In the manner of …
My oil-painting class was mostly made up of juniors and seniors who had completed at least one of our two introductory art classes, the first semester in which they learned the basics of drawing, design, color theory, sculpture, watercolors/acrylics, graphic design, calligraphy and so on. The second semester concentrates on printmaking, perspective, painting, art history, functional ceramics and cartooning. The students who have had these two classes have a basic understanding of painting, and are anxious to learn how to paint from their own compositions and references.
I love the luminosity and buttery consistency of oils. Because of its workability, the “medium of the masters” is easy to teach–once the students know how to clean brushes and their work space. Oils stay wet for long periods of time, so areas of a painting can be reworked, scraped or wiped off. Oils are much more of a forgiving medium, unlike watercolors, where the young artist must first “plan” to retain whites, keeping the glow of the paper showing through the color.
I start my painters out with a form study so they learn how to manipulate the paint; feel the viscosity of it, and learn how much or how little to apply. I use old mat board or small pieces of canvas paper for this exercise.
While experimenting with this little exercise, I teach the students the rudiments of color mixing, usually limiting their palette to either a monochrome or set of complements for their form study. They learn how to clean their brushes, how to dispose of turpsy rags (in a steel, lidded can), store their paint thinner (in tuna cans), set up their palettes, and set tip their desks with newspaper.
Also, during the first few weeks of class they learned the names of their brushes, the purpose of those brushes, and how to care for them. A couple of weeks into the class, I started to introduce the terminology of painters. Throughout the semester, students have an 80-word vocabulary list they’re eventually tested on, with such words as “alla prima,” “sfumato,” “grisaille,” “monochromatic,” “impasto,” “triptych” and many others, including major art movements, and artist’s names and styles.
I change my assignments from semester to semester, but I always like to include a self-portrait in most of my intermediate and advanced classes. This semester, I decided to have the students paint a self-portrait “in the manner of” an artist they like, and one they’re willing to research so they know enough about him or her. They especially had to learn about that artist’s “palette” (palette is the surface upon which one mixes color, and the color choices of an artist), along with the techniques that artist used.
I didn’t want the students to “put” themselves in an existing composition, merely copying their artist’s work and adding their face. They were to become that painter for a while.
Once the students chose an artist, I talked with each of them to confirm that the artist was “do-able” for their ability level. This also served to avoid any duplication of artists. One aim I have is to get 25 different artists chosen so that we all learn about other artists and their work.
Once the artists were chosen, they sketched themselves from photos, which I took of the kids posing the “way” their artists liked to paint their subjects. This is often more fun than the actual painting!
They really were an excellent class and took on the assignment with enthusiasm. A few couldn’t think of an artist, and I had to guide a few through the process with suggestions and books.
Many of the paintings were so well done, and I was so proud of their work. One student chose Chuck Close, another Matisse. Other artists represented were Sargent, Cassatt, Glackens, Magritte, Modigliani and Gauguin, to name a few. The paintings were quite an accomplishment.
One young lady did a great portrait in the manner of Lucian Freud, another young girl did a great job using her favorite artist, Franz Marc, who was a wonderful colorist, but a real challenge as he did not do portraits. Her job was very difficult, yet she did it very well.
This was a terrific way to let students explore the techniques of artists who have come before these emerging artists, and a way to heighten their awareness of art history, and keep them painting!
Students will …
* research artists to choose whose technique/style they’d like to emulate.
* experiment with oils to determine how they might mimic color and technique.
* create a composition that will suggest the same flavor of their chosen artist.
* draw themselves in a contemporary setting, yet similar to what the artist may have used.
* Oil paints
* Mineral spirits
* Tuna cans
* Palette knives
* Art history books/portraits
* Stretched canvas or canvas board
Recently retired from teaching, Arts & Activities Contributing Editor Geri Greenman was head of the art department of Willowbrook High School in Villa Park, Ill., at the time that she wrote this article.
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