Remote: Teaching art online

Critique: Gina Werfel’s view from the computer

Contributed by Peter Plagens / Serious studio art classes cannot be taught online. Oh, they can be “taught”—if the professors and students accept, in a parallel to what my father used to say about cheap frozen pizza, a “cheese-like substance” in place of real cheese. That is, if everybody settles for an antiseptic virtual classroom setting with no third dimension, no sense of scale, computer-screen color only, no texture, no visceral sense of materials, no…oh, why go on? Just compare going physically into a bona fide museum to peruse its art in real life and real time, to seeing its collections or current would-have-been exhibitions on a laptop, and you’ll have some idea of the difference between in-class, flesh-and-blood teaching studio art and doing it remotely.

Initially, online instruction in art consisted of watching a professional artist draw or paint, with occasional direct address to the camera. (Sculpture, for obvious reasons, lagged.) It was like—or supposed to be like—being in the atelier with Edgar Degas, Norman Rockwell, or Alice Neel, perhaps taking notes, and applying the lessons later at one’s convenience. Then the inimitable Bob Ross came along; he bid recreational artists on the receiving end paint right along with him—stroke for stroke, happy little cloud for happy little cloud. Other than a total lack of creativity (your painting was inevitably a bad copy of “a Bob Ross”), what was missing was feedback and evaluation from a teacher. Those are exactly what—in addition to tailored assignments within a coherent curriculum—studio art classes in accredited schools are supposed to offer.

While this plague is upon us, however, and students and faculty have been driven from the classroom, necessity must be the mother of pedagogical invention. Several artists I know who also teach are venturing into the breach with different solutions.

BARBARA BUCKMAN
NIAGARA COUNTY COMMUNITY COLLEGE, BUFFALO, NY

Ms. Buckman, who teaches foundation drawing and painting classes, says most of her students have had little exposure to works of art “in the flesh” in galleries or museums, so she considers their first-hand experience with materials more important than “conceptual content.” For Ms. Buckman, the main difficulty with teaching studio courses online is that it’s more difficult to pay close enough attention to “how the students make marks on a page, put brush to canvas, the way they respond viscerally to color, texture and imagery, or how comfortable they are working in different scales.” She demonstrates online how to use basic art supplies, handle light and shade, and employ specific techniques such as cross-hatching. Missing, she says, are “impromptu critiques or discussions that come from studio encounters or from questions asked in ‘real time’.”

Barbara Buchman: Will there be pressure to continue teaching art courses online after the pandemic?

She says that even though, “There is simply no way to recreate the studio environment,” she’s sure that after the pandemic passes there will be pressure to continue teaching studio classes online because it’s cost-efficient.

RON LINDEN
HARBOR COMMUNITY COLLEGE, SAN PEDRO, CA

The challenge is a little more daunting for Mr. Linden, whose mostly minority, working-class students often lack computers, ready access to the internet, and a decent home study or studio environment. He admires their receptivity and understanding of the online compromise. His life drawing models, he says, have been “more than helpful submitting photographic images of a variety of poses fit for online distribution to students. Of course with the stipulation that they are not to be downloaded and shared.” To each of his classes he’s sent, from the past few semesters of in-person teaching, examples of successful drawings, photographs of still-life setups, innovative student self-portraits, life drawings, collages, and paintings. These are early days, Linden knows, and at this point can say only, “We’ll see how it goes.”

The figure: Ron by Ray.

HEARNE PARDEE
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, DAVIS, CA

Mr. Pardee is teaching two classes of 20 students each. One is “Reinterpreting Landscape,” which involves painting outdoors at what he calls “everyday sites” around Davis. The other is a basic sculpture course—working in clay from a model. In the former, the students’ are now “embedded in landscapes from Bakersfield to Humboldt,” which is an advantage because “working from what you can see from your home…involves diverse landscapes and their complex environmental histories.” Mr. Pardee adds, “The lawn and driveway remain central features.” For the modelling class, Mr. Pardee started with photos of a Picasso sculpture of an apple, had the students draw from them, then model in clay from their own drawings, and finally turn that sculpted apple into a head.

Mr. Pardee’s kitbag includes Zoom, Canvas and Google Drive, but understandably he finds them cumbersome. “It’s also hard to monitor students’ progress and make timely interventions [which are the heart and soul of studio teaching], but I try to maintain personal contact and provide feedback, as I would in a regular class.”                  

Hearne Pardee, teaching sculpture via Zoom.

GINA WERFEL
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, DAVIS, CA

Ms. Werfel teaches an undergraduate intermediate Figure Painting class which, of course, usually requires live models. Her solution is threefold. First, she has students paint friends or relatives in contexts that have to do with their living situations. Next, she says, “They’ll also do a painting of themselves in a mirror, with the mirrored reflection embedded in the environment, a la Velàsquez in ‘Las Meninas’ and Matisse in ‘Carmelina’.”

Finally, she’ll ask each student to give a short PowerPoint presentation on a contemporary figurative artist, and then “create their own painting inspired by the artist they studied” (from a menu including Neo Rauch, Frank Auerbach, Cecily Brown, Kyle Staver, and Dana Schutz).

Werfel’s “trying to figure out how to best imitate the three-hour studio class block of time in Zoom time. With Zoom Breakout Rooms, I can come in and talk with them as they are painting.” That’s about as close to a corporeal painting classroom experience as electronics will allow.

GREG DRASLER
THE PRATT INSTITUTE, BROOKLYN, NY“

From my not being a stickler about decorum, I get a lot of views of parents’ homes’ ceilings while the student is just emerging from bed,” says Mr. Drasler, who generally teaches advanced classes. Then there’s dealing with time zones from New York to Korea to be considered. He says he had to ask what he calls checking-all-the-supplies-in-the-lifeboat questions: “Do you have a suitable place to work?  Do you have all the materials you need?” Still, Drasler notes, “The glitch-prone strip of techno-devices patched together results in some unguarded honesty. And the students themselves make it better than just OK.”

A painting by Greg Drasler’s student Jordan King

Alas, evaluating students’ work and giving them a course grade that lands on their transcripts presents the same difficulties—in reverse flow—as does teaching studio classes online. In other words, how does an art professor fairly judge actual drawings, paintings and sculpture from flat, texture-less, miniature translations on a computer screen? The reigning solution seems to be to go with pass/fail. Abiding by this drastic binary probably mirrors how all of us are having to treat life these days.

About the author: Peter Plagens has been affiliated with Nancy Hoffman Gallery since 1974 and recently had a series of collages on view at Texas Gallery in Houston. He writes a regular column about art for the Wall Street Journal.

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