It’s that time of year again. I have begun working on self-portraits with my sophomore students. This project has changed quite a bit over the years. In fact, it’s probably the project I have tinkered with the most (I’ve written about it before here). It started out as basic, straight on, pencil self-portrait. It was slightly modeled after the early work of Chuck Close. Since then, it has slowly transformed. I added chiaroscuro to the mix after a couple of tries, then switched mediums to oil paint and focused on mixing skin tones. This year I’ve approached it much more like I approach most of my projects. I’ve reduced the restrictions, allowing the students to make more of their own decisions, and I started with a conceptual prompt.
So far, we worked on understanding the media and mixing skin tones. We also refreshed our knowledge of facial proportions. They mixed paint to match tones from a photo of themselves I provided, sketched facial details and practiced blind contour and partial peek drawings. I had them do a quick drawing of themselves straight-on, on a sketchbook-sized piece of paper, and they painted it realistically as a warm-up to the major assignment.
For the major assignment, I posed a question. I presented artists from every decade of the twentieth century that really seem to capture our understanding of the people of that time. I then asked them what the portraiture that captured their generation would look like. What about them made them unique, and how would they capture that in portrait painting? Then, I let them run with it. The only requirement was that it had to be a portrait. I gave them a paper to work with, and they had to use oil paint.
Today, we just had our half-way critique. As expected, the students were a little lost. I saw a lot of the beginnings of illustrative, realist paintings. Only two students tip-toed into abstraction, and only one student added any media other than oil paint. Today, I asked them about this. “Why is everyone making realistic painting?” “Did I show you examples of realist paintings?” “Do you like making realistic paintings?” “Are you enjoying yourself?” The first questions returned soft “nos” and “I don’t knows,” but that last question filled the room with audible groans, ughs, and loud “NO’s!” It was obvious, not only was the work bland, but it wasn’t enjoyable for the students to make.
From there we had a long conversation. We talked about how they were ignoring the expressive nature of color, of style, and of application of media. We discussed how they created assumed restrictions that didn’t exist, and we celebrated the students that were working on the most innovative solutions. I showed them more artists creating unique and experimental portraits, and again I sent them on their way. They were a little frustrated, but at the same time excited.
To me, this shows two things. First, stopping to critique midway is so important for both the students and myself. The students were able to redirect what they were doing. As a teacher I was able to evaluate what I missed in my teaching. I was able to reinforce topics that I obviously didn’t cover well enough. Second, we as art teachers really need to work against the habits that have been reinforced by the majority of education. Students are trained to look for the straightforward, simple answer. They are afraid to try new things, and are afraid of failure. By stopping to recognize and encourage experimentation and risk-taking we push back against the negative effects of the standardization of education. Now my students are refreshed and ready to make art they find exciting. We’ll see where this leads, but for now, I can say I’m excited.