“Developing Creativity: A Curriculum Based on the Use of Computer Graphics Technology” by Sutton

  • ©Jeremy Sutton




    Developing Creativity: A Curriculum Based on the Use of Computer Graphics Technology



    This curriculum addresses the needs of people who have access to personal computers and are excited by the idea of harnessing their computers as creative tools. The objective is to empower students to explore and expand their creativity using the powerful computer graphics technology now available.
    Through carefully structured assignments, students:
    1. Master a powerful paint program used in combination with a pressure-sensitive graphics tablet.
    2. Expand their artistic, creative, and perceptual boundaries.
    3. Gain knowledge, skills, and confidence that can be applied at a personal or professional level.

    A number of exercises, such as those using scripting, take advantage of the unique capabilities of digital media. Other exercises can be applied to “traditional” or “natural” (non-digital) media as well as digital media. Direct tactile experience using “traditional” media helps students realize the full potential of the digital tools that emulate “natural” media.
    This curriculum can be taught by an instructor in a computer classroom or online, or followed by an individual independent of an instructor. The structure presented here, and the delivery tools described (workbook, hand-outs, assignment instructions), can be adapted to suit each specific teaching situation. My experience with all three modalities (classroom, online, and individual) has led me to value the benefit of direct, in-person, student-teacher and student-student interactions. An instructor can motivate, encourage, energize, cajole(!), challenge, and stimulate students, as well as resolve problems quickly. Students learn from each other, from seeing how others apply the tools and solve problems. Collaborative exercises teach students to let go of the need for total control, let go of treating their brush strokes and materials as “precious,” and learn to work from other people’s brush marks. A classroom setting offers the opportunity for full use of the curriculum. When the curriculum is applied in an online class, or by an individual, the collaborative exercises are omitted.

    The Big Picture
    I start with the big picture: the map. Students are given an overview of the course and the objectives. I break down the curriculum into easily digestible parts so that no single part seems insurmountable.
    The Tools
    The primary digital tools are Painter software and a graphics tablet with pressure sensitive stylus, on a Macintosh or Windows computer. There are two software options with the curriculum. The simpler option is Painter Classic, which is bundled with many
    Wacom tablets. Painter Classic is suitable for institutions and individuals with a limited budget who are not interested in a versatile and powerful professional-level graphics program.
    For the professional user, the software is MetaCreations Painter 5.5 Web Edition (or the latest version of Painter available).
    Mastering the Technology

    The students’ first step is getting to know and understand the tools. This is more than being able to recite a manual or point at things on the screen and know what their function is. It’s about developing a deeper, intuitive sense of the way the tools work, how to approach a task, the way to make any job easy and fun and efficient. I place great emphasis on strategy; not just explaining what things are and where they are, but the series of questions students can ask themselves that naturally lead to an elegant solution. I emphasize building up good habits so that application of effective strategy becomes second nature, like the muscle-memory of a trained dancer. One of the hardest challenges in technically mastering a program like Painter is letting go of old habits and behavioral patterns.
    By necessity, this section of the course is more technical and less creative. Class exercises for this section are based on experimentation and familiarization, diving in and trying out brushes and art materials, getting a feel for the variety of looks and effects
    at the user’s disposal. This section is like getting your hands used to playing the piano keys without needing to look and think. It’s the necessary hard work that needs to be put in before you can play beautiful music.
    The focus of this curriculum is learning expressive creativity by hand using a (digital) paint brush. The lessons learned can be applied to other areas of computer graphics such as photographic manipulation, Web design, and animation.
    Embracing Chaos

