How Much Does Craftsmanship Really Matter?

At the end of my sophomore year in college, the fate of my future rested in the hands of the faculty members at my school. I was to present samples of my work to them, and they would decide if I could continue being an art major. Dubbed “The Sophomore Review,” it was nerve-wracking, to say the least.

Logically, I’d told myself that I’d received good grades all year, and therefore would be fine.

But, when you’re standing in the hallway, awaiting news that will determine if you can continue with your future career plans, all logic seems to vanish.

Once there, I remember little of what happened or what was said. But, I do remember one professor looking at my work and saying, “Your work has a messiness to it. It’s not resolved yet because you’re fighting your natural inclination to color outside of the lines. You’re doing what you think you’re supposed to do, trying to make things look pretty. Why don’t you try being you, embrace the mess, and see what happens?”

studio space

It took years for me to fully understand that message and how to apply it to my work.

However, those words freed me to explore, to stop being what I thought I was supposed to be and to start creating MY work.

When I became a teacher, I went back to those words as I thought about how to address craftsmanship in my art room.

As an art teacher, you may strive to teach your students to be neat. You might even grade on craftsmanship. As with most things in art, you also may define and deal with craftsmanship in a different way than I do.

When I discuss craftsmanship with my students, it’s not about perfection, or even staying within the lines; it’s about intention. If there are marks scribbled all over the page because the student wished to create a piece in minimum time with even less thought and effort, well then, yes, it shows. It’s a sloppy piece in every way possible.

messy paint

But if a student is inspired by the work of Cy Twombly, and they’re exploring mark making, thinking about how beautiful a scribble, a mark, a spill, can be? Well then, by all means, I say go for it.

But what if it’s hard to tell? What if a student submits something and you’re not sure of their intention? Well, then you need to dig a little.

Let’s say a student submits a canvas smeared with red paint, telling me it’s abstract. I’d ask them to talk about what subject matter they abstracted to create the piece. If they tell me it’s non-objective, I’d ask them to discuss what elements and principles they used and how they worked to move the eye throughout the composition.

artwork

Student work is not about perfection, it’s about learning, exploring, and most of all, thinking.

When a student makes a mug with a crack in the bottom and a handle that falls off, one question to ask, is, “Is it even a mug anymore?” By asking students questions about the quality of their work, they quickly learn they can’t just put some scribbles on a paper and call it quits. At the same time, they learn there isn’t one way to have a piece that demonstrates, “craftsmanship.”

Telling our students how neat their work needs to be may come with the best intentions, but we need to be careful about the message it sends to our students.

student work

If the ultimate goal is helping students become creative thinkers and develop a personal style, is neatness important above all else? Or, would we rather that students instead put their full effort into something to help them develop their personal style, even if it bucks traditional conventions?

In short, as with most things in art, perhaps craftsmanship is not as cut-and-dried as we want it to be.

If you have students who are looking for inspiration, here are 8 artists who colored outside the lines.

  1. Käthe Kollwitz
  2. Cy Twombly
  3. William Kentridge
  4. Willem De Kooning
  5. Alberto Giacometti
  6. Franz Kline
  7. Jean Michel Basquiat
  8. Sheila Hicks

Craftsmanship can and should look different for different projects. When you’re working to define craftsmanship, ask yourself, what are the learning objectives, and how does craftsmanship relate to those objectives?

How are you making space in your room for your student to learn the rules and then break them?

How do you define craftsmanship with your students?

Amber Kane

Amber Kane is a High School Art Teacher and textile designer in PA. Through questioning and a focus on the creative thought process, she strives to help her students uncover their personal voice and see how they can use art to create impact.

Related

  • Michelle Mathias

    I have often had these thoughts. I’m often a walking piece of “art”— I always have paint on me or oil pastel- hardly any of my clothes are without art stains. When I’m creating art in my studio I don’t care about the mess I make or how the edges look— but yet I ask students to care. This is such a good topic to talk about!!

    • Amber Kane

      Thank you, Michelle! Yes, I often reflect on my own process as an artist, and then work to translate that into the classroom.

      What is one thing that you might try to do differently with your students to encourage, “the mess?”

  • Erika Lancaster

    Absolutely amazing article!

    I always comment that art isn’t perfect and that striving for perfection could be possibly one of the worst things an artist can do! What counts is exploration, getting to know what is important to oneself as an artist and finding your own voice in order to create art with meaning to it. Art is meant to be MORE than pretty decoration. I try to instill in my students that making mistakes is part of being an artist.

    I’ve had so many situations throughout the years in which students get very emotional because they think they “ruined” something they’ve been working on for so long which, unfortunately, is connected to what they learn from society and parents about mistakes being the most terrible of things.

    I totally agree that, as Art Teachers, we have to really give thought to how we grade students AND take time to help students understand why we do it the way we do. I don’t think that a grading rubric should include such a thing as “neatness”. Perhaps more like appropriate use of tools and supplies would be more like it?

    Thank you so much for this thought-provoking article!

