Saturday, May 20, 2017

Recap: Spring Teaching

 “The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.” ~ Neil Gaiman
Though ostensibly started as a blog about teaching drawing so many years ago (see "First Day" + "Postscript"), Ink & Snow's obviously mutated morphed into pretty much a cartoonist's soapbox, with bonus posts on freelancing and the occasional editorial rant. Just for old time's sake here's a mega-recap of some of the highlights of this last semester, kinda like I did for the fall 206 course. And there'll be lotsa backlinks to initial posts on topics, which I've found to be useful when comparing + contrasting after all the grades are turned in and I reflect on the relative successes and failures of the semester, and mulling over the effectiveness of particular aspects of the syllabus and roster of activities. (More below the fold)

And it's yet another aspect of the class that I do in my own personal pursuits: if it's visual art, then it ought to be seen, plain and simple. So every opportunity to display and exhibit your work = let's get it it up. Hence my shameless display of student work in the hallway showcases throughout the department - I'm proud of the quality + quantity they churn out every semester, every class.
SO the student show in our gallery bookended quite nicely with a gig held up on West Ridge:
"Opening Tonite: Amongst the many exhibitions of amazing talent across the community for another fabulous 1st Friday, this 3-pg comic on oceanography + other winners of the “Visualize This!” design competition of science/art pieces will be on display at Alaska EPSCoR/Decision Theater North’s “immersive data visualization space” (whoah dude).
Visitors can also try out the VR equipment in the DTN development space, visit the computer lab of V-ADAPT, a UAF-based start-up that tracks volcanic activity, and peruse new satellite images from the Alaska Satellite Facility. The event will take place from 4-7 PM, and the theater is located at 010 West Ridge Research Building."
And yeah - seeing some money for one's efforts is also nice.

“Summon the Happy Tree”

Up top is a few snapshots from the UAF Art Department's annual student art show, which is actually held at the end of each semester, but only the one in the fall is juried by someone outside of the academic circle. The spring one is not juried, and is hung "salon style" which is comparatively somewhat less of an esteemed accomplishment, but hey, it's work on the walls and another feather in the artist cap. I'm still pretty much one of the few if not the only drawing instructors that mandates a student submission to the shows: it's actually the last of five assignments (as opposed to the five full-blown critiques) to enter at least one piece that they've done in my class (typically they can submit up to three works created within the calendar year). As I remind them, it's also either the easiest "A" or easiest "F" they'll earn. In all seriousness, it's an opportunity to discuss and demonstrate how important presentation of their work (ex: framing, matting) is in a professional setting, and it also provides a meta-lesson on how their pieces will more often than not look better within the context of a gallery venue. It's almost like the work changes and becomes more serious, which is how I certainly take it throughout the class, but removed from the usual setting and hung alongside other pieces it assumes a different, subtle veneer of legitimacy. In turn I feel validated (humblebrag) when we predictably sweep the category with usually over 80% of the pieces on display coming from my students. Again this is somewhat undermined by being the only teacher actually assigning it, but my reply to the question why make them do it is that I spend all semester making them do stuff anyways. Pictured is Bonar and Carroll who respectively bagged Honorable Mention + Best of in Drawing. One of them even sold his original piece, which certainly merits a gold star.
“Remember to always be yourself. Unless you suck.” ~Joss Whedon

A recurring nightmare in-class exercise I still employ is the "transparent/reflective surfaces" one, which is where students render with charcoal (also reinforcing the subtractive technique) a plastic cup holding clear tableware on top of a mirror. It also doubles as training for their second critique, which is a view out of a window and hence incorporates aspects of both this exercise and the related preceding value assignment.

