Exploring the Creative Process With ‘Live Art’

Milly Claudio

Lesson Overview Featured Series: Live Art There’s something magical about watching an artist at work. In “Live Art,” a video series from The New York Times on Facebook, viewers get to peek over the shoulders of contemporary children’s book illustrators as they draw and discuss their work and processes. While […]

Featured Series: Live Art

There’s something magical about watching an artist at work. In “Live Art,” a video series from The New York Times on Facebook, viewers get to peek over the shoulders of contemporary children’s book illustrators as they draw and discuss their work and processes.

While these videos may feature books for younger readers, they can offer art students of any age insight into the ways professionals address common creative challenges. (And, for teachers, they reflect contemporary best practices for visual arts instruction: The National Core Art Standards, which have been adopted by most states, focus on teaching the artistic process.)

This lesson features four aspects of the artistic process: methods of research, material exploration, narrative choice-making and refining an idea over time. For each one, we invite you to watch two different artists work, and then respond to discussion questions that will help you recognize and describe the choices they made. Finally, we suggest several activities for you to experiment with similar choices and processes in your own creative work.

Please note: This series was part of a Times partnership with Facebook, so you must use the Facebook website to gain access to the videos in this lesson, except for the one at the top of this post.

Several “Live Art” videos feature segments where the artists describe how they use reference images and historical research to inform their work. In this lesson, you will watch two artists describe the process of finding visual source material and then translating those sources into their own artistic style.

Watch and Discuss: Sophie Blackall and Elinor Blake

Watch the videos of the artists Sophie Blackall and Elinor Blake, and pay attention to the moments where they discuss doing image research as they developed their illustrations.

In Ms. Blackall’s video, you can watch from 11:55 to 13:20 to hear her describe how she drew inspiration from drawings from the historical period in which her book “A Voyage in the Clouds” takes place. In Ms. Blake’s video, you can watch from 15:10 to 16:50 to see the images she collected when designing the two main characters in her book “We’re Going to Be Friends.”

After you watch, discuss the following questions:

Try It: Working With Visual Sources

Try one or more of these activities for using research and source material in your own work, inspired by Ms. Blackall and Ms. Blake.

  • Create a character based on a variety of images. Try Ms. Blake’s strategy for visual research. Pair up with a classmate and make a list of character traits. Choose one or two of those traits, and, together, brainstorm characters from fiction or real life who embody them. Find images of at least five of those people for each trait. Then, using those images as inspiration, challenge yourselves to design a new character in the medium of your choice who conveys those characteristics. Your portrait should not be an exact copy of one of your references, but rather something new that draws on a variety of sources for ideas.

  • Solve an artistic challenge with research. Ms. Blackall talked about finding it difficult to draw water, so she used reference images to help her create a pattern she could follow. What’s something you find especially difficult to draw? Find examples of three ways that different artists have represented that subject. What can you learn and adapt from these sources? Fill a few sketchbook pages with new drawings that combine aspects of these source images. Were the source images helpful? Why or why not?

  • Borrow techniques from other artists and make them your own. Both artists described how they transformed source material into their own artistic styles. Think about a subject that you are especially interested in when you draw — are there particular people, places, historical eras, plants, animals or anything else that you find interesting? Choose one, then research three different artists who have depicted the same subject matter. Try to find examples in a wide range of styles. Then, try combining their approaches in a new drawing of your own. What did you try that you might not have considered before?

Several illustrators in this series explain how they experiment with different materials and techniques to find those that are most appropriate for the story they are telling. As you watch the artists discuss these periods of exploration, listen for their explanations about the choices they made when it comes to their methods and materials, and why they made them.

Watch and Discuss: Yuyi Morales and Vesper Stamper

Watch the videos of Yuyi Morales and Vesper Stamper, looking out for each artist’s descriptions of her experiments with different media as she developed her illustrations.

Ms. Morales describes material exploration throughout much of her interview, but you can watch from 5:30 to 13:20 to hear about some of the materials she uses in her work and from 19:55 to 22:15 to hear why she chose the ones she did for her book “Dreamers.” In Ms. Stamper’s interview, you can watch from 11:40 to 15:15 to see some of the earlier iterations of the images for her book “What the Night Sings.”

Then, respond to the following prompts:

Try It: Exploring Different Media

Choose one or more of these activities to try out new media and techniques:

  • Turn an old piece into something new. Take a work of art that you have already created and make a new version of it in a different medium. You might try painting, collaging, turning a 2-D image into a 3-D sculpture, embroidering the image or mixing media and techniques. You might also change the palette, perhaps turning a full-color image into black and white, for example. How can you change the mood of an artwork, or our view of its subject matter, through choices like these?

