Illustration Professor Kam Mak revels in teaching studio painting classes with live models. It’s been part of his class syllabus for 20 years. Pre-pandemic he led a popular study abroad program in Florence where students paint in the medium of Renaissance masters. Naturally, remote teaching poses challenges. But Prof. Mak has technology on his side.
It’s not just a matter of turning on a camera in the studio. Challenges can range from capturing skin tones properly to adjusting to how a live model is observed on a computer screen.
Even a simple teaching gesture like demonstrating brushwork directly on a student’s canvas is no longer possible.
“Instead I provide live demos on how, for instance, to block out the figure with the brush, and how to render the form,” says Prof. Mak. “They see me doing it live.”
Prof. Mak insists that painting live models is a key learning tool in studio classes such as his Advanced Color Rendering class. The challenge is working with a figure that’s constantly shifting. “We start by working with models and directly observing them,” he says. “It’s four straight weeks of six-hour sessions with the same pose,” he says.
“I’ve made comparisons with having a model pose remotely versus using a photograph; I still prefer models because a model is dynamic.”
In a live class, some students get to sit up-front. Others have to be rotated in from the back. Online, however, students can zoom in, crop and do close-ups. Or they can zoom out so that they see most of the pose on their screens.
Prof. Mak uses a digital SLR for streaming the model. He also uses a smart phone to transmit his live teaching demos. “It’s being recorded and uploaded to Blackboard so students can review them again later.”
When a model can’t work from an equipped remote studio, there is an alternative: “The quality of an image from a current smart phone produces high-quality video. They’re streaming poses live and the students are loving it because it’s so clear.”
“There are benefits like changing our individual computer screens to have the display in black and white and really get an understanding of the values. You can zoom in on certain areas. The cameras tend to provide high-quality images that provide lots of information to create a beautiful study,” says Mello Loperena (’21) from Prof. Mak’s class.
In a live studio class it’s only the artist’s eye that is seeing and interpreting the image they see. But remotely, explains Prof. Mak, there are several stages for that image to go through before it gets to your eye.
“I tell my students to accept the limitation and find something new. It’s a new experience in a new medium,” says Prof. Mak.
How does that translate into finished work? Prof. Mak admits that it can depend on the equipment the student has. A small laptop has limitations. Some students have a large external monitor connected to their laptops so they see the image large. “They cost about $100,” Prof. Mak says.
“In school I would tell them to walk up close to the model. I would be two feet away and point out ‘you’re not looking at this.’ Now, remotely, they can request that I zoom in on the model’s nose to see the structure better. Now everyone gets to see it!”
Or, Prof. Mak might lower the intensity of the light so that the student can see the entire plane of the figure.
Certainly there are aspects to the the teacher-student interaction that has changed. “I sometimes see their work during the break when I can. But after every class they upload work in progress via Google Drive and I comment in the first hour of the following week. I go through each painting.”
“Nothing can replace the dynamic of a real person and how the human eye can interpret the three dimensional experience” says Prof. Mak “It’s how the artist learns, through direct observation,” he says.
“I think in the tech world someone is working to make this experience even better. But, if we didn’t have the current technology, we could kiss this class goodbye.”
After all, the masters themselves were innovators. They developed new perspectives and poses and worked with new pigments and paints. They used optical lenses. “If they had computers, maybe they would have used them as well,” says Prof. Mak.
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All images used with permission.