Well...I guess my response may risk some unpopularity, as well as bring its
concerns and cautions, but it may be two cents worth consideration.
I have no problem with students struggling with art. No problem with their
feeling intimidated at the high school level. As an artist and teacher, I
have had my years of people at art shows assume what I produce comes
"naturally" and must be nice "to be so talented." They have no sense and
therefore no appreciation of the sacrifices, the difficulties, and very
hard work a life as an artist has demanded of me. I personally believe if
I am going to give a good sense of art "appreciation"...at some point
students must discover that if art can be defined as good at all, it
probably does NOT come easy.
I think that the success may depend from the outset at how you introduce
the unit. You don't have to let students off easy by something necessarily
nonobjective...but can let them off easy simply by removing unrealistic
expectations off their shoulders. I tell them it takes 120 bad paintings
to learn to paint well, and that as an artist I know full well how
difficult their experience is about to be. I encourage and assure them
that I will grade their efforts...their work ethic, etc., more than the
finished outcome of the work. I confess I want them to be equipped to
appreciate what painters of the past have left as a legacy.
I want them to know how difficult it is. I want them to squirm. I want
them to stand in front of museum/gallery works some day in total awe
knowing something wonderful is before them because they have in their
memory a past basis from their high school experience which helped them
know and identify with "some" idea of what it takes to develop as an
I begin by bringing examples of my own work in. I often have a work in
progress before them.
In fact...I will do a demo in 20-25 minutes say of a still life they are
about to be doing, full-intentioned to make it look easy.
As they struggle to mix a color...sometimes for 10 minutes, and in their
frustration and request for help...I find it personally amusing...this
shaking of their heads and comments of disbelief when in less then 5-10
seconds I bring the color into existence on their palette.
I want them to experience that something difficult is capable of being
learned and that THEY CAN overcome intimidation and obstacles. As students
begin to get it...I'm like a coach/and cheerleader rolled into one. I make
a BIG DEAL out of each progressive step made and demonstrated. I tell them
when they are picking something up that many painters often must take years
to learn. I see their fears turn to confidence in short order.
One senior boy told me that he hated his painting the first couple weeks
because it seemed like it would never look like anything...but that when my
insistence that he keep at it eventually proved to look very good, that a
passion for it was birthed in him. He began watching me all the more, and
confessed having a problem sleeping one night because he suddenly wanted to
be a painter. He was awestruck that a mess of paint up close could be made
to have the illusion of something real from a few paces back.
There is no real victory where there is NO WAR...or BATTLE. I tell them in
the beginning that the canvas is a battlefield, and that the canvas is out
to defeat them at every possible turn. When indeed the frustrations begin
to come, I recall my former warnings and that it is time to "dig in" and
not give up ground!
You may think this is absurd...but I have found to the degree that the work
challenges them that much greater is the sense of satisfaction in achieving
the end results.
My process is similar to that which Charles Hawthorne, a famous 19th
century American Impressionist taught...that is in not permitting students
to get bogged down with details by giving them small brushes. Hawthorne
was a famous teacher of painting, familiar with the Hudson River School
artists. His students painted with palette knifes only.
I have students wipe masses of value in with a rag after a couple days of
lessons on composition. I have them begin the composition lesson by
picking out three examples of paintings they like from the gazillion of art
magazines I have. I have them write down why they would say they like the
Then I teach my lessons of composition...formal vs informal (symmetrical vs
assymmetrical) balance, achieving eye path direction or intended
manipulation of the viewer's eye, the importance of achieving contrast,
Then I have them go back and look at the original pieces they first thought
they would like with the option to choose three new ones if they'd like.
They look more critically this time....and I share how critical knowing
what you DON'T like is. Why repeat the mistakes of the works of other
artists when you already are capable of knowing what you don't like? That
equates to advancing oneself right off by knowing what NOT to do.
a choice of building a still life in the room, or a landscape. I supply
100's of photos for to choose from, or magazines.
