Thursday, December 13, 2018

Should Art Schools Teach Fundamental Skills?

Should art schools teach the fundamental skills of drawing and painting from observation?
"Drawing from observation and nature and commonly from the life model has been actively discouraged,' says Andy Pankhurst, an artist who teaches at various institutions including the Royal Drawing School, which offers a 'skills-based' foundation course (life drawing is compulsory in the first two terms). While teaching at Slade during the early 00s, students told him they were no longer coming to his life drawing class because other tutors had told them if they did, they would turn into vegetables. 'They were being told that working from observation meant you had no concept or ideas, when nothing could be further from the truth.'"
This question doesn't seem to come up at music conservatories.
Quote from the Guardian: Should all art students learn to paint and draw?


Celia said...

My opinion as an art person (BA Fine Arts) is that it is/was important to learn to use all my tools, including my observatonal skills.

Rubysboy said...

I think drawing and color and composition and handling of materials are all fundamental.
A certain amount of skill at reproducing the surface look of a variety of scenes and objects seems fundamental to me. But fluency in using a particular representational schema developed in Europe from 1500-1900 seems to me to be an option, one that many beginning students will probably choose, but not the only option. I would be delighted if a young artist today could do as well as Giotto (pre-perspective) or a Chinese scroll painter or an Indian miniature painter or an African mask carver or a Maori tatooist or a Picasso or Matisse. What the ateliers teach is a style along with fundamental skills.

The comparison with music is a bit deceptive. A more apt comparison would be classical music, the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven in the 18th century. Should every music conservatory teach the fundamental skills of classical music? A good question and very much similar to the question of whether art schools should teach 19th century European drawing and painting skills.

Kevin Mizner said...

One can always choose not to use a skill that has been learned, but one can't use a skill that hasn't been learned.

Richard said...

So I have been teaching for over 10 years. I have taught everything from Graphic Design, Illustration 3d and Game design. Every school that I have taught at has or has had the the fundamentals, everything from basic drawing, with perspective and anatomy, basic color, and design. The issue is two fold. 1. Students don't think about the basics when they start out, and really focus on the new project at hand. It doesn't matter if it's an illustration or a 3d model, they are more focused with the project than the basics of color, design and principle. 2. I think schools don't stress how important the basics are. One or two classes for drawing, a class for design and a class for color, if it's not shoved together with the design class. In my classes I often fail students for not getting/understanding the basics. And they fail to do so because they are so focused on the next step or process.

brine blank said...

"One can always choose not to use a skill that has been learned, but one can't use a skill that hasn't been learned."

'Learning to draw' is about learning to see and problem solving and fits in with nearly every aspect of art I can think of. The fundamental skills of drawing and painting transfer over into the digital realm as well...I have seen plenty of success of traditional artists utilizing digital (but most I have had contact with personally, at the end of the day, use digital as an editing tool because it wasn't the magic machine they had envisioned.) BUT I can't really think of anyone that I have personally ran across (and I am sure there are exceptions somewhere) that it worked the opposite direction..the ones I have been involved with that started digital had a lot of fundamental issues with drawing and digital painting, some flash but no substance, and couldn't (or were not) able to handle traditional media. I've seen some spectacular digital artists, but it is a tool, and those artists can handle a brush just as well as they can handle a WACOM tablet.

Once I had a girl wanting to join my class but said, "I don't like to draw". I told her that was like saying someone was wanting to join a creative writing English class but didn't like to write....I couldn't make the connection. The director/principal was upset and couldn't understand why if the students wanted a dinosaur drawn that the computer couldn't do that for them...

Michael Pianta said...

I think the issue isn't whether ALL students should learn these skills (as the question is put in the Guardian headline) but whether serious art schools should be able to offer this instruction to those students who are interested.

