Here at the National Gallery of Ireland, we believe that our collection should be accessible to everyone, and we aim to provide a public programme that is inclusive and accessible to all of our audiences.
As part of this wider access programme, we have been providing free, facilitator-led dementia-inclusive sessions on site at the Gallery and in the community over the last five years. This in-home resource is a new project to enable people with dementia and carers to enjoy art within their own home.
What's in this resource
This new resource has been designed as an aid for the carer/ health professional to assume the role of facilitator. On this page, you will find advice on how to conduct a discussion and art-making session in the comfort of your own home. We have also prepared other selections of artworks for you to discuss, with related practical activities:
What will we be doing?
The session involves two activities: a discussion, followed by a practical art session that focuses on one artwork
Is this for individuals or groups?
The sessions are suitable for individuals and small groups. If you are working with groups, we would advise limiting the number of participants. Our maximum capacity for our onsite activities, for example, is eight people. A small group helps to maintain an informal atmosphere and makes it easier for the facilitator to bring all participants into the conversation. Keeping the group small is also an advantage during the practical art activity when it will be necessary to spend one-on-one time with each participant to provide support and encouragement.
Do we need to know about art before we start?
No! This resource is designed to help everyone look at and enjoy art. Everyone’s opinion is valid and nobody needs to be an expert!
What will we need?
The session should take place in a quiet space with minimum distractions. You'll need a screen to display the artwork - if you are working with a group, a larger TV screen would be best, but if you're working with just one person, a computer screen will be ideal. For the second part of the session ( the practical art activity) you will need a table and some basic art materials like paints, brushes and paper.
Activity 1: The Discussion
Teasing out observations
Put very simply, this conversational session involves looking at an image of an artwork from the Gallery’s collection and having an informal chat about it. The emphasis is on teasing out observations from the participants rather than bombarding them with facts. You don’t have to be an expert on art to explore an artwork and express a view. Every observation made by the participant is valid and can be fed into the wider discussion. Art may be an intimidating subject for some, so it helps to create a relaxed atmosphere from the beginning. Laughter often facilitates engagement, so if you can, try to use humour when introducing the session.
Ask short, leading questions
During the discussion, the facilitator should avoid lengthy explanations as this can lead to comprehension and attention difficulties. The facilitator's role is that of a moderator who keeps the discussion alive by asking short, leading questions and gently guides the conversation back to topic if necessary. For each artwork, we have listed a number of key facts to help support the discussion. This information can be used to prompt further conversation or to validate what someone has said. You can also use the information as a way of taking the conversation further or in a new direction. For example, “This artist was famous for painting outdoors. Have you ever seen an artist paint outside’?” But be careful not to shut down discussion!
We suggest breaking the discussion up into the following steps:
Ask the participants to sit and look at the painting on the screen before you begin an open discussion about it.
Asking questions is a great way to encourage and support conversation that will describe the artwork. A good icebreaker question is simply: "What do you see?’’. You can follow up with questions like, “What makes you say that?’’. Here you are gathering an inventory of what is visible in the artwork. Be prepared for responses that are interpretive rather than descriptive, and guide people back to describing what they see.
Move on from just describing all of the elements to an interpretation of what the participants have named. The facilitator’s job is to reflect back what has been said and to keep encouraging the discussion (e.g. “What does that mean to you?” “What do you mean by that?”).
Continue with deeper questions: “Say more about that?” etc. You are connecting with, and relating to, the participant’s life.
Click on one of the options below to start discussing a selection of artworks.
Activity 2: Practical Work
Creative activities can be very therapeutic, especially when you lose yourself in the process of making an artwork. It is the same feeling that we get when we read a good book or hear a beautiful piece of music. At the Gallery, we believe in the ‘’head, hand, heart model’’ of learning. The hands-on experience of doing something creative after spending time looking closely at and talking about an artwork allows participants to tap into their creativity.
