Students are often judged on their skills in math and art at a young age, and unfortunately, that mindset can stick with them. They grow up believing they can only be good at one or the other, having either a natural artistic or mathematical ability.
In my work as an art instructor for adult beginners, I’ve heard many first-time students sell themselves short by making comments such as, “So-and-so is the artist in our family, not me.” I’ve also heard similar comments regarding math in my 30 years as a consultant with Demme Learning. The thing is, math and art are actually very closely related.
Over the years, I’ve observed that most students have the potential to be proficient in both math and art if they give themselves a fair shot. In this blog, I’ve highlighted some key parallels between the two disciplines as well as some ways to begin exploring and connecting mathematical and artistic growth in your students.
Why Encourage Growth in Both Math and Art?
Taking the time to intentionally help your student develop their skills in both math and art will strengthen their abilities in other areas, such as:
- Creative strategic thinking
- Understanding the correlation with science and language
To me, art is the glue that connects many subjects and skills together. Encouraging students to lean into their artistic abilities benefits them in more ways than one. The goal is to help them develop basic skills and learn how to learn. From there, the sky’s the limit. Potential comes in all shapes and sizes.
What is the Connection Between Math and Art?
If you take a piece of art and put it next to a math worksheet, at first glance you’d probably say, “How could these two disciplines possibly have any connection to each other?” But, if you look beyond the obvious, you’ll notice some key similarities between the two.
You may be surprised to learn that artists almost always use at least one mathematical concept while working on a piece. In my personal art, I’m continually considering angle, proportion, perspective, balance, grids, quadrants, slope-intercept, and estimating. Other artists with whom I’ve discussed the connection between math and art have also indicated that they use measurement, weight, and even trigonometry as they create.
There is a great deal of overlap when it comes to the tools artists and math professionals use on a regular basis.
My favorite math/art tool is an angle finder. It can also be used as a straight edge. With a little practice, students can learn how to replicate angles and see perspectives. The cool thing is a student can stand in front of a large structure or even something angled in nature and, by merely holding the angle finder and lining it up with an object (even from miles away), can find the angle and replicate it in their drawing.
You could even connect it to math by having students visibly check angles and identify them based on the measurement.
Both math and art encourage the development of critical and creative thinking skills that your student can carry with them through life, such as reasoning, analyzing, evaluating, decision-making, and estimating. Regardless of what your student plans to do post-education, math and art skills will make a difference.
Time to Get Practical: 5 Tips to Promote Math and Art Development
Ok—this is a blog post, not a book. So, let me prioritize and narrow this down to often overlooked developmental tools that I would suggest to include in both math and art. I’m not recommending that you try to implement all of them at once. Pick one (or pieces of a couple) to deepen you and your student’s math/art connection.
1) Tension Control, Awareness, and Making Mistakes
The ability to control tension when creating is a skill which is often overlooked. Learning to draw lightly until you get it right evokes a mindset that trial and error is a part of the process.
Capable math and art students learn to value mistakes. When watching a professional artist sketch, you’ll notice them making small, light marks to begin their composition. They do this to get a feel for what they’re envisioning. By seeing their options upfront, they can better determine where to place their final hard line. Then, they can erase their light lines.
Mathematicians can work through a similar process as they complete multistep math problems. That way, they’ll be able to find an error and erase without making a mess or having to start over. Learning to print lightly and adjust tension can be key to building confidence and lowering frustration levels in both subjects. And of course, teach your artists and mathematicians to love erasers and celebrate “mistakes” as a normal part of learning.
2) Thinking Outside the Box
Going outside the lines can feel risky at times. Ultimately, just getting those worksheets completed with a specific percent of correct answers won’t be what serves your student best. The real benefits are gained when they learn to grapple with the process. So, while teaching math, provide opportunities for your student to try new approaches.
