Tales from the Art Side Art Blog
CONTINUING THE ADVENTURES OF TEACHING KIDS ART!In my last post I introduced the importance of trying to teach my students, especially those in drawing, that before they can really begin to improve their abilities, they must first learn to see. Convincing teenagers, a species that is inherently omniscient, that they don__™t really know how to see can be, at times, a humorous endeavor. And oddly enough, one of the most valuable instructional tools I have to help facilitate this task is an empty bulletin board; its moniker emblazoned on the sign above it: 10 Foot Test.
Unlike the other bulletin boards in my room which proudly display the latest student creations, this board is devoid of any artwork. This bulletin board is intentionally left blank because instead of being an apparatus for exhibition, it is a device for focusing student reflection. It is a tool to encourage the downtrodden, to inspire the uncertain, and to redirect the prematurely completed. It is my first line of defense against the most prevalent and insidious of questions an art teacher must face, ___Am I done yet?___
The 10 Foot Test is an activity I promote countless times each and everyday, whereby students hang projects on said bulletin board and then stand back ten feet and reflect upon their work. Whenever possible I will join a student during a 10 Foot Test and probe them with specific questions. What do you notice first? What is your favorite part? What is your least favorite part? What, specifically, do you not like about it? By taking a moment to put some distance between themselves and their work, students gain valuable insight into the decision making process that most artists go through internally.
I have found over time that the 10 Foot Test can be an effective motivator in a variety of situations. Very often students who are feeling discouraged about the direction of their work are quite surprised to find it doesn__™t look nearly as bad as they thought. Or students who aren__™t so sure what they should develop next will regularly find the answer is as clear as day from a distance. It can also be a very subtle way to humble the overly prideful student whose meticulous efforts are reduced to gray blobs at 10 feet.
One of my favorite analogies I like to share with students when they are engaged in a 10 Foot Test is that great art is like a cartoon pie. (Just go with me a minute here!) Think of any number of cartoons in which the iconic freshly baked pie has just been placed in an open window to cool. The waves of aroma slowly glide into the open air until they find an unsuspecting passerby and gently caress his nostrils. As if in a trance, the hapless victim is drawn inexorably closer to the source of the enticing fragrance.
We should strive for our artwork to have the same effect on our audience. Because most artwork is initially seen from a distance it is crucial that the work be immediately compelling. Like the sweet scent of the pie, our work should instantly captivate the viewer. It should grab them by the face and pull them ever closer to the piece. And as they are led involuntarily to the work, there should be more aesthetic discoveries awaiting them as they draw nearer. However, we will never know if our work is meeting this criteria if we do not, ourselves, take the time to step back and assess our progress.
I find, like with many of the habits I try to ingrain into my students, this activity first requires extensive nagging. And it is not without the requisite amount of whining and overly dramatic sighs that students will hang their drawings on the board for the fifth or sixth time. However, there are those rare and cherished instances when I will observe a student perform repeated tests without any prompting. Or I will come stand by a student reflecting on their drawing and they ask and answer their own questions without me saying a word. Ironically, these are the times I feel most effective as an educator.
It has occurred to me numerous times while a student and I stand and evaluate their progress, that this activity is not about learning to see just to draw better. In a very real way this can be an exercise that is about learning to see in order to live better. In this life we find ourselves in a myriad of unpredictable situations, and many of them can often be improved with a little patience and perspective. Hindsight may always be 20/20, but I submit to you that a bit of foresight, and a span of 10 feet, can help us all see things a little clearer.