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The Connection Between Math & Art

I've asked artists about the connections between math and art, and they see it when they use measurement, weight, and even trigonometry.

Math and Art Skill Expectations

Math development often has the expectation that at a specific age a student “should” be at a specific level. It is tempting to conclude mathematical potential either by comparing skills with materials marked by grades or by comparing their skills against another student’s abilities. Visual arts development is often judged by the student’s interest level or how his or her work compares to someone who is viewed as talented. Another conclusion is made by how their work lines up with realism. Unfortunately, students are often judged as to whether they are adept at math and or art or not at a young age. The success or failure mindset sticks with them. In my work as an adult beginning art instructor, it is common to have a first time student make a comment such as, “So-and-so is the artist in our family.” They gave up years ago when someone else in the family filled the shoes of the artist in the family. Let us be cautious about labeling a student as not being mathematical, artistic or unable in any subject. Instead, I encourage you to discover ways to build skills in sequential order and at the student’s individual pace. The goal is to assist the student to develop basic skills and learn how to learn. Potential comes in all shapes and sizes.

This is where it gets very interesting. In my 30 years of mentoring and learning from parents as a Demme Learning consultant and an art instructor, I have observed that most students, unless there is an extremely serious learning delay, have potential to be proficient in both math and art. Artsy student can develop confidence in math and “mathy” students can develop art confidence. Not only that, intentional development of art and math will result in a stronger ability to combine both naturally as the student moves into upper level math, professional art and ultimately into the job market. In both mediums the creative strategic thinking, problem-solving, and self-expression developed will set your student up for success for whatever their plans and goals may be. Both subjects correlate directly with science and language expressions as well. To me art is the glue that connects all of the above.

Art and Math Parallels

Concept Parallels

In my personal art, I am continually considering angle, proportion, perspective, balance, grids, quadrants, slope-intercept and probably more math concepts that I do not even realize. Other artists I have asked about the connections between math and art indicate they use measurement, weight, and even trigonometry.

Tools Parallel

Amsler Polar planimeter

All you have to do is take a look at the tools both artists and math professionals use and you will actually see the strong parallels.

A special note here: In art especially, using tools is not cheating or a sign of being “less than.” Even the great masters used tools; in fact, they developed many of them. While there are likely a few artists who have developed their skills being a purist, most of us have at least a few favorite tools.

Story and Vision

The most profound way I see this connection between math and art is that both involve telling a story, expressing a vision, working though a strategic process, or yes, sometimes evoking an emotion. The lightbulb in my math/art connection came on when I studied Algebra 1. When preparing to certify to support Math-U-See Algebra 1, the most exciting “aha” moment was the realization that the same learning process I enjoy in my art development provided success in Algebra 1 as well. The skills and concepts I had developed in art began to correlate with the math I was learning. Because Math-U-See focuses on the importance of “seeing” math concepts, I was able to visualize and ultimately find new success in math. Now those formulas that I could not even begin to understand or memorize when I failed Algebra 1 in school were relevant. The same processing I use to develop my art supports my ability to find success in math.

In both math and art a story is being communicated, a vision being processed that you may have seen or wish to create. Students, even if they’re not particularly artsy, benefit from working through art skills, as it promotes strategy processing skills which will ultimately enhance the ability to apply and excel in other subjects. I assure you basic art skills can be developed by all learners. Beginning at any age systematic development of art will encourage creative thinking. In the job market your child will be competing in, being able to be creative and having the skills to communicate creativity in math, visual art and language will be a valuable asset.

Let’s Get Practical

Ok, this is a blog post right? Not a book, so let me prioritize and narrow this down to five things as an art instructor that I would suggest as a starting point.

1) Tension Control / Awareness / Trial and Error

The ability to control tension when creating is something that is both vital and difficult to reteach. By the time the student ends up in my class reworking muscle memory, this is often the number one hill to climb. When the habit is to apply too much pressure to the pencil, it makes it difficult to erase. Consequently, the art student feels they have no choice but to get it right the first time. Learning to draw lightly until you get it right evokes a mindset that promotes trial runs and changes as part of the process, not failure or a sign that you are not capable. When watching even most professional artist sketch, you will notice them making small, light marks to begin their composition. They start out getting a feel for what they are envisioning. They now can see their options and know where to put their hard line or use it as a light line to guide them if they are painting. Because they drew lightly, they can erase all the other lines and have a clean area with which to continue. Here we can learn the incredible value of trial and error. An additional bonus will be as the student begins to work through multi-step math concepts. The skill and mindset that they can find the error and erase without making a big mess on the paper or having to start over can be key to building confidence and lowering the frustration level. Additionally, you, the viewer, will produce something much more enjoyable to look at, lowering your frustration level as well. Teach your budding artists and mathematicians to love erasers and view “failures” as opportunity to grow.

