Oct 31 2006

Students Use Computers to Enhance the Creative Process

Art students at high schools in N.Y. learn that the computer is like any other tool, but requires a different creative process.

Students who sign up for a computer art class at Chenango Forks High School are in for a big surprise. “Don’t even think about turning on the computer until you’ve developed an idea and created an acceptable sketch on paper,” their teacher tells them.

That’s because computer art teachers at the 600-student high school, which is part of a suburban school district near Binghamton, N.Y., have a common goal: to help students understand that the computer is a tool like any other tool, so that they can use the computer just as they would use a pencil, brush or any other art medium.

But there’s a major difference between the way students approach creating a piece of artwork with a brush or pencil and what occurs with their thought processes once they’re seated in front of a computer.

“Students can easily get caught up in special effects and begin to let the computer do the thinking for them, instead of controlling it as a tool to achieve a plan,” points out Cindy Henry, art teacher at Union Endicott High School, Endicott, N.Y. She finds that her students often have difficulty when they use the computer to develop ideas.

“When students get on a computer, they can get bogged down in the minutia, rather than beginning with composition and division of space,” Henry notes. “Sketching by hand helps artists and students work from the general to the specific and to consider the whole before the particular parts.”

Her comments are echoed by Eric Saar, who is a graphic designer and adjunct faculty member at Broome Community College in Binghamton, N.Y. “[For students,] the biggest concept in a class like this is that the computer is not going to create the artwork for you,” Saar points out. “You still have to be creative and come up with the concept.

“The computer is just another tool like a crayon, charcoal, ink pen, paintbrush or watercolors. Basic design and creativity are still huge concepts that can get lost in computer art classes.”

Working with art students on the computer means pushing them to generate ideas that are not influenced by the medium. They need constant reminders that they are generating an idea that could be created by drawing, painting or any other means and that they should sketch without thinking about the computer at all. That’s why many teachers require students to do all sketching and idea generation in sketchbooks with a pencil rather than on the computer.

Sketches generated on the computer tend to have a flat, lackluster quality and may rely heavily on cutting and pasting, which can result in disjointed images with no unity. While this is not the case with experienced professionals who work on the computer, students need to be trained out of this type of thinking. That’s why no students at Chenango Forks turn on the computer until a satisfactory sketch has been created.

Start by Talking

To circumvent the problem, some teachers introduce art projects by lecturing—often with the use of Microsoft PowerPoint and Windows Movie Maker—about the concepts to be taught, along with the specifications and the theme for student assignments. The introductory lecture may also include examples of previous students’ work and a list of various links that will take students to Web sites and Internet galleries that may inspire them in developing their ideas.

Once students have generated a workable sketch of their concept and gathered all the needed reference and visual materials, they may move to the computer and begin generating the artwork. To demonstrate how computer tools are used and how concepts can be translated into computer images, teachers demonstrate on a computer that is connected to a projector, with students taking notes as they follow along on their computers.

When introducing the students to photo-retouching skills, practical filter application and color adjustment, the teacher may assign students to research a noted artist, choose a piece of that artist’s work and then insert themselves into the work so that it appears as if they were part of the original artwork. The goal is to have the students develop the skills they need to make the change to the original art seamless.

For instance, former Chenango Forks student Andre Shaw, who is now at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, inserted himself into Salvador Dali’s well-known painting “The Persistence of Memory” by blurring the edges of his photograph so that his likeness fit in rather than seeming pasted on. To accomplish that feat, Shaw photographed himself against a white screen (to make cutting easier) and then used a selection tool with a feathered edge to cut his image out and paste it into the painting. He placed himself in mid-ground to maintain the proper perspective and scale.

Shaw used the “blur” and “smudge” tools to soften his edge. He also used the “liquefy” filter to create the illusion that his wristwatch was melting, in order to match the other clocks depicted in the painting.

Learning the Tools

In creating their work, students at Chenango Forks use desktop PCs, printers and scanners. They also learn to use digital cameras and software including Windows Movie Maker and PowerPoint, as well as Adobe PhotoShop with its filters, blurring and smudging tools. Seminar students use a tablet for editing digital photos.

As students become involved in the process of creation, one-on-one help is given on an as-needed basis or when the teacher sees the possibility of introducing something new to an individual or to the group.

Teachers often assist in downloading images from the Internet. Resolution—the sharpness of the images as determined by the number of dots per inch—is an important issue.

Students who pull imagery from the Internet or scan images at resolutions that are too low can’t create high-quality artwork. Internet downloads are usually available at 72 dpi, but students’ work should be printed at a resolution of 300 dpi or higher. Anything less tends to be blurry.

As Hall Groat, an associate professor of art at Broome Community College, points out, “Using the incorrect pixel dimensions in digital design is like mixing oil paint with water—they just don’t mix, no matter how hard you try. . . . If the pixel dimension doesn’t meet the specs of the offset process, the printed material will lack clarity.”

Playing Fair

Teachers also must be involved in determining what constitutes “fair use” when students download artistic and graphic images. According to the concept of fair use, a person may use part of a copyrighted work for the purpose of review or criticism, and educational users have been given some leeway in using copyrighted materials for noncommercial instruction. (See “What Constitutes Fair Use? ” on this page for more information.)

Teachers have to stress that students can’t just download whatever they see, but that certain rules and limitations apply. That’s not an easy concept for many students to grasp. However, it’s important for students to understand how copyright works—not only to protect others’ work, but for the protection of artwork they themselves may create.

An Eye-Opening Experience

The art faculty at Chenango Forks High School established the computer art program 18 years ago to give its students an advantage in the intense competition for art school. The objective, then as now, was to provide the students with hands-on experience in the latest technology and to open their eyes to the rapidly expanding field of computer art and graphics.

Since Chenango Forks began its computer art curriculum, the number of students using graphics programs in other art courses and in core curriculum classes has increased by more than 20 percent, according to teachers’ estimates. Even students who are at first intimidated by the technology tend to become involved in the class, and it has grown into one of the school’s most popular art courses.

The computer art course also helped lead some students into artistic and graphics careers.

“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I graduated, but the computer art course helped me decide that I wanted to go into graphic design as a career,” says Edward Miller, an 18-year-old graduating senior at Chenango Forks. “It helped me see the possibilities that were available.” What more could any art teacher ask for?

What Constitutes Fair Use?

Copyright law specifies that an artist owns his or her creation and that it cannot be used, in whole or in part, without permission. Copyrighted work may consist of pictorial, graphic or sculptural works, including two-dimensional and three-dimensional works of fine, graphic and applied art, photographs, prints and art reproductions, maps, globes, charts, technical drawings, diagrams, architectural works and models.

Fair use states that part of a copyrighted work can be used without payment, but not necessarily without permission, for:

• Review or criticism;

• Educational use in noncommercial instruction;

• Planned noncommercial study directed toward making a contribution to a field of knowledge; and

• Presentation of research findings at noncommercial conferences, workshops or seminars, including the classroom.

In addition, for artists, the concept of de minimus exists: the idea that the use of a small part of someone else’s work that is unrecognizable is, as such, usable.

Additional information on copyright law can be found at www.copyright.gov and fairuse.stanford.edu.

Keith A. Rosko has been teaching art for 17 years at Chenango Forks High School, a suburban district nine miles north of Binghamton, N. Y.