I have a degree in Graphic Design and Fine Art from the University of Bridgeport, CT. I graduated in 1982. I have recently been reading posts (on Facebook, where else!) by others who may have attended art schools at the same time. Some were happy with their experience, others seem to feel they missed out on something that the recent resurgence in atelier methods of teaching have to offer. I am very happy with my art education experience, I’m especially thankful that I did not have any professors who tried to mold me into one of their disciples, or who taught that there was only one approach to painting or design. Having left the graphic design field quite some time ago, and now working full time as a professional fine artist, there are certain things I’m really grateful for that I learned during my years in art school. Some may seem a bit simplistic, but they truly changed the way I draw and paint. Others, more subjective, but in my case, very relevant to the path I’ve taken with my painting. Here they are:
- Draw with the SIDE of charcoal– I told you some were simplistic! I took an industrial design course in my senior year. I had this fabulous teacher, Donald MacIntyre, who taught us to draw with the side of a big, fat stick of vine charcoal. Doing this forces you to forget detail and concentrate on form and value. Form and value are what make things dimensional, I teach this method to my students today. Those who give it try get great results, it has never failed me! And, for anyone who wishes to take the detail to the max, you can still do it! But you start out with a wonderfully loose, accurate base by drawing this way. Once you have that, you are in control of how much or how little surface detail you want to add. What I liked about this class and other drawing classes I took at UB was that we didn’t have to draw the same thing in the same manner. An instructor would show us a technique, and then tell us to implement it within the scope of the project.
- Great art takes MANY forms, keep an open mind – I took 5 semesters of art history! I loved it because it opened my eyes up to so many new ways of looking at art. Before art school, I focused primarily on representational art and drawing in a very realistic manner. Like every teen in the 70’s, I wanted to be an album cover artist so I practiced drawing all my favorite rock stars portraits. However, once I started learning about artists such as Kandinsky, Klee, Chagall, and on to Pollock and De Kooning, I saw that there were so many ways of conveying ideas beyond the conventional narrative, representational drawing and painting. I understood the relevance of these artists and could see that it might be possible to apply some of their ideas in my own work to make it stronger and more interesting than just a good technical drawing or painting.
- Find YOUR WAY of painting or drawing – Again, this is probably one of the things I am most thankful for. All of my professors were the type that would teach concepts and then instruct us to apply them in our own work. I remember a basic drawing 101 course where we had a pile of shoes and were told to draw them with charcoal. What a great lesson in form and value, some students picked one or 2 shoes and did detailed, close up drawings of them. Others, took the whole pile and did semi-abstract studies of the forms to create a dynamic composition. Neither way was taught as better than the other, we were encouraged to follow what each of us saw as the most interesting thing about the subject.
- Try DIFFERENT MEDIA – the courses I took were in a variety of media: watercolor, oil, gouache, ink; and ranged in subjects from typography, calligraphy, painting, drawing and photography. We were taught to learn as many different media as we could handle, the intent being that we should never be afraid of experimentation. I still love experimenting. As I tell my students, if it doesn’t work out, it’s only a piece of paper you’ve wasted, and you’ve gained all that you learned along the way.
- Learn how to GIVE and TAKE criticism constructively – ANYONE who was in art school back then probably has some horror stories about the class critiques we had to participate in. I learned so much in those sessions, even though I dreaded them at the time. Not so much in terms of specific advice from other students or even the instructors, but more so in how to be constructive and how to discern constructive advice from non-constructive. Some of my professors were great, always pointing out what works in addition to suggesting ways to improve, this is the approach I take with my students. It helps to build confidence while giving them specifics they can use to create stronger work.
I hope this helps to remind those of us who studied art in the 80’s that we did actually learn some valuable lessons back then. Personally, I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to learn in an environment that encouraged expression, creativity and experimentation.