We did a unit on critters, both live and stuffed, and dovetailed it with outings to both the Fairbanks Animal Shelter (heartbreaking for some, but get over it as there's a lot of pain + suffering in good art) and also spent some time with the Paws For Purple Hearts folks and their assistance dogs. I previously used to have them drop by the classroom, but now that they have an established, dedicated faciluty for training, we instead piled in a van and made a  field-trip out of it. As always, there are so many wonderful organizations and places to go in our community to use as an opportunity for exploration, experimentation and inspiration. The challenge is in fostering cross-fertilization and availing oneself to the possibilities that happen when you leave the habitual comfort zone - in this case the physical space of a studio and/or classroom.

 “...draw me like one of your French poodles” - Zephyr

We did also happen to have a model who had a service animal, which provided some great poses. But here is where we start to see the dots in a composition way bigger than what fits on any piece of paper: it's up to us to connect them, and draw conclusions that are greater than any rote assignment. This is where personal style also comes into play, as we incorporate our experiences into our work.

There was a slight deviation from the standard sequences of work when I realized half the Advanced class, whom I hadn't ever yet had in any other courses, was into comics. So we held a series of seminars focusing on different aspects of that particular medium. Above is page of sample panels from their collaborative exercise, adapted from the comics course assignment, and as well as setting the stage for future individual and independent works, you can see the benefits to reference sketching starting to show itself.
 "If you're not good enough to be a cartoonist, maybe you can be an artist." - S. Clay Wilson

And this semester saw a return to the tried and true exercises in caricature, which I had to submit myself to the mix and even out the odds when there wasn't enough students to pair up together. It's always a real blast to participate - hopefully the fact that I not only personally employ every single part of what I expect them to accomplish in my own work, I also try and structure the class so that I would have as much fun as possible while generating a substantive body of work. This is done remaining fully cognizant of how hard it can sometimes be in the midst of everything else to maintain a consistent output - shit happens. One of the hardest things my many years of teaching has taught me is that art doesn't always start + stop in neat little segments of time, or fit conveniently within the confines of an academic calandar. That said, it's equally important to set goals and push yourself to accomplish what many times feels overwhelming under extenuating circumstances.

Speaking of big picture/full circle approach to making art, we followed up the classroom visit by Sandy Jamieson with an excursion down to the archives of the Rasmuson Library's Polar Regions Collection for a simply amazing firsthand viewing of the work of another seminal figure in Interior art, Bill Berry. Aside from our fantastic tour-group leader who narrated and shared many of her personal insights (Diana also shephards the on-line repository of her brother's work here), another highlight of this was getting a rare chance to flip through a handful of his sketchbooks, which contained many beautiful figurative studies.
Now this is the part where I get really excited: what's coming into focus is how all of these seemingly disparate elements are actually part of a synergistic effect, a cummulative perspective where one can see a stating point and an end result, and how the mental crock-pot is a repository for everything inbetween. Take for example looking at a living or dead master's work, and saying to yourself "oo I wish I could do that." Well, especially in the case of a class of Advanced students, you can... and you will. It's a matter of assembling the ingredients, and the requisite dicipline of practice.

And that's one of the underlying reasons for incessent, routine drills both in and out of the classroom - a meta-lesson in incorporating technical, mechanical skills + mastery of (or at the very least, rudimentary competency with) materials coupled with real-world exposure to the raw ingredients of  making art. Add encouragement, high expectations, and in theory it will culminate in fostering a vision, sparking a creative catalyst.

I'm still a real big fan of using a virtual extension to everything done for class, in that whenever a student hits a speed-bump at home late at night or over the weekend, they can always snap a picture and email me the problem at hand. More often than not a quick suggestion is easily illustrated through the use of Photoshopping solutions. A common "trap" they fall into upon review of several concept sketches is for me to reccommend combining a couple into one composition. More work, but better results.

A special shout-out here to one of the rising rock-star currently enrolled in our BFA program: Bethany Eisenman continues to set the bar for her peers in the department. I have an MO for many Advanced students in that they can opt to spin off into their own largely self-directed projects. And yes, that includes making a comic. The above is a great example of how a piece created in a different class, like painting, can be rolled over and used with a series of drawings, in this case a full-color cover.

