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Facing a Blank Canvas - Part 3: Overcoming Barriers

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Activities ProgramPart three of a four-part blog series, from a conversation with Visual Arts Instructor Mark Mulherrin

For me, addressing barriers that students bring to creating art can be like unraveling a clot of fishing line at times. How I deal with it is to be encouraging and to try to make them feel comfortable. But it is less important how I deal with it; it’s how do they deal with it. The difficulty is that students often bring some fixed preconception of the product to the process. If a student attempts a painting and the result is her saying “I hate it,” I’m thinking, “It’s just a painting—you made this little baby and you hate it? What is that about?” If it doesn’t match up to their preconceived result, it’s hard to change that; it’s hard to make them see the honest effort they put into it.

Another roadblock is the idea of representation. If a student draws an apple, they may look at it and think (or say) “That doesn’t look like an apple.” No matter how poetic or beautiful their attempt is of rendering the idea of an actual apple—let’s say it’s all anxious and sketchy lines and it's not quite right in some way they imagine (even though there’s beauty in that)—what they want is a slick rendering of an apple. There is this false idea that the best drawing in the world looks like a photograph. Anybody can learn how to do that; it just takes time and it takes practice. It's a series of steps and techniques and understanding of how things work on a page and how the pencils work and you can teach all that.

But to have academic rendering be your paradigm is inherently frustrating because it's not easily accessible. What's accessible is accepting where you’re at, not “I can't do that thing.” Well, why could you? I can’t do quantum mechanics; there’s a lot of things I can't do.

I actually did take a look at a range of different ways people paint apples—a three-year-old, a student, Cezanne, Picasso, and a bunch of others. The interesting thing is, when you see them all at once, you realize wow, no single one of them is more valid than the other. There might be highs and lows within each one, but it's not like one is less valid—they’re all different, but recognizable as apples. Each one is an example of an individual experience. How can they grapple and devour and then spit this thing out onto a canvas or a piece of paper?

Check back next week for Part 4: The Blank Canvas 

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