Visual arts education has historically presented challenges for both individuals who are blind or have low vision and for art educators who are not always equipped with the knowledge of how to successfully adapt their courses for students with disabilities. Dr. Jeremy Johnson of the University of Nebraska at Omaha set out to challenge the stereotype that people who are blind cannot create art through a series of art workshops specifically designed for these individuals. In this four-part blog series, Johnson discusses the visual arts workshops he designed for students who are blind, sharing promising practices for art educators to incorporate into their own classrooms.
Workshop 3: Approximate Perspective
The third workshop was the most challenging and simultaneously the most rewarding. During this workshop experience, students explored tactile drawing and the many complex concepts associated with approximate perspective. The author replicated many techniques developed by artist and educator at the Colorado School for the Blind, Ann Cunningham. While all of the workshops required extensive preparation, this workshop far surpassed that required for other topics. To educate himself, the author invested several hours studying with Ann, creating tools, and practicing his instructional techniques and verbal descriptions. Depth and perspective can be difficult even for sighted individuals, so to explain these very abstract concepts to individuals who are blind or have low vision (including some who had never seen before) was daunting. The instructor focused his instruction specifically on drawing by exploring the concepts of convergence; diminution of size; and foreground, middle ground, and background. To people who are blind or have low vision, these perspective concepts can be difficult to process and employing them is often approximate in nature, hence the term approximate perspective.
Before the participants even picked up a drawing utensil, the instructor opened with three activities intended to provide a foundation for understanding several core concepts. The instructor had some working knowledge of the participants’ visual history, that is, the experiences that participants may or may not have had with relation to previous sight. Those who did have vision previously could recall instances of depth or horizon. Those who had never seen needed more examples in order to understand the material.
Several of the activities used to teach the concepts related to approximate perspective were best accomplished in a long hallway. The particular hallway used for the instruction was ideal in that free of clutter, long and straight with very little foot traffic. The first of the three activities introduced convergence. Prior to the start of class, the instructor used masking tape to create a starting point at one end of the hallway. Next, masking tape was placed on the floor to mark 5 feet, 10 feet and 25 feet from the starting point. During the activity the instructor asked for two volunteers to assist and provided each one with a yardstick and asked them to first stand on either side of the hallway at the five-foot line. One by one, participants were asked to come to the starting point. Volunteers were asked to loudly tap their yardsticks on the floor to create an audible sound. The participant was then instructed to extend his or her arms in front of his or her body and point with each of their index fingers at the source of the sound. At the 5-foot line, when the participant pointed to the sound, the angle of their extended arms created a 45-degree angle. The volunteers then moved down to the 10 foot marking and again tapped the ground; the participant again pointed, and this time their arms created a smaller angle. Finally, the volunteers moved to the 25-foot marking and again tapped. When the participants extended their arms this time, their arms pointed nearly straight ahead and their fingers nearly touched. During the discussion that followed the activity, the instructor asked if the hallway was actually coming to a point; the answer was no, because even those students with canes knew from experience that the hallway did not become “skinnier” in the distance. The instructor explained that as things move towards the horizon line, the imaginary line between the ground and the sky, objects fade, appear smaller and come to a point; this activity helped demonstrate this using sound and physical actions.
The second topic of instruction, diminution of size, required that the participant be seated. Using a cane, the participant held on to the very end and extended an arm locked at the elbow and raised it above his or her head. The instructor stood directly in front of the participant with the handle of the cane resting on his forehead. The instructor asked the participant to hold the cane steady as he began to take steps backward away from the participant. Students were asked to describe what happened. With each step backward that the instructor took, the participant’s arm began to lower. The discussion that ensued focused on whether the instructor was actually getting smaller. The participants all agreed that the instructor was not getting smaller and were interested in knowing why this happened. The instructor connected this activity to the first in which as things move farther away and closer to the horizon line, they appear to fade or get smaller. With the hallway activity, things seemed to come to a point. In this activity, the instructor seemed to get smaller.
The third activity, foreground, middle ground, and background, was intended to encourage participants to bring this new learning together. Prior to the workshop, the instructor created a picture frame out of standard cardboard measuring 10-1/2”x13”. An 8-1/2”x11” window representing the picture plane was cut out leaving a one inch border on all four sides. Volunteers each had the end of a spool of ribbon tied to their ankle and, using the same marks used for the convergence activity, one volunteer stood at the 5-foot mark, another at 10 feet and the last at 25 feet. The other end of the ribbon was passed through the picture plane and held in one hand by the instructor. The instructor’s other hand held the picture frame. Participants were asked to come up to the picture frame and reach through the picture plane and trace their hands along the ribbons and describe in detail what was happening to the ribbon. They were asked to distinguish which ribbon represented foreground, middle ground and background. Participants shared that the steep drop in one ribbon meant that this was the foreground because it was the closest. The middle ground was not quite as steep as the foreground and the background ribbon travelled almost parallel to the floor off into the distance. These activities and their discussions were essential for the success of the independent drawing that took place during the remainder of the workshop.
Prior to the workshop, the instructor gathered large totes filled with a variety of objects that included vases, wine bottles, old railroad lanterns, and several other random objects. Participants were able to explore these bins and select an object(s) to use as the inspiration for their drawings. Once the object was selected, each person received a Sensational Blackboard, paper, a ball point pen, and a picture frame. Participants set their picture frames up in front of their objects either horizontally or vertically; they then aligned their Sensational Blackboards to mirror the orientation of their picture frame. Using their new acquired knowledge of perspective, the participant was asked to reach their non-drawing hand through the picture plane and using their drawing hand begin to draw by applying pressure of the pen onto the paper.
For example, a participant selected the railroad lantern. She oriented her picture frame and Sensational Blackboard, reached through the frame and explored the lantern. Her hand told her that the bottom of the lantern was far enough back that she could feel it, which meant that, on her paper she should be able to ‘see’ it as well. She continued this process as she worked her way toward the top of the lantern. She found that she could reach through the picture plane and feel the top of the lantern without being impeded by the border of the picture frame. This communicated to her drawing hand that the entire lantern should be visible. One participant elected to take a more complex route and use multiple objects. He went through the same process, only he needed to pay closer attention to how the overlapping of objects needed to be indicated in his picture.
As mentioned previously, this was a challenging experience. In future workshops, the instructor would devote additional time to demonstrations of complex topics and would also provide more instruction on how to effectively use the Sensational Blackboards. Additionally, by teaching one concept at a time, the instructor saw that there was a lot of idle time for participants as they waited for their turns. Additional volunteers to run simultaneous demonstrations would have been helpful. Despite these few challenges, there were many successes. Many participants commented that this was the first time they had had a true drawing experience and, though difficult, they really enjoyed it. Many students, even those with previous sight, shared that this was the first time that they truly understood diminution of size, convergence, and why things appear the way they do in pictures. Also, for the instructor, this workshop pushed his ability to describe concepts to a new level. It illustrated to him how important being descriptive is, not only to students who are blind or have low vision, but to all students. After teaching this workshop, the instructor has changed the way he instructs his pre-service teachers to ensure that they are able to replicate vivid descriptions of difficult visual concepts.