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The Creative Process in the Arts and Beyond

August 30, 2019

Thanks to Jennifer Taylor, a 2019 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas recipient, for today's post.

It feels like August has only just begun, but somehow it is drawing to a close suspiciously quickly. As a new teacher, this inevitably results in mixed emotions. I - and I believe I can safely say most teachers - spend a good chunk of the summer thinking about and working on my job. I take an online course, review and improve the resources and materials I used for my classes last year, and generally feel very calm, organized, and prepared. As the last weeks of August slip away, though, that calm feeling disintegrates into anxiety. What courses will I actually end up teaching? If it’s a course I haven’t taught before, how will I prepare myself? What will my classes be like? And how in the world am I going to fit all of the curriculum requirements into just a few short months?

Obviously, I haven’t perfected the art of teaching. The thing about mastering anything is that you must do it over, and over, and over again, but as a young teacher I don’t always have the luxury of teaching the same class - or even at the same school - more than once. A challenge, certainly, but it also gives me the opportunity to look at teaching from different perspectives and try out different educational theories. Sometimes, I am a languages teacher, teaching French as a Second Language with a focus on authentic dialogue and action-based language learning. Sometimes I am an art teacher, teaching Visual Art and emphasizing the Growth Mindset while remaining cognizant of the multiple intelligences my students possess. Last year, I taught both at once - French Immersion Visual Art, an art course conducted entirely in French.

During that semester, as well as integrating the previously-mentioned pedagogical theories, I found that the Creative Process was invaluable in helping me structure the course. Though I have only seen it used in this iteration in the context of secondary Visual Arts, it fit in beautifully with the development of language skills, and I think could be used as a framework in other subjects as well. The individual steps will be very familiar, and can be spread out and used over an entire unit of study (as I do in my Art program) or scaled down to fit within a single period. I will give an example of the application of this process - specifically, how I used it to work through a clay relief sculpture unit with my students last year.

Challenging and Inspiring
When introducing a new topic, concept, or project, I try to start here, by inviting my students to be inspired by the potential that exists in our new topic of study. Often, this is dictated by the curriculum; in my case, the curriculum specifies that 9th grade French Immersion Visual Arts students be introduced to the art of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. We therefore examined ancient relief sculptures in caves, temples, on columns, and in burial chambers, focusing on a few key aspects: the level of relief, the textures used, and most importantly what stories are being told, and how they can be interpreted based on the sculptor’s choices.

When it comes to challenging students, the focus is on developing skills based on the topic of inspiration, rather than replicating stylistic elements or subjects. The artistic challenge posed to my students, therefore: how can depth and texture be used effectively in a clay slab to help communicate a story about you?

Imagining and Generating
Before they can really begin to consider how they will carry out the challenge, they must be able to see the possibilities and constraints that exist within it. Only after gaining an awareness of proper processes and techniques will students be able to imagine themselves carrying out the same actions. With clay, there are many physical rules and variables; with an adequate moisture content, it is malleable, but as it dries it becomes fragile and unworkable; if any air bubbles are created as it is being sculpted, it will explode when it is fired in the kiln; if pieces are not attached together using the proper technique, they will break apart during firing. Watching videos, participating in demonstrations, and looking at examples in various stages of completion allow students to imagine how they will manipulate the techniques themselves, and begin to generate their own ideas and do research on how to realize them.

An exemplar I showed my students to demonstrate what the planning and preliminary sculpting stages could look like for the project. Photo credit: Jennifer Taylor.

An exemplar I showed my students to demonstrate what the planning and preliminary sculpting stages could look like for the project. Photo credit: Jennifer Taylor.


Planning and Focusing
This is one of the stages that many students resist. Once they have their heart set on an idea, many prefer to jump straight into the final product, without passing “GO” or collecting their $200. It takes some time to convince students that a person’s first idea is not always their best - that sometimes, doing a little bit of planning work and trying variations on their original idea can pay off in a big way. At first, I give students a number of sketches they must complete before choosing one to pursue; but it doesn’t take them long to realize that their first composition is rarely the most successful. By the end of the year, their planning work is much more self-directed and gives them confidence in their ability to carry out their plan in the next stages.

In the planning stages of the clay relief sculpture, students sketched several potential compositions, then chose their favourite (with feedback from their peers and teacher) and added important technical details to indicate areas that would be additive (clay added onto the flat slab) or reductive (clay carved away from the surface) and what textures would be used. This helped them to visualize how they would achieve three dimensions when planning was done on a two-dimensional surface.

