This guide for building effective visual arts lessons is based on the Getty Museum Education department's approach to curricula, which is informed by national and California state content standards and current child development theory. We support classroom experiences that encourage students in all grades to:

  • create art and reflect upon what they have made.
  • seek and construct meaning through encounters with art.
  • create narratives about artworks.
  • understand the historical and cultural contexts of works of art.
  • discover the significance and value of art in their lives.

The Grade-by-Grade Guide also provides suggestions for students at different skill levels based on child development theory. On those pages you'll find ideas for art production, incorporating language arts into lessons, and assessment.

Building a Visual Arts Lesson

Step 1: Generate Learning Objectives
First generate the learning objectives, or goals, for your lesson. The more specific each objective is, the better. Each objective should describe a specific skill, map to a specific activity in the lesson, be measurable, and support one or more state or national standards. Set only two or three objectives for each lesson to keep students focused and reinforce skills.

Step 2: Identify Activities to Support Your Goals
Identify an activity or two that will teach the skills and concepts required to meet your objectives. Use the Grade-by-Grade Guide to find ideas and activities for your students' grade level.

1) Learning Objective: Students identify the elements of art in a painting.

Activity: Students work in pairs to chart different types of lines (thin, thick, smooth, broken, etc.), colors (warm, cool, primary, secondary, bright, subdued, etc.), and other elements of art they see in a specific work of art. You can teach this in the same way you might teach the parts of speech, for example by having students chart nouns or adjectives in a sentence.

2) Learning Objective: Students research the life and work of an artist and speculate about his or her artistic intention in a given work.

Activity: Students read information about the artist's history and look at other works of art by the same artist. They use the information they learn from this research to speculate about why the artist used certain elements and imagery. For example, student research about Monet's painting Wheatstacks, Snow Effect, Morning will reveal that the work is part of a series depicting the same subject at different times of year and day. This information helps students speculate about the artist's choice of color and line and use of light in this painting.

Step 3: Determine Assessment Criteria
Develop criteria that will help you know whether your students have achieved the learning objectives. Each assessment criterion should describe the results you expect from a student who has achieved the objective. The assessment criteria should be easily measurable.

1) Learning Objective: Students identify the elements of art in a particular painting.

Assessment: Students can verbally point out and name one example of each of the elements of art in a single work of art. A rubric will help you to measure student success. For example: Students who can name one example of all elements of art have excellent understanding. Students who can find examples of 3–4 of the elements have sufficient understanding. Students who can only find 1 or 2 examples need more practice!

2) Learning Objective: Students research the life and work of an artist and speculate about his or her artistic intention in a given work.

Assessment: Students can formulate a theory about why a single element or image is included in a work of art and support their theory either with information from the artist's biography, or information found in other works of art by the same artist.

Step 4: Write Lesson Steps
Fill in the details of the lesson steps that will teach the skills. You now know exactly what your goals (learning objectives) are for the lesson and what kind of outcome you'll be expecting from your students' work (assessment criteria).


The following resources were consulted for the creation of this guide.

Grinder, Alison L. and E. Sue McCoy. The Good Guide: A Sourcebook for Interpreters, Docents, and Tour Guides. Tucson, AZ: Ironwood Press, 1985.

Henry, Carole, ed. Middle School Art: Issues of Curriculum and Instruction. Reston, VA: National Art Education Association, 1996.

Herberholz, Barbara and Lee C. Hanson. Early Childhood Art. 5th ed. Boston, MA: McGraw Hill, 1995.

Linderman, Marlene Gharbo. Art in the Elementary School: Drawing, Painting, and Creating for the Classroom. 5th ed. Dubuque, IA: Brown & Benchmark, 1997.