  • Learn a new technique. Ms. Morales described material exploration and experimentation as a way of teaching herself art techniques. Is there a medium or process that you have always wanted to try but have never had the chance to? Try your hand at painting or drawing in a medium that you haven’t used before, or experimenting with simple printmaking techniques, digital media or collage. Fill a few sketchbook pages with your experiments. What do you notice about what is easy and difficult with this new medium?

    What kind of subject matter do you think would be most suited to this process? Try putting your new expertise to work, and create an image of that subject. In making these choices, you are working as Ms. Morales and Ms. Stamper did, making purposeful decisions based on your experiments.

Since the artists featured in “Live Art” illustrate books, it’s probably no surprise that they believe artwork can tell a story much the same way words can. In this section, you’ll learn about the choices two graphic novel artists made in designing their characters and page layouts to effectively communicate the essential elements of their stories.

Watch and Discuss: Ken Krimstein and Victoria Jamieson

Watch the videos of Ken Krimstein and Victoria Jamieson. Look for examples of the ways they describe simplifying their drawings to clearly tell a story.

Both artists talk about these ideas extensively throughout their videos, but if you are short on time, in Mr. Krimstein’s video, you might watch from 3:45 to 5:55 to see how he drew the real-life philosopher Hannah Arendt across her lifetime, and from 18:05 to 19:45 to see how he used the graphic novel form to communicate big ideas in his book “The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth.” In Ms. Jamieson’s video, you can watch from 4:40 to 5:50 and from 7:55 to 9:05 to see how she plans out the page of a graphic novel, and from 19:50 to 21:20 to hear how she personified thoughts and emotions in her book “All’s Faire in Middle School.

Then, respond to the following questions:

  • Choose one of these artists and describe his or her work using the elements of art and principles of design. For example, how did the artist use line, shape, value, form, balance, contrast or rhythm in a purposeful way?

  • In designing their characters, how did each artist simplify or exaggerate the characters’ features? What did you notice about which features were kept, changed, left out or amplified?

Try It: Drawing to Communicate Ideas

How can you convey story elements through imagery in your own work? Experiment with one or more of these exercises:

  • Make different artistic choices to represent the same character. Mr. Krimstein shared drawings of the historical figures Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin. Do internet research to find images similar to the photographs that he used as source material. As a quick exercise, experiment with making simplified drawings based on Ms. Arendt’s and Mr. Benjamin’s faces. Can you represent them by making choices different from those Mr. Krimstein made? What was easy or difficult about this challenge?

  • Draw a simple character based on a person. As an extension of the above activity, design a new character based on a person of your choosing. Can you draw only with line, simplifying the person’s features as much as possible, and still create a recognizable likeness? Use reference images if needed to help you get started. Fill a few sketchbook pages with your experiments. Which of your attempts is most effective? Why? If you did the character-design exercise in the “Doing Research and Finding References” section, how was this experience different?

  • Create a storyboard page. Choose a favorite scene from a movie or book and make a one-page storyboard depicting the scene’s main action. Capture the most important elements using simplified figures. Keep in mind the choices that Ms. Jamieson talked about: Will all of your panels be the same size? How will you make it clear what your characters are feeling?

“I want everybody to understand that I don’t just start drawing, and I can draw that,” Rebecca Green, the illustrator of “How to Make Friends With a Ghost,” explains in her “Live Art” video. In other words, her drawings don’t happen all at once, but rather unfold over time through several drafts.

The artists featured in “Live Art” often shared their sketchbooks or early drafts of their work, and discussed how their ideas evolved as they more clearly understood what they wanted to achieve or convey with each image. In this section, you’ll learn about how two artists navigated that process.

Watch and Discuss: Rebecca Green and Vashti Harrison

Watch the videos of Rebecca Green and Vashti Harrison. Ms. Green shares a few early drafts of the illustrations from her book “How to Make Friends With a Ghost” from 18:00 to 20:20, and again from 29:45 to 31:10. In her interview, from 22:45 to 26:15, Ms. Harrison shares the many iterations of a page depicting a scene from a Holi festival in her book “Festival of Colors.”

Then, discuss the questions below:

Try It: Iterating on Past Images

Here are a few ideas for making something new from artwork you’ve already created:

  • Play with perspective. In a medium of your choosing, create an image of a scene using Ms. Harrison’s idea of camera angles. You might choose one of the storyboard panels you drew in the “Developing Character and Story” section. Does this snapshot of your story need a low or high point of view? Should it be a wide or narrow shot? Make sketches of a few approaches until you have one you like, and then create a final version.

  • Experiment with color. In her video, Ms. Green spoke about matching the palette of her images to the mood of the story. Similarly, Ms. Harrison spoke about her decision to make the characters’ clothing completely white, so that it would contrast with the colorful Holi pigments. Revisit a drawing or other type of image that you have created, and make a new version in a different palette. You might experiment with using mostly warm or mostly cool colors. How did these choices change the image? Do you feel it was successful? Why or why not?

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