Teaching Remotely: Students in painting class explore alternate materials in online format

Thursday, May 7, 2020

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A gouache painting of a woman seated on a couch

A Moment of Rest by Lauren Graham. When Graham, a sophomore in Studio Art, didn't have access to her oil paintings after UT moved to a remote teaching model, she transitioned to using gouache for her Painting II class.

After COVID-19 was detected in Austin in mid-March, the University of Texas moved all of its classes online for the remainder of the semester. In this series, we explore how faculty in the College of Fine Arts are adapting their curriculum to an online format.

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Professor John Yancey

Professor John Yancey

Instructor: Professor John Yancey, Department of Art and Art History

Tell us about a class you’re teaching this spring.

In Spring 2020 semester, I am teaching Painting II

What was a challenge you faced in moving instruction online this spring?

The main and unavoidable challenge is that painting, like all studio and performing arts, depend heavily on in-person instruction. A painting is more than an image. It has physical scale, surface, nuance of color, tone and value that do not communicate well in electronic or non-physical ways, such as those used in distance or on-line platforms.

The experience of standing in front of a painting, whether it is in a museum or a classroom, cannot be adequately replaced with non-physical or on-line viewing. Art works are not just seen, they are experienced through the body as well as the eye.

How did you solve it?

I can’t say that I solved this really. I did my best to use Julie Schell’s excellent guidance and expertise to do the best I could. I figured out how to have students screen-share their images. I had them email me their images so I could zoom in on the photo to discern what I could about the surface quality.

With Julie’s help, I used the breakout room feature on Zoom to have separate meetings and small critiques, and I was able to schedule regular individual meeting with students and synchronous class meetings.

This shift to online instruction occurred at midterm, so we had the first half of the semester together to get moving, set objectives and have an idea of how each student was processing course content and working toward course objectives. In that way, we were able to ride the momentum of that first half of the semester through the much more challenging second half of the semester. Without that first half of the semester under our belts, I truly don’t know how this would have gone.

How have your students responded in your class?

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A painting of colorful umbrellas suspended above a street scene.

In this untitled oil painting by Studio Art sophomore Luiz Nanini, he drew inspiration from a photo his cousin sent of the Rua das Sombrinhas in Brazil. After UT moved all classes online, Nanini moved his studio practice outside in his family's home. 

A few did well. My student Luiz Nanini actually had a breakthrough in terms of color mixing and color usage—issues he had struggled with in the first half of the semester. The assigned project focused on effective palette use and color mixing, and he soared.

Another student’s work explored abstraction in painting for the first time as he worked in his own garage in response to light reflecting off of colored foil. He discovered and strongly explored a whole new part of his artistic voice. Another student started working with gouache because she didn’t have access to her oil paints, and she made a stunning work.

And another student was able to bring her digital painting practice into use with class projects because oil paints could not be safely used in her apartment. Her use of digital painting would have been discouraged in a traditional painting class, but it made perfect sense in the circumstance. It opened up a whole new dialogue that wouldn’t have occurred otherwise.

There were successes to be sure, but I would say most students struggled mightily to stay motivated and focused without the communal environment of the classroom. It takes years as art students move their way up through undergraduate school and through graduate school to develop the discipline to establish and maintain a productive studio practice. These students, early in their art studies, were abruptly thrust into the challenge of managing their time, their lives and their mental states to work primarily in an asynchronous and isolated work environment. It has been difficult for them.

While we all are being sorely challenged by this crisis, these students are being hit hard by having their world suddenly pulled out from under them. They know this time in their lives only comes once, and they feel a great sense of loss in the present circumstance and extreme anxiety about the future. That said, they are showing incredible resilience and are working hard to be responsible and productive students.

Have there been any innovations or solutions that you plan to carry into in-person instruction in the future?

When we return to in-person instruction, I think there are things about Zoom and asynchronous communications that can be very useful to complement the in-person instructional contact of the classroom. I, personally, am so tech-challenged that I have only minimally incorporated instructional technologies into my teaching. Perhaps this baptism-in-fire might go a long way in helping me get over that.

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A painting with waves and mountains

Flow (18in x 24in) by Max Kremer, a sophomore in Professor John Yancey's Painting II class.

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