed through studio classes, open studio environments, community arts organizations, or other venues. Each of these arenas may also support critical response as learners view and discuss examples of art and visual culture made by one another and by other artists. Art museums, galleries, and other sites provide spaces for more intensive focus on visual art appreciation and critical response, though critical response is a part of responding to our everyday surrounding visual culture.

Studio Classes, Open Studios, and Community Arts Programs

Historically, formal instruction in the visual arts outside academies was often done through apprenticeship or in the atelier tradition where aspiring artists worked in the studio of a master—moving from learning techniques and creating studies of masters’ works to working on large-scale pieces designed by the master. Contemporary arts instruction outside schools, typically, takes the form of a studio class held in a wide array of sites—including after-school programs, private homes, community centers, senior centers, and community arts organizations. Studio classes may focus on broad categories such as drawing, painting, sculpting, weaving, printmaking, photography, videography, graphic design, film, or interactive media. They may also specialize in particular materials or processes such as resin casting, encaustic painting, woodcuts, or 3D modeling. Regardless of media type, studio classes are typically facilitated by an instructor, and students spend most of their time working with art materials on a project—either of their own devising or inspired by a problem posed by the instructor.

Studio classes outside schools may mirror those in schools. Lois Hetland, Ellen Winner, Shirley Veenema, and Kimberly Sheridan identify four basic studio structures that organize studio classes: (1) demonstration lectures, (2) students-at-work, (3) critique, and (4) exhibition. During students-at-work, the instructor circles through the students, observing their work and process and giving individualized feedback. The bulk of studio time is spent with students at work on an art problem, where the instructor may facilitate a discussion on ways to approach an artistic problem, demonstrate a particular technique or steps in a process, or provide historical context and share exemplars from artists working on similar problems or with similar media and techniques. Some studio time is also spent in critique where students’ completed or in-progress works are viewed and discussed. Critiques offer opportunities for students to pause in the working process, see how others are approaching an artistic problem, hear others’ perspectives on their work, reflect on their own approach, and envision potential changes. Studio classes may also connect learners with opportunities to show finished work outside the class—through physical exhibitions in local community art centers, businesses, or galleries; via artistic competitions and associated exhibitions; or digitally through websites and other forums.

Open studios tend to be less structured than studio classes and focus more on providing access to art-making equipment and materials, work space, and a community of artists to engage with. Open studios may center on a particular art form with specialized equipment such as printmaking, darkroom photography, or metal sculpture. In recent years, makerspaces have emerged as multidisciplinary studio-like spaces where artists, engineers, and hobbyists make together using traditional and digital media and fabrication equipment, combining elements of open studios and machine shops. An array of open-ended support spaces are important to artists at the professional level: Residencies, collectives, and live-work studio spaces often provide space, material, time, and community for those trying to make their living in visual arts. They may also be associated with exhibition spaces and events providing access to audiences and potential buyers.

Community arts centers, partnerships, and organizations may offer traditional studio arts classes focusing predominately on individual art making, but they are distinctive in that they may focus more on communal processes, such as the creation of public works of art, exhibitions, or events that focus on a particular social goal or engaging the broader community artistically—for instance, through use of local folk art traditions. Whether through murals, public sculptures, street art, performance art, local traditional art forms, or other forms or processes, community art events often aim to engage the public in art and use art to invite conversation or reflection. Community arts may focus on civic values and social justice in addition to artistic aims.

Art Museums, Galleries, and Exhibitions

Art museums are institutions that acquire, maintain, and exhibit collections of contemporary and historical works of art. Art museums may be public or private and are a fixture of urban centers and universities worldwide, hosting millions of annual visitors. They may support permanent, revolving, or traveling collections. Museums may specialize in particular periods, genres, artists, styles, or themes. Curators select and arrange works to encourage thoughtful viewing and interpretation of artists’ work—sometimes organizing works by media theme or historical contexts. Through selection, arrangement, and juxtaposition, curators encourage a continual reimagining of the art historical record. In recent years, many museums have created digital collections—using high-quality digital imaging of their works, making them publicly accessible online.

