Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Underbelly of Art

Or perhaps, more accurately, the underside of the leaf in this case.

Today's class was yet another jam-packed two and a half hours of non-stop fun: gave out the next assignment in advance of next week's two field trips to the UAF Museum of the North. Those'll be for the purpose of getting reference sketches for said assignment, and along with the handout we reviewed previous student's samples of spot illustrations.
Then it was on to an hour-long lecture: the official grand-slam introductory show & tell to Pen & Ink, which will rule their lives for the next month of the semester. Also included was a very quick demonstration on materials and technique using this year's Thanksgiving panel for the Nuggets feature that I just so happened to have ready.

A reoccurring theme in the presentation was (and will be throughout all next week) emphasizing exactly how to do reference sketching, i.e. taking "visual notes." By default most students by now seem to slip back into thinking that a piece of artwork just magically materializes before them 100% "as-is." Instead, I take the long way: methodical thumbnailing and roughs, light pencils before gradually building up more definitive marks far in advance of any actual ink being laid down. I think this approach helps to develop confidence and pre-planning which results in a much better finished product and eliminates many mistakes that a beginner would make. Some students are intimidated by pen & ink, it being a comparatively unforgiving medium to work with, others discover a creative catalyst. And as always, a reminder to begin ramping up the output - move into production mode!

Not coincidentally, down another couple students again this week: from a total of nineteen to now fourteen, just under the theoretical studio class size limit. Some have taken me at my word and reevaluated their course load after seriously underestimating the amount of time one should devote to this class in order to pass, let alone earn a high grade. The ratio of three hours of outside, independent effort for every one hour spent in the classroom translates into only thirteen hours or so per week, which doesn't seem like much at first but factored into a full-time class load + maybe a part-time job + what the hell, maybe even a life on the side = it piles up pretty quick. I'd add to this equation the simple observation many pieces that are turned in don't even come close to reflecting that many hours of invested energy.

"You don't get into the mood to create--it's discipline." - Twyla Tharp

Thus after a one-on-one critique (surprise format only decided on the day before) where I pulled students into another empty room to look at their piece, grade it on the spot, plus hand back any reworks together with the last assignment - we could quickly figure out what their standing was for a midterm grade. Five A's, four B's, three C's and a couple of D's - overall an above-average class ... so far. Quite a few teeter on the edge of attendance issues affecting their grade: one more and the axe begins to chop. Seeing as how this is only October, and Fairbanks just finally received snow, and sooner than later the subzero darkness will begin to affect day-today activities, it bodes ill for those who have already exhausted their emergency backup of "shit happens" days.
Speaking of shit happening, I was very glad to have an errant, now officially former student drop in after the class to clean out their drawer and touch base with me. There is a little pep talk I sometimes feel is right with particular students who bow out gracefully - and I feel they are owed the simple respect of a reminder that in no way should they take a withdrawl or even failure in this class as, well, a failure. By that I mean sometimes one just has to accept that perhaps this wasn't the right time for this class, or even in my own bittersweet experience, the right semester or the right year. Three steps forward/two steps back is okay enough in my book - at least you are maintaining trajectory towards an eventual goal. I'm grateful to have one last shot at reiterating the distinction between failing and being a failure, and for many folks, to strongly encourage them to keep at it, strange as it may seem to be coming from the same guy who strongly suggested they drop out (these mixed messages are one reason I don't have kids of my own).

"Art is not about thinking something up. It is the opposite -- getting something down." - Julia Cameron

And most definitely failing an art class has nothing to do whatsoever with determining the ultimate success of any artist. Let alone the fact that a significant percentage of accomplished artists have never ever even taken a class in their entire life. However, that said, there may be certain patterns that will play into an individuals career, such as basic skills, discipline, working habits and so on, which are powerfully predictive of the future.
All that and still one is left with a disappointment which isn't necessarily reflective of any failing on my part, in other words you learn to not take it personally, but it's the shittiest part of the job: I don't think (or I sincerely hope) there isn't anyone who calls themselves a teacher who enjoys failing people, just like there aren't many people who like to fail. A part of my job is to make it so that nobody has to fail, and just as there are many different ways to draw there are many different ways to teach it - mine isn't the only way nor necessarily the best for everybody. And I'm quite often learning just as much as the rest of the class, the lessons come just as often, long as you stay teachable.

"Those who work only when the Muse strikes them make little progress." - William V. Dunning

1 comment:

  1. Roger that.

    I have been mulling over how to tailor a very personal teaching style to various student personalities. There is no way one can appeal to everyone and not every student - teacher relationship ends up being rewarding.

    As far as switching teachers, my students are out of luck. They'll either suffer me as their teacher, or they'll have to wait a few more years. A fact that I am painfully aware.