I went to a university, got a BFA, then subsequently attended an atelier and now teach at that same atelier. I have had many conversations with people about universities primarily ignoring, and evening denigrating "fundamental" skills. When I tell people about this, they often don't quite believe me. One time a woman who had a music degree was visiting the school - she was working for a city arts council that had awarded us a grant - and myself and the other instructors and the director were explaining that most BFA programs simply do not teach these skills. She could hardly believe it. It took all of us to convince her. I have had many similar conversations with donors, interested members of the public who have come to our exhibitions, parents and spouses of students and potential students, etc.

The comparison to music conservatories is apt, because everybody seems to assume that art programs work the same way - that is, students are free to pursue their interests, whether that's traditional classical music and performance or more contemporary, avant-garde styles. But at my BFA program (which was a very small program) the hostility to traditional realism was pretty entrenched. I know for a fact that a handful of students dropped out or changed majors because the faculty was so opposed to them pursuing traditional techniques and subjects. Another whole batch of us abandoned our early "realist" goals, and started making "contemporary" works, with various degrees of success. Exactly as described in the quote, we were all told that making realist work was unsophisticated, and that even knowing how traditional paintings were "supposed" to be made would ruin our creativity forever. Basically, you won't have to "de-skill" if you never acquire any skill in the first place. That seemed to be the dominant attitude in my department, and I don't think it was at all unique in that respect.

As you can probably tell I feel strongly about this. I could truly go on at length, but perhaps I should stop here, lol!

Paul Sullivan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul Sullivan said...

I am wondering why the merit of teaching the fundamentals of artistic training is suddenly in question. Isn’t this an old question? The fundamentals of art training were abandoned by the fine art programs offered by a host of universities over 60 years ago. Has it taken this long for “art schools” to catch on?

In the mid 1950s, I remember my friends and I discussing the possibility that sooner or later there may not be college level instructors who could teach drawing and painting.

It is interesting to note how many fundamental skills were lost during the Dark Ages—not only in art but also in things like construction and medicine. They fell out of use and were no longer passed on to following generations.

Susan Cushing said...

As an older adult struggling to put my ideas into paintings, I am realizing daily that my lack of fundamental skills is a great liability.
It feels as if I'm re-inventing the wheel, every time I solve a problem that, in retrospect, is obvious to friends who have the basic
skills from going through courses in color, perspective, drawing, etc. I wish I could spend 2-3 years going through the drawing studies of a classical training program. It would allow my ideas to manifest because I would have control of my tools and my mediums and my eye/brain/hand coordination. I am so grateful for the books and on line classes now offered. Mr. Gurney's 'Color and Light' has been a great help. Thanks for the work of putting that book out.

Lauren F-M said...

I actually think it is despicable to NOT teach fine art students how to draw and paint things from life. At the same time, teach them how to creatively think, too. A fine arts degree for a visual artist should teach the skills of drawing -- really drawing! -- and also how to think creatively, use a lot of different kinds of media (painting, sculpture, photography, printmaking..), so they don't simply graduate with skills and no great concepts of how to make exciting art with them. I see a marriage of old and new.

If they learn the real skills, then they actually are employable (though probably self-employed) when they graduate. And, while I'm at it, please also teach them business skills -- which we didn't learn back when I attended art schools in the 1970s.

Mr. Wood said...

Its complicated. Obviously if you want to make a certain kind of art...learning to draw, the fundamentals seem very important and beneficial. So the usefulness comes down to the artist and what type of work he does. In a liberal arts setting I would think students would get exposure to all types of art, and as they gravitate toward certain types they can dive deeper into the skills they might need. For an abstract artist I would think after awhile they could leave the life drawing behind, but there is certainly other abstract artists who pull from observation to get their image. So i guess it boils down to the individual. I would think in a school setting they should definitely expose students to direct observation.

D.Endrews said...

But what else is there but fundamentals? what are the alternatives?
By reading that article I dont' understand if there is an alternative approach to teaching or does it implying something else?

MK Buike said...

