How to Organise an Art Lesson

How to Organise an Art Lesson

Are you a primary/elementary school teacher who has to teach art lessons, but you are not an art specialist? Have you just been appointed art co-ordinator or art lead? Have you just started teaching and art a bit daunted by the fact you have to teach an art lesson? If any of the answers to these questions is yes, you need to read the rest of this post.

I taught art in secondary schools for years and after leaving teaching ran art workshops in primary schools as van Gogh, Picasso, Monet et al. I have worked in more than 500 schools and seen some great teaching and some not so great teaching – so here goes.

An art lesson is not a case of giving children an idea, or starting point and letting them get on with it, whilst the teacher catches up with marking or the like. If the teacher is not engaged in the lesson why should the children be? An art lesson is about engagement, teaching skills, creating opportunities to experiment, encouraging and inspiring children, combating negativity, learning about artists and the way they approach developing ideas, making children celebrate the fact that no one in the worlds, draws, paints or creates like they do. Making children realise there is no such thing as perfection and that crying over a drawing (or other piece of work) is nothing more than crying over a sheet of paper with lines on it – it is not the end of the world. See the videos opposite for ways to combat some of these problems.

So, you have an art lesson to teach. I am not going to try to cover lesson plans here, but the practical elements of organising the lesson and I’m going to use a painting lesson as an example.

Planning, Organisation and Involvement are the keys to a great lesson.


Most primary schools don’t have a separate, dedicated art room, so the art lesson has to take place in a normal classroom, which probably has a small sink. So, the first thing that panics the teacher is the mess and chaos this is going to cause and the inordinate amount of time taken to clear up at the end. This is not a problem if you do the following.

  1. If you have the opportunity start the art lesson at the beginning of the morning or the start of the afternoon. This allows time for the organisation of the room before the lesson starts.
  2. This also allows time to get hold of the materials you are going to need for the lesson from the stock cupboard, if they are not held in the room.
  3. Appoint monitors/helpers and give them responsibility for certain tasks
  4. Make sure you have planned meaningful tasks for those who finish their work early, or are likely to require more materials.
  5. Plan for disasters – knocking over water pots, paint being split on floors, other people’s work and other children. What are you going to do, what do you need.
  6. You’ll need bin bags for rubbish.
  7. Where are you going to store a class set of wet paintings?


In my opinion, the whole school should follow the same plan and organisation for art lessons, if they do, the quality of work produced by the children is much better. A key part of the art leader’s job is to ensure this happens so pester, cajole or demand support for this from the hierarchy.

  1. Buy large plastic sheets to cover the desks – better than newspaper – they last for years.
  2. Place one palette between two children and make sure it has the paint colours required. I would suggest using paper plates as palettes, because it saves washing up at the end, they are simply binned at the end of the lesson. I suggest you only give children the primary colours plus white, black may be needed very occasionally. Encourage colour mixing. Give each child a paper plate as their own mixing palette. Offer a prize, house points, gold stars or whatever for the two children who can keep their paint palette (colours) as clean as possible (not their mixing palette), i.e. they haven’t mixed all the colours together and ended up with brown. If you insist on this it is surprising how soon children will adapt. Paintings will look fresher and less brown!
  3. Don’t use plastic cups or yoghurt pots as water pots they always fall over. Make the school buy proper water pots with wide bottoms that are difficult to knock over. A water pot between two.
  4. Brushes, PLEASE buy reasonable brushes. DON’T, PLEASE DON’T use brushes to mix or apply glue. Supply each child with a small brush and a large brush – probably bristle brushes if using Redimix or poster type paint. Encourage children to use the larger brush to paint the big areas and the smaller brush for the smaller areas, it’s amazing how children will often do the opposite.
  5. Give each child a paper towel or a few sheets of toilet paper to wipe their brushes on.
  6. Supply each child with decent paper to paint on, copier paper is not good enough. They should be painting on cartridge paper at least. Other types of paper can be used depending on the project. But remember the paper will have to be capable of taking a lot of water, you know the characters likely to do this.
  7. Make sure the above is on the tables before the lesson starts. Organising the above with 30 children in the room at the start of their lesson is chaotic and wastes valuable art time.


Primary schools in England will have teaching assistants who can help with the organisation above, but there may be schools elsewhere in the world where this is not the case. When I started teaching this was not the case I, as the art teacher, had to do everything. But whatever your situation make sure you make use of that great enthusiastic resource – children. There is no reason why children as young as 5 cannot be given responsibility- under supervision until old enough to work independently – to become monitors (you might use a different name) for certain tasks. For example:

  1. Before children leave at the end of the morning they clear their desks – or desk clearing monitors clear the desks at the start of the day.
  2. Four children are appointed as plastic sheet monitors – they cover all the tables
  3. Two children are in charge of filling water pots and placing them on the tables
  4. Two children sort out brushes as outlined above.
  5. Two children place the required number of paper plates on each desk
  6. Four children take one colour each and are responsible for putting that colour on the paper plate.
  7. Two children put out the paper.

You would have to decide if your children are old enough to take on these responsibilities. However, this can be chaos if all the children try to do this at the same time. You’ll have to train them to follow the above plan in sequence. It will take time and effort on your part, but when you’ve got them organised you’ll be surprised how quickly an art lesson can be set up.
The end of the lesson the same principles apply. You could have the same monitors or appoint different ones. I would suggest the following:

  1. Every child remains seated unless they have a job to do.
  2. 2 children walk around the room with plastic bin bags and children deposit their paint and mixing palettes in them.
  3. Children from one table at a time take their finished paintings to the drying rack or wherever and return to their seat.
  4. One child from each table collects the brushes from the table and puts them in the sink and returns
  5. Two children from the table collect water pots and put them by the sink.
  6. Children fold up their plastic sheet ready for collection by the plastic sheet monitors.
  7. Depending on sink size 2 children was brushes and pots

You may want to build in a plenary session or organise the above slightly differently, you know your children better than I do. However, if you persist with the above, which will probably vary, depending on the type of art lesson you are teaching, you will find life is much easier.

It is important that children see that you as the teacher see the art lesson as equally important to any other lesson you might teach. This could mean that you also produce a painting during the lesson, don’t feel inhibited, remember you are making every child paint, even the reluctant ones, so why shouldn’t you paint too.

There are some bright children who cannot see the point of art, those who see maths and science as being far more important. If you have children like this you might mention Jonathan Ive who was born in Chingford, near London and is chief designer for Apple. He is credited with coming up with the idea and designs for the first IPad and the IMac. Before his arrival at Apple in 1990, they were a relatively small player in the tech world, but Jonathan Ive’s designs changed them into the world’s largest and wealthiest company. A good example of how art inspires science.

Finally, on a more frivolous note, you can imagine the amount of maths, science and the advanced technology that is currently being built into driverless cars, it is quite mind boggling. You can imagine as these cars are let loose on our streets, their computer brains will be some of the most sophisticated computers that man has produced. Yet, recently an artist completely confused a driverless car with a line of salt. He simply drew, in salt, a very large circle on a test track and outside the circle drew another dotted circle to enclose the first. The driverless car drove into the circle because it knows it can cross a dotted line, but it couldn’t get out of the circle because it knows it should not cross a continuous white line. Isn’t art wonderful.

Boys painting Picasso

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