Pixels and Paintbrushes

In the past I’ve been fortunate enough to teach at an institution that was blessed with a lot of accessibility to digital technology; however, I currently teach at a college with little resources in this area. This challenge makes it quite daunting when there is pressure to “move with the times” and integrate tech in any way that I can.

At first, I felt very limited by the lack of resources provided by my institution; however, I quickly grew to understand that it was not so much the resources that limited me but my personal expectation of what “digital technology in the classroom” must look like. I’ve had to shift this perspective to accommodate some ideas that didn’t always align with the vision I had for such a task.

Today, I’d like to share with you two simply ways to integrate technology in your classroom in as little as a week:

  1. Allow multiple means of execution for a given set of design-based objectives.
  2. Encourage the use of technology in the development of ideas when focusing on traditional methods of execution.

I believe that foundational design courses should encourage self-motivation, independent and collaborative development of ideas, experimentation and play, and promote an increased sense of maturity and self-confidence.

In these courses, we are not always responsible for focusing heavily on any specific techniques. Instead, the majority of us focus on conceptual development and craftsmanship. Because of this liberty, you should give yourself permission to let go of the idea that you have to teach every option for execution that you offer.

In my Color Theory, 2D, and Art Appreciation classes, I am careful to include projects which include open-ended options for completion and encourage students to personally interpret the objectives through the field or media they wish to pursue.

Perhaps as a largely mixed-media artist, I feel more confident doing this because I trust that I have experience with – or at least a moderate introduction to – many of the media that might be chosen by my students. Regardless of your own areas of expertise, you should remember this: In the foundations classroom, as in life, you cannot be everything to everybody.

My advice: Always know how to personally use and teach one option that you offer to your students (and let them know which option this is).

Sometimes, as educators we are not as competent and as versed in some technologies as we are in others, especially social media (that we may or may not have a personal interest in). The way to assure student confidence is to ensure that you identify at least one option for execution that you feel comfortable with, have personally experienced, and to which you feel confident offering instruction. In this way, you will feel more capable of addressing the diverse needs of many students without the pressure to teach everything to everyone.

I believe that it is our responsibility to help students learn how to be an artist in ways that are not often included in the course description. By allowing my students to use the media of their choice in a large number of projects, I facilitate a more immediate understanding of how to make an assignment personally applicable. I use their excitement about this freedom to encourage them to try something new or develop a technique they’re already familiar with.

I work with them to translate their struggles with design in whatever media they’ve chosen and stress the importance of setting self-directed achievable goals during the development of work of art and help them understand how to set the bar incrementally higher than it was before so that there is growth in their knowledge during the course of the project.

I’d like to share with you a couple of examples of projects in which I’ve taken this approach:

2D Design: In “Synergy” students are asked to create compositions which implement their growing understanding of – and ability to identify – the elements and principles of design in the application of Gestalt Theory. Students combine found imagery in ways that create synergistic relationships as a result of their juxtaposition or integration.

I offer rudimentary instruction as to how to use layers in Photoshop but also teach students how to college like a pro using the trick of soaking the paper before collaging it to a surface. Students then choose which process they like and they learn to consider the image and the message in their media decision.

Here, the student used Photoshop to combine two different images.

Synergy-AmeliaSayleAnd, here, the student used traditional college methods in the fulfillment of the same objectives.

F09-Synergy-MitchGardner-smallAnd here, the student used traditional collage techniques but felt that the “physicality” of the multiple layers was distracting. As a result, she scanned the image in and printed it on a glossy paper so that it had a consistent texture.


In all of these works, the students were able to meet the objectives and became more considerate of the way that presentation and craftsmanship will impact the overall outcome of a work.

Color Theory: In “By-Numbers” I ask students to break a composition into a set number of colors and values while maintaining a sense of form and depth. They create a map that is then completed not only by themselves, but by one other student in the class who has to change at least 50% of the colors and values (and is allowed to change the composition in some small way if desired).

At the critique, the original student’s creation and the slightly altered version by their peer are reviewed side-by-side and we discuss how the color choices effect the expression of the work and its sense of form as a result of the decisions that were made.

In the following example, one student has used digital media, and the other, traditional media. And again, in all of these works, the student was more than capable of achieving the goals that had been set for them.

AshelyTrethewayAshleyCraft2And in Art Appreciation, I have also found that the same approach can be vastly successful. In this project students are asked to work independently or in groups (of less than four people) to create either a remake, a reinterpretation, or a parody of a master work. They are tasked with researching the artist and work, analyzing the work in multiple ways, developing their own personal response to the work, and creating a piece that references the original.

For this project I help my students learn about the media options available to them on our campus and then hold them responsible for the rest. Many students choose to use photography because of its immediate accessibility and familiarity but there are always a few art students who take this further and make it more applicable. They present their info, motivations, and final creation on a critique day.

Here a student chose to reinterpret the Norman Rockwell painting, Breakfast Table, inserting herself and her husband (and all of their electrical devices) in a modern version of the famous painting.


Here an art student chose to create a digital painting of Michelangelo’s, David.


And here, a student created a parody of Frida Khalo’s, Self-Portrait, with her dog after reading about Khalo and believing that her dog was like a “mini-Frida” because she was tiny but fierce and independent by loyal.


And lastly, I’d like to share with you one additional tool I’ve found to be extremely helpful in drawing foundations in which technique IS the goal and technology might otherwise seem irrelevant.

I use Pinterest in all of my foundations classroom as a form of digital sketchbook. Students are required to set up an account and create idea boards for their projects. They must document their development process through these boards by collecting resources such as tutorial videos, examples of artists work, articles, etc. – much like one would do in the creation of a bibliography. This is positive in two ways: it helps them increase their knowledge base in a given area and it provides a better overview of their growing interests and aesthetics (not only to them, but also to me so that I can better understand their needs).

I do provide a handout that helps them get started with Pinterest and I demonstrate the process in class without any expectation that they know how. I show them how to get the most out of Pinterest with tips and tricks even some of the more experienced users may not know about. And, then, I have them follow at least one of my boards “Cool Stuff for Art Students” so that when I follow them, we can send messages to one another through Pinterest.

I’ve seen an exceptional response to this in the classroom and my students are eager to share pins with me and one another for each project.

In closing, I’ll share just one example of how this might be integrated even further into a tradition-based project. In my Drawing II class students have an “ink and bleach” day in which they are forced to “play” without any project goal. At this point we’ve already talked about different types of mark-making extensively and they are excited to play with all of the new ideas that extend beyond their previous conception of what drawing can be. Throughout this, they document their process and then upload their progress to their Pinterest boards where they can share them with other students and the larger Pinterest community.

2014-01-16 23.00.58

2014-01-16 14.21.18


The seriousness of sharing something online does not diminish their play, instead, it helps provide a framework that reminds them that their play has an end goal – to search for techniques that can be used in the service to their ideas.

There is absolutely no reason why tech must trump tradition, or vice versa. We all must navigate this path in a way that feels most comfortable for us if we wish to be successful.

If you’d like to see any examples of the project handouts, grading rubrics, etc. from the projects I’ve shared please email me.



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