A few days ago I visited the Whitney Museum in New York City with an artist friend to view Edward Hopper’s drawings. We walked through the quiet rooms filled with onlookers who penetrated their gaze into the images with intent silence and scrutiny. My friend Marty and I had museum voice conversations about every drawing. We were fascinated with how Hopper used charcoal on paper, and how his small but momentous black and white sketches with color schemes written with words on some of them became the blueprints for his finished paintings. We realized that after seeing Hopper’s original paintings, which were produced after his sketches, it was those soft unspecific lines in his drawings that captured our interest and swayed us from the painterly stoic images in his finished original paintings. This realization motivated me to go home and work in my studio. As if bewitched by Hopper’s spirit I became obsessed with just a pen and paper.
I started by drawing small surreal images of pictures that danced in my mind. I sketched while waiting for the train on my way to work. I drew what I saw in front of me and what I saw wandering in my soul – the real and the unreal. The sensitively emotional and solitary style of expression in Hopper’s work seduced me to engage in my own practice; since I was already fascinated with images of forlorn figures and lonely streets, I started to sketch the images of buildings on desolate streets, the train station and people sitting by themselves in cafés.
As Hopper’s drawings continued to motivate me in my own practice, I started to wonder how I might use Hopper in the classroom. How could I introduce this American artist to non-art majors in the American classroom in New York City? How could I teach them how to observe and capture images they see every day with a pencil on paper, and learn that sometimes in art the unfinished lines are really finished? What questions could I ask the students so that they can think visually and critically? Would the students find him fascinating as much as I do?
I decided to start by showing the students my sketches instead of Hopper’s; interestingly, they had many questions about my drawings. They wanted to know where the sketches were done. Why was the old man alone in the café? Did he see you drawing him? Why is the girl floating on water and why is her hair so long, or is it her hair? Where is the woman going in the woods and why does she seem so mysterious and alone? They recognized the house across the street from the school in one sketch; this introduced a question of how to capture mundane images we see everyday by challenging our minds to create art with what does not seem to interest us.
Prior to my fascination with Hopper’s drawings, I would at times tell my students that their drawings were incomplete and that they needed to finish their lines or work on their shading techniques. I determined the doneness of their work, especially if they spent only ten minutes on a drawing. After studying Hopper’s sketches, I examined the power I exerted over the students work to be finished by my standards and was determined to allow them to leave the sketches as open ended as they chose.
I decided to utilize a fifty-minute period to try this out. I instructed the students to write a description of where they live to help them to see what was already familiar to them in a different way. With just a pencil and paper they did sketches of what they think their homes look like or they sketched a view through the window. Although I knew I would be tempted to say “This is not finished,” I refrained, allowing them to enjoy the drawing process and accepted their unfinished lines as finished drawings.
As I walked around the room and watched them work, I felt electrified with a sense of ease that emanated from the students. This looser sketching approach helped them see old things in new ways and opened up new perspectives of seeing for both the students and I. By altering my perception of how art can be taught and learned, I realized that my own pedagogy had been expanded in the process of following my own muse – Hopper.