I have often told students that I expect them to fail in my class. It is important to understand that when I make this statement, I am not referring to the grades they earn. I am referring to living dangerously, trying new and interesting things, exploring and testing out ideas. Being a digital creative can allow you to take chances that a traditional artist simply cannot afford to try. The software allows you lots of power and flexibility in your creativity and therefore over your final artistic piece. Sure, you can play it safe, do what the rest of the crowd is doing...be a lemming. But what lemming has ever been praised for pushing the creative boundaries? It's those who live a daring life by trying new things who have their names remembered in song. And this is where failing comes into play.
Students often want to play it safe. They want the best grade possible. And, as a society, we have conditioned students to completely follow instructions without trying something new in the process. We reward them for solely meeting the minimal requirements to demonstrate understanding and move them along. Don't get me wrong, providing students with a detailed rubric is essential in making sure they demonstrate mastery of the essential skills we are teaching. But, shouldn't we encourage a love for learning new skills and trying to stand out from the pack? We also need to encourage students to explore those uncomfortable areas of learning where innovation begins. Sure, the first 10 attempts may be a complete and total flop, but the reward of success on that 11th attempt is well worth the initial struggle. History is full of examples of creative or daring individuals trying new things and succeeding after years of trial and error.
Let's examine the invention of the airplane as one example of building upon existing knowledge and going out of one's comfort zone until success is reached. The Wright brothers began getting acquainted with aeronautics in 1899. It was through a series of trial and error that they created what is often referred to as the first practical aircraft in 1905. Had they not tried something new and ignored the doubters, we may have never found ourselves traveling on vacation in modern jets.
So, try something new, push the boundaries, find new ways to use the tools you are working with and create something amazing! Be daring, unleash your creative beast daily and see what happens. Don't worry if you initially fail, you're bound to learn something from that failure and who knows, maybe the next attempt will be your big breakthrough moment! And, even if that big breakthrough never happens, you will inspire yourself to keep creating and building new skills!
This past week, I brought 23 students (and a fellow educator) to the East Coast Game Conference (ECGC). Doing so has become an annual event for my most advanced and/or most promising game design students. I generally take students who are currently in CTE Advanced Studies and Advanced Game Design as well as a handful of students in my Game Art & Design classes. Attending the conference gives students a chance to learn about topics that are relevant to the game industry from professionals as well asspeak with representatives from colleges/universities that offer degree programs in game design. Typically, ECGC is a major highlight of being part of the Game Design concentration at DSA for many of my students.
In the past, I have spoken about the importance of making real-world industry connections for students, so I will not bore my audience with a repeat of that information. If you want to learn more about my thoughts on this topic, check out these filtered posts. Instead, I want to tell you a little bit about the sessions that I specifically attended this year. Due to transportation conflicts, we could only stay at the conference a limited amount of time each day this year. While this meant missing several presentations, it did allows us to hear up to three talks per day and spend some time checking out booths manned by schools and companies. The talks that I attended included:
I want to focus on one of the talks I enjoyed enjoyed most this year which fell in the Art Track: Snyder's talk on digital painting. During his talk, Snyder explained how it is extremely important to examine different artistic styles, and not just those of a digital variety. He stressed how examining the way artists use a number of techniques like oils and opacity with paint on canvas can improve one's digital skills. Snyder pointed out that you can look at the work of video game artists and trace back their influences in a clear and concise manner all the way back to the classic artists who inspired those artists they were inspired by while learning their craft. But, he didn't just state the importance of looking at the classics, he also encouraged examining more modern art and how it pushes current conventions to its limits. He noted that by taking the time to become more knowledgeable of style, one also learns to pay closer attention to detail. This, in turn, helps them become better digital artists. A second thing he stressed was the importance of not overusing the undo option. To quote Bob Ross, "We don't make mistakes, just happy little accidents." Sometimes, it is the mistakes that help to make an artistic piece really shine or focus the viewer's attention to the part that really matters.
After making sure everyone understood why examining traditional art was important, he discussed the artistic tools he specifically uses when creating a digital work. His main tool set includes: Photoshop using a simple round brush with sensitivity turned on and an inexpensive Wacom Bamboo tablet! He then demonstrated how he uses classic paintings to improve his skills. He began by opening an image of as painting by Sargent in Photoshop where he noted the manner in which Sargent used oils to build up paint, forming his self portrait. He then began blocking out a copy of it using the digital tools in a space next to the painting. It was nowhere near polished but in less than five minutes, you could clearly see the features coming through. Snyder's talk will become the inspiration for a new assignment on digital painting techniques to use in class next year. But, I will have to flush that out more over the coming summer.
