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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.”


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