Monday, August 23, 2010

Observe! You Budding Artists

At the art school at the University of Washington I was exposed to a number of training practices that, in retrospect, weren't very useful. Check that: even at the time I had my doubts, but was too naïve and trusting to fully realize that I was being shortchanged.

I'll provide more details in future posts, but for now will deal with the matter of viewing subjects. When presented with a still life setup or human model or whatever, an instructor would often tell us to "observe" or "see."

Just what we were supposed to observe was seldom made clear. They did teach us to hold a paintbrush handle between us and the subject, arm stiff, to measure or compare dimensions of what we were painting. And that's about all the "observing" I could manage given my state of ignorance.

The problem that cropped up again and again in many of my art school classes was that the faculty was collectively afraid to actually teach us much of anything in fear of destroying our precious creativity. Or maybe it was art school policy. I don't know for sure, but those were the vibrations I absorbed; lord knows we got little actual instruction.

Many years later, I'm beginning to understand what they were talking about -- at least in the case of drawing or painting a human likeness. Provided an artist knows the shapes and proportions for the expected or average case, then, when he studies a subject, he can compare what he sees with the norm. That is, he might notice that the distance from the bottom of the nose to the chin tends large or small and the eyes are narrower or wider-set than expected.

Clearly such observations can be made by fledgling, under-trained art students such as I was. But the process of observing becomes faster and more sure when looking for variations about a norm rather than trying to figure things out from scratch.

Another example might be rules-of-thumb dealing with light and shade. These hold that, in most cases, warm light results in a cool (blue tinted) shadow and cool light produces warm (i.e., with touches of brown, purple, etc.) shadows. I was never taught these rules. If I had, then I might have been better able to "observe" my subject and decide whether or not the rules held in that instance. Put another way, why were we supposed to discover such things on our own? I didn't "discover" this information until I read in in books -- and might never have.

What, then, was the point of having an art faculty to "teach" us if they would not teach?


Anonymous said...

A thought provoking posting!

Don, I think art classis are the necessary boring part of the job which you go through to learn the trade. You have paid for them, you have got friends there, are a member of a group etc, etc .. so you stay. Many would stop if left alone. It's hard work even to learn to draw adequatly and there is so much more!
Ok, classes can be a mess and you feel bad about many of the teachers and you often feel you are waisting your time ... but you ARE drawing or painting or something so one day the professor can come and look at your work and he may be says it's nice, he then takes a peep towards the model, grabs a chalk and draws a line on your canvas. The spine.

It's magic! There it is! Now, suddenly, you understand. The build-up, the movement, you find key to this living person and there is more to come, a continuation!
Now you 'see'.

That's what happened to me. So, I therefore think faculties are worth their while, even the bad ones.

'Seeing', It can't be taugt, really. It just happens if you are lucky. But once the eye-opening moment has come it will come again and will be yours up to your old senile days. I hope :)

But you are right, Donald when you write about the faculties which are 'collectively afraid of ... destroying our precious creativity'. One does see this everywhere, oh dear! What they should do is to provoke our thinking and senses and give their hand in technical matters but ..

These are old tears and won't lead anywhere, already
Chardin spoke ageinst Academies so may be it'stime for me to go and take eyemedicin so I'l 'see' better tomorrow.

I have followed your postings, Don for a couple of years now. I like much of them and wish only that my English were at higher level so I could better take part in conversations, but such is life.

Greetings from Finland,

Donald Pittenger said...

Hannu -- Your English is serviceable enough for commenting, so don't be shy about contributing. I spent a few days in Helsinki a few years ago and never attempted so much as ordering coffee in Finnish. No problem: many Finns speak English quite decently, so I got by fine.

I agree that some instruction is better than none. And the teachers did provide "crits" that offered things to mull over afterward.

But I think that it would have done no harm at all -- even with respect to creativity -- for them to have given us conceptual tools that took centuries to evolve. I'm thinking of the Isaac Newton quotation about "standing on the shoulders of giants." It can apply to art as well as physics, say I.

Anonymous said...

Hello Donald, thanks for the log writings. I have become quite interewsted in making art again after a 20 year hiatus. I have wondered a bit of perhaps attending and "Art School" and have pretty much decided against it as I am in fear that it will serve better to annoy me then to apprentice me in the craft. (I am in my late 30's so I am not so easily entertained as the general undergrad crowd) I have a great friend who used to be part of the L.A. art world, mostly post-mod galley variety. He has related to me that the best "valuable" parts of art schooling are the connections one might make and leaning the names in order to be dropped later on etc. In that I attend several times a year the student shows at the prestigious Maryland Institute College of Art (I live in same neighborhood) I observe mostly a display of the conceptual rather than meaningful representation of proficiency in any given field. Oil paints on their own conform to certain chemical processes/reactions and it isn't lost on me that nearly all the actual paintings I have seen there are acrylic! I understand the why...why not use poster paint as that would be even lower brow and possible more creative. I have concluded that my future would lye in/with an atelier school rather than an institution.
As a note to further what you stated about learning of norms. I only learned from a book printed in 60's a good explanation of negative space having much importance as it is in many cases a tool used to bring unity to a scene etc. Our brains search for unity and the negative provides...this is yet another case of why the term "seeing" has almost no meaning as the artist/teacher either will not describe the underlying principle or doesn't know themselves. I do not know which is more likely but I will not be investing up to 10K a year to find out. I have gotten more from Harold Speeds Materials and Techniques book and Carlson on Landscape then I have from most any book published within the last 20 years.

I ramble but thanks again for an intelligent sharing of your experiences and thoughts on the matter.