This semester I’m teaching a course for RISD Project Open Door. POD is a wonderfully unique program, whose dual mission is to “1) to increase access to high quality arts learning and careers in art and design for under-served Rhode Island teens, and (2) to provide a community education laboratory for RISD students, alumni, faculty, and staff.” I’m teaching the Portfolio course, which is for sophomores and juniors in high school.
I wrote in this past post about the beginning of our organic form project, constructed from reed, armature wire, and paper mache. We worked on the paper mache stage for two classes. This technique is very simple, all you have to do is pour 90% Elmer’s Glue and 10% water to create the paper mache mixture. Next, tracing paper is dipped in the glue mixture and applied to the reed framework. The process looks very messy while the glue is wet, but when it dries, it stretches the tracing paper and creates a beautiful translucent quality. Below you can see some of the finished works!
This week I was invited to exhibit at a college art gallery in Boston in November/December 2014. It will be either a solo exhibition or a two-person exhibition, the curator is unsure at this point. I already have a solo exhibition scheduled for September 2014 at the Sarah Doyle Gallery at Brown University, so it will be a busy season for me next fall.
This exhibition invitation was a big boost for me. I haven’t been feeling great about my work lately, simply because I’ve been absent in the studio over the past week. These two exhibitions give me concrete goals that will motivate me to stay on track.
"When working on a piece of art, how do you know when to stop? I often find that the more I look at something I’ve drawn or painted, the more small things I’ll find that I’m not quite happy with, and I’ll keep altering and tweaking, which is fine up to a point, but I can end up ruining it. When do you draw the line and say enough is enough, this piece is finished? Is there always going to be something that you’re not 100 percent happy with, or should you keep working on something until you are 100 percent happy?"
Knowing just when to declare a work of art finished is an eternal struggle for many artists. The issue is that if you don’t work on a piece enough, the work can come across as incomplete. On the other hand, overworking a piece can cause the work to appear tired and tedious. The most compelling works of art throughout history are able to establish a strong balance of gesture and spontaneity while simultaneously appearing to be substantial and fully resolved.
So how does one learn how to achieve this balance? One of the classic problems that I see in the beginning of my freshman drawing classes is students not pushing their pieces far enough, and therefore never fulfilling their piece’s potential. To learn how to truly bring a piece to a full finish, I encourage my students in my classes to experiment with intentionally overworking their drawings to the point that the drawing is ruined. This way, when they have the experience of pushing their drawings too far, they develop an awareness of the entire process, and will know in the future when to pull back. You’ll never know how far to go until you’ve gone too far.
I look for specific signals in my work pattern that tell me that I am either finished or getting very close. In the beginning of a piece, I work very fast because there is just so much to be addressed. Gradually, my pace slows down as I start to work specific areas and hone in on smaller details. When I start to notice that I am needlessly picking at a piece and making the most minor adjustments that really have no impact on the overall work itself, I know that it’s time to stop. Other times, I’m simply sick of looking at the work for so many hours that I can’t stand to work on it anymore.
After staring at your work for many hours on end, it can be nearly impossible to see the work objectively with fresh eyes. There are a few simple strategies you can employ to help this. One trick I use is to look at my work in a mirror. Seeing the reverse image can frequently allow me to see mistakes in the piece that I wasn’t able to previously see. Usually when I’m deep in the trenches of working, my opinion of the work is very biased. Instead of making decisions on the spot, I reserve judgment on the work by putting it away for two weeks where I can’t see it. After that time period passes, I take the work out again. I’m often times surprised that my initial opinion of the work was quite off and that getting some distance from the work allows me to make better informed decisions.
In my experience, being 100-percent happy with a work is so incredibly rare that it’s not a goal that I even strive for. When I reflect upon my past works, there is always something that I’m not totally satisfied with. To combat this feeling, it’s a good idea to not be too precious about your work. Maintain a high level of productivity so that you aren’t investing everything you have into a single work. It’s usually a better use of your time to create a work, learn from it, and then know when to move on. Students ask me all the time whether they can rework their homework assignments. The majority of the time, I advise them to simply absorb what they experienced with that piece and then to move onto the next work. Getting too stuck on an individual work can cause one to obsess over details and concerns that in the larger picture don’t matter.
Ask the Art Professor is a weekly advice column for visual artists. Submit your questions to clara(at)claralieu.com
I haven’t been able to get to the studio for the past few days for a variety of reasons. When that happens, I start to feel a little anxious and disconnected from the work, so I try to think about my artwork by writing about it. This morning I found myself thinking about what I’ll do after I finish “Falling.”
Lately two recent encounters got me thinking about the future of my artwork. Last week I went to a bakery in Chinatown to buy some glutinous rice dumplings, called “zhong zi”. The woman who worked at the bakery asked me a question about the filling inside the dumplings, but I couldn’t figure out what she was trying to say, and she didn’t speak any English. She asked the woman next to her to translate, and I finally figured out that she was asking me if I was allergic to peanuts since the dumplings had peanuts inside them.
Then this morning I was sitting at the public library and an older Chinese man came up to me and asked me for help, speaking in Mandarin Chinese. My Mandarin Chinese is really not very good, even after several years of Chinese school as a child. I can get the basics of a conversation, but I can’t figure out the details or specifics. He needed directions to get to an address but I couldn’t help him with the few words that I could speak in Chinese. When I lived in New York City, Chinese people used to come up to me all the time to ask for help, and I always felt badly every time that I couldn’t help them.
