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Summer Session Art 160 final critique. Photo by Christine Baker

“Trying to create a realistic, accurate likeness of yourself is a quietly revolutionary act. To do so is to state that your own face is a valid subject for art as it is, without the sort of prettifying symbolism that the left brain traffics in.” (baker160)

Typically my class content changes every semester, simply because new projects keep me more engaged in the day-to-day process of teaching. Fresh content provides new opportunities. One major exception is the erasure self portrait project that has become iconic in my section of Visual Thinking (art 160). I think I’ve included this project every semester since the first time I taught this class over ten years ago. I don’t seem to be able to let it go, although I have tried. One major reason is student demand. The semester before last I had dropped the project from the syllabus only to be implored by the students to bring it back. I learned this semester that people enroll in the course because of the project, or at least in full anticipation of it. It’s easy to keep because is offers a great mechanism for teaching about value (the grey scale aspect of the subject–its relative degree of lightness and darkness) and about other observable truths like proportions and relationships of shape, and the manner in which light creates form.  It’s a good tool for teaching direct observation–the subject (you) is always at the ready. No worries that the model won’t show up, at least physically. As I like to remind my students: I am always there for myself. The subject of self is always of interest to the artist, although rarely liked–and this is where it gets exciting for me. One of my overarching teaching motivations is to remove the idea of judgment from work in favor of the notion of discernment. Judging implies reducing all things to a level of good and bad, whereas discernment expands definitions and repertoire. For example, “this media isn’t serving this drawing and is therefore bad and I can’t use it” might become “this media is too dark/light/whatever for this drawing so I will save it for a drawing where I wish for a dark/light/whatever outcome and now explore other media”. The result is the same (putting aside the current media), but I find the method that employs an approach of openness and non-dismissal creates a habit of expanding into creative work and promotes discovery and risk-taking. It is simply a practice of working that opens rather than limits. In the matter of a student looking at her own reflection, the idea of removing judgment is against every habit she has formed. In our world, a young woman (any woman, and increasingly men too) has typically learned that the value of how her face looks is synonymous with how well she adheres to some ideal of beauty outside of her own particular looks. (Although the ideals may vary widely.) One aspect of this assignment that I value is that the student spends 18-30 hours looking at her face in search of clues as to how to accurately portray the way light falls on her features to express accurate peaks and valleys. Success comes in comparing her drawing to her specific face, not in comparing her face with some outside ideal.

The method of “erasing” ones face from a toned drawing is confusing at first. The artist must reconcile the mechanical variation of erasing the form into existence. The time necessary to work this out, helps to subvert any automatic or “encoded” symbolic drawing. The artist can’t draw like she usually does, simply because she doesn’t know how.

“and so, the final project begins. I have yet to get comfortable with the method, which is quite counter-intuitive for someone coming from a very sketch-based drawing background. whereas I am used to plotting out my work beforehand, then building layer after layer upon a firm foundation. instead, this project takes a different approach that involves basically everything that it has been engrained in me not to do – extensive erasing and focusing entirely on one piece of the drawing, finishing it completely before moving on to the next bit.

like all of the other projects we have done thus far, this assignment has really shoved me outside of my “comfort zone”, even more so than the others. however frustrating it may be, I feel as though I have already learned more from this project than any others – hyper focus, awareness, erasing symbolism, and more than all, patience.”

emerging form: Ruby Kett

It is typically frustrating at first for the simple mechanics involved in erasing into light instead of making a dark mark. And then the thought of not composing or sketching a map of the face, but instead making it whole from the center (no value can be added unless it touches the previously completed shape, and until the previous shape is finished) releases the artist from “known” thinking (this is how I make a face) and enables her to remove herself from seeing her own reflection judgmentally, because she needs to look at her face as a reference, in order to study the intricacies of light working across this complex surface.

