Friday, January 23, 2015

Cross Over: On the Future of Drawing & Painting Education

As a traditionally trained painter and draftsman, the use of computer drawing tools has seemed at best not applicable and at worst anathema to my art training.  However the incorporation of digital drawing and painting technology into the traditional studio seems inevitable.  This inevitability will probably aggravate and sadden the purists teaching today, but I have begun to see major areas where traditional and digital drawing techniques intersect.  This has done more to excite the educator in me than the artist, but I imagine I will start using it as a tool in my painting process at some point.  As an educator I have only taught a handful of students that are interested in my specific major (Painting), and of those I haven't taught one that is specifically interested in the things that interest me.  This is a good thing.  Making Studio Art appeal to broad swaths of the population is challenging, but extremely rewarding when you're able to see how painting, industrial design, and chemistry majors are all engaged by the subject matter.  The majority of my students (at least at the time) were pursuing photography and graphic design, many of which were great students but questioned how they could use the course material in their career.  Since beginning this foray into the digital realm I have begun to find answers to these questions, and have been considering the possibilities of merging the two worlds in a studio program.  I haven't found the exact answer to how one would combine traditional and digital approaches into a single studio context, but I understand that it is the future of the medium.  I don't think for a second that Painting will be replaced by the medium known as "Digital Painting", because the products are too different, but I have found that the techniques used in Digital Painting have the potential to be extremely useful in Painting pedagogy.

The extent of my experience at this point has been limited to Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, with some use of a Wacom drawing tablet in each program.  The majority of what I'd like to talk about involves Illustrator, but I think that I have only begun to explore Photoshop's applicability for painting, so there may be an update to this post in the near future.

I was immediately struck by the similarities between building up painting and a vector illustration.  To begin I didn't place any limitations on myself as far as how many colors I could use because I had no plans to print the result.  I think that is an important difference between how a painter should use the program versus a designer or printmaker.  I used a portrait of a friend and examined the image for it's essential values, colors and shapes in exactly the same way. First I outlined contours of the face of a similar value and hue, starting with lighter values and layering increasingly darker tones on top.  After completing my first vector illustration I felt like the process would be very beneficial for any painting student, but especially for graphic design students struggling with the concepts of painting.  Below you will find a few of the first vector illustrations I have made, the third is really intended to emulate building up a portrait as a painter would, shape by shape.

Achieving the correct value range is the most important aspect of creating dimensionality, and it is most often the most difficult thing for students to understand.  Very often the issue is that even if students see the correct values, they blend all of the paint in an object to achieve something that, at best, looks like a Linear Blend on Illustrator but doesn't actually communicate any planar shift.  I believe that students would be more prone to not make this mistake if they:

-make vector illustrations from photographs with pronounced light sources
-with at least 6 different and distinct values 
-with at least 6 different and distinct hues
-and create at least 3 of these vector illustrations 

The second technique with digital and physical applications is planar analysis.  Often called Polygonal drawing when created by a computer, it is the same idea, breaking down planes of an object into its essential polygons (non organic shapes).  I have found that students have a very difficult time with this assignment, particularly when asked to draw a complicated object.  However I believe that this difficulty is largely a result of physical limitations to beginning students.  Planar analysis drawings from life are very difficult, but they are extremely helpful in drawing and essential to painting.  Using Illustrator to create Polygonal drawings would eliminate the physical restrictions and allow the students to make more accurate renderings.  The drawback is that, if students are making these drawings directly from a photograph then they are ultimately robbing themselves of developing their hand eye coordination with regard to physical mark making.  However, while I believe that that is true to a certain extent, the most important thing that students can develop in a Drawing class is their ability to SEE.  If students are able to understand planar shifts from a photograph then they will certainly be able to see them from life.  The key here is not allowing students to turn in unacceptable renderings.  A quick google search of polygonal portraits will reveal a glut of examples of "digital artists" not understanding how planes work.  Behold, I give you some of those examples (note: these are just some of the first images I found on a google image search, i have no idea who the artists are):

To avoid this catastrophic failure any drawing or painting studio that incorporates digital tools must develop both approaches simultaneously.  I think the key is to keep digital programs in the right place.  They will not and cannot replace the art object, but they can help you to build the art object better.  If students can correctly decipher planar shifts their understanding of the three dimensional world will be greatly enhanced, which will most certainly improve their art making skills in general.  Below I have attached a polygonal portrait I made of my father as well as two planar analysis drawings that I made from the same photograph.

In the process of making this piece, I came to realize that if students learned how to break down the planes of the face in this manner they could translate that into making paintings in the tradition of Lucian Freud, Euan Uglow, Jenny Saville, Ann Gale, Hanjo Schmidt and a host of others.

 Jenny Saville
 Lucian Freud
 Euan Uglow
 Ann Gale
Hanjo Schmidt

When I attended undergraduate I never thought that these Digital tools would be used in tandem with a traditional Painting or Drawing class.  As a graduate student I only feared that they would be, but now as a professor I can see that they most certainly will be.  It is only a matter of time.  Seemingly every other field of visual arts (save ceramics) has been aided by the incorporation of digital technology, it is foolish to think that it will not affect painting or drawing.  The question then, is HOW will it be incorporated?  How do you construct a class that is partially painting studio, with its toxic fumes and messiness with expensive machines.  How does a professor cover the basics of Adobe Illustrator on top of teaching all of the intricacies and particularities of oil painting?

I have some ideas about how to handle these questions, and will address them in another post, but the truth is that it will probably mean that a Painting Student has a vastly different kind of education in the future.  I believe that this change will be for the better of students and Painting as a medium.  Change is good, it is a sign of life, it is an exciting time to be an Art Student.  Let's see what the future holds.  

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