I have no idea where I’m going with this, but I think my next project will have something to do with why I’ve felt shame for not speaking Chinese. Sometimes I feel that the only part of me that is truly Chinese is my physical appearance. I already like this idea because it’s deeply personal, but in a completely different way than “Falling.”
This composition that I’ve been working on this week is I think my busiest composition so far. The composition is packed with imagery, and doesn’t really have any quiet areas where the eye can rest. I think that I’m testing myself in terms of how far I can push the imagery. Part of me thinks this composition is too over the top, but then another part of me thinks that’s just the reason why it might be working.
What do you think?
SB: Well, this week I finalized the details of the photo shoot. It will be this week, and I have three models coming in. I’ve been mainly thinking about how to get the most out of my time with the models I’ve hired. I have two hours, which I think should be sufficient.
CL: I think 2 hours will be plenty. Any concerns about how to direct the shoot?
SB: Yes, when you hire models, how do you make them feel comfortable?
CL: Making your models comfortable is really important actually, if they’re at all uncomfortable they’ll be less likely to do what you ask them to do. Just be polite, gracious and very respectful. Treat them the way you would want to be treated if you were in the same situation. Unfortunately often times many artist models are not treated very well, so they will notice and appreciate when someone is being professional and kind. Did you ever take note of how I treated the models in my classes at RISD?
SB: You always let them know in advance if you’re going to do something.
CL: Yes, it’s a good idea to sit down at the beginning and walk the models through everything that you’ll be asking them to do. That way, there are no surprises and they will know exactly what to expect.
SB: When you have models coming in, how do you plan what poses you’ll be asking them to take? As in, do you draw out the poses you want in advance, or do you ever improvise based on something the model spontaneously does?
CL: Drawing out the poses in advance is good so that you and the model have something to start with, however, I do find that I like to let the model improvise quite a bit and follow their lead. If you try to “pose” them, you’ll get poses that look very stiff and artificial. Don’t ever say things like ”Turn your neck to the left, arch your back 50 degrees, move your right arm to your left.” You’re laughing, but I had a professor in graduate school who literally did that. I’m sure the models hated him, and the poses always looked awful. Can you believe how complicated this gets?
SB: My fingers have been itching all week. It seriously feels like there are one thousand things to think about.
CL: I think you’re going to love every minute of the photo shoot. You should be very excited, you are taking your work to a whole new level. This photo shoot is something you would never have considered doing in school.
SB: I’m extremely excited to have the chance to make now, whereas before in art school it was just expected of me. I’m looking forward to every opportunity I have to draw or plan in a way that I actually didn’t as much sometimes in school. I took the time for granted.
CL: It’s nice to work on one body of work, instead of making work for three studio classes at the same time. There’s a level of focus there that you just can’t have in school.
SB: You’re right, without my attention being divided between three studios, I feel more certain about what I want to do, instead of feeling like I have to develop in three different directions at once. The only other thing I’ve been thinking about is the importance of drawing from direct observation regularly. It’s like a muscle. A couple weeks ago, I realized that if I don’t keep myself sharp, by the time the actual drawings roll around I won’t actually be able to execute them. And I hadn’t been drawing that much this summer, honestly.
CL: You don’t think drawing from direct observation is like learning to ride a bike?
SB: Out of pure terror I have been snatching time to do drawing from direct observation more often.
CL: I don’t think you have to worry about “losing” it. I haven’t drawn from direct observation for years.
SB: I actually wouldn’t have expected that.
CL: I just don’t have the time anymore. I have periods where I don’t draw for a week or two so to get myself back into shape I’ll do some “warm up” drawings before I work on the real piece. That usually kicks my ass back into shape pretty quickly.
When I was a student at art school, I was so involved with making my work day to day that I wasn’t able to see the big picture and figure out how to get the most out of my experience. Now that I’ve been on both sides of the fence as a student and professor, I’d like to offer seven practical tips to students in art school.
I was away from the studio for a few days, so last night was the first time in a while that I stepped into the studio. I finished up the rest of the etching ink on this drawing seen above, and things started to feel more resolved. I think it will need another pass with the etching ink to tone down some of the whites, but I’m putting it aside so it can dry, and also so I can come back to it with a set of fresh eyes.
A number of transitions are coming up: the semester is ending in just a few weeks, and I’m looking forward to January and February when I don’t teach. I’ll be teaching three days a week in the spring semester, which is going to be tough on my studio practice, so I’ll have to prepare myself for that.
This fine art, hand pulled print titled Hiding No. 33 Study, depicts a face emerging out of darkness. The print is printed on Somerset paper
After a lot of mulling, I’ve decided that I indeed want to go forward with the series of mezzotints. However, I need to somehow secure funding, so it could be a while before I launch this project. I’m fine with waiting, these figure drawings are more than enough to keep me busy for the time being!
In last night’s studio session, I found myself really eager to address the entire composition all at once. I had thought previously that I would draw and finish one figure at a time, and wait for it to dry before starting on another figure. I discovered yesterday that that approach really wasn’t going to work, it felt too fragmented and I felt like I had no sense of the whole piece. So instead, I leaped around the composition, addressing all of the figures all at once. I think this approach will make the composition much more fluid and cohesive.