Tales from the Art Side Art Blog
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This is a popular phrase that, no doubt, everyone has heard casually tossed around in conversations of various topics. However, its application to the subject of teaching kids art might seem less obvious. In fact, to be of any use in an aesthetic debate, I propose this statement needs to be reorganized. I suggest that, artistically speaking, the sum of its parts are greater than the whole. Or perhaps more succinctly, the whole is great because of the sum of its parts.
Before I pontificate myself into a philosophical quagmire, allow me to try and develop something that resembles a point. Much of what makes a piece of art great are the smaller details within the work, rather than the image as a whole. A delicate curve, a slight texture, a faint modulation of color; it is these subtleties that resonate with us and eventually become ingredients for intrigue and fascination. The fine points of a work are what often garner the greatest attention and elicit the most speculation. (i.e. Mona Lisa's smile) We fall in love with those modest elements cleverly positioned to beckon our eye. These little things are what make a work of art truly inspiring; the minutia becomes our muse.
Although there must certainly be consistency within a work to unify the image as a whole, I've become increasingly convinced that it is the little things that make a piece exemplary. This is a fact of which I'm constantly reminded when helping my students learn to see. When students are working on observational drawings, be it self-portrait, still life, or an architectural rendering, it is the small details that really capture that particular subject. To sketch out the basic appearance of an object is not exceptionally difficult, when equipped some basic drawing skills. However, to create an image that not only resembles an object, but really "feels" like it, requires a more disciplined level of attention. And what should be the focus of this increased concentration? The little things.
This is precisely the reasoning behind activities like blind contour drawing. It not only helps foster cooperation between the eye and the hand, but more importantly, it encourages the drawer to really notice every tiny crease, crevice, crook and cranny that comprises an object. Never is this consideration for detail more imperative than in the much feared self-portrait. It is one thing to draw two eyes, a nose, and mouth. It is an entirely different matter to arrange those facial features in such a way so as to result in one's likeness. Time and time again, I am amazed by students' drawings which bear only a slight resemblance to themselves, and then after nudging one feature a quarter of an inch, they are suddenly looking in a mirror. This is the power of the little things.
I usually teach multiple sections of the same class, and so when a new assignment is turned in, I can receive upwards of eighty variations on a theme. I am still struck though by the trends and commonalities that inevitably appear amongst such a range of projects. Many of the projects look so similar because the students have not climbed past the first rung on the creative ladder. However, there are certainly stand-out projects; artworks that jump out of the crowd and command attention. In fact, this is one of the challenges that I present to the students. How will they ensure their efforts get noticed amidst the flood of other attempts? More often than not, the recipe for success is a healthy smattering of little things, a collection of curious intricacies. The humble voices of these diminutive details can speak with an unexpected volume and clarity.
As is often the case, the concepts I'm teaching in the classroom are the same lessons I am learning to more fully appreciate as a result of my educational efforts. Part of that appreciation is recognizing the numerous parallels between art and life. What makes for great art often makes for great living. And when I think of some of the happiest experiences in my life, it's very much like recalling some of my favorite works of art. Initially I recount the experience as a whole, my wedding day, the birth of my children, etc. But very quickly I find that what I truly hold dear about those experiences are the little things: the way my wife sang her wedding vows to me, the first time I heard my daughter cry, or my son's tiny fingers curling around my own minutes after being born. These are the subtle details in the composition of life, and we are surrounded by them every single day. All it takes is just a little disciplined attention to fully appreciate them and not let any of the little things pass us by.