Most of my art education was in high school, back in the 1960's. I am forever grateful that I learned the basics of drawing. I briefly contemplated being an Art major in college. However, as one writer above said, the department was so anti-realism that I knew I wouldn't do well. From what I know now, I might have been better off in an Illustration program.

Anyway, now that I am rediscovering art in retirement with Urban Sketchers, I am so glad I had that early training in the basics of drawing.

So, yes, those basics should be taught. As abstract as Picasso became, we can see in his early work that he really could draw!

Unknown said...

Well, the problem is, as much as it is impossible to avoid the fundamentals of any sphere of activity in order to achieve facility.. there might be some truth in what these “tutors” were suggesting.

It’s interesting to note that the last line is “This question doesn’t come up at music conservatories” I mean it even says it in the name. The school is called a “conservation of music” not a “new conception of music. It’s not called a music conceptionary. And almost none of the great musicians that have changed and pushed contemporary western music in the last 100 years have come from a consevatory. Tons of incredible technicians. But the ones coming up with the new ideas, and pushing things forward and expanding genres: Almost universally avoid fundamental training except at the bare minimum needed.
Would Jimi Hendrix have even been Jimi Hendrix if he had all that music conservatory training? Well we could argue it, but any list of the 100 greatest innovators and creators in modern music history is going to consist of the primarily unschooled and mostly lacking fundamentals (beyond basic facility).
Modern western art is of course, not quite such a clear path, but when you really get down to it, the artists leading us to new genres and new approaches. The ones shaking the fundamental roots of popular culture. Well they mostly haven’t been completed by the type of personality that has the tenacity and diligence to work in an atelier countless hours year after year spending 30 hours making perfect charcoal drawings of plaster casts.
Or maybe, every time we practice fundamentals we are in fact grooving in those neural pathways, both in our actual physical strokes, brush movement, but also in the way we observe, what we observe and how we think about it.
Probably outright creativity would be hindered by too much pre drilling in of the neural pathways early in someones career. Probably we do have to, in some degree choose between utter creativity and utter craftsmanship, and probably even more so we are already prebuilt individually to be leaning more in once direction, and the other direction would likely be so onerous to us that the decision makes itself.

So I think probably the answer is, do what moves you. Because frankly if you don’t enjoy life drawing why are you doing it anyway? That’s the fundamental of all fundamentals for us to learn maybe.

Chris Iliff said...

I teach fine art and illustration at a university in Wales. Our first year core modules comprise of teaching fundamental skills such as life drawing, perspective, colour theory etc. But along side this students are also required to attend courses in traditional photography, printmaking, illustration and contemporary art. The topic is debated by far more qualified persons than myself but in my view, the teaching of fundamental skills is incredibly important to all students, not just for those who want to be realist painters. The practice of learning to observe the world in detail, deconstruct, filter and record is the key to developing unique ideas in whatever artistic field a student chooses. Students who choose to pursue photography, or contemporary art in the 2nd and 3rd years are able to still apply those same principles learnt in a life class. The argument seems to suggest that by not teaching fundamental skills then you're enabling them to be more free to do whatever they want. But without giving students at least some understanding of these skills limits their artistic vocabulary and instead of giving more freedom, you're only developing skills in one specific cognitive area, actually giving them less freedom. The irony is that the radical approach now, is to teach skills.

brine blank said...

"The irony is that the radical approach now, is to teach skills."

We have gone through a time (and hopefully are coming out of it) where across the spectrum anything labeled as fundamental, being of conservative thought, or labeled as a 'core' value is to be thoroughly mocked and destroyed, as it is from the 'old guard'. And what isn't realized is that those things are what has brought such success. As someone else mentioned, Picasso got into experimental areas but he could draw and paint realistically.

1. In the US for at least 30 years rote memorization has been marginalized as pointless old school mentality. So everyone stopped with some of the basic math skills taught: multiplication tables, basic addition and subtraction. Now it is new math that nobody understands. 1 + 1 =2...Old Guard....1 + 1 = whatever you want it to be...there literally is no right answer because it is about your thoughts and feelings on the matter...and I'm not joking. So if you go through a fast food drive-thru and give exact change and they owe you a dollar, you may get stuck waiting 20 minutes for a manager to come and reset the system...and they won't believe you when you tell them they just owe you a dollar (true story that has happened more than once). Now some districts are starting to rethink this.

