Category Archives: Visual Assignments

Nebraska Poet Ted Kooser

I was watching this interview with singer/songwriter John Prine, which is wonderful in itself and I recommend watching it. But the host of the Prine interview was also so familiar. Who is that guy? I wondered. Then at the end of the interview, John Prine says, “Thank You, Ted Kooser.” Of course, I know who Ted Kooser is.

Years ago, I read a book by Ted Kooser about writing poetry. I even tried doing it for a while, but I didn’t keep it up. But this morning I wondered where is Ted Kooser now? In searching for the answer to that question, I found his homepage with this short documentary video about Kooser and his life and work.

Ted Kooser says a great deal about the creative process in this piece. Every day, he gets up at 4:30 am each day and works until seven. A part that really struck me is his statement,

Once or twice a month I come up with something that was worth my time—the rest of the time, I’m failing.

I was drawn to the video because I often give my students the assignment of making a mini-documentary about someone interesting. How can you introduce someone to the world through video? Do it like the video Passing Through from Straw Hat Visuals on Vimeo.

Writing the Unthinkable Part II – Blind Contour Drawings

These were the first drawings we made in the Writing the Unthinkable Workshop with Lynda Barry on November 23, 2019 in Evansville, Wisconsin. We started by drawing a full breakfast table setting with bacon eggs, and a cup of coffee… with our eyes closed. I forget the time we had to do these drawings, around one or two minutes, I think. I first heard about doing blind contour drawings from Betty Edwards’ Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain book.

The next thing to draw is a giraffe.

Followed by a mermaid.

The Statue of Liberty.

A skeleton.

Drawing blind is a great way to free up the mind. We were drawing in $1.00 composition books, the kind with the marbled black covers, which Lynda explained is useful for drawing because they are so inexpensive you don’t worry at all about messing up something expensive and nice. If you mess up, you can keep going. The thing about drawing with your eyes closed is that there is absolutely no wrong way to do it. You just use your mind’s eye and go for it!

Photography and the Visual Image

Photography and the Visual Image

This week we will be looking at visual storytelling through images and photography. How does one make a good photograph? This year I have amassed a huge collection of family photographs. Literally hundreds of photo prints made by different members of my family over the years.

We really like picture-taking in our family but if I am brutally honest, most are mediocre, unremarkable snapshots. (My mom was a big fan of double-prints too, so often there’s twice the amount of prints too.)

What is the difference between a snapshot and a composed photograph?

Bill's first home with several people sitting on the front porch.

Snapshots are made by people with no formal training and lack having a natural eye for composition. In the snapshot above, there are some things I like and some things I don’t care for at all. I can see a front view of the first home I purchased (we no longer live there). On the porch is a gathering of my siblings, and I see a stroller/bike trailer on the sidewalk.

I can see my wife’s birdhouse collection and my family, but no details on either. In a composed photograph, the photographer identifies the key subject and emphasizes it. The photographer composes the frame and decides what to include and exclude. That is the job of the photographer — to tell the viewer what is important to see and what is not. (By the way, this fact is foundational to being media literate. All media are constructed. Media creators include and exclude things based on their tastes, preferences and biases. To be media literate, we must realize this fact when we view the work of others.)

What is the main subject of the above picture? It is hard to tell, isn’t it? Is it the house? Is it the decorations and landscaping of the house? Is it the family on the porch of the house? The bicycle and bike trailer? There is a lot going on here and the photographer decides to try to include everything; that is wrong! Well not wrong if you are making snapshots, but wrong if you want to make memorable photographs. I would much prefer to see faces up close, or certain interesting features of the house, or even the bike and trailer. I have literally hundreds of snapshot pictures and maybe one out of ten or twenty strikes me as really interesting to look at.

This next picture (below) is also from my vast collection of family photos. Although technically, this too is a snapshot made on what was undoubtedly a less complex camera than the previous photo (a Brownie camera perhaps?), it seems the photographer who made this one was more conscious of design elements that make a good photograph, or at least they lucked into using them.

The very first thing that strikes me in this photograph is the use of the Rule of Thirds. Notice how the subject, the two women, are not placed exactly in the center but are instead more towards the left. This automatically makes a more interesting photo to look at. Placing a subject dead center is static, and boring.

The photo is likely from the 1960s and I love the still-vibrant colors in this outdoor scene. Many photos of this age have faded, particularly the blues and greens and many photos like this have the reddish hue of age. Not this one! It has probably been kept in a relatively cool and dry environment out of the sunlight.

The mother/daughter duo appear to be wearing clothing of a similar style, although not matching. The similar cut of their tops (look at the angled waist hem) makes me wonder if they bought these clothes while out shopping together. I like that it is close enough to see their faces, yet far enough back to include their entire bodies. It is obvious that the people are what the photographer wants us to see. The background is simple. Rocks, trees and sky, and they are standing in the middle of the road which tells me this is an off the beaten path sort of place without throngs of traffic.

This is such a fun photograph, I attempted to make a small watercolor painting of it. I will probably try the same scene again to see if I can improve my technique any.

To recap, to make a quality photograph you need to select a definite subject. Make it obvious. Don’t make the viewer have to guess what you are trying to show us. Then to increase interest, put the subject not in the center, but off to the side using the Rule of Thirds. Finally, consider the colors and lighting of the scene. In my second example photo, the lighting is strong and bright, which caused the human subjects to squint and to wear sunglasses. It also creates harsh shadows, which are often undesirable. If you make photographs on overcast days, or in the shade, or during the dawn and dusk hours when the sun is low in the skies you can get really interesting results with your natural ambient light. If you do these things, the quality of your picture taking will likely move from simple snapshots into the realm of true photograph.

Creative Attendance Taking

After coming across the Near-Sighted Monkey’s post on using a drawing exercise for taking attendance, I had to share it here. This is absolutely the most creative way I’ve ever seen for taking attendance in a class. Starting with an original drawing, each student was to copy the drawing exactly except substituting the face with a drawing of their own face.

I love the idea of giving a creative assignment like this for taking attendance. I’m going to think about similar creative ways to take attendance in my classes. Well done!

Denny’s Blog

I am always learning new things from my students. This week, I learned about the Denny’s Restaurant blog. It is full of wonderful, punny food GIFs like this one:

Hamboni Pun
Denny’s Hamboni

This is a great example of self-deprecating humor that shows it is ok not to take one’s self too seriously. Certainly this approach cannot work for all businesses, but it seems to be working for Denny’s.

I like the Denny’s work so much, I challenged my students to make a series of food GIFs and release them in their own social media campaign on Twitter. We’ll see what happens.