“I got lost, in a good way. I had a dialogue with the light hitting my face, the shapes and the value. It was like I was in a space of discovering truth. Even though the project requires us to not think of symbolized versions of facial features, there were moments where I caught myself wanting to make it look like something different. Whenever I would try that, the drawing would disconnect with me. For example, I started to think of drawing shadows. That’s when I got stumped. I was focused on the mechanics of making a good shadow, instead of focusing on the changes in value on my face.” iscoloringatalent

It’s an intentionally subversive way of framing re-seeing. A quiet revolution seeds itself: the stalwart presence of these planes of light, their solidity and strength cemented through black charcoal and hours of time spent respecting and expressing their accuracy deliver the message. There’s no denying it, here we are. baker160 has eloquently written about the experience in her blog (follow the link to a beautiful article on the topic)

“Generally, when a woman is sitting in front of a mirror for hours on end trying to perfect something, she’s not striving for her face to look exactly as it does. There’s a cultural beauty ideal in place that bears no relationship to what anyone actually looks like, though woe betide you if you try to ignore it. Flipping the script such that the ideal you’re striving to replicate is already on your face—it is your face—is a necessary component of drawing a likeness.”

The process log is a means for telling the story of  your learning in words and pictures. Like any good story-telling technique, a great process log embraces all the ways a concept might connect the maker to the “reader” and takes full advantage of what words can provide. You might create a provocative headline “This is how you stop time”; or a compelling topical sentence “ignoring where our waste is going and chastising those who help in that process is a way for people to deny their responsibility“; or exciting content “the first known valentine message was sent by a prisoner of war in 1415”; or humor on occasion:  “I never knew that a chair could be so hard on a lady.”.  Language is a tool. Well-crafted writing helps me disappear into the specific flavor of another person’s story.

Imagery, like words, has its own language. When a maker uses the distinctive properties of visual messaging, she makes her story stronger. A photograph created from an unusual point of view, or in the dramatic lighting of a particular time or day, or depicting unexpected subject matter, can lend details to a story that words can’t capture. A picture strategically placed may indeed be worth a thousand words.


Images can perform what text cannot. Words can reveal what images cannot. In a blog, both languages well-crafted and working in tandem can create a compelling transporting experience.

The right relationship of word and image comprise the main content and message of the blog, but the presentation of the work is an essential component for consideration. What is the overall format of the work? (In WordPress this option can be explored in the menu under “appearance”, but these principles apply to any visual framing device.) How one critically applies her knowledge of the elements and principles of design in order to best present her idea is a critical factor in creating engaging visual  impact. A good rule of thumb in making format  choices is to never choose a framework that detracts visually from the content. Formats aren’t yet standardized for digital media, so an artist can (and must) rely on her own critical eye to make good design choices. This  compares to a general “standard” for turning in essays that are typed, double spaced, contain a 1.5” edge margin, and 12 point type; or to the white walls of a gallery with all picture frames on center at 60 inches from the floor. In the absence of an accepted standard format for digital presentation, the maker must ensure a strong “frame” that highlights, rather than competes with, the work.

A successful example of good framing is in textovernebula’s blog, where the quality and variety of the images are “read” immediately because of the careful choice of a design style. The template they chose (Theme: Imbalance 2 by WPShower) features a simple meticulously structured format that focuses on the strength of the images and headlines in the blog and avoids disruptive decorative clutter.  It is as if the page were a museum with walls that embrace the carefully curated work and invite us in to view them. I expect to be served tea. The white area surrounding the columns of body text suggests an abundance of space, fresh air, and time. The images shine through like intricately wrought chocolates in a delicately packaged text box of goodness. I want to select and savor them, one at a time. I am welcome here! Delightfully, when I click into the specific stories I am not disappointed. The photographs are nourishing, and the writing is strong in craft and interesting in content. Their blog connects me to a deeply considered and personal point of view.

Exciting visual connections and engaging, thought-provoking work that elicits an authentic experience is also found in the blog of baker160. A typical response from a student to an assignment that asks you to describe a class project sounds like a very dull subject to report on. So it is a double the thrill to read a work that expands the experience into an expanding complex of interwoven details. This process log is filled with delicacy and rigor and includes references ranging from the universal to the commonplace in an exciting subtle and smart interplay of personal narrative. It is a joy to read. It’s sort of a Renaissance blog, linking big (human) and small (personal) ideas with social and political content that is current and relevant. baker160 uses the power of the web to link thinking with evidence through her wide-ranging linked references that include mathematical formulas, the first recorded valentine, videos of gulf shrimp deformities and a shaky guitar player singing an acoustic valentine. Sample excerpts below give you a flavor for the blog, but I recommend reading–and subscribing to–it!

