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STROKES OF GENIUS.

My beginning painting class had just completed a traditional "still life" of oranges nestled in a cobalt-blue glass bowl, and was now ready for a little art history about the German Expressionists. I have done this assignment before, and find it amazing how differently each class interprets the information.

This particular group was made up of excellent drawing students. With them, I did not have to resort to tricks, such as using a line drawing of themselves to simplify their facial structure and then a ruler to straighten any curvilinear lines, to create that forced, angular German Expressionist "look." These students readily noticed the techniques used by Beckmann, Kirchner, Kokoschka, Nolde and others--noting that not only did the artists express themselves with their use of line, but also with their unique use of color!

Such history-related assignments take some research on my part, but are very beneficial. Over 65 new terms, ranging from "abstract art" to "vehicle," along with numerous artists' names, are added to the students' vocabulary lists. They're tested on these terms, but take them in stride because we use them daily throughout the lesson.

The assignment was to paint a self-portrait in the German Expressionist manner and to intimate a mood, on canvases that students stretched and gessoed themselves.

Teaching oil painting is very exciting. After all, for the most part, it was the medium of the masters, and is far more forgiving in terms of application. The colors can be rich and luminous. It is also less tedious to be able to scrape off color, paint over or rework areas, as oil paints dry slowly. Once the students learn how to clean their brushes and painting knives, put out newspaper to protect the desktops, and protect their clothing with an apron, the rest just falls into place.

Most of the students in this class had taken our introductory classes that offer units in color and painting (one in watercolor and one in acrylic or oils). Therefore, they were ready to mix color, learn some techniques and experiment with the medium.

Since the self-portrait is a recurrent theme in my drawing and painting classes, I alter the focus, media or the technique to keep it interesting. No matter the direction, I find this assignment to be a visual journey that can be reflective and introspective for the kids and the moody works of the German Expressionists provide a fitting introduction to expressionistic self-portraiture.

We viewed color reproductions of works by Kirchner, Kokoschka, Beckmann and others, noting how some used color arbitrarily and how others muddied color. One of my favorite "colorists," Franz Marc, was also influential (along with Wassily Kandinsky) in the period that introduced these powerful images.

We learn that two groups of young artists, Der Blaue Reiter and Die Brucke (The Blue Riders and The Bridge, respectively) boldly changed the course of art after Impressionism. These young artists were part of a restless time, rife with political and social revolution and upheaval. It was a fertile environment for them but, sadly, much of the inspiration and many of the artists died in the upheaval of World War I.

Many of those artists' styles were very different from one another, so my students had a lot of freedom in doing their self-portraits. The students simply looked in a mirror and went in their own direction, using their own color choices--an approach they found very exciting and unique. I encouraged them to bring the viewer fairly close to the subject, thereby altering the sense of depth.

Some of the students invented their own brand of expressionism--a few outlined areas with bold color; a few scumbled color over underlying color to create visual tension; still others diffused color by lessening the value of the color as it traveled through shapes. Several leaned toward the Cubist influence on the Expressionists. As a whole, the group became strong colorists, rather than using jagged lines and planes to suggest the mood at the time. Most used color boldly, with unusual lighting and interesting brushwork to intrigue the viewer into guessing the mood and integrity of the subject.

Do these paintings really resemble the person, or do they only allude to character? Sigmund Freud developed psychotherapy, which established the importance of emotions and unconscious feelings before the turn of the 20th century. All of these issues created a climate that bred this unique art. The viewer is, after all, only allowed to guess whether the artist has honestly portrayed himself or has simply used this convenient subject to create these strokes of genius.

Geri Greenman is head of the art department at Willowbrook High School in Villa Park, Illinois, and is a Contributing Editor for Arts & Activities.
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Title Annotation:teaching oil painting
Author:Greenman, Geri
Publication:Arts & Activities
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2001
Words:785
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