2) Thinking Outside of the Lines

Going outside the lines can be quite risky. In the end, just getting those worksheets completed with a specific percent correct will not be what best serves your student.

In regards to art development there will be more obvious ways to think outside the box and color outside the line…keep it simple. One of my favorite ways is through photography. Next time you and your student are sitting somewhere waiting, hand your student the phone and say, “Okay let’s snap a few shots.” Do not just take pictures of people or buildings. Find some texture, interesting colors, and surprising scenes. Play “Who Can Take the Most Unusual Photo in Four Shots.” Later you can teach them about cropping. How do you make it look better? How do things look better if you crop it this way, or that way? Be ready to print two or three of them monthly to mat and frame for your gallery wall at home. Maybe rotate them and put the previous one in an album. We miss so much in life by not really seeing our surroundings. Learning to “see” what is really there is definitely a math/art connection.

3) Limit Time for Intense Instruction

When I teach children’s classes I typically figure in 10-15 minutes of formal instruction mixed in with a remaining experience of free play. It is often better to leave the project unfinished, move to free play and come back for multiple additional brief sessions either during the session at another time. I have learned from experience that students start out doing great and all of a sudden trash it because they need a break from that level of concentration. A mature artist knows breaks are vital for a quality result. My best works often involve a break at 80% finished or sooner. I then leave the work out so that it is somewhere where my peripheral vision will keep working on it during my day. Our brain is so amazing that it will continue to create when we do not realize it. Often out of nowhere I will know exactly how to finish it with the “edge” I want it to have. I encourage you to be aware of this and build the habit of knowing and honoring when it is time to “step away from the art work”. It is the same with math. Try 10-15 minutes of math when learning something new, then walk away for a spell and re-approach with fresh eyes.

4) Free Play and Exploration

I get it…not everyone enjoys messy art as much as I do. I am one of those glitter grandmas. If the kids come over, we usually end up with glitter, paint, and glue somewhere. However, I cannot stress enough the value of your student experiencing both inside and outside the box creative discovery. This is where they learn to understand when and where both are appropriate. A balance of messy art at the level you can handle, brief sessions of formal skill instruction, and frequent habits of drawing, photographing, or taking note of what you see in your daily surroundings is important. The same goes for math. The student who insists on getting the answer “their way” will be well served by learning to balance that wonderful ability by simultaneously being required to solve at least some of the problems as instructed. Another thing to keep in mind is that while some need complete order to function, others of us need things at least a little messy.

5) Think Intentionally

Likely, you plan with intent as to the best fit for your student’s math. What makes Math-U-See a well-rounded program is that we teach to master concrete understanding, not only at the student’s individual pace, but we also provide potential development of all learning preferences. While your student may have a favorite way to learn, do not underestimate the value of strengthening the other preferences. If you are using Math-U-See currently and find your student “block resistant,” be sure to require that they use the blocks until they can teach the lesson back to you while using them. Even if they can get answers correct without doing this, you will be connecting to the valuable creative thinking and promote deeper mathematical creativity. If you need support as to how this might work in your individual classroom…call for a consult for some ideas as how to do this without either of you becoming frustrated.

Art needs intentionality as well. There are tons of purchase choices out there. If you as a parent are not confident as to what to do or where to start, post in the comments and tell us more. Also tell us about how art and creativity already happen or do not happen in your family. I learn so much from the parents and students I have the privilege to walk along side. Hearing from you will help me know what to include in my next blog post. The key here is let’s keep it simple…but in some way intentional.

About Sue Wachter

Sue is a Placement Specialist at Demme Learning. Sue has been consulting homeschool parents in regards to best curriculum choices for over 30 years. She is a wife, mother and grandmother. She enjoys spending time with her family and teaches art classes. Her goal, whether in art or curriculum support, is to provide tools and inspiration for each individual's next step.

4 thoughts on “The Connection Between Math & Art

  1. Bob Savary

    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!

    1. Sue Wachter

      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.


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