Tales from the Art Side Art Blog
I had been waiting my entire career for the chance to teach a painting class and it wasn__™t until last year that I was finally presented the opportunity. The same was true for a colleague of mine, Cindy, who had been waiting for her chance even longer than me. Needless to say we went into the assignment with a great deal of enthusiasm and anticipation about how we would teach the course. I__™ve seen painting classes taught before that were very prescriptive in the projects that were required of the students. Each student, for example, might be expected to paint a still life, followed by a landscape, and then a self portrait. There is nothing inherently wrong with teaching a class in this manner; in fact, a majority of the classes I teach myself follow a curriculum of assigned projects. Painting, however, is such a versatile and expressive medium that it seems to be a missed opportunity to not allow the students a little latitude in deciding what they will paint. By extending a little creative freedom to the students it creates another incredibly valuable prospect; the chance to teach them to think like an artist.
When Cindy and I began discussing how we wanted to restructure the painting curriculum, this was an idea we both agreed upon right from the start. Both of us are painters ourselves, so there is an obvious bias for paint, but that also means that we have a greater understanding of the expressive range of the medium. This is an attribute of paint that we both considered to be of vital importance to educate the students about. To effectively introduce the expressive qualities of painting to the students it is essential that the students have the freedom to decide what it is they want to express. Placing a pile of dusty, old still life junk in front of the students and asking them to paint it expressively would be an unrealistic request. These random artifacts would offer nothing for the students to personally relate to, and thus nothing of consequence to express, other than depicting the general appearance of the objects.
We knew, or course, that we could not simply open the creative floodgates and tell a room full of teenagers to paint whatever they wanted. That would be bad. We did, however, want to offer the students as much creative leeway as possible while still retaining enough control ourselves to be able to filter out inappropriate or trite imagery. We decided that the best approach would be to generate an intentionally vague list of possible topics the students could interpret and explore from the context of their own personal experience. By being allowed to select their own subject matter, it greatly increases the probability that the students will discover a theme with which they can relate. This, in turn, makes it all the more likely that they will be intrinsically driven to do their best work and really engage the painting.
This freedom, however, does not come without a price. In exchange for this aesthetic free will the students must pledge to us that they will complete one important task prior to beginning their work; they must promise to think. We want them to think about what it is they're going to paint. We want them to think about how they're going to compose their chosen subject. And we want them to think about why it is they are addressing this topic in the first place. All this thinking must also be well documented; we__™re not simply going to take their word for it that they__™ve got it all figured out. (I fell for that one in my first few years of teaching!) This is where their sketchbooks come into play.
Sketchbooks are an essential component in our painting classes; they are the driving force in our students__™ creative process, steering all the decision making that must go into each work. Prior to each new painting every student is expected to develop an idea of what their next subject will address. We encourage them to write in their sketchbooks and discuss the motivation behind their topic as well as analyzing the key elements that will appear in the composition. We advise them to do some brief research if the topic is one with which they are not readily familiar, the notes from these investigations should also be collected in their sketchbook. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the actual arrangement of the composition itself. I frequently tell my students that our first ideas are rarely our best ideas and they should not simply paint the first thing that falls out of their head and lands on the paper. Great visual arrangements are like great musical arrangements; they require patience, finesse, and careful consideration.
The most reliable formula for creating a strong composition is simply producing multiple drafts of an idea and then combining the most successful versions. Thus, the students are expected to sketch several variations of their composition before deciding on the arrangement for the final painting. I will often demonstrate this notion by bringing in one of my finished works and sharing with them the pages in my own sketchbook that developed the idea. This allows them to not only see the sequence of the creative process and track the evolution of an idea, but it lets them identify with the fact that this is how artists really work and not simply something we__™re requiring them to do.
It must also be noted that simply assigning students to keep a sketchbook will not produce the desired results. The development of these sketchbooks must be closely monitored and the continued use of them will require constant encouragement and insistence. I will often remind my students that I__™m not only trying to help them develop better ideas, which lead to better paintings; but I__™m also trying to instill a habit in their creative process. My ultimate hope would be that if they continued exploring art outside of my class that a sketchbook would be vital part of their work.
Once the students have spent a few days developing their ideas in their sketchbooks we will usually spend a class period in one of our school__™s computer labs. This allows the students the opportunity to gather reference images, find examples of similar artwork, and complete any extra research on the idea in general. While I do not condone simply copying a photograph for a composition, (that__™s another blog) I do certainly concede that students will need images to refer to in order to depict them accurately. If, for example, a student was painting beach seascape they might need a picture of a palm tree to reference for accuracy.Throughout the entire planning process I float around the room talking with each student about their ideas, prodding them to explore their selections more thoroughly, and coaxing them to think more deeply about what they__™re doing. It continues to surprise me that if I don__™t remain vigilant on talking with students about what they are doing how quickly they will relapse into thoughtless creation. Without the proper encouragement, a majority of students will swiftly fill a canvas full of paint without any regard for what they__™re doing or why.
It is also essential that my assistance in their thinking be delegated very carefully, lest I begin planting too many seeds and the idea becomes mine instead of theirs. This is a dangerous snare for many art teachers, we get excited about what a student is doing and we begin telling them how ___we___ would handle the idea. This is a terrible disservice to students because it superimposes our own thinking onto theirs. Many times a student will feel obligated, out of obedience, to follow our suggestions. Or worse yet, the student becomes dependent on needing the teacher__™s ideas in order to be able to create works of any substance. This is perhaps the most detrimental because it produces student artists with great talent who have no idea of what to do with it. In order to help myself avoid this pitfall, I try to keep all my advice in the form of a question, thus returning the burden of thought back in between the student__™s ears where it belongs. I feel strongly enough about this that I would rather see a student create an average looking painting that clearly expresses their own idea, than a beautiful painting of my idea. Just as it is essential that the work be done by the student, so too, must the thinking.
Ultimately, the goal of retraining a student__™s way of thinking is challenging task for a great many reasons. I believe, however, that the effort is worthwhile because of the overwhelming benefits of an expanded perception of the world around us, and the ability to communicate that unique view. And at the end of the day, that is what art is all about: communication. I want students to realize that no matter what medium they are working with, all the decisions they make during the production of a work have the potential to communicate to the viewers. They have a rare opportunity to express something about themselves, to convey a feeling, or share a memory. Granted, it can be difficult deciding what it is they want to say, and certainly it is challenging to find the best way to say it. However, all this can be made much easier once they begin the rather enjoyable process of thinking like an artist.