2. Cursive writing. They are finding out since this has been eliminated that well over half the students going into college have to take bonehead classes because they can't function with basic English. Along with this skill used to be taught sentence structure and diagraming. As my former Director (who was an English teacher 20 plus years) said, "You don't need to know the parts of a sentence to be able to write a sentence." The statewide end of the year tests, writing portion, gives you an above passing grade if you can convey an idea. Sentence structure, spelling, punctuation??? It was all deemed unnecessary and you were told to ignore this so long as you could get a general idea. Seniors in High School could write a sentence that a four year old would write and it was okay. The US is near the top in self-esteem testing where students THINK they are...but the reality of testing the hard skills shows we are at best middle of the pack. Somewhere along the line truth, skill, winning and losing has been shoved into a closet for the bubble wrap generation to feel good all of the time...and they have turned into the most miserable group of people on the planet.

The navy for a time even stopped teaching starlight navigation in basic. Who needs that when you have GPS...of course then we're in the news all summer for crashing battleships into fishing vessels...but someone finally figured out that systems can go down and it is important to know some hardcore basics to pull from the bag if you have to.

EoR (End of Rant)

Gini said...

One should view the 10 minute video titled “The Dot And The Line: A Romance In Lower Mathematics”. I don’t want to be a squiggle.

James Gurney said...

Thanks, everybody...these are very thoughtful and perceptive comments.

Radar, a lot of people who haven't been exposed to contemporary university art programs are astonished to hear that what we would think of as fundamental drawing skills are constantly challenged, but they are in many places.

Jonathan's comment is helpful because it makes us take a big step back from the question. The problem as I see it is that art means so many things to so many people that there are no shared values that are teachable, even at the level of fundamentals. I have a friend who teaches a foundational drawing course at a university. His idea is that fundamentals should include such things as perspective, shading, and proportion. But his colleagues in the fine art department feel such basic training fosters narrow thinking, and that the students should be more engaged in undirected mark-making. They think that mark-making practice necessarily liberating; my friend thinks it's self-indulgent and counterproductive.

There will always be friction between competing ideas in any school, and that's a good thing. But if a school's idea of art is too expansive and inclusive, it risks making the program self-defeating. To the extent that the faculty and students share basic values and goals about what art is, it's possible to create a coherent curriculum.

Rubysboy, The real difference in my mind between music training and art training traces back to the nature of the art forms. In music (classical music at least) the repertoire must always be re-created by sympathetic artists who acquire the skills to perform it. There is no music without musicians performing it. There's no real equivalent in painting. Turner's paintings are finished; they don't require young painters to replicate them on a regular basis. So in any setting of musical education, there must always be respect for history and tradition. In art it's possible to be an artist and throw all traditional skills in the dumpster.

Jamie Williams Grossman said...

Don't even get me started! This would never happen in the music education field because you'd never get audiences to listen to or buy the resulting music. In art however, we have conservators who create spin around kindergarten-style works hung upside down, using verbiage to sell it to curiosity-seekers. Visual art should be able to tell its own story without a five page explanation. Personally, I think they feel threatened by artists who know the basics, and how to deliver a message visually, without a five page explanation. I recently went to DIA in Beacon and thought it would make a better roller skating/skateboard park! What a waste of space.

I know countless artists who say they never learned to draw in art school. You never find graduates of music schools who didn't study music theory, form and analysis, counterpoint, basic knowledge of their instrument, and usually a second instrument (piano for non-pianists). You don't find foreign language majors who didn't study grammar, or math majors who didn't take basic algebra. Imagine if software engineer majors just played video games all day, instead of learning code. This is not going to change in the art school world until conservators and galleries stop spinning art that doesn't meet basic quality standards.