Art museums often maintain educational outreach programs providing an array of instructional resources. The education department devises ways to make the collection inviting and accessible to diverse audiences, to broaden and deepen arts engagement. For instance, education departments have long offered docent tours to provide contextual information about artists, artworks, historical periods, and curatorial approaches. Docents are often community volunteers who receive education on the museum's collection and engaging visitors with it. Museums also host events and lectures by artists, curators, and scholars. They arrange school field trips and family events and create print and online educational materials to invite children to engage with the collections. A growing community of museum education researchers has begun focusing on investigating more carefully how these experiences affect learning. For instance, in a landmark, large-scale experimental study, Jay P. Greene, Daniel H. Bowen, and Brian Kisida demonstrated gains in critical thinking, historical empathy, and interest in museums from a single field trip to an art museum. Other researchers have investigated the varying effects of the arrangement of works, information provided, and kinds of questions asked, on the understanding and appreciation of artworks. In addition to museums and galleries, major exhibition events such as the Venice Biennale and others provide spaces for engagement with diverse contemporary, international art.

Self-Directed Arts Learning: Creative Production

Much of visual arts learning may be self-directed: Artists of all ages make art on their own and at home. Very young children across cultures begin representing in visual arts spontaneously, often scribbling—whether with specified tools such as crayons or with their fingers in food or sticks in the dirt. Over time, they develop schemas for visual representation that are informed by, and reflect, their physical, social, and cultural environments. Howard Gardner, Ellen Winner, and other researchers at Harvard University's Project Zero were influential in characterizing these artistic developments in relation to evolving theories in cognitive science around symbolic representation. This representation sometimes evolves into more self-directed arts learning that develops in parallel or in combination with arts instruction in schools or other settings.

Visual arts educational resources abound to support self-directed education, with a long tradition of providing materials to support relatively autodidactic learning. For instance, in the mid-19th century, John Gadsby Chapman's American Drawing Book: Manual for the Amateur and Basis of Study for the Professional Artist was widely popular both in schools and out of schools. Since then, thousands of books demonstrating artistic techniques, media, and processes have been printed, guiding amateur artists’ self-directed practice. Art and craft supply stores provide tools, materials, kits, and how-to books across a wide range of media. Television also joined in: Bob Ross hosted a long-running PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) show, The Joy of Painting, in which he demonstrates oil painting techniques accompanied by cheerful commentary about “happy little trees” that has been rerun internationally for decades. Contemporary blogs and websites offer guidelines, advice, and tutorials for sculpting with resin, drawing the perfect anime eye, designing games, editing videos, and most other technical and stylistic approaches in the visual arts.

Beyond instruction, the Internet affords a venue for those who engage in relatively autodidactic work to engage with communities and share works in progress, techniques, and interests, and to exhibit final works. Kerry Freedman and her colleagues have investigated internationally such Internet communities centered on visual arts learning, finding that they regularly engage in critique practices, pose challenges to encourage discipline and practice, and instruct one another in techniques. These communities often serve as a learning environment for specialized or niche practices and interests often not included in other art education settings. Even for those not participating in explicit online arts communities, visual art forms, particularly digital photography and video and editing, are part of everyday participation in social media sites. Digital tools have made creative production in the visual arts widespread.

Visual Culture

Much of visual arts learning involves engaging with visual culture. One role of a visual art education is to encourage attentiveness to the aesthetics and meanings of visual culture—whether the design of the buildings and infrastructure we move through; the products we surround ourselves with at home and work; other forms of graphic design in print or online; popular culture in film, television, and other media; or any other human-created visual forms we encounter.

Just being in the world we “learn” about visual culture: Researchers have found that toddlers can reliably recognize familiar logos and brands, and tweens are often noted for preternatural discrimination among fashion items and their implications for taste and status. However, critical response in visual culture learning involves constructing an interpretation of what we see and experience and seeking evidence in the referent for our views. It often involves stepping outside from simply responding to designs to considering the possible intents behind their creation and effects on varied audiences. Learning involves understanding how design works to create moods, express ideas, inform, persuade, or distract. What cognitive and emotional states are induced by the design of Las Vegas, a Japanese garden, or a warehouse store? What meanings do we construct from movies, websites, and advertisements? Visual culture learning may occur through informal conversations with family and friends, online discussion sites, studio classes, or more introspective reflection.