    • Mr. Post

      I prefer the terms “loose” and “tight” as opposed to neat when it comes to describing an art work’s visual qualities. I have a friend who says you cannot make a loose artist tight or a tight artist loose – it just goes against their nature.

      • Erika Lancaster

        Great point! It’s definitely one of the most descriptive parts of an art style!

      • Amber Kane

        Interested in this line of thought, how do you translate this to your students? I would call myself a lose artist.

        • Mr. Post

          One of the simplest ways to translate this to students is to simply make them aware of it. I once had a little kid who made the roughest, crude clay sculptures but they had a gestural beauty to them. I mentioned to the class that I love the gestural, loose quality of his work and this little guy just beamed when I shared his artwork with the class. If I only valued neat, crisp work this little guy’s work certainly wouldn’t have fallen into that category.

          One of my painting instructors gave a talk called “Wrong but Right” once. He showed examples of paintings where the anatomy or perspective or values were technically wrong, but the paintings had the right feel to them. I still remember how eye-opening that talk was 35 years later.

    • Amber Kane

      You’re welcome, Erika! How do you respond to students that feel like they’ve , ” ruined” a piece?

      • Erika Lancaster

        Hello again! Usually I respond with a question. Something along the lines of: “What makes you think it’s ruined?” I want them to learn to pinpoint what it is they don’t like about their piece on their own so that they can conclude what they should avoid doing next time. This is something that I do myself when it comes time to analyze my own work for improvement purposes and I like pushing my students to self-assess themselves as much as I can. Cheers!!

        • amberkanescarves

          Love that response!

  • Mr. Post

    I agree with close to 100% of what you said, but I feel that your mug example does not fit well in terms of your craftsmanship discussion.

    The craftsmanship involved in making functional pottery is not a gray area about intent of the artist. A functional mug should not have any cracks in it, the handle should stay attached as well as be pleasant to use, the glaze should fit the piece well, the clay should be vitrified and able to go in the microwave and the glaze needs to be well formulated so that it does not leach any chemicals into the liquid being served.

    Having said that, there are artists who explore mugs and teapots as abstract canvasses to explore form – but these artists are already well versed in the aesthetics of what makes a mug functional. (http://ronnagle.net/)

    I think it is critically important for young ceramicists to learn the craftsmanship of the craft. If one of my students made a mug with a crack in it and failed handle the only conversation I can imagine having with them is one about how to improve the craftsmanship to solve those issues. Many quality ceramics programs have been gutted when the professors who were hired did not understand enough of the craft to pass it onto the next generation of potters.

    • Amber Kane

      Mr. Post, I actually agree with, and maybe didn’t make that clear in that example. My goal is questioning students would be hopefully to understand and agree that it doesn’t demonstrate high craftsmanship, but found with any high school students, we can get much farther in a conversation, then simply saying this is THE way that it has to be. Thank you for sharing your perspective and expertise when it comes to ceramics.

  • Amber Spragg

    I love your article and how understand the artist’s intent changes the discussion. As an art teacher I feel like I define craftsmanship as a way for students to not cut corners and sort of “put the finishing touches” on their projects. I teach middle school students and sometimes run into students who are apathetic and want to put in minimal work, asking me “Is this ok?” when they want to be finished. What advice do you have for those students? Thanks!

    • amberkanescarves

      Amber, apathetic students are always hard, and there is no one right answer. Here are a few things that I do. 1. try to find out why they are apathetic, it may be that they really just aren’t interested, or it may be that they actually are lacking confidence and instead of trying and failing, they’ve decided that they will fail because they did’t try. 2. While I don’t want any of my students to just give up, I also try to remember what it feels like to have to do something that I truly don’t have a great interest in, and with that in mind, I try to meet them where they are. 3. “Is this ok?” may mean that they want to be finished, or it may mean that they’re worried about their grade, or that they don’t know what to do next. While it’s hard at first, I always answer with another question, do you think it’s okay? What do you like the most about it? What are you not loving about it?

      Thanks for the great question. Your students are lucky to have you.

  • Quiquia Calhoun- Mclilly

    I teach by this, freedom to see what will happen if you try this and making the 00PS something to help inspire you to move forward. i teach my kids to play and then finalize with the details for good craftsmanship.

    • amberkanescarves

      Quiquia, what grade do you teach? Love the idea of embracing the OOPS, and helping students find ways to move forward.

  • Shelly Hallsted

    I teach middle school art and I do address craftsmanship and it does look differently according to the assignment. One way I do address this issue is allowing for practice with materials before working on their final art piece. This allows students to make mistakes and adjust their work before beginning a final piece. Showing and giving clear examplars also gives students a clear direction of where they need to go. I also take into account, when I am grading, the overall skill level of the student. What I expect from a high skilled student will not be quite the same for a low skilled student. When a student is not working well and rushing through their assignment I asked them if they need help – sometimes they feel they aren’t capable and are genuinely struggling with material- make adjustments to the assignment for that student if necessary and prompt capable students to do a better job by telling them that they need to go back and work some more because they are not yet receiving a passing grade.

    • amberkanescarves

      Shelly, it’s great to allow students time to explore materials, that can be so meaningful for them!