 “At the house across the street from Rachel and John’s, a crew has vacuuming bees out from inside the walls. A colony of honeybees had established a hive inside the kitchen walls and had been rapidly expanding into the rest of the house. There was honey inside the walls and on them. I love that image—a kitchen that is being used to make food for a colony of bees. The house had mostly been cleaned by the time I could get a photo; I’m a bit allergic to bees, and I wasn’t getting too close to them while they were loose.”


“This is something of a change for me. I’m more of a fan of words than images to convey ideas. It’s not that I don’t enjoy an idea expressed well through images, but I tend to think that there are very limited circumstances in which words aren’t the more precise way to convey a concept, philosophy, or argument. The well-explained graph or infographic is my ideal for words and images working together. Images can enhance and clarify a verbal explanation, but I always thought that whoever said a picture’s worth a thousand words was getting a terrible exchange rate. This is left-brained chauvinism, and I clearly need to think more about ways to convey information in a right-brained way.”

I have found that a great process log, like any great work of art, delights me with careful craft while a big idea sneaks in and makes its bed in my heart:

“I had a surprisingly similar problem with a pie I baked for a party this weekend. I intended to garnish this in the center, but there was an off-center ripple in the filling from when I’d moved it from the oven to the refrigerator. I knew it was off-center, but it was compelling as a place to put crushed Girl Scout Cookies and strawberries. I wound up correcting for it by expanding the garnished area to include the actual center of the pie. It’s interesting to me to see that there are so many circumstances in which patterns or design features make me think that I’m looking at the center of an object, but I’m really not.

It’s fascinating to me to start seeing these systematic errors in my visual thinking. It’s like taking a logic class for the first time and realizing that your closely-held opinions are based on fallacies and what the TV news lady with the pretty hair says.”

Attention to the craft of visual and written language makes the structure disappear, and lets me revel in the experience of ideas. The maker reveals who she is in her manor of writing and showing, and if she’s honest about that, I am interested and engaged. When you share experience and it feels true to me, you leave me asking questions about my world and I can see how your truths apply to me. Your experience increases my own.

Kirstein Gonzalez–blind contour

The blind contour drawing experience usually elicits strong feelings one way or another, which is why I always like to include at least a day of it in the visual thinking class. Some artists consider the blind contour an excellent way of warming up to get ready for a precision drawing based on observation, while other artists use the technique as a destination skill–a way to capture the essence or spirit of an object without the burden of realistic rendering. Elle  describes  everything I would hope a student could get from this lesson in her sensitive, well-written and descriptive entry “Drawing with my eyes Closed” (excerpt:)

Then it clicked with me: this isn’t an exercise about drawing, it’s about seeing. The lines on the paper only tell the story of what you saw, kind of like a lab notebook in squiggle form. The drawing is not supposed to be photo realistic. What matters is that I connected my eyes to my arm and recorded the lines I perceived in the hand.

Check out the range of experiences of this exercise.  Alex said:

I really hated it! I felt so out of control….One thing I found interesting was that I was less frustrated when I was drawing blind contour with my left hand. I think this was because since i am right-handed, I felt better about drawing “badly”. It was like because I was drawing with my left hand, I was given permission to draw badly and be out of control.

But Elle said:

This class in particular was relaxing and a real pleasure to participate in….the further on in class we got the more comfortable I was with letting go and letting whatever happened happen.  When I looked at what I had done I was always surprised.  What I drew and what I saw in my head were completely different.

Kristin Bell Blind Contour

Other interesting ideas that came out of the day are Anahita’s thought:

there’s so much you can’t see in an object (or a face!) at first, second, or even third glance, but being forced to look at the same lines over and over really makes it impossible not to see how they relate to each other. Quite apart from that, I found the drawings just plain fun (when they weren’t mildly exasperating).

and Polly, who made me laugh out loud in her post when she said: “I actually love myself”. She was talking about her portrait, but it reminded me of one of the reasons I like this assignment, which is that it forces you to drop the idea of seeing your self as something to judge as good or bad / ugly or pretty, but instead to see it (your body/face/hands)  in terms of form alone, which seems pointless to judge. I mean, is a triangle more perfect than a square? [Only when the triangles in power need the squares to fail…but I digress.] Polly offers a sensitive take on the assignment in her process description “Stinky Feet” (provocative header!):

Drawing blindly is extremely difficult but it definitely frees your mind and relinquishes your control.  I don’t believe that even if you tried to have control over this activity that you could.

The arty brain side takes over no matter what because you are BLIND. Especially, with music on in the background.

