Advanced art without prompting
So, I see a lot of teachers looking for great prompts to use for their AP classes. A post comes across my newsfeed almost daily from one of the multiple art teacher groups I am in. I scroll through the responses, and each one prompts me to make rebuttals, but I usually don’t have the steam to get into it in the comments section, and I don’t want to come off as jerk. Whoever made the post wants prompts, not some lecture on why I don’t think they should use prompts. But if you’re reading my blog, then you might be the kind of person that wants to know why I don’t think you should use prompts, so here goes.
Now, I’m not saying all prompts are bad. Sometimes you need a prompt to get the ball rolling, especially with young students. Unfortunately, a lot of the prompts I see are pretty simplistic. I see a lot of, “Use this media to draw this thing.” Sometimes the thing is an object, a category, or even a definition. The problem with this is that it allows students an easy out. They scan their environment for the easiest solution to the problem and get to work. Every once in a while you get a solution you don’t expect, but for the most part, it’s all pretty formulaic.
Don’t believe me? Here’s a test. If you laid out all the responses your students submitted to a certain prompt, would I be able to infer the instructions you gave them? If I can, then are the students the intellectual drivers of the work, or are you?
I’m going to advocate for a slightly different approach. It’s an approach that more closely mirrors how artists actually work. But first, a disclaimer. I do have to spend a year preparing my students to be in the environment I am about to outline. We’ve built it into the curriculum so that all AP and level four students have an idea as to what kind of artist they want to be. I do not recommend just throwing your students into a ruleless, artistic universe.
All art students have a way they want to make art. Don’t believe me? Look at the drawings in their sketchbooks that they do in their own time. They have a vision for the work they want to make and the skills they want to gain. My job is not to tell them what to make or who to want to be. My job is to help them along on their artistic journey. To do this, I first help them to broaden their vision by exposing them to new ideas and then help them achieve that vision with the lessons my experience has granted me. I let the students determine their goals, then I help keep them on pace in achieving those goals. I encourage them to push themselves, and I teach them how to reflect upon what they’ve done in a constructive and critical way. When done correctly, my students will have all the skills necessary to develop concepts and create work exploring these concepts. Basically, they will be authentic artists creating uniquely personal artwork.
That being said, I don’t give art assignments to my AP students. The only assignments I give are reflective practices or research. I never tell the class as a whole what they should draw or paint. They tell me at the beginning of the year what kind of work they want to explore, and what they require to complete the AP portfolio. After they provide me with this information, I provide them with a number on which all my major grades are based. To arrive at this number, I divide the number of class periods we have to work before portfolio submission by the number of works they need to complete to get to the twenty-four needed for the portfolio. This gives me the average number of days they have to work on a piece. We critique every three weeks, and they each have a unique number of works they need to display. Their grade is based on a “simple” formula…
Grade = Quality of work [ work critiqued / (classes since last critique / student number)]
That gets a little strange, so let’s plug in some numbers. Let’s say a student has an average of five days to work per piece. They’ve had ten days to work since the last critique. I would expect them to have two pieces done, or four works half done, or some combination that adds up to two. If they have two, I would multiply that by a percentage representing the quality of the work they’ve completed. If they had two perfect works, the math would go as follows…
100% = 100% [ 2 / ( 10/ 5)]
Now, if they only had one work to critique, and the work was of average quality, the math would look more like this…
37.5% = 75% [ 1 / (10 / 5)]
Obviously these are two extremes, but hopefully it clarifies my system.
So the obvious question is, “What do you do when they get stuck?” The answer to that is to prevent them from getting stuck. They have a goal. They want to make the art. I’m just helping them along. If they are working on portraiture, I provide them with opportunities to research artists that are working in portraiture in similar ways. Really, if you’re critiquing correctly (see here), the students will create their own questions and problems that they then explore in a new work. If they need what AP calls a “breadth” piece, I have them look over the work they’ve turned in (they keep a digital slideshow going) and see where the holes are. Do they have a good still life? Have they shown their full skills in realistic rendering? If the student doesn’t know where to go, keep asking them questions about who they are, what art they like to look at, and what art they enjoy making. Trust me, if you help a student in becoming the artist they want to be, you’ll never have to worry about motivating them ever again.