The Penn State University Sheild
open the search bar
Open the menu

The Art of Drawing and the Art of Online Studio Course Development

Printer-friendly version Share
Lori Levan gives a demonstration

Like the art of drawing itself, Art 020: Introduction to Drawing, a fully online general education course, has taken time to perfect. The Office of Digital Learning first offered the course online in 2007, but recently completed an extensive revision resulting in an essentially all-new course, which is successfully piloting this summer. 

The new ART 020 consists of five modules that lead the student from creating simple, straightforward sketches using familiar media, to increasingly sophisticated drawings, using unfamiliar media like ink and charcoal. Fostering essential skills, such as observation, composition, mark making, layering, ability to use a wide range of media, and continuous reflection on the process and artwork, is the hallmark of ART 020’s instructional approach.

Developing a studio course online requires patience to face the challenges of translating the mechanical and physical elements of studio as well as transferring the one-on-one time with faculty to an online environment. Lori Levan, course instructor, Bill Rose, assistant director of instructional design, and Anna Divinsky, lead faculty of the Digital Arts Certificate (DAC), spent countless hours working toward this goal and are delighted with the results.

course footage of materials

“I am quite proud of what we achieved,” said Rose. “The course goals are fully congruent with every activity and assignment, and the assessment approach we took provides students with very specific feedback for improvement. The focus, scope, and organization of the course are clear and tight, well-aimed at a general education student. But what makes this course work so well online are the video demonstrations that Lori Levan and Cody Goddard [multimedia specialist] produced. The guidance is just tremendous.”

While the modules are unique, the core of the instructional approach remains constant. Every module uses a three-phased approach to learning: Sketch and Reflect, Experiment and Technique, and Bringing it all Together. As Rose explained, the goal is to make learning the concepts easier by initially separating the application of technique from the creative process, then bringing them back together.

Sketch and Reflect, the first activity, requires students to draw from observation, relating the concepts to something concrete in their immediate environment. In the reflection part of the exercise, the part Levan considers the “biggest breakthrough,” students write about their work. By learning something about their design and thought processes, she is able to provide better feedback. Her goal is to make assignments relevant to the students’ everyday lives, while helping them see the world in new ways.

“Observational drawing and storytelling became an important part of the course,” explained Levan, who asked her students to use their phone cameras for a scavenger hunt to find different types of marks, look at the environment through a viewfinder, and discuss different points of view.

a demonstration by Lori Levan

Experiment and Technique is considered “the messy part of the module,” during which students are asked to use various materials and tools in specific ways that will help them to understand what those materials and tools can do. Not only are students building confidence in what they are doing, but they are also developing critical thinking skills that will help them to make creative decisions throughout the course. Levan also makes the connection between drawing and mark making (marks being the physical elements that make up a drawing), asking the students ‘what kind of marks will you use?’ She stresses that making marks is not “a random activity, but a focused and mindful action that affects everything one does when making a drawing.”

“There is a lot to learn about the materials, and I offer them a process of discovery through guided experimentation,” said Levan. “I ask the students a lot of questions throughout the assignments so that they are prompted to think about what they are doing at every stage. Once they understand the materials, they can link what they learn to concepts that have to do with actually creating a drawing – such as composition, point of view, and fooling the eye.”

Bringing It All Together is the comprehensive part of the module. Students combine skills from the previous two segments to display their grasp of the concepts of drawing. Themes and concepts connect the assignments, and in turn, the assignments reinforce the themes and concepts. Another way in which Levan brings it all together is through her teaching methodology. She includes diverse examples of artists’ work from different time periods and styles and assigns a textbook about contemporary drawing, written by a woman artist and teacher. The next step is creating a gallery of students’ work from the course to share with the class.  

Technology plays a major role in the effectiveness of Art 020, particularly the transition to Canvas, the learning management system. The interactive nature of Canvas’ SpeedGrader gradebook allows faculty to give better feedback and support to help students improve their work. In a studio course, where the instructor is reviewing images of the students’ work (rather than the physical objects), the interactive tools allows the instructor to comment and draw directly onto the documents that the students submit. Canvas also provides immediate and direct options for communication with the students and opportunities for customizing the course design.

Lori Levan teaching class

Levan emphasizes that even though she is the author of this course revision, completing it was a team effort, citing Cody Goddard’s work providing video and still images for the course as well as Bill Rose and Anna Divinsky’s helpful feedback, critical observations, and direct suggestions. According to Divinsky, the course will also provide the Digital Arts Certificate (DAC) students with a fresh and innovative introduction to drawing.

“The additional hands-on experience and conceptual knowledge will help them with strengthening their visual literacy as they continue evolving their skills in the program,” Divinsky notes. “Furthermore, the acquired understanding of drawing techniques will be useful in other DAC courses and ultimately with the design of the final capstone portfolio. Drawing is a necessary foundation for digital art courses and it is crucial for DAC learners to experience this new and exciting part of the program.”

Levan said students considering taking Art 020 should remember that the first step to learning about drawing is trying, even if it seems daunting. She believes that everyone can learn something from the course no matter one’s experience level in drawing or art making. Because it is a general education course and all are welcome to register, Levan understands there will be a range of ages, backgrounds, and levels of experience among the students; however, she emphasizes that this is not a ‘how to’ course.

“I do not give the students formulas to follow in order to learn ‘how to’ draw a still life, a face, or a landscape,” she explains. “What I do want to give them are experiences that will lead them to figure out how to do those things on their own. I want them to have the basic tools that they will need to develop a drawing habit that will serve them well throughout their lives. I also want them to think about taking more classes if they want to learn new things.”

For more information about Art 020 and other online courses, visit: