Back to the Drawing Board….Literally

Right out of the chute, I made a classic error in my approach to this AP Studio Art portfolio project: I wasn’t true to my own artistic process, which is generally a backwards one.

When I was a senior in college I had to create a portfolio of work that was connected and then write a thesis statement about it. It’s been twenty years since I had to do that, so I’m fuzzy on the details, but it seems to me that we had to state at the beginning of whichever course this happened in (Senior Thesis, perhaps?), and then create works which satisfied the thesis statement.

By my senior year in college, I was worn out and disillusioned. At that point it was just about crossing the finish line. I had long since given up any hope or desire to be “the best.” There were several students in our art school who were extremely talented and seemed to produce masterpieces without even trying, and I didn’t feel that I was even in their league. Why bother? I was never going to be as good as they were. I had faithfully submitted my artwork to the annual juried student art exhibition each year, and each year came up completely empty. Not even an honorable mention. So for me it was all about just getting the diploma.

When my senior thesis class (whatever it was called) rolled around, I declared my intentions and set about creating big drawings. My graduation date was in August, so I spent the entire summer creating about twenty 3′x4′ drawings that all had to be connected in some way and satisfy a thesis statement. I felt like a fraud the entire time.

I took a bunch of black and white photos of my daughter for a photography class, and they happened to have this big aloe plant in the background. So I did four drawings in a row of my daughter with that aloe plant and decided that the aloe plant would be my theme. I scrounged through ancient family photo albums looking for something to use for my series (in desperation), and found some photos of my mother holding me on the day I was born that had some pretty dramatic lighting. I did two of those and created an aloe plant wallpaper theme in the background using the aloe from the pictures of my daughter. Then I took one of the pictures of my mother holding me and took me out, and replaced it with the aloe plant. And so on and so forth… I remember thinking this would be the lamest thesis project ever created, but I would get my diploma and finally graduate, so who cares.

Then I submitted the best piece from that series to the annual juried student art competition. It won Best in Show. Knock me over with a feather. But that wasn’t the best part of that whole series.

I regularly sent drawings and paintings to my dad when I was in college, because I couldn’t afford to buy Christmas and birthday presents. He regularly carried my artwork down to a picture framer who had a gallery, and she asked him if I would be interested in showing my work in her gallery. I carried the entire body of work from my thesis project to the gallery and hung the show.

When I got all the pieces hung the way I wanted them, I stood in the middle of the empty room to make sure everything was level and hanging straight, and just about had the wind knocked out of me. All of those drawings that I felt were part of a fraudulent effort to fulfill a degree requirement that I didn’t really care about anymore were talking to me. I suddenly realized, standing there looking at those pieces hung together for the first time, that my series wasn’t really about aloe plants at all. It was about generational female family relationships–there were only pictures of me, my mother, my grandmother and my daughter, and that aloe plant. I suddenly made the connection between the healing qualities of the aloe plant and the brokenness that can happen in family relationships. Wow.

For the first time it occurred to me that I might not be in control of my artistic process, and that that might not be such a bad thing. Something bigger than me was at work, and the best thing to do was to get out of the way and let it happen. When I had basically given up on ever being a “great” artist, I created the greatest art of my life to date. It was really powerful, both the art and the realization.

When I teach my Advanced Design class, I always start the semester out by telling them that story. The reason is so they will know that they are not the only ones who feel like every other artist in the world (or the classroom) is better than they are–even the teacher feels that way. I tell them the story and then I show them the work (click here if want to see it, too–it’s in my online art portfolio; any drawing with an aloe plant was part of that senior thesis project). They are relieved to discover that I am a human being too, and are also impressed that I can actually make artwork. ;-)

Then I tell them that they have to do the same thing I did in college: create a body of work that is connected and satisfies a thesis statement. Then they groan and roll their eyes.

