Technology makes art education a bigger draw

In art, as in life at large, technology has changed everything – or, more precisely, almost everything.

In art classes at schools and universities today, new and emerging software is rendering art appreciation and even actual artistic production accessible to a far greater number of interested students and aspiring artists than ever before.

In the classic approach, talented apprentices toil under the tutelage of a highly skilled master to perfect their skills and learn the fundamentals of their art. That approach works well for the talented few but not so well for those who lack dogged desire or raw native talent. It also imposes strict limits on the number of individuals permitted to benefit from the wisdom, skill, and experience of the master.

To a remarkable degree, technology in the service of art and art education is changing all that. 

With the rise of technology in art education, some might fear that traditional media, such as charcoal drawing and oil painting, are being shunted aside in favor of software-based creations, but the art educators who spoke with eSchool News said certain software programs and emerging web-based collaborations are helping establish a strong base of conceptual understanding–regardless of raw manual or technical talent. This enables a far wider range of students to appreciate art. It also encourages and facilitates the acquisition of more advanced, traditional techniques and skills by far more talented beginners.

Consider Stephanie Reese, a technology teacher at Notre Dame Preparatory High School in Scottsdale, Ariz. For the past 12 years, she, has been using Corel Painter, software designed to mimic traditional painting.

"I use art in the classroom to teach everything from communication and desktop publishing to web design and in yearbook classes," she said. "We’re using it for students to be able to tell a story, and this allows them to do it visually. Whether they use video or artwork, they still manipulate the medium and create something that’s a story."

Reese uses Painter software to teach different concepts–including 3D animation modeling, 3D figures for geometry, and sculpting for anatomy classes–and also to teach color theory.

Although Reese currently teaches students in grades 9-12, she has taught classes ranging from the elementary-school level up through undergraduate college courses.

"It doesn’t matter the age; these kids are so technology adept that all you have to do is show them the basics and they just take off," she said. "I think [technology] can replace some of the traditional forms of art instruction, but I think there’s a need for the tactile feel of clay and paint, and getting dirty–it’s a real need. Until some of the software has a more haptic feel to it, that need is going to continue to be there–and I can take clay and teach something that I can’t teach with a computer program."

She added: "I don’t think technology is replacing traditional art instruction, but I think it’s a really good piece to use alongside it. …It’s really a skill they need to go on and be competitive with the rest of the world."

The educators eSchool News spoke with agree it’s possible to strike a balance between maintaining use of traditional artistic techniques and learning new technology-based techniques, such as digital imaging. 

Pennsylvania’s University of the Arts (UA) introduced digital image making into its curriculum about 10 years ago, and students use Corel Painter in select courses while still adhering to traditional artistic techniques.

"I think we’re still hanging on to the traditional aspects of image making, and we think that makes the digital aspect of image making even better," said Mark Tocchet, chair of the university’s illustration department.

UA students still practice traditional techniques, but "we try to stay as contemporary as possible … because that’s what our students experience when they get to the workforce," he said.

UA’s teaching staff emphasizes skills and content, instead of focusing on teaching a specific software program.

"If you teach students a program, in two years it’s probably obsolete, but if you teach them to draw or paint, they’re going to do well–whether it’s drawing with a pencil or drawing with technology," Tocchet said.

UA students learn traditional artistic techniques through their sophomore year and then begin learning digital techniques in their junior and senior years.

"There are only so many courses and credits you can feed to students, and it’s a tremendous amount of information, especially because of the influx of digital [technologies]–but I have to tell you, whether they’re working traditionally or digitally, every year they seem to be doing better and better work," Tocchet said.

He also emphasized the importance of learning traditional skills first and keeping those skills as a base on which to build digital skills.

"What you learn, for instance, drawing in an anatomy class is indispensible when it comes to learning about design, composition, and line quality, and these are all things you think about when you’re making a picture, whether traditionally or digitally," he said.

"Learning to be an artist these days is a very complicated thing," he added. "Our students have to have a body of work, but they also have to know how to market it, promote themselves, create web sites, have graphical design and production skills, and have a much keener sense of the marketplace–it’s a very difficult thing."

Using technology in art classes also might help take the pressure off students–especially younger students–who enjoy art, but who feel they aren’t talented enough to draw or paint.

