Skills of representation
and interpretation

The visual arts employ a spatial aesthetic -- emotions or thoughts that may be evoked in response to works of art that possess visual qualities that exist in either actual or illusionist space. If the media of art are to be utilized for expressive purposes, skills need to be developed for employing such media to produce visual qualities that range from thin to thick and straight to curved lines, light to dark values, organic to geometric shapes, rough to smooth textures, and transparent to opaque and dull to bright colors. These fundamental skills are required to exemplify objects such as trees, houses, furniture, human and animal forms, and anything else that we encounter visually.

To interpret the nature of objects or events one needs to be able to depict a variety of images, but these are not merely to be copied or imitated. How to depict phenomena so that their basic characteristics will be conveyed is the challenge. Examples of the skills required to meet this objective include abilities to utilize: principles of linear or atmospheric perspective to produce illusions of varying aspects of size, volume and space; "gesture" drawing or painting to convey a sense of movement or action; and pushing, pulling and pinching clay to shape surfaces that are concave and convex.

Interpretative skills always come into play because we do not actually produce or reproduce the objects and events that are stimuli for expression. When we look at a painting or sculpture of a man or woman, for instance, we are not responding to a real person; the person is not actually present. It is always the artist's representation and interpretation of the person to which we respond. We may look at a nose or hand, but we do not see a nose or hand. We see a "sign" for the object; i.e., shapes and colors that add up to an image that represents a nose or hand.

In addition, objects or subjects are interpreted in ways that convey meanings that go beyond what is literally there, what is being denoted. As appearances are produced they carry connotations of strength, weakness, elegance, fragility, etc., which are evoked as a consequence of how media are utilized and visual qualities are produced. For example, rendering a hand using pale colors and very thin lines may convey a sense of delicacy.

Being able to produce art implies possessing some control over media coupled with skills for observing the visual world artistically (not just scientifically), and for representing and interpreting visual qualities while producing an assortment of appearances that convey a variety of meanings. Utilizing these skills imaginatively and in personal ways contributes to a major goal of art education: developing the skills of creation; i.e., engaging in expressive activities while acquiring abilities to produce works that are novel, innovative and/or original.

Creative skills

Creativity is a term that is often used indiscriminately. Distinctions are not made between "making," "producing" or "creating" works of art. Students are expected to create such works whenever they are engaged in art activities. "Creative self-expression" is a very common phrase in art education discourse. It implies that when students are expressing reactions to their own experiences they are being creative ... even though what they produce may be very similar to what they have produced before or to what their peers "create".

In addition, it is often believed that students' abilities to create art are dependent on inherited traits, which are not easily altered by classroom experiences. Because of these assumptions, the nature of creative behavior is not sufficiently differentiated, and there are seldom any specific efforts made to develop particular creative skills.

Articulating the skills associated with the production of art includes clarifying the aspects of creative behavior that are amenable to change in the art class. For example, "fluency" and "flexibility" are traits that are associated with creative behavior. In order to insure that these traits are nurtured, art activities must be assigned that require students to generate a variety of responses (fluency) and/or easily alter their works (flexibility) to increase their expressive impact.

To return to our initial example, how can copying a black and white photograph to develop rendering skills contribute to attaining these objectives? Only if the assignment is changed to eliminate copying while encouraging students to render different sections of the photograph (flexibility) in as wide a range of grays as possible (fluency) while creating their own composition.

Creativity is also nurtured when students are asked to use their imagination, which is stretched when assignments include employing symbols, allegory and/or fantasy. Originality is addressed when students engage in art activities that are open-ended and idiosyncratic responses are rewarded.

Designing a poster around the theme of "drug abuse", in addition to expecting students to use media effectively, should require students to illustrate symbolically the aspects of this theme that are most meaningful to them. The choice of subject is theirs, and how they wish to give form to their views is also theirs. It must be remembered, however, that the extent to which students will be successful and creative (producing a poster that is both worthy as art and innovative) will depend on the student having acquired an adequate repertoire of the technical, observational, representational and interpretative skills that are essential to the production of art.

An excellent example of an artist who obviously possesses all of the skills discussed in these sections is the extraordinary American master, Georgia O'Keeffe. After making her first trip to New Mexico in 1929, she became interested in the objects and scenery that characterize the American Southwest; e.g., the sun dried skeletons of animals that had perished in the desert. Red, White, and Blue, one of O'Keeffe's most famous works, is among her earliest studies of a single animal bone isolated from its natural environment. It is an abstraction of a cow’s skull and a symbolic image that raises issues of religion and nationalism. The religious connotation is reinforced by the cross configuration of the extended horns and vertical support. Red, White, and Blue is symbolic of America as O'Keeffe saw it, represented by the New Mexico desert, its relics and the three colors of the American flag.

Georgia O'Keeffe
Red, White and Blue, 1931
Oil on Canvas, 40 x 36 inches
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York