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Bridging the gap: semi-abstraction in pencil, marker and watercolor.

The beginning art student often finds it difficult to see the qualities which make abstract art valid. A beginner's thinking could lead to the mistaken conclusion that the distorted effects of Picasso's portraits indicate that he is an artist with little technical artistic ability. Students tend to be better able to appreciate realistic work that shows an obvious technical ability. When dealing with abstract work, however, the work is often approached reluctantly. It becomes the task of the art educator to foster an understanding of art that goes beyond the concerns of mere representation.

The direct connection between representational imagery and abstract composition can be taught effectively by bridging the gap between these two approaches. How much more interesting can semi-abstract interpretations be come than their actual original sources?

To lay the groundwork for this unit of study, I had the students view a series of slides representing the work of several abstract artists including Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso and Juan Gris. Many students were turned off by the rather distorted images created by these artists. We viewed some realistic works as well and discussed their underlying compositions. In some cases, we observed photographic portraits that have little or no profound artistic concern, but clearly display a visual image. In other cases, we viewed well-known artworks which were highly realistic in nature. We compared and discussed the abstract and realistic approaches, and raised questions about how these works might be manipulated to produce interesting and diverse results.

I had the students find books and magazines which contained photographic portraits. High-contrast reproductions are best because of their clarity and easily-identifiable areas. After photocopying a portrait that interested them, students drew a 1" grid over the photocopy. On a sheet of drawing paper, measuring about 12" x 15" (30 cm x 38 cm), the students constructed a border, within which a distorted grid was drawn. Once both grids were completed, the photocopy was positioned upside-down and a paper "window" measuring 1" square was placed over each unit of the grid as it was drawn. The students searched for value only, recording lights, grays and blacks. By working in this right-brain mode, students dealt exclusively with abstract shape, value and texture. Students worked in water-based markers or drawing pencils with a strong range of values. When working in marker, students indicated value areas by stippling, a technique in which lights and darks are shown by placing a series of dots closely together. To demonstrate how stippling works, I had the students observe newspaper photographs with a magnifying glass or under an opaque projector. By studying these, students realized that the stippled value system opened up a wide range of possibilities. They became more trusting in interpreting their designs in this manner. Using pencils lets the student build values in a less interpretive, more naturalistic way. Students explored variations in tone by "pulling out the lights" with an eraser so the overall drawing had a wide range of values.

Students worked slowly, concentrating on the visual effect in each block before moving to the next. I reminded them not to anticipate the look of the overall image. The students were fascinated by the semi-abstractions which resulted from the exercise, and they became far more appreciative of the values expressed in non-realistic work.

Interestingly enough, these semi-abstract creations can enhance the students' understanding of the watercolor medium. In order to make this transition effectively, we used tracing cloth paper, obtainable in large sheets at drafting companies and supply houses. This paper is semi-transparent, washable and very receptive to watercolors; all properties which make it useful for this particular assignment. After wiping the paper with a moist towel to remove any sizing, the students clipped an overlay of tracing cloth, dull side up, to their semi-abstract drawings. Using the original work as a guide, they placed light layers of watercolor over selected areas, allowing each layer to dry in a series of transparencies, while developing the desired tonality. This produced some interesting results. Since students were working from black-and-white originals, they had to translate equivalent values and intensities. Estimating which hues to apply to various areas, encouraged the students to apply subjective colors without fear. Because of a steady emphasis on the concept of respecting the character of the medium, students who would normally try to force watercolor to simulate oils or blended temperas, were satisfied to let the colors run and puddle. The washability of the paper enabled chosen areas to be easily removed with a moist napkin, allowing multiple reworkings.

Because it emphasizes right-brain processes, this assignment is particularly effective for students with little or no art background. Through a direct process of reinterpretation, students experience a first-hand demonstration of how values and textures can be used to create form. With the integration of watercolor, color equivalencies can be generated and the possibilities which can be created through the semi abstract statement was made clear.

Joseph Amorino is Art Department Chair person at Hudson Catholic High School, Jersey City, New Jersey.
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Author:Amorino, Joseph
Publication:School Arts
Date:Sep 1, 1991
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