"Too many people say, ‘I can’t draw,’ but I constantly remind kids and adults that their creations don’t have to be perfect," said Peter Reynolds, the founder and executive creative director of Fablevision.

"They just have to be ‘perfect-ish,’" said Reynolds, referring to the phrase that spurred the idea for the company’s most recent product, Animation-ish, a software program that lets people create "do-it-yourself" animation.

Fablevision partnered with Montreal-based Toon Boom to create Animation-ish, which uses a three-tiered system to help people of all skill levels create animation. Fablevision is planning to launch an online social-networking community connecting Animation-ish users, and the company is also working on an annual animation festival.

The software "has lit the creativity fire for so many of my students–especially those who struggle to communicate their rich thinking through more traditional means," said Wade Whitehead, a fifth-grade teacher in Roanoke, Va. 

"It…permits kids to create original and meaningful drawings, doodles, and even complex animations. It encourages exactly the kind of adventurous, blank-page thinking I try to generate in my classroom."

Robb Ponton, an instructional technology resource teacher in the Williamsburg-James City County, Va., Public Schools, has used DrawPlus from Serif, a desktop publishing, design, and graphics software company, for 13 years.

The Serif Design Suite includes PagePlus X3, WebPlus X2, PhotoPlus X2, and DrawPlus X2.  The suite also offers free teacher resources to accompany the program, such as lesson plans, guides, handout sheets, and project and presentation ideas. 

Ponton said students in his district use DrawPlus not only in creative arts classes, but also in core subject areas to create and animate illustrations for concepts ranging from chemistry compounds to Spanish verbs.

"The students are so much more creative and come to more clearly understand the subject matter [using DrawPlus]," he said.

As part of his role, Ponton helps teachers learn how to incorporate technology into their lessons.

In one elementary school lesson, Ponton shows students a professional artist’s drawing and then uses DrawPlus to break the image down into its basic shapes. Students are told to put those shapes back together, and in the process, they begin learning how basic shapes can be used to create more complicated images.

DrawPlus offers pre-defined shapes, which Ponton said is beneficial for students who might not have top-notch drawing abilities themselves. This helps keep such students engaged, he explained, whereas before, they might have lost interest out of frustration.

"Students learn more when they draw something for themselves," Ponton said. "The software gives teachers a crucial ‘hands-on’ component to their lessons."

Some companies are working to connect professionals with students who might be interested in entering the digital arts. 

The IPAX education program, from Sony Pictures Imageworks and Sony Pictures Animation, recently announced a new online mentoring program set to begin this winter.

The three-month program, called Animation Mentor, will pair top students from 18 IPAX member schools from around the world with top Sony Pictures artists, who will provide online mentoring, training, and guidance. Animation Mentor’s mentor-apprentice teaching model and online learning platform will let Sony mentors help students develop their skills and grow their craft. Tools will include live video conference question-and-answer sessions with mentors, video guest lectures with industry experts, and eCritiques, in which mentors provide video commentary while drawing directly on the student’s work to illustrate their concepts.

One goal of the program is to help students develop and sharpen the skills they will use in digital-arts careers.

"We’re very excited about this opportunity to showcase how IPAX schools can work together to develop cooperative and collaborative programs that will propel aspiring digital artists forward in their careers," said Barry Weiss, senior vice president of animation and artist development and chair of the IPAX collaboration initiative.

And professional tips can do wonders for a young artist’s development and self-confidence.

"There is nothing more valuable than the guidance a professional can give a budding animator who is honing [his or her] craft," said Bobby Beck, chief executive officer and co-founder of Animation Mentor. "This partnership really validates the teaching model Animation Mentor embodies and the technology we’ve created to support an incredible learning experience–no matter where you are on the planet."

IPAX and Sony representatives say the program represents a chance for IPAX member schools to engage future visual-effects and animation professionals with the mentor-apprenticeship learning model. Top students from the 18 IPAX member schools will be selected through an application process, in which student work is reviewed by Sony artists and matched with an appropriate Sony mentor.

The program is designed specifically for advanced students who are working on a range of special projects, including short films, animation, or visual effects. Sony mentors will give students individual feedback to help guide their work and perfect their skills over the course of the program.





Sony IPAX Program