The Problem With Austin’s Butterfly



Ron Berger’s famous ‘Austin’s Butterfly’ is a great lesson about how redrafting and feedback can help a child create a more accurate ‘scientific’ drawing of a butterfly. In the context of the task picture six is clearly the ‘best’ depiction of the butterfly.

If one removes the context and no longer looks for accuracy and, instead, tries to judge the drawing on its own merits – art for its own sake, which drawings are the ‘best’? I would argue that, artistically, one and four are the ‘best’.

How about these three Turner’s, which is ‘the best’?



In terms of ‘accuracy’ maybe the first one, but the third, of a fire at the Tower of London, in 1841, a watercolour ‘sketch’, has an immediacy of response that might represent a different sort of ‘accuracy’, that of the artist responding to a moment in time in a way that captures something of the event beyond an accurate depiction of it. In fact, for many years, this was thought to be a painting of the fire in 1834 at the Houses of Parliament, does this mean the picture is not as good as it should be? Well, it was only a sketch but it did help Turner in developing his Art. This, from 1844, is a finished work:


The art teacher has to rely on knowledge and intuition to decide what is ‘best’, sometimes this is not so easy, especially in a lesson where Austin has already drawn the best butterfly in the first five minutes.

Paul McCartney ‘dreamt’ Yesterday, and remembered it the next morning, quickly working out the right chords, but always thinking in the back of his mind that somebody else must have written it and he remembered it because it came to him so easily. Had a teacher overworked the tune with my ‘imaginary Paul as a music pupil’ who had come up with that tune – saying it needs redrafting, it might have ruined the tune. A lesson which has a given amount of time is often too short for work to be completed. Sometimes it is too long. What to do with those minutes if a child has already created a great piece?

Well, Paul, had to work on the lyrics, ‘scrambled eggs’ was not as good as ‘yesterday’…

But arts teachers need to think what happens if a pupil comes up with perfection straight away? I mustn’t ruin it and I need to feed their aesthetic judgement and taste to ‘know’ when good is good. How do we teach a child to ‘know’ when something is good…

And not, merely, accurate?


11 thoughts on “The Problem With Austin’s Butterfly

  1. The real problem with Austin’s butterfly, apart from its woeful gear ratio, chronic oversteer and miserly top speed of 88mph, is the false dichotomy that either everything or nothing should be done this way. Since Turner, to the best of my knowledge, wasn’t trying to paint anatomically accurate pictures of butterflies (or if he was the examples you provide are woeful) then the Austin approach wouldn’t be appropriate.
    That said I have always imagined the poor lad sobbing, ‘Please just tell me what to do!’ And becoming a serial killer in later life, nicknamed ‘The lepidopterist’ by the FBI team, probably led by John Cussack, always just one step behind him.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Absolutely, as I said, this is about a different context, away from ‘accurate depictions’ into the art room away from the ‘scientific department depiction’ that was being asked for.


  2. A little like ‘knowing when to take away the painting’ from a young child experimenting with colour and mark making. Do it before it ‘gets muddy’! This is not creativity or natural ability or even learning to look. It’s colour by number. Mostly, it’s in the subjective eye of the beholder.


  3. Perfection in art is fairly subjective. In my subject though (science) there are objectively perfect responses. As a rule, students need high levels of guidance to get them


  4. But arts teachers need to think what happens if a pupil comes up with perfection straight away?

    Is this an actual problem?

    Even Turner couldn’t paint like that when he was a kid. I doubt many Art teachers get a young student who can draw or paint so well on a first try that it stands no improvement.

    Secondly if a rare talented student is very good at some particular skill, there’s always other skills to work on. I don’t spend hours working on the algebra of the boys who are good at algebra, I spend it improving their calculus.


  5. Actually, the purpose of the video is not about Austin at all, or even really about how well he can create a scientific illustration of a butterfly. It’s about the kids in the room talking about his work; it’s about teaching kids how to articulate helpful feedback.


  6. love this thank you, have felt the same and use these ideas in my teaching, the first drawing is using symbolic language, the last is using a different language , the value system is deeply probleamatic. I agree that this lesson is more useful in terms of the whole class participation than an actual art lesson


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