In Darkness, Light

Light and Dark Drawing in SWS High School

Nestled alongside our beloved kindergarten and shaded by a small stand of black oaks, the Meristem building is home to Sacramento Waldorf School’s visual and practical arts

In one room, chips fly and rasps give form to carvings; beyond are the bellows, glowing embers, and steady ping of hammers where students shape iron in blacksmithing.

Every room bursts with life, color, fine materials, tools, and the abundant work of our capable students. Pounded copper leaves, illuminated calligraphy scrolls, glinting stained glass window dressings, and pots and plates delicately rise between agile, clay-covered fingers. 

On any given day, the building bustles with the high school art curriculum. In just four years, students experience coursework in light and dark drawing, basketry, block printing, photography, calligraphy, pastels, ceramics, sculpture, bookbinding, weaving, life drawing, metals, leathercraft, stained glass, and acrylic and oil painting.

It is not uncommon to hear students discussing test topics from Genetics or controversial positions on U.S. foreign policy carried over from a Civics class while patiently carving the concavity of their Welsh spoon. 

Just another day at Sacramento Waldorf School.

One way the journey into the visual arts often begins is the Light and Dark drawing course in the 9th grade. The class covers aspects of drawing and composition with a special emphasis on observation, light and shadow. 

We begin with the wholeness of looking at completed, striking, masterful pieces of art and asking, “What makes them so good?” 

We compare more or less successful pieces and work toward an appreciation of the essential elements.  We strive to “see” the role that value (the range of light to dark) play in giving form, structuring the composition, creating volume, and capturing the scene as a whole. 

Beyond the content of the image, we learn to see it as an arrangement, as a successful composition.

Students are then invited to search for similar arrangements. 

Recently, I have been sending them into campus with their cell phones to take photos that “look beyond” the content and demonstrate this attention to light and dark composition. We take the time to examine and discuss their photos, highlighting the fundamental structures. 

Students take some delight in seeing their work displayed alongside a master like Vermeer. The photos are often met with “Oooos!” and “Wows!”

The best of these photos serve as the basis for their next assignment, a torn paper collage where only various shades of grey are available.

With this foundation in value and composition, we enter the core of the course, drawing. We begin with some of the basics: How to create value, how to reduce our reliance on outlines, and how to apply charcoal evenly.

As a core course in our high school curriculum, every student is guided into the work, not just those who “love art.” Quite often, students who profess to struggle with drawing end up making some of their finest creations. 

We keep in mind the virtues and qualities we appreciated in other work: strong composition and a full utilization of the entire range of brightest white to darkest dark.

I tell students, “Half of the challenge is learning to look carefully.” 

When a student is having difficulty, often my role circles back to asking, “What value are you looking at?” Then, suddenly, “A-Ha!” They see it.

We study still life set up in the studio, and look again at great compositions such as Ansel Adams for inspiration.

To round out the course, I allow students to pick two of their own subjects to draw. One of them must be a replica of masterful composition involving architecture that they find inspiring.

The other must be a portrait of a person in extreme shadow. These two are clearly the most difficult challenges of the course, but our students tirelessly rise to the occasion. 

The class endeavors to inspire students, engage them artistically, and teach the fundamentals of how light and shadow lend power, interest, and subtlety to compositions. As a teacher, I am as interested in the student who is brand new to drawing as I am devoted to the aspiring young artists. The course also serves as a foundation for work in pastels, photography, and future painting courses. 

Maybe more important than any artistic technique or wizened insight into composition or value, the studio time is, at its best, a space to breathe. Our high school program is rich and challenging outside of the arts. Here students, hopefully, can find an “outbreath” to balance the pressure of other parts of their schedule. My favorite times each quarter are near the end when most of the overt instruction is well oiled. Students work and talk, consult with one another, or get my feedback. I like to hear the sound of a content class and the gentle scrub of pencils. Like sivasana at the end of a good yoga session, the best classes include some stillness where very subtle, inner changes can be felt.

Doug Morkner-Brown is a teacher of 8th grade algebra and high school art, Doug began his teacher training in 1997 and has taught in public and homeschool communities. At Sierra Waldorf School, he carried a class from fourth grade through graduation and then came to Sacramento Waldorf School. He also leads the Sacramento Waldorf School mountain biking team.