Jamie Williams Grossman said...

A comment back to those who have spoken about differences in music and art:
Just as we don't know all the artists' names who have played a role in Pixar movies, or designed brilliant marketing design ideas, or do storyboard designing, or create characters, we don't see all those musicians behind the scenes who are making the musical world go round. It's not just pop music out there. It's true that if you just want to play a few chords and write rap lyrics, or throw paint at a canvas in pretty colors, you don't need to go to music school OR art school for that! (I am not denigrating popular music, which I do like. I'm just making a point about it. And if you want a great back up musician for your concert, you'll probably end up hiring one of those music school graduates.) As a music conservatory graduate, I can tell you that we all learned jazz, composition, arranging, and other creative forms of music-making. I see a clear parallel with art, where from the basics, one can go in many different directions. Without them, you're stuck inside your own world. If that's what you want, no problem; however, you don't need to go to school to be stuck in your own world.

Jamie Williams Grossman said...

Wish I could edit my posts here, but I meant to say "curators" instead of "conservators" in my comments. They are obviously not the same thing. Senior moment!

Cat165 said...

Many of the artists that we revere for their avant-guarde or new style have classical, traditional training, so I can't imagine that teaching traditional skills is being debated! I agree with Kevin!
A point often overlooked, but many artists with classical training may relate to, learning how to see is a tool that may enhance one's effectiveness in many fields, not just art.
I believe that everyone would benefit from learning how to see and draw.

Luce said...

Deskilling, post-studio, MFA art is entirely based on transgression - meaning art that is premised on changing other people. Arguably never a good idea.

The precepts of learning skill to convey beauty and goodwill and sorrow in art assumes that - the artist has learned their craft and that the actual content of their art is their state of being as they make art.

In dance, music or film deskilling and rant are a complete non-starter - meaning no one will even endure the slacker poser urinal inspired burn the museum down temper tantrum of contemporary art.

Unknown said...

When entering into any field of study a solid foundation is necessary. Not having a solid foundation will force you to reinvent things you should already know. Humanity depends on foundations to improve over time.

Conceptual, abstract or realistic art is about communication. Strong foundational skills become second nature and work in the background of the subconscious informing the artist on decisions that make the artist more capable of communicating their ideas to those around them. The comment to "forget everything you learned" to create great art can be said because it is second nature once you have practiced enough to imprint the foundations on your mind. Certainly, you can communicate an idea without strong foundations, I see it everyday driving on the highway but with foundational knowledge you should be able to communicate in much more sophisticated way. Art that only communicates the baser instincts is tiring on the mind and just keeps us in the barbaric mode we have been repeating for decades.

Sakievich said...

I’ve taught foundations, figure drawing, drawing, painting and illustration for years and years now and I think what gets missed, and I’ve had and continue to see these conversations, is that while you can certainly focus on drawing as a skill where you’re transcribing what you’re seeing. I think that’s a myopic view of things though. I had a photo professor colleague who wanted to know why we bother teaching drawing when 3D renders are so much better and faster. He’s seen his profession shrink considerably as a result of 3D over the years. But I think that’s literally the most superficial aspect of it. Drawing is about learning to see how your eye sees, thus you can also see what others see it’s about detaching your attachment and training to the verbal and symbolic. It makes you better able to assess what’s actually directly in front of you. It’s about learning to organize and edit, thus design. It’s about learning craftsmanship and focus, something that can appear superficially in digital work, but must be struggled with in analog mediums and makes students more attentive in the newer media. The students I saw in upperclassmen levels who were having the hardest time putting their thoughts into reality, were those that failed to understand drawing and discounted its value. Honestly, I believe that in thisi world where visual thinking is more vital than ever, those who can clearly express their ideas through the immediate craft of drawing, whether that’s a painting, design concept, product or otherwise are going to be far more advantaged than those who set it aside as something we used to do, but have moved beyond. That well is not yet dry.