Winter break has come and gone and just like my students in the new year...I'm back! Currently, I sit here looking out the window at blue skies and cold temperatures due to our first winter weather event of the season. I suspect it will lead to an extended weekend, but for that we will have to wait and see what happens. Regardless, we have recently experienced a lot of free time out of school which has allowed me to reflect on how I will alter the direction my students will be taking the remainder of the school year in order to keep my instruction relevant and up-to-date with industry skills and knowledge.
Over the years as a game design teacher, I have had the good fortune to be involved in numerous conversations and interactions with professional game designers. This has allowed me to consider the relevance in the content I teach, particularly in terms of the groundwork being laid in Scientific Visualization. As a result, I often change the lessons and instructions used in connection with this curriculum. This is one of the main reasons for my willingness to volunteer with this particular curriculum's pending revision. And, while I am thrilled that this course was able to open the door for classes like Game Art & Design and Advanced Game Design, a lot of the information included in Sci Vis is simply irrelevant to careers in the game industry.
Besides the name of the course, one of my concerns has always been the amount of science my artistic students receive in Sci Vis, which takes up the better part of the first semester. I have heard other teachers openly state that they completely skip this material. But I find that behavior irresponsible of anyone who claims to be an educator. There is some useful knowledge and skills in this part of the material and students need to understand it for their exams at the end of the year. This material also speaks to CTE's inclusion in STEM. However, such material often demotivates my artistic students from wanting to continue with me into game design as they fear such material will be droped into future courses as well. They take my classes because they want art, not science! But, we are past all that now and can fully focus on digital artistic skills for the remainder of the year. The areas of focus is the use of industry standard 2D and 3D digital tools, such as Photoshop, Illustrator and 3ds Max.
One of the first things I learned about the artistic portion of Sci Vis is the minor amount of focus it places on 2D digital tools. Photoshop and Illustrator are both very powerful tools and used widely throughout digital studios by professionals. They are the industry standards for all 2D artwork and there is a lot of it in game design. But, when I originally examined the curriculum, I came to realize several serious problems relating to the expected instruction of these tools when compared with how they are used in the game industry.
For starters, more attention is given to vector than to raster graphics. While this may seem logical due to constraints imposed on rescaling raster graphics along with differences in file size, the game industry rarely uses vector images outside of creating high quality components that are brought into raster images. Such items include graphics company/game logos, game icons, menu items, etc. In other words: most games tend to entirely use raster graphics and vector graphics only supplement the quality of the artwork.
The next problem I noticed is that the majority of the raster tools discussed in the curriculum focus more on skills used by photographers than those used by digital artists. Yes, it is important to know how to mask, crop, use filters and so forth, but there is little-to-no instruction on the use of drawing/painting tools in Photoshop. And that is where and how most 2D artwork is done by game production teams!
So, what am I changing this year? I am dropping much of the focus on vector graphics. Don't get me wrong, students will still be introduced to Illustrator and how they can use it create clean, scalable graphics. But our focus throughout the year has been and will continue to be on raster graphics and the use of Photoshop techniques to create digital artwork and paintings. That is, at least until we get to 3D modeling.
Another important change involves the use of drawing tablets. In the past, select students have used a drawing tablet in my classroom but I have never instructed them in doing so or how to customize the Photoshop interface for painting, instead of using the default workspace and settings which are more geared towards graphic design and photography. This year, that all changes.
A lot of the information that I am using with my students comes from a very useful and informative website: Ctrl+Paint. The site author, Matt Kohr, is a video game concept artist who is highly skilled in the use of Photoshop. His website provides an excellent resource for beginning digital artists by covering both traditional and digital drawing techniques. And, he explains everything in detailed and easy to understand video tutorial format...for FREE! In terms of painting with Photoshop, this is the absolute best resource I have ever found online.
So far, I have used Kohr's tutorials to help teach my students about the different principles of design through the use of orcs. I was also able to use the same techniques to teach them a lot of Photoshop skills and tools in a short period of time. Being a first-go at this method of teaching the material, I found out fast that I tried to cram too much instruction and skill practice into too little time. While I think this was a good exercise, I need to make several changes to it for future use. Now, we are gearing up to focus on digital painting techniques and I need to account for this being a new skillset for both my students and myself.
