I teach art in a school where there is lots of hands-on learning going on all the time. Of course, we want our student to be able to read and write, and so for all of us, the question arises, how do we incorporate reading and writing into our projects? And for me, what does it mean to “read” and “write” in art class?
My ninth-grade projects this past semester incorporated all sorts of art learning, from how to mix color, how to use Photoshop to compose a painting, and even how to build an entire city out of recycled materials. We read a lot and often, and had discussions on topics from aesthetic value to copyright laws and appropriation. I even threw in a Socratic seminar for one of the tougher readings, to tease out some deeper thinking and conversation. By the end of our city project, there were a few weeks left, so I decided to introduce a quick project involving some art history and art terminology. In the end, this project offered me a new “look” at reading in art.
To launch the project, I prepared a brief PowerPoint lecture on Renaissance art, illustrated largely with images from Leonardo Da Vinci’s work. Peppered among the images were art terms dealing with the elements and principles of design, such as repetition, balance, symmetry, weight, and chiaroscuro (contrast). In groups of four, students wrote down everything they could about the images and words on the screen, and came up with some “want to learn” questions. This exercise got the students talking about the images, and each student could be an expert without the pressure of being wrong. We discussed all of the terms, and I told them what I expected as a product, showing them a model I had made.
Essentially, the project is an exercise where the students select an image from a Renaissance artist and, using tracing paper, make five transparent layers, each one showing different elements or principles of art and design. In this case, each student showed how the eye moves in tracking the image, and what aspects of the image help direct the viewer’s eyes. They created layers showing the repetitious motifs in the images, the balance, symmetry or asymmetry, contrast, and the foreground, middle, and background. In a sense, the project affords an entry point into any image and offers students a common language to begin a dialogue with an image.
I had a bit of an epiphany during this project. I had been searching for ways to bring reading and writing into art class, in this case via the initial exercise and some reflective writing at the end, when it dawned on me that I was being a bit too literal. In the visual arts we look at texts all the time; these just happen to be visual art or images. Of course, I will continue to bring in written texts and have the students write about art. But I am also helping the students develop a parallel literacy—a way to read visual texts and a language to articulate what is happening in a work of art, or on a poster, web page, advertisement, or the like. Learning to “read” and “write” visually is as important in its own way as articulating oneself via the written word. It is just a different language with its own set of rules to follow and to break.