One of the things I’ve decided that I believe about design thinking, is that it’s critical to be (or to become) a T-shaped person. By this, it’s meant that one should have a broad range of knowledge, but also a deep set of skills in one area. The broad range of knowledge is the horizontal of the T, while the deep skills are the vertical of the T.
Along those lines, the eighth graders of my school are annually responsible for creating a mural that celebrates and remarks on their time in school. This year, they chose the theme of a city — their own take on Times Square. Which, of course, requires substantial skill in painting. And while there are many competent artists in this class, they maybe aren’t up to the task of creating a major cityscape in the kind of two-point perspective without some prior instruction.
Accordingly, they started out with a quite successful ‘grid’ or matrix in one-point perspective. But (as I understand it) they gradually fell into disagreement in the structure of the perspective. And of course, since it was one-point perspective, it didn’t look anything like Times Square.
And I was asked to come in. First, they painted over their original efforts. And then we drew a horizon line. And we picked two vanishing points, fairly close together near the middle of the mural field. And then gradually we drew in the buildings. I was saying things to the students like, “Ok, draw a line here, about this angle… like so.” And then a few minutes later, I’d say, “Ok now draw in the edge of the curb, here.” Or a bit after that, “Now we’re going to put in a line of windows along here, so use the T-square to draw in some verticals along here, between these two lines…”
All of a sudden, a student stepped back. A lot of the kids had been confused to this point, because while they knew what they wanted, they didn’t really understand how they were going to get there. And they didn’t really understand how we were moving towards a vision of what they wanted with all these apparently random lines that only had one of two points in common with one another. What was the purpose of all this graphing? But this one student stepped back, as I said, and said something along the lines of, “Oh, my God… It’s Times Square.”
It’s not, of course. It can’t be. And I’ve presented my students as considerably less talented than they are. They’re quite a remarkable group of kids, particularly solo. But working on a major art project together, especially one which requires a substantial and complex investment in the undercarriage of the picture’s layout was — not surprisingly — beyond them.
Frankly, it’s beyond me.
I’ve never executed a plan or a program like this before: a mural maybe eight or ten feet in height, maybe six or seven feet wide. How was I supposed to know how this image was supposed to be put together?
Except that in August 2008, I think, I met Dave Gray. And Dave Gray taught me how to draw; or more accurately, he reconnected me with the drawing skills I’d learned before. And he got me connected with RapidViz, and other drawing resources. And the result of those drawing resources, and that re-training, is that I’m deepening my T. I’m was already a teacher of liberal arts skills to middle schoolers, like Latin and history; but now I’m including visual thinking in my portfolio of skills that I try to impart to my students. Hard skills, like learning to draw in 2-point perspective; and soft-skills, too, like learning to manage a team that’s generating a 2-point perspective mural.
It’s still not going to be easy.
In the course of helping them out, though, I realized I had to do my own work. I can’t very well guide a team of students through a painting project of this kind of complexity, without doing a 2-point perspective painting myself. We can’t lead others into complicated situations that require technical expertise, if we haven’t gone there ahead of them. Sometimes it works out, more often it doesn’t. And so, this is what I’m doing, to make myself the sort of T-shaped person that I talk about with parents and students at my school: I’m painting a painting, as I’ve done in the past, to fill in the gaps in my knowledge, and learn how to manage this hard-skill set of painting in two-point perspective.
Every time I lay down a new layer of paint, I think, “but what if I want to put in a car there, later?” Or, “What if I decide to do the windows on this building differently, later on?” And “Are there going to be people walking on this sidewalk?” Down in the lower left, part of the street is visible through the windows of the shop… “Is that going to be a coffee-house there, a Starbucks? How do I represent that?”
Thinking back on my visit to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam two weeks ago, I can’t help but be reminded of Piet Mondrian’s work with plain fields of primary color on grids. And I find something deeply soothing about these lines vanishing into the distance along two paths. The lack of humans in the matrix, though, is a little upsetting, though the evidence of their presence is strongly suggested by the cars and by the buildings. I wonder how I’m going to advise the students about putting people into their mural.
Because if creating this painting has taught me something so far, it’s that the world inside a painting needs people — especially if I’m the one painting it. I may not be any good at painting people; but I don’t want to paint only clean grids and primary colors.
So… I’m going to keep working on this painting for a while. It’ll be a counterpoint to the work I’m doing with the students, to help them design and execute their mural. But I already have the feeling I’m going to do two or three of these before I’m done. How else will I get good at it? How else will I really learn what there is to learn about this style of art?