The Miyagi School of Drawing

The Miyagi School of Drawing

Presented in panel “Sneaking Teaching”, F.A.T.E. 2017 Conference, April 8, Kansas City, KS

Act 1 (Conflict Arises)

I believe 3 things about drawing:

  • Drawing is a skill that can be learned like anything else – not a trait that one either has or doesn’t have.
  • Becoming proficient at drawing is rooted in becoming a better observer.
  • Brain training is essential to developing technical ability.

When I began teaching drawing classes 5 years ago I relied on the methods that had been used in my own academic education to help students build a foundation in drawing. I  built my course around traditional projects designed to help introduce various techniques such as contour drawing, still-life drawing, reductive and half-tone drawing, and graphite drawing. While certainly not unsuccessful, I found myself struggling to help students understand why they didn’t find their drawings satisfactory.

Aspects of composition and design – frequently the subject of other foundations courses they had not yet taken – were obvious factors, as were other more surprising issues such as difficulty accurately using a ruler. Conceptual shifts regarding observation were by far the most pressing concern, however, as the inherent role of observation and of the contributing factors presented in the cognitive process of learning and drawing were not resonating in the shadow of the polished product and grade.

Act 2 (The Opponent)

Goal Orientation Theory places emphasis on determining what a student’s core or distal goals are in order to address ways to achieve desired outcomes. This theory explores the difference between mastery and performance based goals as a way to help identify where true growth is desired. Essentially, mastery goals focus on personal improvement while performance goals center on demonstration and subsequent recognition of ability.

Beginning students often enter a drawing courses without really understanding what their own goals are for the course and, depending on the program – may or may not be a degree seeking art student. While everyone’s core goal is typically to “draw well”, as a teacher I feel it’s my role to help each student develop an understanding of their proximal goals (what they often don’t know they don’t know) in order to eventually achieve their core or distal goals (which is far more complex than they realize).

Expectations of what drawing classes look like in TV and movies often set a complete novice up for frustration and failure because the emphasis is on creating a polished outcome such as the classical drawing of the beautiful model that seems effortless.

The internet also perpetuates an obsession with general performance based goals and obsession with grades – the accuracy or appearance of the drawing is therefore a guiding factor. Many times, students who enter drawing classes at the college level are matriculating from high-school environments in which they’ve received praise or acknowledgement for their potential talents and creations. They are big fish in small ponds.

Their ego already has been built up with positive feedback from outside observers and their perception of a desirable outcome reinforces the focus on grades. As a result, such students frequently lack the maturity to see criticism of their work or technique as an opportunity for growth – becoming disengaged and even combative in their efforts to complete the course.

As a result, when students exit the class without the proficiency to draw a realistic 3D illusion that will go viral on Facebook or Tumblr, they feel they’ve ultimately failed at achieving their core goal and undervalue their overall growth and experience as an artist – even when there is demonstrated progress evident in their course work.

Act 3 (Mentors Emerge)

The character of Mr. Miyagi, played by Pat Morita, in the original Karate Kid series of movies from the 80’s – demonstrates the importance of achieving skill through more meaningful and individual experiences rather than simply focusing on technical achievement and capability to produce a desired outcome.

In the film, Miyagi guides his pupil, Daniel Larusso, to discover his true personal motivation, inner strength, and integrity, by stealthily facilitating habits would eventually come together in an extraordinary and unanticipated way. Miyagi devises a series of smaller objectives which are easy to achieve but involve a gradual shift in attitude and increased self-confidence.

As a child of the 80’s I loved this movie and have found cheesy lessons from this and other films from the era are loaded with life lessons. Because of iconic characters like Mr. Miyagi, I’ve always responded to this concept of sneakily teaching someone without them knowing you’ve provided them with the knowledge they needed – I’ve found that this has contributed greatly to my own personal pedagogy as an educator. Like Mr. Miyagi, I believe that emphasis on achievable proximal goals establishes a better foundation for fulfillment of distal goals and ultimately leads to more meaningful personal growth.

Act 4 (Training Montage)

Over the past 5 years I’ve radically altered my method of teaching Drawing 1 in order to shift the focus away from performance based goals and project-based learning as a means of ensuring that students leave the course feeling accomplished and confident in the foundation they’ve build. In fact, my students do not create an actual fully fledged project (or receive actual grades) until the last 1/3rd of the semester.

In my experience at an access institution, I’ve come to recognize that more traditional formats which center on the creation and completion of projects early in a semester zaps critical energy away from developing underlying attitudes and methods that are critical to more long term advancement of drawing techniques and creative development as a whole. This also deprives students of experiences in which they can better recognize and manage achievable proximal goals that are in service to their core goal.

In order to establish better practices and performance I guide students slowly through activities designed to accomplish manageable tasks.

