When I was a kid in a small town we had the same art teacher for the first eight years. There were five elementary schools and Mr. Cooper would travel to all five schools and try to teach us art. I just recently learned that he also taught art in the same way in elementary schools in the surrounding small towns. When I went to junior high school I was surprised to see him in the 7th and 8th grade teaching in an old art deco building on the high school campus (my high school was grades 7-12).
The format in his classes was generally the same. He would spend the first 10-15 minutes talking about art - usually a specific artist or groups of artists, or a technique. A couple of times a year he would bring in a large orthographic projector that would allow him to project pictures from art books onto a movie screen. He would typically turn us loose for the last 45 minutes using a specific technique. During that time he would walk around and make comments on what we were doing and make suggestions on how to improve our art. Mr. Cooper was very serious and talked with us in a serious manner even though we were kids. He was serious about art.
The most memorable sessions for me involved finger painting. That day we would all get a blank piece of white paper. Mr. Cooper would walk around and place a dollop of thinned wheat paste onto the paper and tell us to spread it around. He would them come around and place red, blue, green, and yellow powdered paint on the corners of the paper - several tablespoons of each. For a class of 20-30 kids it takes a while to set all of that up. Before he could get back up in front of the class, 90% of the kids were already smearing the paint around and 98% of them had smeared it all together. The standard mix resulted in a lavender clay colored product. When that happens you are limited to geometry - whatever lines or shapes you could put into the surface. The few people who keep their colors separate - had many options based on the primary color options and combinations of those colors. I have never thought about it before but this is a science intersection of sorts - more degrees of freedom or combinations from the basic step of not mixing all of your paint together.
I was one of the people who never mixed the colors together. I liked the boundaries between bright colors and the areas of pure bright colors. I liked the non geometric shapes stretched across the paper through numerous color zones. There was something very satisfying about creating a painting from this simple technique. At the same time, we were presented with art work by the masters. We saw plenty of meticulous realistic art from the masters of several eras. Even then it seemed like many had an abstract quality. I can remember liking Edward Hopper's work at first sight. This Andrew Wyeth image had the same effect. Over the past 40 years, I have studied art where I could find it but I always gravitate to the abstract. If I have a choice it is typically color field artists like Hans Hoffman, but any abstract artist will do. I used to tell myself that I would start painting again in my spare time, but practicing medicine these days is not conducive to spare time or doing anything creative during it. My wife and I do have time to appreciate local abstract artists and purchase some of our favorite pieces like the work of Steve Capiz below (click to enlarge):
The artist in this case has been painting abstracts for 50 years and he is still going strong. He is currently painting very large canvasses on the order of 6-10 feet high and wide. The last time I was in his gallery there were probably 40 - 50 paintings on sale and I honed in on exactly two of them including the one above. If you walk into my house you will find the above 36" x 36" painting to the right of the entrance and as you look across the room to the left there is a 48" x 48" abstract above a fireplace in your line of sight. If you look down the stairwell there is a large print - Morris Louis #2703. There are four other paintings by Steve Capiz throughout the house.
The reaction to abstract art is always interesting. When I post some of the art on my Facebook page, friends often comment on what the painting looks like. It seems like a projective test. My wife takes the interior design approach. The colors of the painting need to "pull together" the colors in the room. Our painter wears a T-shirt that says: "Don't buy art to match the furniture." He encourages my wife to listen to me when it comes to abstract art. But I am really not aware of why I love abstract art and why I can discriminate enough to select 2/50 paintings from my favorite artist. Did it have something to do with my fingerpainting experience? Or is my brain set up to fingerpaint in a certain way and be attracted to abstract art? My life experience has certainly been broadened by art. I have no idea how it has affected my thinking. Some of those details are known for musical performance. Learning to play the cello and clarinet has probably led to some enduring changes in my brain plasticity.
Experiments aside - I am glad I met Mr. Cooper when I was a kid. It has been my experience that you never know enough at the time to optimize your experience with good teachers. That is as true for art as it was for neuroanatomy.
George Dawson, MD, DFAPA