101 Things to Learn in Art School

by Kit White

“Artists assimilate a whole range of psychological, aesthetic, political, and emotional data points, and they then make forms to organize and give meaning to them. That takes skill and practice, working in tandem with intelligence and keen observation… Basic form-giving skills help the student make the bridge between thought and embodiment.”

Kit White is an associate professor in the MFA program at Pratt Institute. Here’s a sample of his insights:

“Art is continuing a dialogue that stretches back through thousands of years. What you make is your contribution to that dialogue. Therefore, be conscious of what has come before you and the conversation that surrounds you. Try not to repeat what has already been said. Study art history and stay alert to the dialogue of your moment.”

“Composition is the foundation of image making. It is the spatial relationships between all of the parts in an image. Whether a drawing, a painting, a sculpture, a photograph, a video, or an installation, how a thing is composed determines its look, its feel, and its meaning. Compositional variation, like musical tunes, is limitless.”

“Learn to draw. Drawing is more than a tool for rendering and capturing likenesses. It is a language, with its own syntax, grammar, and urgency. Learning to draw is about learning to see. In this way, it is a metaphor for all art activity. Whatever its form, drawing transforms perception and thought into image and teaches us how to think with our eyes.”

“Observation lies at the heart of the art process. Whether art derives from mimicking nature or extrapolating a mental construct, your powers of observation are critical. Unless you can see what lies before you, you cannot describe it. Train yourself to eliminate preconceptions and received understanding when observing anything. Try to see what is before you, not what you think you see or want to see.”

The book includes some discussion of materials and technique:

  • “With an opaque media, learn to mix colors on the surface of the image. Premixing color completely on a palette or table before application can lead to a flat or paint-by-numbers effect. Learn how colors react to each other when mixed, and use that knowledge to meld colors together on the painting surface while you are working the image. Mixing too many colors together will produce something that resembles mud, so experiment with the effects of mixed color. This will give the image a more spontaneous and fresh aspect and add to the dimensionality of whatever is depicted.”
  • “Even the smallest presence of a complement will enhance the intensity of a color when it is present in the same visual field. The presence of red, for instance, will cause the retina to ‘seek’ green in the other colors present, hereby enhancing all parts of the green spectrum. If you wish to intensify a color in a composition, place some of its complement nearby.”

“Art is a form of experimentation. But most experiments fail. Do not be afraid of those failures. Embrace them. Without courting the possibility of something miscarrying, you may not take the risks necessary to expand beyond habitual ways of thinking and working. Most great advances are the product of discovering, not premeditation. Failed experiments lead to unexpected revelations.” On a related point, the author says, “Embrace the ‘happy accident.’”

“Art is a process of discovery through making, and our ability to discover is generally greater than our ability to invent. Think of your work process as a form of travel. Look for the things you don’t know, the things that are revealed or inadvertently uncovered. It is easier to find a world than to make one.”

White introduces some art terms, such as:

  • Facture refers to the manner in which a painting, drawing, or object is made. It is the combination of brushstrokes, marks, material, and the texture of the surface. Facture is critical to the success of any object. Much of the fascination that accrues to all manual media comes from what can be observed at close range. That distance reveals the foundation, the touch, the sensuality, and the understanding of the material that gives art objects their essential character.”
  • Formalism refers to judging a work of art based on the elements of its visual language: form, line, color, and composition. An abstract work, whose only subject is the elements from which it is constructed is the prime example of a formalistic work. But naturalistic works with recognizable subjects may also be formalist works if their prime significance derives from the presentation of their form rather than their content… Marshall McLuhan’s adage, ‘the medium is the message,’ can be viewed as a twist on this concept.”

“Art isn’t utilitarian, and if it is, perhaps it isn’t art. Art serves a non-practical role in our lives, but that does not mean that it is not vital or necessary. One’s individual identity and our collective identity as a culture have no clear serviceability, but they are critical to our ability to function as a society. ‘All art is quite useless.’ — Oscar Wilde.” Read more on this idea in Art in the Age of Emergence.

One might ask: doesn’t illustration serve a practical purpose? White explains, “Illustration is a visual aid to a text or an idea and is subservient to that primary agent. Fine art, while it may illustrate an allegory or concept, has always attempted to maintain its role as primary vehicle; an autonomous form embodying the text. This subtle distinction has eroded over time but still plays a role in our judgment. This is part of art’s nonutilitarianism identity.”

“Complexity derives from the presence of contradiction. The world is not simple. It is rife with complexity. The impulse to eliminate the contradictions that create complexity is natural. But to simplify may be to render a false condition and therefore an incomplete description. Embrace the irreconcilable elements, the contradictions. They are part of any portrait of a moment… One can, however, attempt to compress or condense those elements into a more abbreviated or altered form. That is the role of metaphor.”

“Meaning does not exist in the singular. It is a transaction between two or more conscious minds. Your work is an attempt to bridge understanding between you and others… Meaning derives from communication.”

“Good art never stops revealing itself. And though the eye can take in an image in its totality in an instant, great images reveal their secrets slowly. The more complex an image, the slower the revelation… [Good works of art] have the capacity to reveal the whole process of their making, as well as the depth of their narrative, over an extended period of investigation, meditation, and analysis.” Read more on this idea in The Art of Seeing.

White advises, “Learn from fellow students… Emulate the things they do well, and learn from their mistakes and their success. This lessons lies at the heart of critique. All artists borrow from each other’s discoveries and failures.”

The book provides a good selection of concepts for prospective art school students and others with an interest in the visual arts.  The title not only refers to the number of items presented, but is also a word play (intentional or not) on the introductory course number Studio Art 101.

White, Kit. 101 Things to Learn in Art School. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2011. Buy from Amazon.com

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