The Portfolio Program: The Figure – Day 4

Today was both incredibly successful, but a bit frustrating at the same time. Up to this point I’ve had about 12 students at each session (though not the same 12 consistently) – but today I only had 8!

I created this curriculum to function on this gradual build up of information that carefully guided students towards the development of their personal works. Each class introducing a new technique, idea, or approach, and each building upon the last. And while the daily informal discussion help me gauge how well each day supports students in the development of their work, I’m finding it will be a challenge to assess how well the overall structure of the course functioned when they aren’t consistently here to follow that trajectory.

Granted, I recognize it’s an inevitable obstacle – I will never have 100% perfect attendance. But as of now I only have 5 students with perfect attendance. And that’s hoping that by the end I will still have 5 with whom I can sit down and look atall the work they’ve made from week to week so as to really gauge their progress.

It’s a challenge – and one that I will have to consider when I develop the final assessment tool for the end of the program. But for now, I am glad that I’ve been using the informal discussion as a way to reflect on each day’s activities. I’ve also addressed the absences by making sure to review the past key ideas and discuss how they’ve led to our focus for that day.

That all being said, the 8 students who were here did some great work. Especially because today our topic was, CONCEPT, which meant beginning the process of handing the reins over to the students.

To start, I brought in a smaller number of artworks from various artists whose work invited investigation/interpretation. I also wanted today’s discussion to be an introduction on how to look at, analyze, create meaning from, and, ultimately, talk about art.

So, as students came in I asked them each to pick one piece that felt the most compelling to them. And I had them spend some time with that one piece and answer some questions about it.
I use this structure a lot because I feel that it helps gradually navigate the students from observing the work towards formulating meaning about it.

So, Step 1: Students simply identify what they see. They don’t infer any meanings from their observations – they are simply describing what they are looking at in detail.
Step 2: I have students list words that come to mind when they look at the work. So now, based on what they have observed, they need to think of what ideas/themes/feelings they think of as a result of the work. So they make a list.
Step 3: I explain to students that the experience of looking at art is a very personal one. While the artist has their own intentions they are, typically, not there to tell us what the work is about. So, ultimately, the only thing we can bring to the work to help us understand it is our own personal histories and experiences. Thus, for the last question, I have them think about what personal experiences, or even knowledge, they bring to the work to help them frame how they look at it and reflect on it.
With all that in mind, then comes Step 4: I have them try and infer some kind of meaning as a result of all that they’ve written down. After which we went through the works and talked about what they’d determined.
The unexpected (but wonderful) part is that each work we discussed ended up having two people who had chosen it. And it was actually really nice to have these two individuals – with their individual backgrounds and histories – have relatively similar interpretations of the work, but who arrived at those conclusions through different means.

Jenny Saville
For instance, when we looked at the work of Jenny Saville. One student talked about how the position of the body made her think it’s meaning could be two things: Being uncomfortable with one’s body and wanting to hide it, or possibly being so comfortable with your body and feeling secure enough to show everything. The ideas having come as a result of her understanding of society and body image.A different student, however, talked about how there was a time where she was about 200 lbs, and seeing that work made her think a lot about her own feelings during that time. So in this instance, both general knowledge and personal history became devices for artistic analysis.This process helps to demonstrate how when you don’t have any information about the artist (like an artist statement), the only thing you can rely on is what you see and what you bring to the work. And both can get you to some very meaningful interpretations and understandings of the work.The exercise portion of the day was also more cerebral in nature. Instead of doing some warm up drawings, we did another writing exercise to help them get to potential personal themes that they could explore in their work.

I love doing this exercise and have used it in various courses at Marwen (I based it on exercise that a Marwen alumna, Akilah Williams, used in a different context).

I have the students do some cathartic writing. Although to help them frame their thinking, I throw out a number of prompts at various intervals. Students can directly answer each question as I present it to them, or they can just reflect on them but simply continue to write whatever comes to mind as they hear them.