Choosing a material
There are many ways that a participant can create art, through painting, drawing, sculpture or photography. For people with limited dexterity, modelling clay is often a great option as it has the advantage of being malleable and tactile. However, there is something very special about painting. The act of putting paint to paper is very satisfying on a sensory level and can yield immediate results, and for these reasons we recommend staring out with painting for this practical part of the workshop.
The most important thing during this activity is that the participant is applying paint to the paper or canvas. You can encourage participants by suggesting that the simply "make a mark’’ rather than try to copy the artwork you've been discussing The aim is not to recreate the artwork, but to use it as a jumping-off point. Some people will look at the pristine blank sheet of paper with anxiety, afraid to mark it. Others will start painting straight away. Like the discussion session, the art activity is not a classroom situation. The facilitator’s role is not to give tips but rather to encourage engagement. The aim is to have an experience in the moment rather than create a masterpiece!
Tips for getting the session started
Getting participants started on the activity can be the most challenging part of the exercise. Here are a few tips on getting a painting session under way:
Have all the materials ready and laid out invitingly. You don’t have to splash out on the finest artist quality supplies, but try to get the best quality you can afford. Materials like brushes, paper and paint are available in discount shops as well as art supply stores. If possible, use acrylic paint, as it dries quickly and produces a nice result.
You can announce that you are going to paint a landscape and ask all the participants to put their brushes into the blue paint and create the sky using the blue. The first mark has been made and can act as the compulsion to keep at it. You should seek to incorporate some of the ideas that were spoken about during the discussion, by suggesting certain elements, like trees or boats, but the most important part is to let them be free.
Some participants will say that they can’t paint and will refuse to partake. Very often, this is due to embarrassment about what the outcome might be. Assure the participant that the exercise is about enjoying the process of painting and that their work won’t be subject to critique at the end. Be very encouraging – use phrases like “Give it a try and see what happens”. Remind them that they have two sheets of paper and that one of the sheets can be used to make a warm-up painting. It might be necessary to start the participant off by, for example, painting a tree and then encouraging them to add the leaves. Make sure to have extra paper available.
Take a break:
It’s good to take breaks: it allows participants to relax and it’s an opportunity for the facilitator to gauge how the group as a whole are doing with the exercise. The facilitator can ask questions like, “Is everyone enjoying the activity?” or, “Does anyone want to talk about how they’re doing?’’. This gives the facilitator an opportunity to refer to points made in the earlier discussion. Again, it’s important not to be too regimented; announcing a break doesn’t mean everybody has to stop and if some participants are in a state of flow with the artwork, let them continue.
This session should last approximately 20 minutes, however the facilitator’s intuition should be used to bring the activity to its natural conclusion. You can use phrases like, “Everybody is doing great; we’ll finish up now shortly”. You can finish the session with a question like, “Did everybody enjoy the activity?”. You could also ask if anybody would like to volunteer to speak about or show their work.
Everybody has their own personal responses to artworks. Some people are drawn to the colours, some to the subject matter, and others to the composition. Creating an activity that explores these responses in an informal environment is key to the success of the session. Although the person in your care who lives with dementia might not be able to remember everything about the artwork you’ve been looking at, they can still enjoy having taken part in a pleasurable and creative experience.
ZOOM sessions and PDFs
If you have the means to use digital platforms like ZOOM, we can arrange for a member of our team to take part in the session. We are also available to answer any of your questions about this activity.
Contact Caomhán Mac Con Iomaire in our Education Department. T: 01 6633507 | E [email protected]
If you'd prefer to download and print out these in-home resources, you can access the PDFs below:
You might also like:
Observation and discussion-based workshops in the Gallery.
Mindfulness and Art: Rooftops in Paris
Look closely at Van Gogh's painting.
Special Projects: Education and Learning
Find out more about the artist residencies, music collaborations
George Wallace: Reflections on Life
19 June – 29 August 2021