Spatial Revelations

By Lori Baker '86 A.M. / May / June 2002
June 30th, 2007

"Anyone, says Leslie Bostrom, "can learn to draw." And she should know: for the last thirteen years, Bostrom, a painter and professor of visual arts, has been teaching Art 10, Studio Foundation, a course expressly designed for students who are, as she kindly puts it, "artistically inexperienced."

As the gateway to all other visual arts courses at Brown, Art 10 has had a long and notorious tradition of popularity. Decades ago students lined up before dawn, huddling in sleeping bags on the List Art Center terrace in order to gain admission to the class. A generation later a lottery determines admission (seniors and those hoping to concentrate in the department have an edge), and the course's six sections are still regularly oversubscribed. This winter, in fact, two additional sections were added two weeks into the semester.

Students from every academic department flock to Art 10, and many, perhaps the majority, have never taken art before. Kristen Mason '04, a sociology concentrator, considers herself lucky to be there. She had taken art classes in high school but none at Brown, and she has no interest in a visual arts concentration. She's taking Art 10 as a fifth course - an add-on to her regular course load. She says she values the chance to accomplish work that is "so different from my usual essays." And she's planning to take more art classes in the future. "I have this creativity in me," she says, "but I haven't used it much."

Judging from the wide array of humanities and science concentrators plying their paintbrushes in Art 10, the class serves a similar purpose for others as well. But Bostrom's belief that anyone can learn to draw doesn't mean she makes it easy.

"That old dictum about '10 percent inspiration, 90 percent perspiration' is really true," Bostrom says. While Art 10 homework is very different from the work students are accustomed to doing in their other classes - it's more right-brained, more tactile, more experiential, less book-bound - it is no less demanding of either time or effort. What's more, Bostrom has a tendency to throw her students into the deep without a life preserver.

Her unit on color is a case in point. On a recent Wednesday morning Bostrom's students, perched sleepily on backless stools in cavernous List 225, watch a slide show on how artists have used color throughout history, beginning with medieval painters, who used pigments made from precious stones, metals, and minerals: gold, lapis, and ruby, for example. Medieval artists chose their colors for symbolic rather than artistic reasons, Bostrom tells her students, and "the value of the painting was determined by the preciousness of the stones used to create the pigments." Later artists such as da Vinci, Caravaggio, and El Greco used a system of underpainting, sketching a composition first in sepia or another earth-based pigment, then adding successive layers of paint, building up shadows and highlights in black and white to create a monochromatic version of the picture. This image was then "washed over" with layers of translucent, colored varnishes. "The blue in a given painting was all the same shade," Bostrom tells her intrigued students, "and the effect of shadows or highlights was created by the underpainting."

This method, seldom used today, was done away with by Delacroix, who became the first artist to create light and form using colors alone, without underpainting. Delacroix's innovation set the stage for the later color experiments of Impressionists like Claude Monet and Mary Cassatt. Showing a slide of a Cassatt woman in a white dress, Bostrom urges her students to look closely. "That white is not just white," she says. "It is five or six different colors."

Then Bostrom advances to modernist and abstract painters - Henri Matisse, Paul Klee, Odilon Redon, Joan Mir, Sigmar Polke, Robert Yarber - and explains how they used complements and contrasts between hot colors (red, orange, yellow) and cool colors (blue, green, purple, white) to create an emotional impact of shock or harmony.

The lights come up, and Bostrom gives her students an assignment: to find a reproduction of a painting by van Gogh, Cassatt, Bonnard, or Degas and then to color-photocopy it and lay a one-inch grid on top. "I want you to put a two-inch grid on bond paper and copy the painting onto the paper, using your oil pastels and getting the colors as accurate as possible." This, Bostrom tells her amazed students, is how enlargements were made before the days of the copy machine. "Start today," she warns. "It'll take you a while."

To the uninitiated, this assignment sounds impossible to accomplish, or nearly so. Eighteen beginner artists, with only half a semester's experience behind them, are supposed to reproduce a painting by a major modernist? Without a single lesson in mixing colors?

"They hate it now," Bostrom says. "But making this copy will end up being their favorite assignment, once they do it. They'll figure out how mix colors. They'll start out feeling like they can't do it, but then they'll say 'Look what I did!' "

In fact, Bostrom says, this kind of old-fashioned assignment, with its clear goals and demand for precision, is actually easier for most students than other, more open-ended assignments. "These are bright students who got to Brown by figuring out what teachers wanted and giving it to them," Bostrom says. "They know how to work hard and do a good job. They have a harder time with an open assignment for which there's no right answer, where they have to figure out what to do." She cites a particularly daunting assignment she gives her etching class: "decadence."

"It's up to them how they interpret it," she says, shrugging.

For Bostrom, who earned her M.F.A. in painting from RISD, the goal of Art 10 is simple: "to take students who have had no formal art training and teach them something about how to do it." Over the course of the semester her students will learn how to draw from observation - objects, models, each other; how to compose, taking into account the entire page, including edges and corners; how to work with color; how to create a narrative, a series of works, using computer graphics. What lies at the heart of all of this, though, is learning about what she calls "illusionary space."

"I try to teach them how to see space and be fluid in working with it," she says, "to think about drawing abstractly, in a sort of wordless way." For many Art 10 students, she says, learning to think spatially is a revelation. "They have never been asked to do this before."

Dealing with visual abstraction tends to be the hardest lesson for students to learn. "Starting with cubism," Bostrom says, "and going from there is really difficult."

On the other hand, she has found over the years that Brown students love to stretch. "They do the work well and they are very attentive, so over time the question for me has become, How hard can I make it? Every year that I push my students harder, the course gets more complicated."

In the classroom, though, Bostrom is low-key, peering over shoulders, offering both criticism and encouragement. "She gives great feedback," says Matt Vadeboncoeur '03, an environmental-science concentrator. "She knows how to tell you what you're doing wrong tactfully, and she gives you suggestions in a way that makes you want to try them."

As part of a sequence on color, students spend one morning drawing with oil pastels in the semidark as Bostrom projects color slides of contemporary paintings onto model Julie Sardelli's body. Every twenty minutes, the color of Sardelli's skin changes: she's red, then she's blue and yellow, then she's a rainbow of colors. As students work, Bostrom crisscrosses the classroom. "Notice how this slide makes her skin look red, but her shadow is green," Bostrom points out. "What colors are you going to use for the highlights and shadows?"

This, she says, is a "radicalizing" assignment, intended to force the students to think differently about skin color and about the human body. "It jolts them out of what they think the model should look like. It helps them to realize that the human body, too, is an abstract concept." Once they've tried this, Bostrom says, Matisse begins to make sense.

For the students the class meets other goals as well, goals that Bostrom may not even know about. Matt Vadeboncoeur took Art 10 because he'd heard it was good and because, for the first time in a while, his packed schedule allowed for something extra. With no previous art training, he's learned a lot about perspective, about light and shadows, he says. "But an unexpected benefit for me is that now in biology lab when I'm asked to look through a microscope and draw what I see - I can actually do it."

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May / June 2002