Pedagogy Introductory Studies page 2


Art and design must reflect or challenge society to remain relevant. This creates a process of ongoing reaction resulting in change with constantly shifting definitions and values. My premise is that skills and visual principles remain constant because they are the means rather than an end. Skill and visual principles are applicable regardless of concept or style.

Visual education begins with learning basic principles and developing eye and hand skills which are then applied to interpreting styles or expressing concepts. To effectively educate students requires appropriate instruction in visual principles, standards and discipline. The same tenets applied to traditional media such as graphite, paint, clay, or ink are equally germane to computers, light or video. Understanding of form, shape, line, space and color are essential to all visual expression. With these tools, students can embrace new concepts, technology, materials or styles with confidence.

My experience is that visual principles are best taught within a context which is abstract, theoretical, sequential and within strict limitations defining objectives, criteria, materials and format. It is requisite to emphasize development of hand skills and train the eyes in conjunction with exercises as these are germane to expressing concepts through use of the principles.

A major fault in visual education lies with teachers who attempt to move students from the beginning to the practice too quickly. This results in improper or no preparation, and it is without that arduous transitional learning experience that falls between the beginning and professional practice. When the educational preparation for music or dance are examined, it becomes clear what is lacking in visual education. Young musicians and dancers spend endless hours doing exercises while moving from the simple to the complex. Music students learn and practice the scale, do innumerable exercises, develop manual dexterity and train the ear to nuances of sound. Skills are acknowledged and carefully nurtured. It is difficult to understand why more teachers do not recognize the need for comparable preparation for artists and designers.

It is reputed a wise man once said that anything worth knowing cannot be taught. During my student days, a professor talking to us about education pointed out that there are things to be learned where there are no courses. He used virtue as an example. There are no classes in virtue, but it may be acquired by studying other subjects. Visual education is not so much taught as it is learned. Teachers define exercises with appropriate objectives, criteria and limitations where students learn through discovery, refinements and the experience of doing.

The effectiveness of the teacher is determined by an ability to devise assignments, usually in the form of sequential exercises, where students learn for themselves. It is a experiential learning process leading to understanding. The teacher must have capabilities to guide students, identify and explain, provide criteria, evaluate work, make comments and demands that expand the learning experience.

If visual properties could be more easily articulated, visual education overall would undoubtedly be better in this country than it is now. Art or design history and technical information can be orally communicated, but visual literacy which is at the heart of visual education cannot.

I remember a first-year student who came to see me on his return from Christmas vacation. He related that on arriving home his parents inquired as to how school was going? He told them that once he understood Basic Design, school was going much better. His parents asked what it was that he now understood? He tried to explain but was unable to communicate it to his parents. At this point, the student looked me in the eye and exclaimed, I understand! I really do know! I just can't say it. Another student once defined Basic Design as a time-bomb that goes off several years after graduation.

Visual literacy also is an ability to view any image as an abstraction, to understand what is happening in purely visual terms as well as knowing and understanding visual terminology. It involves training the eyes to see minute detail and being sensitive to color, shape, form and line. It has little or nothing to do with content or style. Visual literacy applies to all the visual arts and crafts without exception. The teacher needs to instruct students in how to view work abstractly. Suggesting that students work on imagery on its side or upside down helps in this respect.

Basic Design is the weakest link in most art programs in this country. Americans are strong in technical areas using media or materials; they are energetic, innovative, and well-versed in professional practice. But too many educational programs prematurely stress conceptual over perceptual values.

Introductory design studies are variously labeled Visual Perception, Foundations, Basic Design, Visual Communications or the Core Program. Josef Albers, a prominent Bauhaus instructor, described introductory studies as encompassing those principles common to all visual arts, painting, sculpture, photography, crafts, drawing, printmaking, design, and even architecture.

Students instructed in fundamentals establish their status as designers or artists by how each internalizes and applies design principles. The abilities of the student are determined by how they apply the principles, make connections, and not so much by how well they do the exercises. Teachers have no way of foretelling students who will succeed, so all students must be treated equally. The quality of instruction often determines whether students become victims or beneficiaries of their education. Weak programs inhibit professional careers for most students, but some talented students might succeed despite poor education.

Albers always maintained that only the very best teachers should be permitted to instruct during the first year of education. His explanation was that it is the first year when students establish work habits, develop commitment, acquire values and build the foundation for the balance of their education. The use of graduate teaching assistants by universities to instruct in foundation programs has been an educational disaster for most art and design students.

Instructors often digress into misguided attempts to teach expression or creativity or engage in making art. Creativity, feeling, mood or expression can be discussed in the work of designers and artists, but remarks should be kept within a proper context. The qualities are inherent within each individual to varying degrees, but none of them can be taught. Talent can be nurtured and developed, but it cannot be enlarged through instruction. Instruction is only a means of making the most of what talent is there. It is of utmost importance that teachers recognize what can and cannot be taught. The role of teachers is instruction, with emphasis on what and how to provide students with the tools to visually express themselves.

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