Teaching & Learning in the museum district
Art Teacher as Student: Professional Development Saturdays at the MFAH
by Jacqui Chaltain, Early Childhood & Lower School Art Teacher
Saturday, Starbuck's coffee and sharing art with other professionals, what could be better? Today we would be looking at the art of portraiture with Patrick Palmer, Director of the Glassell School of Art. I can say from past experience that I was looking forward to working with Patrick again.
We started with paintings from the John and Audrey Jones Beck collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Modernist paintings. We looked at works by Frantisek Kupka, Henri Matisse, Alexei von Jawlensky and Edouard Vuillard. We viewed each piece from a different perspective: how did the artist use color and what emotion was conveyed; how was line used, whether it was dark or light; how did the portrait impact the viewer, whether positive or negative and what was included or excluded in the story being told. Artists are storytellers. Two people will look at the same subject and it will be received through each person's lens and overlaid with meaning that differs according to their unique experience.
Now we were ready to go to Glassell's painting studio for a hands-on experience. Patrick opened this activity with the technique of adding paint to a canvas by using the analogy of creating a cake. He defined the difference between the art studio approach and the art history approach to painting. The art history approach includes balance, harmony and rhythm. The art studio approach focuses on placement, editing and scale. He spoke of the eight balloons to build a painting: color, value, composition, mark making, level of realism, subject, edges and pattern. He also demonstrated placement on the canvas to show positions of power. He noted the higher on a composition and the more centrally located, the more power a subject is assigned. The artist chooses to develop any combination of these elements and rarely is any artist strong in all of them. In this way, the signature style of the artist is developed.
We all started our portraits with a ground for our painting using any color and applying the paint in any way we chose, with brush, knife or sponge. Each artist worked the paint and many chose to create a smooth application of dark and light contrast in monochromatic or anagalous color schemes. This artist went for the bold, abstract splashes of color in blue and orange. I layered it onto the palette with broad knife strokes and no particular orientation in mind. I put paint on the canvas so thick I had to take it outside to dry for the next layer. We were asked to think of a word to set the mood for our painting. I thought of transition as I felt deep in my bones the shift of energy from a younger me to an aging me. I opened myself to the memory of time when there was so much energy radiating from my spirit that I gave no thought to conserving it. It seems strange but even though my body is feeling the need to slow down, the spirit is still radiating the same bold energy.
The next layer was to develop the color choices and define a positive and negative space. Then, we were to develop values to define facial contours. Patrick stopped by and caught me trying to bring out what he called rosebuds and leaves. He said, " Not yet, wait. No details." It is common with most of us to want to develop the realism and,in doing so, miss out on what can be conveyed with a simple line or a splash of color. I heard him and wiped out the details with even more strokes of wild color. At this point, we stopped for lunch and to let the paint dry. This is always a hard thing for artists to do: stop and step back from creating. We just love interacting with the materials and the vision.
After lunch, we had a critique, which is always interesting, as the strengths and weaknesses of each painting are discussed. Emotionally, you feel slightly vulnerable, but so much of value is presented to help you that if you can get out of the way emotionally, you will gain ways to strengthen and grow. One thing I shared with Patrick later was that I always feel like I grow when I do workshops with him. I love seeing the connections between doing art and what I can share with my students so that they can have more meaningful art experiences. I really want all of us to freely experience the process in ways that break us out of the coloring within the lines. It is by far a more expansive way to interact with materials and have more freedom of expression. I was very pleased with the support and feedback I received on my portrait. I, personally, loved the expressive paint application and how I was able to move away from the need to define and capture the spirit I wanted to reveal. It was suggested that if I made any changes, that they be very little if any at all. The new Director of Education, Jason Moody had one word for me, fantastic! I had one word for the experience, freeing.
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