We didn't get a chance to revisit the downtown courthouse this year, as logistically there just isn't enough time to schedule everything I'd like to do in a a dozen or so weeks. But we did venture forth to the student rec center again - including my first-ever reconnoiter of the campus ice rink. Again, here's hoping seeing how such situations coupled with training is the inducement of inspiration: works for me. Left to my own devices, daydreaming at the cabin, I would have probably never come up with the ideas that I did, which will now get incorporated in turn into a few future cartoon panels.

Meanwhile, running in the background to all the extracurricular activities, is a continually rotating roster of models employed to keep us all sharp, honing our observational skills, refreshing the muscle-memory that connects hand to eye coordination.

Exaggerated of point-of-view, emphasizing foreshortening, etc. etc. - all the basics are resurrected, along with routine anatomical aspects: skeletal + muscular system overview...

... and capturing that essential gesture, especially emotional posturing/emotive motion. All are among the facets of a successful artist, and thus part of our training regimen.And it can be a rigorous one: I started a "fun" exercise where the model (agreed to beforehand as it is an especially arduous session) holds a one-minute gesture for the entire length of class. That's approximately one-hundred and fifty poses. Towards the end folks start to flag a bit, so the time gets bumped up to thirty-second poses instead. A good soundtrack helps - check out this playlist here.

Especially with the Advanced crew, there's a battery of warm-up sessions at the onset of the semester emphasizing gestures. And, as per the work ethic installed at the Beginning stage, after enough practice my posse moves out and about the surrounding vicinity, drawing people doing different things in a variety of settings. Ideally we want to get to the point sketching is a reflexive extension of vision, as is the habitual instinct to get ideas and allow for creative interpretation. These are not mutually exclusive activities, though sometimes when the brain isn't on board for conceptual assistance, it's no waste of time to be otherwise engaged - in other words, draw all the time whether you can see it in front of you or not, whether it's external or internal.

At optimum artistic efficiency there's always a blend of that happening, and a case in point here being the roster of classroom exercises meant to push that edge. Such as this common favorite, the cityscape. It's quite often here that Beginners are working away at building their own artistic infrastructure, familiarizing themselves more with the materials + techniques as opposed to any underlying philosophy.

A couple other highlights of our poking about the university for fodder: one was an afternoon spent at the Robert G. White Large Animal Research Station, where our small herd was let out to roam around behind-the-scenes and explore the grounds while observing up close & personal the prehistoric sentinels and some bonus baby 'boos. Besides the major cuteness on display from the reindeer calves gamboling about, there were some spectacular views from the upper back pasture overlooking Fairbanks + the Alaska range. Also really appreciated the kind and accommodating staff who took time out of their busy day to herd us around - thank you!

Lastly as far as the field trippin', we all had a real treat one particular week when our roving band of advanced drawing students we got to crash a practice workout session for two hours with a couple members of the UAF Aerial Arts group. Wow - talk about some mind-blowing poses + astonishingly acrobatic gestures (special thanks to Lin & Celina): their slow-mo routines, with as many pauses as they wanted to hold for however long felt comfortable, provided us with some seriously jaw-dropping inspiration.

More than a few students think I'm nuts (well, a lot of the time) when I propose a certain study series until they finally have that ah-hah moment and get it. See, I saw angels and/or mermaids, and since we dovetailed this session with trip to Fish + Game for fins & feathers reference, and the standard MO for such artists like Jamieson and Berry is to do just exactly what we emulated over the course of the semester: practice, research, more practice, study, practice etc.

All this ties right back into observation, experience and imagination: to some varying degree a combination of those three elements will go into - if not be present - in most works of art. It's also a fun challenge (and exercise) to use when critiquing pieces, your own or at art shows.

Incidentally, I think I've accomplished as much of an overview of my approach to both drawing and teaching it, all here in this one single post, as I managed to do in a year's worth of documenting the process. Back to the proverbial drawing board.

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