Thursday, October 11, 2012

Artist's Achilles Heel

Interesting thing about being an art teacher---you might not excel in every area of art. I recently described photography and handwriting as my left and right Achilles heels as an art teacher. I have, not one, but two colleagues who put me to shame in both categories. And I just got back from a trip to Mongolia with both of them...

I understand the theory of good photography. I know some of the technical stuff like f-stop and shutter speed. Had to learn that stuff for Praxis. I even co-taught photography with the tech teacher during my first student teaching. Plus I understand composition, value, texture---all those elements and principles of art. I just can't manage to make it work when I'm behind the lens of a camera! These days, I don't even own a camera. It died during my second year in China and I haven't bother to replaced it. I did buy a Nikon DSLR for the art department at the end of that year, and have been known to borrow it on occasion, but I live most of my life abroad without a camera. I was thankful to my photography-talented friends for documenting our adventures in the steppe of Mongolia.

And then it happened.

We were in a ger of a local family. My friend was sitting on the floor, learning a game similar to jacks from the wife. He passed the camera over so someone could document the game. While I had the camera, the daughter made her way to the door. I snapped this shot. And then I clicked a few more times. Just in case the first one didn't turn out.

It might be the only good photo I've ever taken. And my friends---they each have 400 amazing shots from the week---but I'm especially enamored with my sweet picture of this little girl, looking out into the world from the safety of her humble home.

After I referred to handwriting and photography as my left and right Achilles heels, I realized I am also embarrassed by my inability to draw from my imagination. Drawing from observation, no problem--but drawing from my head, drawing anything in a cartoon-style, no way! I guess I am a three-legged artist, or at least a three-heeled one...

Do you have an area of art where you struggle? Are you embarrassed by it? Have you found ways to work around your weakness?

I will print a poster
rather than make it by hand because I prefer fonts to anything I can handwrite, or could. Just this week, I decided to view handwriting as an exercise in observational drawing---mimic the letters of favorite fonts when writing by hand.

Maybe this will be a turning point in my relationship with my handwriting.

Photo processing credits to Warren.
Not sure how much he tweaked it. I know I didn't shot in black and white, but I love it as a black and white image.


Elizabeth - Dream Painters said...

You're right, it is a fabulous shot! And what a marvelous place to be, what an adventure, I'm so envious!

Nancie Kay said...

Your post reminded me of my nephew who also traveled to Mongolia for a short stay while living in S. Korea for a year, teaching English. The wide open spaces in his photos were breathtaking as well as his portraits of the family he stayed with while there. He could not say enough good things about the hospitality of the people there! It sounds like you had a similar experience...Your photo captures all the basics of those pesky elements & principles we work with day in and day out while transmitting the essence of childhood - able to face the world from the safety of our home...
I have found that my skills as an artist have vastly improved over the course of my teaching career simply because I have to draw on them (pardon the pun) every day in the classroom. Just like we tell our kids - practice, practice, practice!
I'll never be a Picasso or Cassatt but I am becoming a better me! Thanks for your post - it gave good thoughts to start my busy day...

Elizabeth said...

Those are both areas of weakness for me too. Art educators are pushed to be literate in some many different materials that I often feel that I never reached the level of mastery I'd like to have in any medium. I find myself buying books and considering taking classes to improve my own art skills and knowledge.

I've found that because of my trouble with drawing from imagination and memory, that I tend to supplements lessons with lots of visual examples and ideas for my students. I find their work is much more detailed. I think it is a good skill to teach, to look closely. I'd rather have students have strong observational drawing skills than as an area of weakness.

Love your blog!

Stephanie Melachrinos said...

Mongolia was quite the adventure! It was never on my list of places to go but I really wanted to go SOMEWHERE and that's where people were going so I said OK! It was beautiful, though I kept wondering Wyoming and Montana basically look the same...

The people were very welcoming. We stayed at a camp and most of the families nearby had already left for the winter, but this one family was great.

It wasn't until I started describing the picture in words that I realized the great symbolism in her stance, holding on to the door frame, but lifting her foot off the ground, about to step out from the comfort of home.

Nancie, I've also seen some of my skills sharpened over the years. Each fall, I demonstrate a blind contour drawing of my hand to the fifth graders. Unfortunately, I've gotten so good at drawing the contours without looking that it doesn't make the comical but thoughtful shapes I am trying to show to the students! Sometimes you'd think I'd cheated and looked at my hand!

The greatest area I've improved in, though, is graphic design. I do a lot of small scale designing for the school. It's nothing fabulous but those skills are much better than back in college.

Elizabeth--I agree that I'd prefer students to have strong observational drawing skills, but I find those skills easier to teach than imaginative drawing. I think Picasso was right when he said every child was born an artist--the trouble is how to remain one when they grow up. It seems that imagination and creativity are already found in abundance in children. My goal is to help them stay as long as possible WHILE honing technical skills such as observational drawing. Some of my Asian students have already had their creativity "beat" out of them by 2nd grade. They only know how to copy the teacher's drawing. That is heartbreaking to me.

Jessica Young said...

That is a beautiful photo! I took a b&w photography class in college, but I'm sad to say I haven't done much photography since.
~Jessica (

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