For example, at least once a week, let them choose a word problem from work they’ve already completed. Ask them to find a different way to say it and arrive at the same answer. This will help them learn to think creatively in math. That way, when they get to more complex math that can be solved multiple ways, they will be more proficient at finding the most effective way.
When it comes to art, there will be more obvious ways to think outside the box. One of my favorite ways is through photography. Next time you and your student are sitting somewhere waiting, hand your student a phone and say, “Let’s snap a few shots.” Don’t just take pictures of people or buildings, though. Rather, encourage them to think beyond “traditional” photography.
Find some texture, interesting colors, and surprising scenes. Play “Who Can Take the Most Unusual Photo in Four Shots.” Then, you can teach them how to crop. How can you make it look better by cropping? You can even print these photos to mat and frame for a gallery wall at home.
Learning to look beyond the standard method and try a new approach is definitely a math–art connection.
3) Embracing the Mess
I cannot stress enough the value of letting your student experience creative discovery. Learning is enhanced with a balance of messy art and formal skill instruction. The same goes with math.
When I’m trying to learn math concepts, my brain really likes to be free to figure it out on a messy page. Having to worry about neatness can sometimes make it harder to focus. While some thrive with order, others must undergo a messy journey to understanding. Be sure to work together with your student to find the right balance.
4) Limiting Time for Intense Instruction
When I teach children’s classes, I typically figure in 10–15 minutes of formal instruction mixed in with free play. I’ve found that art students—both adults and children—can only integrate so much new information. They start out doing great, then suddenly trash their work or get frustrated because they shut down neurologically. This is often true during math instruction as well.
I encourage you to be aware of your students’ limits and build a habit of honoring when it’s time to step away from the work. Try shorter sessions when learning something new, then walk away and reapproach it later with fresh eyes.
For example, I’ve exercised this moderation with my grandson. When he was five, I purchased a set of Hands 4 Building for us to work on together. My number one goal was to teach him the value of knowing when to take a break. Now at seven, he’s able to work somewhat independently using age-appropriate blueprints and a miter saw. He’s really proficient at knowing when he should take a break and come back refreshed. His finished pieces are impressive.
5) Making Intentional Connections
One of the best ways to show your student the commonalities between math and art is simply to make intentional connections while you teach. Here are three easy ways to go about this.
- Nature Journaling
One of my favorite ways to connect art, math, writing, and science is through nature journaling. Nature journal involves using a journal with a simple format to observe the world and document what they see in various ways. My favorite resource is John Muir Laws’ website.
Working through and developing a love for puzzles together is another way to connect math and art. Both math and art are all about puzzles.
Intentionally using mathematical terms such as arch, parallel, perpendicular, axis, etc., when working on art will set students up for future success when those concepts show up in their upper-level math studies.
I always say, “math and art are like fraternal twins. In some ways they don’t look alike and in other ways they do. But they make a great team.” The magic happens when you make this connection clear to your student, regardless of whether or not they’ve been deemed the “artist/mathematician of the family.” There’s a mathematician and an artist in all of us just waiting for their chance to shine.
Interested in learning more about supporting your student in both math and art? Watch our webinar, “Helping the Artsy Math Student Succeed.”Watch the Webinar
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This post was updated on October 28, 2022.
It would be great to hear art curriculum suggestions for 5-6 th grades.
Sue Wachter says
I would need more information regarding where your students are in regards to art as the answer would be very individualized. email@example.com
Bob Savary says
This article is spot on. I am a self-taught artist as they say and have been an oil painter for over 60 years, I was very good at math in school even to correcting a teacher’s mistakes in Algebra, one time. I have taught hundreds of people to draw from 7 – 42 years of age and helped a few paint. I was a technical illustrator for 35 years. I agree with everything you say. I never tell a student his drawing is wrong or ugly. I focus on their potential even young children can show perception of how they observe thier world. I begin working with that and help them to better translate what they see. EXcellent article!
Sue Wachter says
Bob, Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. You no doubt made difference in the lives of the people you encouraged in both art and math. I am encouraged by your insight.