Dropping the formula, finding the voice: Eastern students study a Western approach to art

When senior Cissy Shi signed up for teacher Patricia Kelly’s studio art class her sophomore year, she was concerned she wouldn’t be able to keep up.

“I thought I needed extra help,” she said.

So she started studying with Richard Yang, her cousin’s private art tutor.

Yang is an independent artist who graduated from the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Art in China with a degree in oil painting.

He worked as a graphic designer, became art director of the company, and then taught art part time in middle school and college. For the past 20 years, he has been working in photography.

Shi is among a group of Chinese students at SCDS who take weekly art lessons outside of school with Yang.

Juniors Rio Liu and Layla Sun also work with him—Liu on scratchboard and oil painting and Sun on oil painting.

It turned out that Shi didn’t need Yang’s help for the studio art class. So in her lessons, she focused on painting, something she was interested in. As she further developed her painting skills, she decided to work on drawing as well.

But when Shi transitioned into AP Studio Art, she did need help.

In the AP class, the students were using art media, such as watercolor, that she had never used before. So Yang adjusted the schedule to help her on school projects.

Shi, who came to the United States her freshman year, said that in China, art is less important than all other subjects.

“The art classes in China are jokes,” she said.

Art was a class that students had less often, maybe once a week. The teacher wasn’t really inspiring either, she said.

Liu, who also came her freshman year, agrees. She said that students in China don’t focus on art and would sometimes do other homework in  the art class. In China, Liu said, students drew only with pencils, worked on scratchboards and painted.

Often she had an art book with homework assignments.

“We just followed what they wanted us to do in the book,” she said.

Kelly said the Chinese approach to teaching art is formulaic. Students there build art skills by doing the same thing over and over and over again—like drawing eggs and apples, or copying the masters—until they have perfected their technique.

While Kelly agrees that copying does teach something, she said there’s also a limit to that benefit.

“Where do you break out of the mold?” she asked. “Where’s the personal voice? Where’s the creativity?”

Kelly said the Chinese students do learn to focus, which is conducive to art. But she thinks that “it’s really about looking and studying the piece, thinking about the interplay of light.”

Art teacher Andy Cunningham and Kelly said that spontaneity is hard to develop in the students who come from China.

Cunningham said he doesn’t have a strictly set curriculum, and his teaching philosophy is very different from that in China: “Let kids draw.”

He said it’s important for the Chinese students to accept their freedom to draw whatever they want to since they come to the school with such a high skill set.

Acknowledging that freedom, Cunningham said, will help the students “move in an area where they can do what they want to do with such awesome ability.”

Yang said he needs to explain to his students the important parts and outline of the process.

“In order to help students define their direction and style, I have them study visual art theory and explore masters’ works that are related,” he said. “During the process, I need to help them stay focused in their direction until complete.”

He said students experience struggles but enjoy the end result. Often he sees that they show what they’ve learned from copying masters in their later works.

Shi said that Yang gave her a lot of choices on what she wanted to do.

He does give students open-ended assignments, “recreation work by theme.”

“It is important for the students to have a diverse perspective on art,” he said.

“In the recreation process, students need to study the theme, brainstorm, establish a direction, define a style for the final view, produce, refine and finalize at the end.”

“Art is like everything else we do in life,” Shi said. “If you devote time to it, you will be able to see the progress you’re making.”

Liu said that when she does art, she feels nothing but the art itself.

“When I do some artwork, I can calm down,” she said.

She said she is sure that her future in college will involve art.

Shi said she does not plan to pursue art as a major but rather as a hobby or a club activity.

“I am sure I am better at math, to be honest,” she said.

Yang notices that Chinese students who receive American instruction begin to “express more talent of art in their work.”

“My ultimate goal is to create satisfaction for students and their parents from learning art,” he said.

Shi said that Yang’s class filled in the blanks she had from learning art in China.

And the combination of instruction from Kelly and Yang helped her to improve a lot, she said.

“Ms. Kelly’s class gave me the freedom to say what I want in my artwork. Mr. Yang’s class gave me the language, the ability to express myself.”


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