An Artist’s Work Process

Children work and think like artists as they imagine, experiment, problem-solve, collaborate, self-reflect, and revise.
Two proud students posing with their finished puppets. Two students engaged in the process of making torn paper backgrounds.

Teaching a Process

    Focus on Process

    At the core of the 3 Bridges model is a focus on the process artists use to grow and develop expression. The goal is not the artistic product, but the learning that occurs in the process. Teachers support learning by treating students as artists who are in charge of their own creative process, and observing how they work rather than evaluating the outcome.


What is the artistic process?

Artists find a seed idea to work on, and watch it grow and change as they make a myriad of choices in a medium: art materials, sound, gesture, movement, words. In the process they shift into their own imaginative working/thinking “flow”.

  • Student seated at her desk working intensely on her puppet face. She is adding tiny torn pieces of pink, red, brown and blue paper all over and densely to the top of the head and forehead above the eyebrows.
    Artistic Choice Making

    Artists discover their expression through a process of choice making. What they will make is unknown until they have finished it! They start with an inspiring idea (an evil monster) or artistic choice: (a movement, shape, sound, or phrase). As they explore that inspiration, an idea starts to form, but it is still vague and full of many possible pathways.

    Interactive and Evolving

    As they pursue a pathway of choices, other choices get ruled out and their expression gets more specific.  There are always many different directions they could choose and they keep moving between making artistic choices and reflective pauses to navigate their process.


    Every choice is an experiment: an artist doesn’t know if something is right unless they try it. This experiment requires exploration and play with tools to test ideas, risk mistakes and be curious. The most exciting choices often come from what an artist first perceives as a “big mistake”.

  • Two students standing at their table working together to choose the right size pieces of torn paper to glue to the puppet they are making.

    Reflection is crucial throughout art making, not just at the end. The artist’s process is a back and forth between intuitive choice making, and pausing to reflect.

  • Piece of white paper that has been folded into four quadrants, oriented vertically. In each quadrant is a different drawing of monster characters with sharp, gnashing teeth and lots of strong, dark, bold lines.
    Choicemaking is complex and multilayered

    An artist “feels” a choice is “right” or “wrong” based on a complex thought process they can’t immediately explain. As an artist interacts with their medium they make intuitive choices guided by imagination, experience, knowledge, unconscious and conscious intentions.


All artists work differently

Artists navigate the choice making process in extremely varied ways. Children rise to the challenges of higher order thinking and creating in a classroom that actively values the different ways individuals find ideas and work through them.

    “Many ways to work” explicit in classroom culture

    The culture of the artist classroom highlights variety and uniqueness: of the ideas children have, the ways they express their ideas, and their work process. It is crucial to teach explicitly that differences are valuable resources in the classroom, and that children can learn from the different ways people work and think.


    Varied Use of Time

    Having agency over how to use a period of time is key to students finding their own ways of working.
    Observation Tool

    Finding Process & Flow

    Learn to notice the different ways artists find their process and flow as they work through choice-making.
    Observation Tool

    Learning to Learn from Others

    Other people are a resource for artists when working, be it through collaboration, watching, or listening while working independently.
    Observation Tool

    Learning Through the Senses

    Engaging the senses is an essential way that children learn, though it is often not recognized in school.
    Learn more:
    Observation Tool
    Why highlight many different artistic perspectives?

    Students will be able to focus on new challenges with a sense of capacity, agency and confidence if using a work process that comes naturally to them that is recognized and valued by their teacher.  Watch this video to see classroom teacher Jessica Giler validate the variety of artistic choices that her first graders are making.


Role Change: Kids are in Charge

For students to learn to work and think like artists, teachers and students change roles. Students become artists in charge of their own work. Teachers let go of their role as holder of knowledge, and evaluator of success and failure.

  • Boy wearing a headdress mask on top of his head, in mid step, with his knee high in the air and hands in fists as he strides forward, focused, looking intently ahead.
    Shift of responsibility from teacher to child

    The shift from evaluation to observation changes the energy in the room. The student artist is responsible for all decisions about their artwork- its content and when it’s complete. The teacher models artistic thinking, asks questions that artists ask themselves to stay in process and supplies rich specific language to talk about students’ artistic choices.

  • Composite of two images: A student drawing his setting background with a red colored pencil. In the closeup of his work on the left, we see that he has drawn pools of blood in his setting.
    Choices about content

    Children can surprise us with their content choices. Artists need freedom to find their own connections between content, imagination and medium. When kids’ choices seem to you out of place, silly, or unsettling, meet their choices with acceptance and curiosity. You will support an authentic process that represents their own understanding and expression.

    Learn How
    Self-driven learning through play

    Children “drive their own learning in play in ways that can only be partially approximated in teacher structured activities.” Watch her students in action as Kindergarten teacher Kathy Anderson unpacks the experience of learning through play at the heart of an artist’s work process. Don’t miss the eloquent reflections by kids at the end of the video.


Emotions as Guides

  • Kindergartner admires the puppet head she made with a sad face and big eyelashes.
    Changing Emotions are intrinsic to the process

    Feelings of yes and no guide the artist as they make choices. At times, when artists’ feelings tell them “NO,” emotions such as frustration, disappointment or overwhelm can arise. Use Notice, Describe & Ask protocol to help artists deal with big feelings that naturally come while doing challenging work of all kinds.

    Learn how