Teaching in broad strokes

MU art teachers have to go beyond the normal scope to improve, engage and inspire their students
Sunday, October 17, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:12 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

A teapot, a book and two lemons sit on a pedestal in the center of the classroom. Aside from the soft drip of the faucet into a paint-spattered sink and the faint hum of a John Mayer song from an old radio, the class is locked in quiet concentration.

About 20 students sit at two long tables littered with art supplies, staring at their pencil sketches with a mixture of concentration and bewilderment. In moments of inspiration, they make adjustments in a flutter of scribbles and erasures.

While her students focus on interpreting the centerpiece, MU art teacher Valerie Wedel paces the room.

“Take your work,” she says, “hold it away from yourself, and turn it upside down. You’ll see things you wouldn’t notice otherwise.”

More than 1,700 students are enrolled in applied art classes at MU this semester. Some plan to pursue art as a career, and others are merely indulging an avocation. In any event, learning to be an artist is different from most areas of study. There are no hard facts, no correct answers. What matters, especially early in the artist’s development, is technique.

But how does one learn something as esoteric and enigmatic as art? How does one go about teaching it?

“Michelangelo once said, ‘If people knew how hard I had worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful at all,’” Wedel says. “I think that pretty much sums up art.”

The MU art faculty is a mixture of graduate students, assistant professors and working professionals who balance the teaching world with careers as artists. They share common traits in their teaching methods. They emphasize the fundamentals, such as shape rendering and perspective. They also try to manage a studio and classroom environment that encourages creativity.

MU drawing professor Brooke Cameron said she uses the outside world to help her students practice fundamentals and to provide subject matter. Cameron’s class is based on observational drawing; immersing students in real subjects is an important goal of her class.

“You do a lot of theory in the classroom, and then you go outside and see if you can really do it,” she says.

On a recent sunny afternoon, Cameron took her class to Peace Park for a lesson in landscape drawing. She explains the criteria for the day’s exercise like a coach giving a locker-room pep talk. She tells them what to look for — elements of foreground and background, size, clarity and lighting.

“You have the power to change things in your drawing,” she says. “What we’re after is an interesting composition based on this park.”

As a light breeze rustles through the trees, Cameron moves from student to student, addressing problems and giving progress reports. The class has been working on still-life and cityscape, but today, Cameron is urging her students to move away from drawing straight lines and sharp angles.

“Concentrate on landscape elements,” she tells them. “You won’t have the geometric elements to rely on.”


Lampo Leong instructs Ashley Martin in advanced drawing. Lively discussion with students is one of Leong's main teaching tools.

She sits next to each student, acknowledging choices in perspective but pointing out when something isn’t working. At one point, she takes up the charcoal pencil and demonstrates.

“Get some of this foliage to hang down and overlap,” she explains while making a few passes at the student’s drawing. “Like this.”

A few moments later, Cameron offers encouragement to a young woman seated on a bench who is sketching trees.

“Don’t leap to detail — work on getting the basics and then go from there,” she tells one student. “It’s like writing an outline before you write the essay. You’re off to a good start; just stick with it.”

Hanging over every art class is an unanswered question: “Is the artist born or made?” Can someone learn to be an accomplished artist, or is there a special genius in their DNA? Some believe that anyone who loves and is committed to art has a chance at success. Others maintain that the absence of certain characteristics is why most people suffer from the artistic equivalent of tone deafness.

At first glance, beginning painting teacher Nick Pena seems to be a student offering friendly criticism to his peers. His class is dimly lit by blue and white spotlights focused on the centerpiece, which casts eerie shadows. The room has a haphazard arrangement of easels and supply tables, and it is heavy with the smell of acrylic paint. The work of students plasters the tack-board walls.

To Pena, an egalitarian attitude is the best way to show students ways to improve their work and integrate concepts they’ve learned. Explaining depth and the use of color with the precision of a math professor, Pena engages in a give-and-take with his students, questioning their decisions and encouraging them to ask themselves why they did certain things.


MU student Matt Scheel works during Valerie Wedel's beginning art class. Wedel uses an informal atmosphere to foster the creative process.

“It’s hard to explain the characteristics that make the painting look like the light is casting a shadow on the object,” Pena says to a student. “It’s your job to convince the viewer that it actually looks like that.”

Lampo Leong, a professional artist who teaches drawing and painting classes at MU, also relies on lively discussions with his students to drive home his points. At a recent meeting of his advanced drawing class, classical music filters through the sun-filled classroom in the Fine Arts Building.

Leong pins six pencil-drawn interpretations of a small, armless statue to a board, then passes out peer-critique forms to his students, who grade the drawings on shading, space and depth, color coordination and a dozen other criteria.

“Who has questions?” Leong asks as the class gathers around the board. “Let’s talk about it.”

Leong, armed with a laser pointer, leads the discussion, examining the tiniest details of each piece. At one point, he explains the need for attention to all parts of a drawing and their relationships to one another. As the class concludes, Leong gives instructions for the students’ individual projects while gathering materials for next hour’s class, beginning painting.

Leong explains his teaching style as a mix of the practical and the intellectual.

“I try hard to integrate the traditional studio exercises with an approach that emphasizes the value of critical thinking,” he says. “I want students to appreciate that analysis is just as important for the artist as perception and expression.”

Leong’s next class begins with the mechanical grind of easels being adjusted. After setting up their workstations, students turn their attention to the centerpiece — a collection of random objects, including a wine bottle. Leong has his own easel near the front, and everyone gathers around to watch him demonstrate the day’s technique: adding texture. He applies the paint with a delicate touch, giving the painting depth and texture with proficient strokes.

“Let the shadow be translucent and the light side more opaque: Use another brush to make the transitions between colors smooth,” he says.

Leong follows the demonstration with advice on how to apply the techniques ends. The students back to their easels. As grainy, acoustic blues music plays from the stereo, Leong darts in and out of the studio, allowing the students to concentrate on their work before returning to answer questions and give critiques.

The atmosphere is a little less formal in Wedel’s introductory art class. A graduate student in MU’s fine arts program, Wedel believes teaching students how to express their ideas begins with solid fundamentals. Students who possess the proper tools will more easily and more effectively execute their ideas, she says.

“I try to get the creative process started, and then let them take it from there,” she says.

Wedel is so genial with her students, it is almost hard to distinguish her as the teacher. Most days, she chooses not to give “a straight lecture,” preferring to let students practice technique. When problems arise, she offers detailed criticism as if she were talking to a friend.

“This shadowing isn’t dark enough,” she explains to one student. “You need to work on darkening up these light areas.”

Aside from teaching in different ways than other professors use, art teachers must take into account other factors that affect how their students learn. Some students might be making art a career and others, a hobby. Criticism of a student’s work must take the differing motivations into account, as much as whether the proper technique has been used.

Students respond to criticism in a variety of ways. Some listen to comments with grateful acceptance; others stubbornly defend their work. In the end, teaching painting, drawing or any other kind of art is a matter of balancing instruction in technique and inspiring the prospective artist to enjoy the creative process.

“I think a lot of the time when a student isn’t expressing themselves, it’s a matter of being uncomfortable,” Wedel says. “So I try to make them all feel as comfortable as possible when they’re in class.”

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