Up until the age of eleven or twelve, I loved to draw and paint. I bought myself pads of drawing paper and artists' pencils, pastels and cray-pas, tubes of oil paint, and I wandered around the house, outside and in, looking for a subject. I sketched flowers in the garden and my parents' faces as they sat reading after dinner. I examined my own face in the mirror, trying to separate myself into nonchalant model and objective artist so that I could match in pencil the line of my jaw, the shape of my eyes. But some time around the beginning of adolescence, I gave up, realizing that, though I wasn't too bad at tracing outlines, I couldn't make my subjects pop into three dimensions. Shading and highlights eluded me. My drawing devolved into geometric doodles: boxes made by connecting the corners of two superimposed squares, stars of David made of isosceles triangles, the two-beat rhythmic swoop of treble clefs.
This spring, though, my youngest daughter asked to take a painting class at the local art museum, and I volunteered to take it as well to keep her company. The course title sold me: Composition: Painting Still Lives.
(I wondered how my situation and attitudes compare to those of a "reluctant" writer in one of my classes...)
What I learned as a student, with possibilities for translation to FYC teaching:
- I was surprised by
how much I enjoyed collecting up the supplies (hog-bristle brushes both
plump and narrow, tubes of paint with glorious names like alizarin
crimson, Payne's gray, cadmium orange) and how it made me feel both
excitement and a certain seriousness of purpose.
- Even when the teacher
selects and positions the tropical fruit, adjusts the clamp-on light,
shakes loose the draping of the background fabric, there is still such
a range of possibilities for the individual student that the resulting
paintings look surprisingly dissimilar. Despite this, I still feel the
ache to pick my own objects.
- A framing device is
useful to set limits, to focus one's attention. Move it around, bend
and straighten yr arm, try out possibilities, but make a final decision
not in yr head out of thin air but by sketching out some likely options.
- Consider what makes a
composition desirable: how it's possible to have balance without a
too-literal symmetry, what establishes the focal point of yr design.
- Before our first
painting day, at home, we were instructed to lay down a coat of yellow
ochre (apparently some artists choose other colors). There may be some technical reason for this, but our teacher emphasized its psychological value: to lessen the fear of marking a blank canvas.
- Class time is devoted primarily to making art, not talking about it. No one stands there paralyzed by painters' block.
- As we paint, the
teacher roams around the room making suggestions, sometimes picking up
a paint-less brush to demonstrate, sometimes calling us over to look at
someone else's problem or solution.
- A painting is
constructed by a process of layering ("fat over lean," it says in the
books, but our teacher uses the more-PC "thick over thin"): first
roughing out shapes, then patching in color, glazing shadows, and with
thicker paint touching in highlights. Corrections and changes can be
made at most any point along the way.
- Each class ends with critique, and everyone must talk, following a framework that sandwiches positive comments with suggestions.
- It is possible to
abandon a piece without discouragement, to value what one has learned
in the process without being entirely satisfied with the final product
(cartoon pineapple, for example, or too-dark shadows that don't quite make sense).