  • Week 1: Establish connections – Students break in their new course sketchbook (in which they’ll work for 8 weeks) by drawing whatever they want. We hold our first mini-critique in “show-and-tell” fashion with only positive feedback allowed and a “pass/fail” assessment. Building trust is essential to creating an environment in which students feel comfortable taking risks.
  • Week 2: Observational Training – Students engage in exercises as a class that help demonstrate how much our perception of what we observe impacts our capacity to translate what we see. Information about cognitive processes relating to drawing process and learning and storing of information is shared to help support the importance of forging better practices. The mystery of drawing as a talent someone has or doesn’t have is dispelled through personal and active experience. Students also begin a Theme Sketchbook (a course long, personally directed exploration) to focus on creativity as being separate from other critical issues.
  • Week 3-4: Line & Expression – Focus on types of line used in drawing and the relationship between the artists attitude and motion to the visual quality of line. Basic principles of design are integrated with explorations of contour and gesture line. Group activities such as drawing scavenger hunts help take pressure off of individual and place importance on communication with others and peer support.
  • Week 4-5: Shape & Space – Students work to break down the drawing process into manageable components using gesture and contour line to identify basic notional space and geometric shapes. By preventing students from developing drawings beyond basic shapes and spaces, emphasis is placed on the importance of the early process of drawing. Additional consideration is given to negative space and trapped shapes as a way to identify form.
  • Week 6-7: Composition & Thumbnails – Active application of previous concepts continues in the exploration of 5 basic types of composition (central, diagonal, triangular, l-shape, and rule-of-thirds) and some of the most critical things to avoid in composing. This exploration includes a primer on using viewfinders to identify compositions, how to apply learned concepts to accurately duplicating what’s observed through the viewfinder in a thumbnail sketch, what kind of visual information is important in a thumbnail, and how to correct thumbnails to make them stronger.
  • Week 7-8: Sighting – Principles of intuitive perspective are introduced as a more linear way to process visual information. How to use a sighting stick to sight to draw is developed in clear and direct ways first from a photograph that all students work from collectively in the classroom and then later through direct observation in still-life arrangements which include first geometric and then organic forms.
  • Week 8-9: Value – The element of value is introduced with information about various types of value drawing and the basic technical principles and terminology associated with both graphite and charcoal. Value studies of lighting effects are completed with both graded graphite pencils and vine and compressed charcoal.
  • Week 10-11: Graphite Value Drawing – Students create a small 6×8 graphite drawing of an origami figure using everything they’ve learned in the first 9 weeks. They create thumbnails to develop compositions, sight their forms from direct observation, and create preliminary studies of value techniques with graphite to practice goals such as eliminating outlines and creating appropriate transitions using 3 or more grades of pencils. Completed drawings are critiqued with an additional week provided before submission to correct or continue to build skill.
  • Week 11-12: Reductive Value Drawing – Students create a 16×20 or larger reductive drawing of an origami figure + one additional object from direct observation. They work on similar value drawing objectives such as eliminating outlines and building value but also work to address issues of both additive and reductive drawing. Completed drawings are critiqued with an additional week provided before submission to correct or continue to build skill.
  • Week 13-14: Half-Tone Drawing – Student are allowed to work from photographs taken in class in a photo-shoot which includes an origami figure and at least 2 other objects. Thumbnails are achieved through photographic explorations and cropping with square formats to identify composition and sighting is applied to the grid-enlargement method of reproduction. Completed drawings are critiqued with an additional week provided before submission to correct or continue to build skill.
  • Week 15/Finals: Final Drawing – Students are allowed to draw use any media or method of drawing explored throughout the course. Their subject is self-directed but is relegated to direct observation or use of personal photo through the grid-method. Completed drawings are critiqued in-progress on last day of class with time left until final critique correct or continue to build skill.

By the time that students work through their first project, they find that without being aware of how much progress they’d actually made, their attempts are vastly more sophisticated than anything they’ve previously attempted. They are empowered by their sense of accomplishment and work quickly without feeling overwhelmed by the complex objectives of more traditional projects. They feel more capable of critiquing their own work as well as their peers and critiques are fluid and productive.

Act 5 (The Final Battle)

In the Karate Kid, Mr. Miyagi helps Daniel realize (in one sound bite at a time) that winning isn’t everything – that real mastery comes from achieving a greater understanding of oneself and making progress incrementally rather than all at once and that real wisdom comes in time through practice and commitment.

By restructuring my course so that traditional projects are completely eliminated in the first 2/3rds of the semester I’ve found that I can facilitate an environment in which students are:

  • more engaged (with better attendance) in the classroom
  • more pro-active in their completion of quality course work
  • more capable of responding to challenges positively and openly without conflict
  • more motivated to push past anxiety
  • more supportive of peers
  • more communicative during critiques
  • more likely to recognize personal achievements

In the end, we all want out students to stand on their own and realize that their future is of their own making. We want them to feel both inspired and encouraged to take on tough challenges even when they’re on their own.

Mr. Miyagi leads Daniel to not only learn basic skills that will help him in achieving his core goal, he also demonstrates what it means to be a real master. He shows Daniel that humility and patience are important, that learning is a life-long endeavor, and that balance isn’t always easy to obtain but that minor set-backs are not the end of the world.

And hopefully, if both the educator and the student has showed up and done their job, the result will be pretty good… if not the best around

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