As we seek to implement a Charlotte Mason education for our children, it is very helpful to look at her methods, at what she did and assigned in her curriculum. But, if we are trying to apply her methods faithfully while taking into account our different cultural needs, as well as being diligent citizens of a new millenium, as I believe Miss Mason would have us be, then it is equally important, if not more so, to understand the principles, or why behind those methods.
It can be dangerous to look at the method alone and develop principles that appear to fit that particular practice. We can end up like that proverbial family of women who cut the end of their roasts off before putting them in the oven. When asked why they did such a thing, they replied, “Because my mother always did,” imagining some necessary principle being put into practice. The truth was that great-grandmother didn’t own a pan large enough to fit her piece of meat. The principle behind the practice was imagined; the younger generations looked exclusively at the practice without striving to determine the reason behind it. However, Miss Mason told us, “there is no part of a child’s home life or school work which the law does not penetrate” and later, “there is no part of a child’s work at school which some philosophic principle does not underlie” (Home Education, pp. 2, 240). If we start the other way round, seeking first to understand the principles, we see the reason for, and importance of, each practice given to us, and will be better able to apply them to our own time and situations.
Several times over the years that I studied Miss Mason’s philosophy and methods, I’ve had to adjust my paradigm. Foundationally, I had to shift my focus to fit her first principle, and the incredible impact that deceptively simple phrase, “Children are born persons,” made in my understanding of education was earth-shattering. Many times in the past decade, I’ve had to alter my understanding of what I thought I knew about the Charlotte Mason method, because I had viewed one of her principles or methods through my own lens or because of misinformation. Most recently that has been the realization that Miss Mason placed no restriction on her students to do “dry brush” painting, as I had so often heard, and have been guilty of propagating myself.
Given the centrality of nature study to this relational education coupled with the importance of keeping a Nature Notebook and my own background in art, I have always been keen to implement this part of the feast in my own life. However, I have often felt frustrated by the restriction to “use as little water as possible” in my nature paintings–watercolor is not my preferred medium anyhow. Determined to master this method, however, I have dutifully practiced over the years. As I’ve researched the topic of drawing, scouring Miss Mason’s writings and the available online resources such as The Parents’ Review, I came to a startling realization. Miss Mason, and the teachers who contributed their thoughts on drawing and nature painting, never mentioned the term “dry” when it came to brushdrawing. Mr. Collingwood, author of The Fésole Club Papers, in giving instructions for drawing fine details mentions using “a quite dry brush” to accomplish these portions, but there is no expectation that paints were to be applied that way as a universal rule. Indeed, many instructions given by sources recommended by Miss Mason would require quite wet paint.
This discovery led me to reflect on the “whys” I had heard that explained the mandate to paint in dry brush. The only consistent “principle” given was that when painting outdoors in the field, it would be necessary for the paint to be quite dry so as to be transportable. I believe we have been guilty of cutting off the ends of our roasts. Through prolonged study into the expectations for nature study, I can find no evidence that children were required or encouraged to make their nature drawings in the field. (It sounds heretical, doesn’t it?)
Rather, children were to spend their time out-of-doors making keen observations, intently watching their subjects. Given Miss Mason’s principle that children should dig for their own knowledge, taking in information with their own senses, building their own Science of Relations, “Children should be encouraged to watch, patiently and quietly, until they learn something of the habits and history of bee, ant, wasp, spider, hairy caterpillar, dragon-fly, and whatever of larger growth comes in their way” (Home Education, p. 57).
They were given separate lessons in drawing from nature at other times, and were trained in the art of drawing from memory. Miss Williams described the method for these lessons, in an article entitled “The Teaching of Drawing and Its Place in Education,” from The Parents’ Review of 1923:
I place a model before them and make them observe it carefully, and then it is hidden while they draw. A second or third scrutiny gives opportunity for more correct observation, and the exercise of their critical faculties in comparing their drawing with the model–they thus gradually store up knowledge that they can use to express themselves. (PR 34, 11)
Consider how this practice of close observation, gradually storing up knowledge used to later record what they see, reinforces and strengthens students’ ability to accurately illustrate their nature notes, making it possible to draw the things that scurry away quickly, or were only able to be observed for a short time. I would encourage all my readers to read this informative and inspiring article and begin to implement memory drawings as an instrumental practice, rooted on true philosophical principles. I know there will be bountiful fruit, not just in the area of drawing, but because of the interwoven and interdisciplinary nature of a Charlotte Mason curriculum, in other subjects as well, most particularly their increased appreciation and understanding of God’s Creation.
For further information on the practices of Drawing and Nature-Notebooks in the P.N.E.U. readers may enjoy listening to Episode 98: Drawing and Episode 111: Notebooks and Paperwork, Part I of A Delectable Education Podcast, which will be released on Friday, 2 February 2018.
© 2018 by Emily Kiser