    Students dive into their greatest fears: making a mess, using wild colors and wild brushes, experimenting, purposely creating chaos, using gestural movement and expression in their brush strokes (see the examples in Figure 1). Students are encouraged to enjoy the process and not worry about the end product. I want them to push all their creative blocks: the emotional resistance they may have to embracing chaos, the urge to create something “pretty,” inhibitions against using the whole canvas, and the full dynamic range of the materials at their disposal. This stage involves letting go of the need to be in total control and knowing what the final result will look like. This is the moment of liberation, of being given permission to forget every “rule,” every “should,” every “can’t.” In this section, students develop vitality and energy. They experiment with brushes and materials unencumbered by the need to create something that “looks right” or resembles something.
    Stillness, Connection, and Visualization
    Having prepared a canvas for paint, the students take a step back from the world of technology, pixels, and programs. They select a subject to paint. They place the tablet on their laps and rest their hands, palms down, on the tablet.They close their eyes and take a deep breath. They let go of all the worries and tensions from the day. They listen. They become aware. Awareness of self is the starting point for observation.
    Students open their eyes and look at their subject (this curriculum is based on drawing from the live subject).They observe carefully, being aware of what their reaction is to the subject, what stands out, what moves them. This is the moment when the
    composition begins in the students’ minds. They begin to visualize the finished picture. Details are not important at this stage. It is more a matter of tuning in to their subject and visualizing the picture they are about to create, setting a visual goal in their minds. As they observe their subject, the students rest their finger tips on the tablet, following the subject’s contours like invisible brushes. In this stage, students make the tactile hand-eye connection between the subject they are observing and the physical
    interface with the computer.
    The Art of Seeing

    Students are encouraged to observe with great care, to differentiate between what they “know” is there and what they actually see.
    Visual Vocabulary

    The exercises here build vocabulary that can communicate the impression of a 3D solid form on a 2D canvas. Every mark on the canvas affects and is affected by other marks on the canvas. It is the relationship among all these marks that collectively
    gives the impression of form and that determines the expressive power, beauty, and impact of the picture.
    Throughout this section, students are encouraged to take risks, to push themselves and go for “overkill,” to exaggerate. This course is a laboratory for experimentation. If you’re going to make a gesture, make it big and bold.
    Students create paintings in the style of other artists, paying attention to the way different artists have applied their paint and achieved different effects (see the Picasso style example in Figure 1). I encourage students to experiment, emulate others, and ultimately develop their own individualistic styles.
    Transformation and Variation

    Students experiment with transforming and recycling images, or portions of images. They learn to celebrate impermanence and change rather than be afraid of it.
    Order from Chaos
    This is where all the elements come together. Students learn to transform chaos into order through intuition, visualization, and observation. This is the final stage of creative realization, where contrasts are brought into harmonic balance. This is where the stillness, connection, and visualization exercises come to fruition. The circle is closed as the seeds sown earlier now make their influence felt (see Figure 2 for examples of student work).
    Students complete the creative process by closing their eyes, breathing deeply, and returning to the peaceful, aware state they entered at the beginning of the curriculum.
    Final Touches

    Practical matters are covered such as:
    • Determining canvas size
    • Creating backgrounds
    • Deciding when a painting is “finished”
    • Frames and borders
    • Preparing files for output, display, and storage
    • Archive and documentation
    • Output, mounting, and display issues
    • Copyright protection
    Delivery Tools

    The primary delivery tool of this curriculum will be a hard-copy workbook that contains the course description, background reading, and assignment instructions, supplemented by additional handouts that contain topical reading material. Teachers can adapt the workbook and handouts to suit their own teaching styles and circumstances. There is a substantial amount of material that could be covered, much more than there is usually time for in a regular class or workshop. Instructors will need to exercise their own judgments in selecting the portions of the course most suited to their needs and those of their students. Teachers may wish to take out specific exercises, change them slightly, or add their own. I see this as a living document, not as the final word.
    Summing Up

    This curriculum combines the teaching of computer graphics skills with a creatively challenging arts program. It addresses two questions:
    1. How do we bring more creativity and art into our computer laboratory?
    2. How do we bring computer technology into our fine art classes in a relevant and effective way?
    This curriculum is not an attempt to merely duplicate a traditional art class using digital media. It brings together the mutual benefits and strengths of both worlds, the technological and the creative, in a manner that is exciting, stimulating, and educational.
    About the Author
    Internationally recognized award-winning artist and educator Jeremy Sutton is a graduate of Oxford University, author of Fractal Design Painter Creative Techniques (Hayden Books 1996) and Total Painter (Total Training video course 1998), and a former faculty member of the Academy of Art College and San Francisco State University. He teaches computer painting seminars and runs an online digital portraiture course.

    See www.portrayals.com for a list of useful resources plus Painter tips and many examples of Jeremy Sutton’s and his students’ artwork.

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