I start by asking students to envision a place where they are creative – It could be their room, art class, Marwen, etc. – and I ask them to describe everything about that space: What it looked like, how it felt, how they felt being there. After a while I ask them about what their interests are: What inspire them, what do they feel passionate about, etc. And finally, I ask them to think back to a favorite piece that they made; one they felt really proud of. And I asked them to describe it. Physically and what the intentions were behind it, but also by describing what about it made it a successful piece.

After they finish writing I ask them to look back at what they have and ask them to circle 5 words that stand out as being encompassing of who they are as artists. Then, I asked them to choose 3 of those words that get closer to what interests them the most. And finally, I asked them to choose the 1 word of the 3 that they felt could encapsulate their ideas in the most succinct way.

Here are some of the 3 and 1 words that were selected:

Different, Interact, New – Interact
Acrylic, Emotion, Face – Emotion
Music, Studio, Busy – Music
Calm, Comic Book, Family – Family
Flow, Beauty, Effort – Effort
Creating, Peace, Conceptual – Peace

The potential for the kind of work that can be developed from those words is the best part of what can come from this exercise. As an artist, from time to time, I like to do this exercise to see how that word changes, or stays the same, as my work develops and evolves. In this context, it helps give students a potential starting point, or guiding principle, to work under as they embark on their individual projects. And, as I mentioned to the students, they are in no way required to use it. If they have ideas or concepts that they are already exploring in their work outside of this class then I encourage them to explore how they can bring that here. But for those who may still be at a point where they haven’t begun to explore personal themes/concepts, then this is a great tool for them to run with.

So on to the work!

For the rest of the class students could work with whatever medium the preferred In fact, they were encouraged to work with materials they were most comfortable with as, in the end, their portfolio for college should highlight their strengths. There was no parameters for their drawings this time. The only prompt was that they use the model to develop a drawing that investigated a personal idea/theme/approach, etc. – keeping in mind how the techniques/approaches we’d covered (scale, mood, expression, mark making, etc) could help them convey their meaning.

And here is what they made!

I must say that I give props to our model for being so gracious and sustaining a pose that is not easy to do for such a long period. But I really do give him credit for giving students such a compelling form to work with.

At the end of class I asked, “What was really exciting about what you did today?” My intention in asking this had been to simply have a conversation about the work they’d created and how’d they’d felt about the process. But I got a nice surprise when the responses extended beyond that and became actual reflections of how the day’s activities had supported them in their work. I guess I’ve trained them better than I’d anticipated ; )

Two students volunteered to comment and both started by saying how much they’d enjoyed the writing exercise and how it’d helped them in framing how they approached their drawings.

One student mentioned that she’d kept one of the words she’d circled from her writings (beauty) in her head the whole time she was painting. Tt was having that word in mind that caused her to focus in on the face of the model, while allowing the rest of the body to remain abstracted to a certain degree.

Another mentioned how doing the writing exercise allowed him to explore how his word could be conveyed through various aspects of his drawing. He would ask himself questions like, how could he express comfort through the composition of the figure on the page, the application of the charcoal on the paper, or the different ideas he had for how to resolve the background.
It made me really excited to hear that these kinds of thinking were happening. Next week we explore the idea of series and these ideas can really help the students find ways of developing a body of work. I mean, how great would it be if the first student made a series of paintings where the faces where the only aspects of the figure that were fully rendered? And how can we then have a conversation about how that work can be used to create a conversation around what beauty is? I can’t wait to bring this thought to class next week!
See you then!

Christian Ortiz About Christian Ortiz
Christian Ortiz has been a part of Marwen since 2001, first as a student, then teaching assistant, teaching artist, and now staff member. As an artist and educator, process, research, and discussion are a major component of both his studio practice and classroom environment - Practices which he uses as he helps Marwen develop curriculum and programming around students' artistic development. You can learn more about his classroom and studio experiences on his blog

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