Syedah draws Michelle

Reading these excellent process logs shows me why I find the information you all write so valuable. As a teacher (and a relatively old and experienced person) it’s easy to lose site of what it’s like to be where you are—on the risky side of the easel. I forget about the difficulty of putting a mark on a page, right there in the middle of the room, blatantly, for all the world to see (and judge). Of course taking those risks are part of the creative process. Anytime we share we risk, but it’s in the sharing that we get to relate and discover ourselves and each other (maybe discover ourselves through the shared experience of each other). I am happy to be able to post links to some of your process logs that offer me insight and revelation into what you are (and are not!) learning. Writing is thinking, drawing is thinking. Putting together a personalized, thoughtful, risky and well-expressed point of view is another way of performing a creative act that gives the reader/viewer/perceiver (and teacher!) a new way of seeing. Thank you Anahita, Polly, Kirstein and Meghan for some great work! Follow these links to process logs worth reading!

Natasha Byrd, Elepeacok, Spring 2010

  1. A delightful fantasy: an animal that exists as a mix between an elephant (large, heavy, grey, earthbound) and a bird (small, agile, colorful, flying)
  2. The coloration and textures of the materials used for the family group suggest the beauty of a peacock’s plumage without being overly descriptive, the metal wire suggests the elephants shape without telling us too much. Everything about the piece is provocative and evocative. We are moved to study the work.
  3. In a project asking for ONE animal, we are presented with a family grouping—immediately we are put in mind of relatedness
  4. One member of the family group is a pile of remains. This is the grandmother–she is dead
  5. The materials of the “bones” of the dead grandmother are more precious than those of living—gold instead of silver
  6. Intrigued, the viewer might be moved to gather more information about the work and seek the artist’s blog site (LINK) where one would discover innovative and informative use of the electronic media—a presentation on how elephants remember and commemorate their ancestors by caressing the bones of their relatives when they pass by the site of their passing

Erin Knox, Carl the Elephant, wire and copper, 8x8x2

How can a six-inch light-gauge bendy wire outline have the weight of an elephant? Erin Knox achieves the seemingly impossible through a balanced dialogue between materials and subject in her work Carl the Elephant currently on display at Agnes Scott’s Dalton Gallery. The twisted wire line acts like a Möbius strip as it sets up the viewer to enjoy a descriptive and predictable outline, but quietly crosses over into the abstract as an ear becomes the space across and through solid planes and into another dimension—leaving the viewer intrigued and involved in figuring it out. This finesse of form creates an emphasis on the shape that is formed, and lends a weight to what is not there. The juxtaposition of light wire with heavy copper rings placed on the bottom of each “foot” at the base of the figure suggests weight, balance, connection and attraction of the subject to the earth. As in Rachel Whiteread’s castings of empty spaces, the piece intrigues us through a simple physical form with complex intellectual implications.

Carolines “mess”: In class exercise 1

The point of my request for you to make a mess on this drawing is to deflect you from trying to create a precious and perfect artwork. The truth is, there is work and mess that goes into art. The particulars of the mess are what makes the drawing interesting! Like when you tell me gossip, I want to hear all the details, not just the end facts. The precious and perfect part comes at the very end in the PRESENTation the work. If you don’t divorce these two categories: making and presenting, you bind yourself with judging a work that hasn’t had a chance to develop. My intention is to free you from the constraints of preconceptions about how to make a “good” picture. (Never “should” on yourself, as my brother’s acting teacher said) In fact, remove the idea of having to be “good”  altogether. It doesn’t help you take the risks you need to take to learn, and it will ensure bad (or at least dull) work. I was interested that instructions to “make a mess” made some of you happy and comfortable and others  very uncomfortable! Which side do you fall on? Caroline made a beautiful drawing (above), but she doesn’t recognize it, and doesn’t want to own it! The line work and power of how authentically and accurately she engaged the act of observation brings the marks on this page to life. The integrity of the marks make this rewarding for me to look at. In her reflection

my perfectionism got the best of me and I was unable to complete half of the assignment. (from Caroline’s blog)

In my mind, this is a finished work, and very much a complete assignment! The “unfinished”-ness of the object cause me to focus on the mark-making (and not the chair) as the central “figure”  of the drawing. The marks do not disappoint–rigorous, and self confident, they stand on the page as a mysterious pointer that begs questions of the viewer instead of giving an answer.

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