One concern I have involves some technological problems I have encountered with using the website's tutorials. I often like to provide students with direct access to video tutorials for use as a resource in my classroom. It helps them when they get stuck and I am busy assisting other students with problems they are encountering. Having access to such resources allows students to solve their own problems without relying on others, such as the teacher. However, we have a pesky Internet filter installed that blocks all kinds of useful tools erroneously and these videos are no exception. There are two commonly used websites for hosting video content: YouTube and Vimeo. Kohr hosts his videos on the latter. The problem comes in with the ability of the school system's IT department to control access to individual videos using the filter. They can control direct access to YouTube videos but not Vimeo and refuse to unblock the entire site due to some materials posted there not being school appropriate. I truly get it, but it is also very frustrating that students are limited in their lack of ability access a great resource because IT cannot effectively use the filter to block inappropriate material posted on the site..
The other problem that I have run into involves our drawing tablets. My classroom is outfited with several Genius MousePen tablets that were generously donated by a former student's dad. They are great for drawing solid lines but we have always had a difficult time with using pressure sensitivity to paint in a more natural manner. Even after updating the drivers and replacing pen batteries, some will not apply pressure sensitivity while a few simply refuse to work altogether or on specific computers. One solution I found involves moving the cable from one USB port to another in the computer or rebooting the computer. Generally, this helps when a tablet stops working. But, it is still hard to paint effectively without pressure sensitivity. We can simulate this by changing the flow and/or opacity settings on the brush tool, but it is not the same either in terms of natural painting techniques or overall quality. Perhaps it is time to request new tablets and move to a more industry standard item like a Wacom?
I hope it is clear from the discussion above that I put a lot of thought into keeping my students up-to-date both in terms of skills and content. I know I will be doing a lot of reflection on the importance and techniques used to teach digital painting skills to my students. So, look for more on this topic in the coming weeks!
This past Thursday, it was time for the annual 8th grade parent night to discuss the assessment process students will undergo shortly after the winter break and what these rising high school students need to do in order to graduate in four years from Durham School of the Arts. Although it should be no surprise to anyone, it is often here that students realize our school's commitment to the arts as they are directed to start high school with two artistic focuses and that they need to follow at least one of them throughout their four years of high school. Since GAD and Digital Media are the only technology classes offered at DSA, I often find myself fielding questions about offerings of programming, engineering or information technology classes. As a result, I find this meeting critical for both families and the future of the digital arts at DSA as these are not the kind of technology classes our school offers.
Over the years, I have learned there are many reasons students choose to do an assessment for GAD. My hopes are always that they are truly interested in learning about digital art techniques or because they want to eventually enter a career in the game industry. However, that is not always the case. Sometimes students assess for GAD because they enjoy playing video games and want to take a class where they believe they will be doing so or they feel they lack the skills needed or interest to assess for a focus in the traditional arts. As a result, I often find myself telling 8th grade students that doing game design is one of the most difficult concentrations they can undertake because it requires an eclectic skill set and deep foundational understanding in the core curriculum areas as well as the skills of the traditional arts. And, despite learning the same information from students currently taking my classes, they occassionally do not believe me.
When students take my classes solely because they want to play games, it becomes clear from the first class, Scientific Visualization, that I require a lot of work to succeed in my class and there are no games being played. Since this is typically the first time they have experienced a digital medium, the initial learning curve is steep and can be difficult for these students as it is very fast paced and they often cannot do the assigned work outside of my classroom. Assuming they continue into Game Art & Design the following year, they find out quickly that the games they play are not of their own choosing and they are playing to gain an understanding of game theory and mechanics. This is a very different mindset than playing a game for fun. It involves critical thinking and dissection of the decisions that went into creating the game experience.
When students take my classes solely because they feel they lack the skill set, interest or knowledge needed for a focus in a traditional art class, they also have a fast awakening. The digital arts use the same understanding and basic techniques that traditional art classes teach students. They need to understand and gain skills in the use of design elements, principles and composition. I also require students to practice both traditional and digital drawing techniques, modeling and become comfortable artistic critique.
The main difference between traditional and digital art classes is that my students learn production art, not fine art. Fine art is often practiced for personal pleasure without regard for deadlines where production art involves using one's creative skills as part of a larger team to create a product for the marketplace. However, regardless of the end goal, it is still an artistic endeavor that requires the same knowledge and skills despite using a different medium. To quote Pixar's John Lasseter - "The art challenges the technology, and the technology inspires the art."
So, as the assessment process begins once again, I am hopeful for my freshman class. I spoke with several parents and students after intiially providing the information about my assessment requirements and they all seem perfect for my concentration area. And, we have been holding our annual DSA Game Nights again so prospective GAD students can interact with current students in the GAD concentration to get a better understanding of what we do. So, there is no reason for students to not understand what to expect of the process or what is expected of them as GAD concentrators. I hope this encourages and inspires students to at least try the digital arts at DSA. It's a challenging but rewarding series of classes!