This is where this little dry run of the AP Studio Art portfolio development process comes in. I explain that I’d like for them to explore a concept, a medium, and an artistic style. My concept for the aloe series was broken family relationships and the healing of those relationships–what concept will they explore? I explain that theirs doesn’t have to be heavy like mine was (I didn’t intend for it to be heavy; it just happened that way). I also explain that their work, like mine, might just turn out to be about something completely different than they intended it to be, and that is OK; that may even be better. They can always rewrite their thesis statement to match the work, and then discuss how their project evolved.

So back to how I violated my own cardinal rule in this little dry run I was attempting all week. I came up with a concept, a theme (“Patterns of Behavior: Predators and Prey”) and then worked too hard at trying to control how it turned out. Realistic drawing is all about control, after all. So I struggled for a couple of weeks, and was feeling like accounting or custodial work must be way more fun than this.

And then Scott Brady sent me a link to an artist who is having an awful lot of fun with methods and materials (Gary Reef).

Doh! I was being way too serious, and needed to have more fun! I kept my theme, but decided to make it more about experimenting with materials than drawing. Voila! Much better.

Here is the evolution of my process on these first few pieces. Evolution and process are the very ideas I want my students to “get” in the Advanced Design and AP Studio Art courses, so it was really good for me to suffer through this.

The first image I created, which is way too serious, and almost a little cartoony (which might not be bad in itself, except that’s not what I was going for):


5″x7″, graphite and colored pencil on Rives BFK drawing paper. This was my first try. Way too “serious,” and way too much nitty gritty drawing for a dry run. So I got this far and decided I needed to try something else. Next….
5″x7″, watercolor and acrylic paint and printer toner on Rives BFK drawing paper. A little better. I used Photoshop to flatten the image to just a few values and remove all details, and then printed it directly on the Rives BFK drawing paper. Then I painted the net-like pattern in the border and the colors in watercolor. Then I splatter-painted white and black acrylic paint to soften the brightness of the colors in the border. The writing in the white border around the center image repeats, “Red touch black, friend to Jack. Red touch yellow, kill a fellow.”


5″x7″, graphite powder, acrylic paint, India ink and printer toner on Rives BFK drawing paper. This one got a lot closer to what I was trying to pull off. I used the same Photoshop method to flatten the image even further (only black tones this time) and printed it on the Rives BFK again. Then I cut a stencil to cover the image in the middle and lightly taped it down. I lay down an assortment of old orphaned keys and then dusted graphite powder over them. I removed the keys and removed the excess graphite powder. Then I used a kneaded eraser to sharpen the key shapes. Then I used a sponge and sponged in a heavy texture in the background around the key shapes, and the red, yellow and blue in the image. Then I lay down the keys again, and splatter painted black, yellow, and white acrylic paint to create more depth in the background around the keys. Then I used Ink and a pen to draw in the hexagonal pattern in the key shapes. Getting closer to what I’m after in this one.

There’s another way that I was not true to my own process. Over the years, the method for developing images that has worked best for me has been a sort of photo-montage method. I love to draw, and to me good drawing is nearly photo-realistic drawing. I also love montage. Having learned from my senior thesis experience, I decided decades ago to let the image tell me where it wants to go, instead of me trying to drive the process.

So I begin by going through my photo file (I have thousands of photos that I’ve taken over the years of various objects, landscapes, lighting effects, etc.) and pull the images that speak to me on a visual level at that moment. I set a few aside, regardless of whether they seem to go together or not.

Then I start drawing one. At some point in this process, how the other(s) fit in with the first one will begin to reveal itself to me and I start drawing the other(s) in the same space, creating a montage effect. When I’m getting close to the end of the drawing, usually songs, poems, stories, or quotes connected to the objects will come to mind, and I write them down right there in the artwork. Then I start experimenting with materials and layering, and eventually the work says, “I’m done now.”

I pretty much followed that process with this little experiment, but I started out with a statement and that threw me. I started trying to control where it was going, instead of letting the materials and the methods shape the image. I’ve learned my lesson (again). I promise I’ll have more fun in the next set, and hopefully the work will reflect less control and more movement through the process.

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