Teaching Chaos

Chaos Theory
Credit: flickr / Steve Jurvetson

My friend Linda teaches drawing at University (amongst a wide assortment of things), and she was explaining a fascinating exercise to me.

Requirements: white paper, charcoal, eraser, glue stick & tolerance for dirt.

This is all about developing lots of strategies for recovering from errors and changes, and stumbling upon expressive, aggressive marks and effects that you can integrate into your safe, well-observed drawing.

1.

Start drawing the model, large, over the whole page

Once everyone has a drawing well under way, committing to using the whole page, ask the model to change one thing about the pose, and ask the students to smudge out or erase the drawing as needed to incorporate the changed pose. Then ask the model to change again, and again. Eventually the students learn to use the smudges, ghosts and erasures as constructive marks in a drawing that combines observation and expression

Give them a couple of tries at that. First time, they will learn what can happen. Second time, they can start to leverage the effects, not just recover from them.

2.

Like that, but after a couple of changes to the pose, stop the students and tell them “Tear your drawing into two pieces and keep the one you like better. Crumple the other piece up and throw it away. Look at the piece you kept. If you like it all, keep it. Otherwise, tear that in two and keep the one you like better. Lather/rinse/repeat until you have a fragment of the original drawing, a fragment you like. Glue it onto a new page and keep drawing.”

3.

Like that, but then put a splodge of white tempera paint or gesso into the palm of everyone’s (non-working) hand. Have them use that as hand-painted “white-out” to make changes to the drawing. Students gradually discover that they can not just erase but blend in charcoal and apply paint as highlights and other constructive marks. Erasure, tearing and patching fragments together are all still in play.

4.

Now play with equally messy colour – water-soluble crayola markers. Draw for a while in colourful crayola markers, then spray with water until they bleed. Integrate white tempera paint (which never perfectly covers the marker, and often blends into it) as you go. Keep brush and black ink, and all the strategies above.

5.

One of the hardest, weirdest experiences is working on a drawing for longer than an hour. Of working on something, and stopping, and coming back to it the next day… and holy shit it’s like it was made by a whole other person, and you need to look it over and figure out what today’s artist wants to do with it next.

So let’s approximate that effect, fast-forward, in the classroom, with tag-team drawing

Arrange students in a circle around a subject (still life or model), start drawing in your choice of material. One they get something established on the whole page… stop. Have them leave the drawing, pick up supplies and move to the next drawing over. Tell them to “Look at it as if it were your own. What does it need next? Do that”. Next drawing, next drawing.

After adopting several drawings, have them come home to “their” drawing and look over the many marks and styles and changes that classmates have applied. Students then work over the whole drawing, including any of the strategies used above, to emphasise and reiterate the properties they like, downplay the things they don’t like, make some corrections and integrate the whole thing into one image

6.

If students are really risk-tolerant and energised by this approach, ask the very best ones to send the drawings one direction while the artists travel the other. The drawing no longer aligns with the viewpoint on the still life (or model) and students have more extreme changes to cope with, change or embrace.

7.

Then you give them long sustained poses with complete free will and let them apply what they’ve learned when they want to.

How Could We Increase The Tolerance for Chaos in Software Engineering?

  1. Shifting Priorities. Assignment is a choose your own adventure – you have a list of features to add, and some discussion about priorities of each. There are a series of deadlines, and at each deadline you have to hand in a feature, but it’s up to you which. The catch – each new round of deadlines, the features and the priorities change. The worse the choices you make early on (most interesting feature instead of most important? Added bells and whistles instead of infrastructure?) the harder things will get.
  2. Shifting People. Assignment is a series of features. After each deadline, you get someone else’s code. You lose marks for re-writing it unnecessarily. Added  chaos – the features are not ordered.

Group work is supposed to teach this – or the experience of working with other people in a team, at least, and sometimes it works, but too often one person takes on the task of writing everything. Other students can then feel alienated and inadequate, view it as their failure to be the person doing all the work. It’s actually a failure of the exercise.

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