We have all heard the phrase practice makes perfect. But have you ever thought about what this really means and how it works? I am guessing the answer to that question is actually no, if you are honest with yourself. It has been said that people need to hear/repeat the same information/skills a minimum of seven times before it begins to stick. This is one of the reasons we ask students to repeat the same skill over-and-over again.
I have seen this force at work in my own life. As a child, I loved to draw. I would sit at my grandmother's kitchen table for hours thinking up all kinds of fantastical characters and scenes to bring to life on paper. Over time, I started to take my love of drawing more seriously. I can remember seeing ads in the local newspaper for home correspondence art instruction schools and practicing for hours until I was satisfied with my drawing of Tippy the turtle, Cubby the bear and the Pirate in the hopes of mailing in my application and winning one of their prizes, even though I was only 12 years old. I wanted to be an artist!
While I never sent my application in, my parents enrolled me in a local drawing class. I got pretty good too. My culminating piece was the head of a Siamese cat that I gave to my grandmother as a Christmas gift that year. It hung in her living room up to the day she passed away and then made its way back to me. Completing it took a lot of repetition and several months of practice for me. And, I felt like I was well on my way to achieving my goal.
Unfortunately, shortly after completing my cat drawing and as I got older, lots of other interests caught my attention and my practicing ground to a halt as a result. I quickly learned there is a downside to stopping any practice: you can un-learn a skill by ignoring it just as fast, if not faster, than you can improve through repetition. I am only now returning to my personal artistic pursuits after decades of ignoring my earlier interests in a desire to improve my classroom instruction on art as well as help me to relax more. As a result, I am back to starting out with stick people and other objects that are rather elementary in nature. In short, I need to get back to good, honest, regular practice.
These truths don't only pertain to traditional artwork, they are equally true with respect to the digital arts as well. I regularly require students to complete the same task in a variety of manners so they can grow to enjoy the activity as well as improve. Often, I find myself sneaking these skills into lessons by having them draw their own conclusions on how to complete activities without fully instructing them to use earlier skills in newer lessons. My hope is that these skills and techniques will become second nature to use but more importantly, they develop a lifelong love for the digital medium and, as a result, eventually pursue a career in the digital arts. However, when students fail to take repetition and practice seriously as a chance to improve and only put forth a halfhearted effort, both their interest and skills diminish over time.
This is one of those things that I struggle with in how the state takes a modular approach towards the digital arts and the game design concentration in particular. A prime example of this is how we are expected to teach students 3D modeling skills. There is a heavy focus on 3D modeling basics during a student's first year in the concentration while taking Scientific Visualization. However, the following year focuses almost entirely on 2D game design, with a minuscule 3D component being presented approximately three-quarters into the school year. By this time, students rarely have any practice with 3D modeling for a huge chunk of time as teachers often push forward with new material as presented in their curriculum blueprint. I would argue that students shouldn't even touch 3D modeling until their junior year class of Advanced Game Art & Design (AGAD), where their focus shifts from 2D to 3D in nature. In the meantime, they should gain a firm grounding in 2D digital techniques, which will serve them better, even in 3D modeling, when they begin creating skins to apply to their models. Sure, some basic 3D concepts can and should be presented during Scientific Visualization as it focuses on visualization techniques in general, but to provide students with a huge assortment of skills and then ignore continued development of them for the better part of the next year and a half does the students a terrible disservice.
What is my plan for the coming school year in reference to repetition and digital artistic skills? I am hoping to find a way to allow students the freedom to continue building these skills throughout the course of the year so they never lose them in the first place and requiring retracing one's steps entirely when they actively use them in AGAD. They may or may not be graded on these activities, but I want them to continue using the techniques so they improve and grow to love 3D modeling over time. Straying from traditional instructional time may make it more difficult to get through the curriculum as the state prescribes materials in the blueprint, but I believe my students will be better off in the long run for me doing so.
So, the next time you are asked to keep doing the same task over-and-over again and believe it is a mindless activity, don't complain and put your best effort forward. Challenge yourself to do something that uses those skills in an uncomfortable manner and over time, you will get better at using them. Eventually, you may even come to enjoy them and develop a lifelong desire to learn more about the techniques or even take on a career that continues using them.
I am a high school Career & Technical Education (CTE) teacher located in Durham, NC with a focus on game art and design. This blog provides a place for reflection on relevant classroom practices.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent those of my employer or anyone else associated with Durham Public Schools.