Wednesday, January 10, 2018

An art education conundrum

For the first 9 years of my teaching career, I taught high school, including an advanced Drawing and Painting class.  I don't think I  could do that any more.  I've seen a lot of  high school artwork over recent years, and as I look at my own personal artwork, and how I approach it, what I'm realizing is that I am philosophically light years away from what high school art programs have become. 
When I completed the painting in my previous post (detail shown above), I got a compliment from another art teacher, mentioning the vibrant colors, and referring to it as 'painterly'.  This, to me, was the ultimate of compliments, and what I aspire to.  I've always loved rich color, energetic paint strokes, and a sense of movement and energy in my artwork. It is, ultimately, my reason for painting.  Sometimes I'm more successful than other times, but it's definitely my thing.  The painting below, by the way, is a painting of my son when he was a college student (he's 29 now).  It includes collage of broken glass, weird rubber toys, yarn, and cutouts from magazine pages, and was developed from a photo I took of him, since he wasn't willing to sit for a portrait.
I think I've probably previously shared most of the paintings in today's post, but anyhow, they are here to back up my point.  And actually, this topic is something I've discussed here on the blog before.  Check out this post from March 2016.  I'm probably repeating many of the same thoughts today.

So what exactly is my point?  A lot of the high school artwork I see nowadays is derived from photographs, particularly making use of phones.  (That is not necessarily a criticism, though I'd love to see more high school work from life.)  As with the 2 paintings above, I've certainly worked from photos too (I use only my own photos), but I use them as a reference point, as a basis for my personal expression.  My goal isn't an exact replication of the photograph.  When possible, I prefer to work from life, as with the still life below, at least until the flowers started to wilt.
The high school artwork I am referring to is usually impeccably rendered, meticulous in detail.  I look at it and say "Wow, I'm impressed.  I can't do that", and then I think "but I don't even want to do that!".  It impresses me to see this work, but it doesn't EXCITE me, doesn't MOVE me.  And the thought of making this meticulous artwork leaves me cold.  It isn't artwork I'd be excited to create.
I've seen high school art shows where the work shows extensive talent, sure, and a lot of impressive skill, but the pieces seem to be more graphic design than expressive artwork.  Where are the visible brush strokes, the emotive color, the energy, and the personality?  I miss these things.  They are the reason I am particularly moved by paintings by Kandinsky, or Matisse, or Kokoschka, or Chagall, or Kirchner, for example.  Again, let me refer you to this old post.  I've said it all before, and maybe better!
When I taught high school art, my students spent a lot of time working from life, whether a still life setup, or using a mirror, or having someone model.  It was the days long before cell phones, so nobody was taking a picture of the still life or  model for reference.  It meant there was much more exploration involved with figuring out how to represent and interpret what they saw, rather than depending on a version of what a camera lens sees. 
I realize a lot of my personal feelings about this were developed in my college painting classes  in the 70's.  We worked from life probably 90% of the time, and expressive interpretations were encouraged.  We drew and painted extensively, working with gesture, and contour, and "endless articulating cube studies" to develop our perception.  I do not recall ever being asked to reproduce a photograph as a painting or drawing, though I do recall assignments to re-create works from other artists, as an exercise, not as a pieces for exhibition (I chose a Gauguin, and a Hans Hofmann).  It was a valuable learning experience, discovering the layers of color, the arrangement of the composition, and how the artist interpreted form.  We also did self-portraits in the the style/technique of an old artist.  (Somewhere I still have my multilayered Rouault-style painting of myself.) It was a valuable exercise.
So anyhow, I'm thinking that I'm a bit of a throw-back.  Yet maybe that's not a bad thing.  I'm eliciting positive responses to my most colorful recent painting, so maybe I'm on the right track?  When someone gets excited by my use of color, and calls my work 'painterly', I'm thinking they aren't seeing enough color or loose brush strokes in other art, because I'm sure there should be many who could do it so much better than me.  I'd love to hear your thoughts!


  1. Interesting post. I just just finished with doing some adjudication for our local Scholastic Art entries. It was refreshing to have discussions with museum curators, gallery owners, painters, and other arts educators regarding the work presented. One thing everyone noticed was that there were so many portraits! Almost no landscapes, or abstracts. I have my theories why ( students working toward AP portfolios, not enough time, etc.) but never thought about the phone/camera. Would explain a lot of head shot selfie style work. The other thing we noticed was composition and working the "background" ( or lack thereof). And source material we know could not be their own photos for reference. I think traditionally the average person likes art images to be straightforward- realistic, if you will. Perhaps some are encouraged to use that as a criteria for success. ps- love your portrait of your son.

  2. Here's a 'blurb' our local Art League might use, co-authored by msyelf, I thought it matched what you are saying quite well:   

    Art is not about ‘drawing a barn or tiger so it looks real‘ or about ‘copying a famous artists style.’   Art is visual communication. Art is all around us with color, composition, culture and contrasts.  Art is how humans create their environment.  Art is in our homes, our clothes,  our architecture, our advertising. Art is part of what makes us human !

       Art is a chance to use creativity and craftsmanship. Creativity is problem solving in your own unique way, because there is not ‘one correct answer’. Craftsmanship means patience, persistence, and skill with one’s hands and pride in one’s work.

       Art is also about the ability to ‘critique.'  Realizing that none of the pieces will turn out perfect. Artists learn to improvise, find solutions, and work with what they’ve got ---- in the time given. It’s about revising and making judgements  on your projects.

    Art is also inspiration. It leads us toward the divine. It mirrors a spark inside ourselves which we wish to share with others.

    Gina Booth and Roxanne Thompson Jan. 2018
    (adapted from an art teachers' school webpage)

    1. I like what you've written! Thanks for sharing it here.