Learning with My Students | Suzanne Makol

As teaching artists, we bring our experience in our respective mediums to the classroom. But, what about lack of experience?

This winter term at Marwen, I taught an experimental darkroom photography class in which the students drew on their 35mm negatives. The process involves manipulating the photo emulsion (magical light-sensitive bits) on film. Working with a negative the more transparent parts become black in the final print, and the darker parts become white in the final print. In order to alter the negatives you can block light (via Sharpie, paint, etc.) to create more white space, or scratch away the emulsion (via Xacto blade, etching needle, etc.) to create black marks.

Even though I’m not an expert in the technique, it was important to have solid resources and motivations before planning the class.

I have a colleague from art school who has mastered the drawn negatives technique. Kara Cochran draws on large format (4×5 inch) negatives, playfully inserting (mostly) animals into everyday scenes. She uses black Sharpie to white out areas of the negative, and then creates black lines by scratching out the photo emulsion with an Xacto blade. It was helpful to have an artist who has mastered the technique as a resource and inspiration for the class.


Photo by Kara Cochran, who visited the class as a guest artist.

Another big influence in creating the Drawn Negatives class was that, based on student work in previous courses, I knew there was interest in this kind of approach. For example, when a student in my darkroom photo class who liked to doodle felt done with his prints, I encouraged him to try and combine his skills by drawing on his negatives. In another class, a student was trying to make her photo reference a painting from the Art Institute of Chicago. The painting had a sunset, but our class was in the middle of the day. So I suggested that she try to lightly draw on the negative in Sharpie to look like the sun setting. It worked surprisingly well, especially because the photo was black and white.

Introducing the technique to a few students, and trying it out for myself, piqued my interest in the technique. It was exciting that I wasn’t able to find many other examples of artists using the technique, so the students and I could innovate together. Also, knowing that so many of my students had interests and skills in drawing, I was excited to finally introduce a class that solely focused on the drawn negatives technique.

Because this was such a technique-heavy course, there were two major skill building steps before students actually drew on images they photographed.

On the first day of class, students made photograms using transparencies. (Photograms are a way to make an image in the darkroom without using a negative, but rather by placing objects on top of photo paper.) This was a way of testing out the technique on a larger scale, since it is quite difficult to work on the tiny 35mm negative, not to mention the fact that most students didn’t have any experience working with a film negative before. With the theme of maps, students drew or painted on the transparencies to block out light; any blocked out areas would become white in the final image.



The first image is student Gustavo Tovar’s map transparency drawing (against a black background). The second image is the resulting photogram made in the darkroom.

After getting used to the negative process on the scale of the transparency, the assistant teaching artist and I gave students negatives of our own for them to practice drawing on. That way by the time they took their own photos, they already understood what it was like working on the 35mm negatives.


Student Chasity Rivera drew on assistant teaching artist Lee Kintner’s photo negative of a guitar.

Finally, after learning the technical aspects of the camera, students were prepared to take their own photos. One day was spent photographing outdoors, while another focused on indoor self-portraits using a studio light. Because the negatives could only accommodate limited detail, some students chose to combine the transparency technique explored on the first day with their photo prints to create the combined drawing-photo effect.


Student Jocelyn Reyes used black Sharpie on the 35mm negative to obscure the face of her subject. Though originally intended as a crown and veil, the final image takes on a darker feel.

The whole process really engaged the students, and their resulting images were unlike any other class I’ve taught. What surprised me most about this intensely technical process was how much it taught the students about the medium of photography. Most of the students had no analog photography experience, but in the intimate process of investigating and manipulating their negatives through drawing in the classroom and printing in the darkroom, they gained a better physical understanding of what actually happens when you take a picture, and the resulting negative.



Student Guadalupe Valladares used a combination of scratching directly on the negative (to achieve the black marks) and drawing with Sharpie on a transparency (to achieve the white marks) to make her final work. She was able to create lines of varying texture, value and thickness in her dynamic composition.

Ultimately, the most experience I have with the technique of drawing on negatives came from teaching this class. I think teaching a new (to you) technique can be an exciting teaching artist experience, as long as you know enough about the technique and have resources to support it. In my case, I had a guest artist come in as a resource and example, and I also made sure to test out the technique before teaching the class. But not being an expert in it myself made for a vibrant experience, and reinforces my intuition that we learn the most through teaching. The selfish goal of wanting to explore a new art process helped keep the students and I very engaged in the class.

imageSuzanne Makol is a teaching artist at Marwen. She is also an editor at Composite Arts Magazine, which is available as a free download atwww.compositearts.com. She received her bachelor of fine arts in photography at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2011. Suzanne enjoys photographing small treasures that may go unnoticed.

Also by Suzanne Makol on ALT/space:
Photographic Treasures
Happy Accidents
Photography and Sound Collaboration
Teaching Artist Development Studio Part 3: Completing the Circle
Teaching Artist Development Studio Part 2: Design Cycle
Teaching Artist Development Studio Part 1: Fall 2011

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