They then rag block-in the painting's masses/composition...(I use acrylics
for students since my room hosts k-12 activities). The block-in stage
gives us a chance to look critically at the direction the painting ought to
I emphasize how easily the eye gets distracted when the mind loses focus,
and things are put into the painting that do not support the composition.
A good painting must go beyond simply copying pictures.
They are then allowed to use stiff wide brushes or palette knives.
Always...always...always I have them squint their eyes at the photo and at
their painting which eliminates all unnecessary detail. They are to
respond to light and dark, shapes, and color ONLY.
Then...I tailor make the lesson for individuals. As I walk around...I show
a few how they may get a better result mixing their colors directly on the
canvas, where the result can pull off a suggestion of detail. Such are
those that I see are getting a handle on mixing color. Those struggling to
get a handle on color, I let them mix on their palette only.
We spend time on color theory...but, I very much simplify it. I use a
limited palette and insist they will do the same. We discuss color in
terms of temperature....warm and cool....and how contrast is achieved as
well as unity.
Instead of painting trees....I have students block in masses...again,
squinting their eyes. Then...I have them mix up sky color...and squinting
their eyes again look at the photo's trees and see how the negative space
of sky poking thru the masses "suggest" the tree.
They then sculpt the masses/foilage to look like trees by painting sky.
They are usually amazed at the simplicity of achieving a convincing tree.
A "trick" or "device" as I tell them.
No...it is not easy. But as they learn...it is not a question of is it
easy, but is it worthwhile?
To the degree of the difficulty they overcome will be the degree of
appreciation for what it is they have accomplished.
Sometime I think that a painting unit reveals more the inadequacies of the
instructor for which some lean on the argument of something less
intimidating or objective, however, there is nothing wrong with seeing it
as an "adventure" with the students and agree to paint along side by side
with them. Let them see you struggle too, but as a mentor hang in there to
Truth is...not ALL realism is as difficult as some would think. Because
something is realistic does not eliminate one's interpretation of it. All
our efforts are an extraction, an abstract if you will.
I came to a new school district this year with seven years past experience.
The former instructor was big on ceramics and quite good, yet as I've been
led to understand not quite as fluent and big on painting. I'm glad he is
in the area at another school district so that I can borrow from his
experience, and I hope to be available to show him a few things with
painting. That did not stop me from diving right in with the juniors and
seniors with painting realism this first semester. It set a tone right off
that fears are not walls to be avoided, but challenges to be met. It
brought credibility to my program when each student out did themselves.
Another lesson you may consider is how earlier painters of the 18th and
19th centuries traveled with their watercolor paint boxes on horseback.
They drew in charcoal or inks, and then used watercolor to wash color into
I think some of the intimidation some speak of is that students don't have
much of a transition from drawing to painting. I would recommend having
them watercolor in drawings, gestures, sketches, etc; Do some pastel which
historically has been referred to as painting. Do some watercolor pencil
drawings and then go over with clean water to wash it out. I just did a
mixed media drawing unit with charcoal sticks...lightly fixing with spray,
go over with watercolor washes, beef back up with charcoal "pencils" 4B,
and the use acrylic white for highlights.
A final note...there are many painting styles, and the Impressionist style
of responding to light and color to do realism can stay totally clear of
the small brush detailing and rendering. It can give a total feel of
"painting" and satisfaction can come from the looser spontaneous result
giving a "sense" of the real from a calculated distance back from the work.
Be quick to call attention and praise with every sincere effort's
breakthru, and the hurdles seen will not be resented, but seen simply as
skills about to be acquired. Acquired at some cost....but a cost
"worthwhile!" Don't apologize for the difficulty...but act as though that
is the reasonable expectation. Where they lack the confidence...they will
succeed borrowing yours!
artist's site- http://cwinc.net/larryseiler
WetCanvas Artists page- (shorter and quicker loading)
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