Exploring and Experimenting
This step will look very different depending on the skills being developed in any task or project. The intention is to ensure that every student is able to experiment with the materials and skills they will be using before having to touch their final work. Ideally, this stage should be low-risk in terms of evaluation so students can take huge risks in their experimentations. In my clay example, students created a miniature flat slab of clay and were invited to experiment with textures and techniques they wanted to use in their project. If they planned to sculpt a bird, their experimentation could tackle the challenge of how to create the texture of a feather in clay, how to sculpt and attach a delicate foot, or how to create the illusion of depth in the background.

Producing Preliminary Work
Finally, the “good copy”! If all other steps have been carried out with dedication and effort, this stage becomes easy; following a detailed plan that has been generated based on an artistic challenge and explored with proper techniques is simple - in a perfect world. In our world, additional challenges will still arise, disasters will strike, and all hope will occasionally be lost. Luckily, the creative process has not abandoned us - there are still more stages to come.

Revising and Refining
Whether or not all previous steps went according to plan, there are always improvements that can be made. When a student throws their hands up and says “I’m done!” I always ask a follow-up question. How do you know you are done? Is there any part of it you are not yet happy with? If your work belonged to one of your classmates, what suggestions would you give them for improvement? Whether your evaluation tool of choice is a checklist, rubric, success criteria, or something else, students can always go back to it and refine their product.

This is also one of the stages where feedback from peers is most important; if the creator runs out of inspiration for revisions, fresh eyes and a new point of view can be the most effective tools for revising one’s work. As well as improvised revisions with individual students, this is a stage where I also take the time for explicit peer evaluation with specific instructions. In our sculpture unit, I periodically had them stop working for a period of about ten minutes and discuss their progress with a partner, and ask that partner for suggestions. It is important that feedback is helpful without being harsh. A critical statement such as, The nose on your sculpture is too flat, can be discouraging. Advice, with phrasing like, The nose would look more realistic if you added more clay to the tip so it projects more, provides a path forward for revisions.

The final sculpture, ready to be shared with the artist’s group for feedback after it has been fired. Photo credit: Jennifer Taylor.

The final sculpture, ready to be shared with the artist’s group for feedback after it has been fired. Photo credit: Jennifer Taylor.


Presenting and Sharing/Reflecting and Evaluating
Presenting their work is another step that my students were reluctant to undertake, so sometimes I blended the last two steps of the process together. In older grades, students might participate in a formal, unscripted full-class critique of each other’s work. In younger grades, I found that preparing a self-reflection and then sharing their work in small groups or partners was more successful. A written reflection on their work not only forced students to examine their own learning - it also made it obvious to me when they did not really understand the criteria. When a student gave themselves 10/10 for something they failed to include in their work (which did happen), it allowed me to determine the extent of their understanding, and also to reflect on how I could improve my teaching of the concept.

With their written reflection as a guide, I ask students to share the reasons behind their chosen composition, where they found success, and where they could have improved. Classmates can then weigh in with comments on what they enjoyed, suggestions for next time, or questions. The important thing about this stage is that it takes place immediately after they complete the project, so students can more effectively internalize the suggestions they receive and immediately apply them to the next project. Often, the creator themselves or a classmate will address the very same aspects that I would give in my evaluation of the work - but the student does not have to wait a week or two to receive the feedback in writing, by which time they have already mentally moved on.

The artist’s reflection on their own work. In this case, they were happy that the levels of depth and the textures looked realistic. If they could do it again, however, they would alter the composition so there was not so much empty space at the bottom. Photo credit: Jennifer Taylor.

The artist’s reflection on their own work. In this case, they were happy that the levels of depth and the textures looked realistic. If they could do it again, however, they would alter the composition so there was not so much empty space at the bottom. Photo credit: Jennifer Taylor.


Feedback and Reflection
I have mentioned feedback specifically at a few key stages, but what I appreciate about this version of the creative process is that feedback and reflection take place at every stage of a project. This does not mean that I force students into some form of formal reflection at every stage - rather, I encourage students to be frequently discussing their work with their classmates as they work, so that reflection and feedback take place organically throughout the process. One potential challenge is ensuring that constructive feedback among peers avoids being offensive or dismissive of their work. As previously mentioned, in that interest, students are encouraged to give suggestions for improvement rather than critical comments on unsuccessful aspects. As well as improving artistic skills and techniques, they are also developing their language skills - obviously an advantage in a Second Language course, but no less effective in a wide variety of other fields as well.

The potential of the Creative Process has not yet been fully developed. It has been a great guiding tool in teaching Visual Arts, but I see how it can be useful beyond an art classroom, and I will now be adapting this same process into every course that I teach.

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