The Joys of Teaching Mixed Media: Part 1

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By Laura Raborn

Laura Raborn teaches a three-day mixed media workshop at the Arkansas Arts Center Museum School. The following is an excerpt from Laura’s blog about what students can expect to learn in her class. Click here to view the full entry.

Blog - Mixed MediaTeaching the “Happy Accidents” mixed media class at the Arkansas Arts Center provides me with an opportunity to channel my former teachers. Students see me at the front of the room lecturing through a demo, but they are actually getting a David Bailin inspired drawing lesson. Or as I circle the room with individual instruction, the students are experiencing the questioning technique of David Clemons who taught me that listening is essential in critiques and often more important than talking. I’m finding as I teach workshops, most students want to learn new techniques but most of all, they want to be heard and want to use the workshop, and their art-making to help them communicate. People want to experience the moments of success and joy that art can bring. As abstract artist Pinkney Herbert taught me, kindness and caring about students can go a long way in helping them learn.

How does a mixed media class meet these needs? Well, for starters, I ask the students to leave their fear at the door. The class is a place to try new techniques, to experiment, to focus on method and not on results. This is a chance to stop trying so dang hard to achieve and stop comparing ourselves to others. What a relief! The more students are able to take this advice, the more they accidentally create amazing pieces of art.

So, to get started during Day 1, using acrylic paint we quickly add a ground layer to two pieces of paper. The paper must be heavier than drawing paper in order to handle the multiple layers to come. As the paint dries, students answer a few questions that are meant to prompt them throughout the three day workshop, and offer ideas if they feel stuck. I ask questions such as, “What is your favorite place to spend time?” “If you had a completely free week, what would you do with your time?” and “Do you have any favorite words, quotes, poems, lyrics?”

And then the action really starts. We cover various tools and ways to apply paint to paper. A paint brush works fine, of course, but imagine the marks made when dragging the paint with a squeegee? Or using a straw to blow paint around, or dabbing paint on with a sponge, or splattering with a toothbrush?

Throughout the workshop, students can look at the terms on the chalkboard and learn to self-direct and analyze their work.  We discuss scale, value, contrast, line, the color wheel, texture and pattern. We discuss how to abstractly represent an idea and how to simplify subject matter. And one of my favorites – we discuss layering, and how the additive and subtractive process of layering builds an alluring surface that is rich with information and history. Though we could spend days on these lessons, the 20-minute discussion helps students learn language and methods that quickly improve the quality of their work. To really drive the key terms home, and get a deeper understanding, we watch a few short videos on artists such as Chris Wool, Joan Mitchell and Sigmar Polke. The work of these iconic artist leads to many “Ah-ha” moments and the students rush to get back to their work stations.

In the next layer, we work with stencils and stamps while considering pattern. While places like Michael’s Arts and Crafts carry beautifully designed stencils, you can make your own for free. Using parchment paper, drawing paper or cardboard, you can cut all kinds of shapes, patterns and letters for one-of-a-kind stencils. Additionally, instead of laying the stencil on your surface and painting around it, you can paint directly on the stencil, flip it over and press it into the surface where it acts as a stamp (styrofoam works really well). Once you start stenciling and stamping, and get a handle on all the possibilities, you might notice all sorts of products in your trashcan that add pattern and shapes to your paintings.

Blog - Mixed Media2So, what’s the point of using stencils? When creating a painting, I think often about CONTRAST. Work that has contrasting colors, subjects, shapes or brushwork, for example, tends to engage the viewer. Stencils allow an artist to contrast hard edged shapes with loose brushwork, as seen in the above example. They also allow for recognizable imagery to contrast abstracted areas. One artist who provocatively contrasts stamped or stenciled images with loose abstracted areas is Firelei Báez.

Her exhibit, currently showing at the Perez Museum in Miami, explores identity of a group of people. Initially, many of the pieces appear to be organic and bright, with perhaps a focus on animal life and the natural world. However, once the viewer’s eye lands on stamped chains, fists, foot prints, and hair picks, we begin to see much more than nature, pattern, color and abstraction. We see symbols, shapes, stereotypes and history associated with a group of people. Suddenly, our minds are forced to acknowledge a darkness amongst the beauty presented by Báez. Again, CONTRAST is an important element used by the artist. And stencils and stamps are one of the tools she uses to create powerful contrasts.

Ready to try a class? Registration is open NOW for the winter quarter which begins January 4. Click here to view the vast array of available classes for all levels of experience. 

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