Taking advantage of the fluctuation of trial students that happens every early September, I decided to sit in on an intro-level art fundamentals class at the U of A. Unprepared but for a roll of white legal paper and an ancient pack of conte sticks, I had absolutely no idea of what to expect as I sat down in one of the many chalkboard green drafting tables loosely arranged in the round.
The instructor—who will remain anonymous, but was privy to my informal visit—presented slides of Max Ernst and Sigmund Polke’s works to start off the class. Breaking down composition and form without contextualizing the forms in its history, it quickly became clear that I would have to re-learn how to see shapes and form over the next three hours.
A solid evening of studio work with no break in between, this particular art course was designed for students with little or no previous experience in art making. Having not actively attended an art class in close to ten years, I was definitely just another candidate sitting down with the ever-impending question: “So where/what/how do I begin?”
Starting from basic art and design fundamentals, we were there to focus on the formal qualities of drawing; examining proportions of balance, repetition and layout, the questions answered were always in relation to the “how” and not “why” artists do what they do. Extensively elaborated were the methods and possible techniques of how you achieve certain textures; missing was why these hues mattered.
Even though I understood it to be an intro visual fundamentals class, and that perhaps digging into context would be pre-emptive, I couldn’t help but wonder if technique can be so cleanly removed from the history from which it came from. Regardless, art fundamentals was not about history—fundamentals translate into technique.
And so, being confronted with a blank sheet of paper, the task of drawing a line, 12 lines to be exact, was surprisingly discomforting.
Twelve lines. Vertical across a blank landscape layout. The execution of where, length, width, tone, shape for each individual line and the lines in relation to each other became a daunting ordeal.
Coming from the dark side of art, the critique and examination of a finished product, the detachment of form from context was like severing off my limbs. Unable to grasp onto any context, all that was left were shapes and tones, assembled to a rhythm that I could not hear and in a light in which I could not see.
As an exercise to loosen everyone up, all us students repeatedly rotated their works to the right each time we were asked to change our mediums with new instructions. In the last round, after graphite, charcoal and white paint had been applied, we were asked to really show a sense of conviction with the medium, to mark down and own whatever it was we were expressing without feeling a sense of entitlement to the work.
Awkward and liberating at the same time, the sensation of not knowing at all what the hell you’re doing, but just doing and exploring is at best, a positive experience.
Art making at this level--leaps beyond doodles and ages before concepts come into play--explores how you see and move to the world around you; and only in exploring yourself and your movements first in relation to the world do you then proceed to explore how everything else connects and matters.