Purposes of Visual Arts Informal Education

As a fundamental part of human expression and development, the visual arts need little justification. Visual art has pleased, angered, inspired, evoked nationalistic pride, confused, disgusted, bored, and created a sense of awe in viewers across time and cultures. The same work of art might evoke any of these, or many other, emotions in different viewers (see, e.g., Paul Silvia's work on negative emotions in response to art). Visual arts serve as physical records of cultural practices and traditions. Being in the presence of art objects that have been valued for centuries or millennia can inspire our historical imagination and create a sense of connectedness with humanity over time. Art has caused riots and national controversies, and artists, even in contemporary times, may be jailed for their creations. The visual arts have always had power and presence.

On the more mundane level, each of us has created visual art at some point in our lives, and each of us, to varying degrees, selects, curates, and otherwise makes sense of the visual cultures in which we reside. Out-of-school learning in the visual arts provides an arena to develop our creativity and tastes, play and experiment with imagery, and learn new techniques and processes. Visual arts encourages us to be more attentive to and observant of the visual world, to express ideas and emotions visually, to reflect on what we imagine and see, to explore and envision new possibilities, to develop a sense of craft and discipline in our creation, and to engage with artistic problems and communities. Cultivating a practice in traditional art forms might sustain a cultural tradition. Art may provoke dialogue, draw attention to a social issue, make something more beautiful, or otherwise elicit a response from a viewer. As educational philosopher Maxine Greene emphasized, the visual arts primes the social imagination: It encourages us to imagine the world as if it were otherwise and express that vision to others.

See also Art Museums; Community Arts Programs; Design and Out-of-School Learning; Everyday Creativity

Further Readings
  • Bowen, D. H.; Greene, J. P.; Kisida, B. (2014). Learning to think critically: A visual art experiment. Educational Researcher, 43(1), 37-44.
  • Congdon, K. (2004). Community art in action. Davis Worcester MA.
  • Freedman, K.; Heijnen, E.; Kallio-Tavin, M.; Kárpáti, A.; Papp, L. (2013). Visual culture learning communities: How and what students come to know in informal art groups. Studies in Art Education, 54(2), 103-115.
  • Greene, M. (1995). Releasing the imagination: Essays on education, the arts, and social change. Jossey-Bass San Francisco CA.
  • Hetland, L.; Winner, E.; Veenema, S.; Sheridan, K. M. (2013). Studio thinking 2: The real benefits of visual arts education (2nd ed.). Teachers College Press New York NY.
  • Peppler, K. (2010). Media arts: Arts education for a digital age. Teachers College Record, 112(8), 2118-2153.
  • Sefton-Green, J.; Soep, E. (2007). Creative media cultures: Making and learning beyond the school. In Bresler, L. (Ed.), The international handbook of arts education (pp. 835-856). Springer Dordrecht Netherlands.
  • Sheridan, K. M. (2011). Envision and observe: Using the studio thinking framework for learning and teaching in digital arts. Mind, Brain, and Education, 5(1), 19-26.
  • Kimberly M. Sheridan
    Copyright © 2017 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

    Related Articles

    Full text Article The Visual Arts in Post-1945 America
    Blackwell Companions to American History: A Companion to Post-1945 America

    In 1949 art historian Oliver Larkin ended his Pulitzer Prize-winning survey, Art and Life in America , with this optimistic statement: “Nowhere...

    Full text Article Visual Culture: Painting, Sculpture, and Graphic Arts in Early America
    Encyclopedia of Religion in America

    Religious belief intersected with the visual and material culture of early Americans in formal and informal ways, in both public and private...

    Full text Article The Visual Arts
    Blackwell Companions to American History: A Companion to 20th-Century America

    An American Century The Whitney’s blockbuster exhibition of 1999, The American Century: Art and Culture , derived its title from Henry...

    See more from Credo