Malia Kuo

Early last spring, professor Adam Van Doren was teaching students the art of watercolor with his usual level of interaction.

“I’d look over their shoulder while they painted,” Van Doren said. “I’d get my hands on the artwork and sometimes draw a little sketch here or put some paintbrush on what they’re doing. We’d work together very closely.”

The artist, author and professor teaches a seminar called “Mastering the Art of Watercolor.” Intent on engaging the outdoors often, Van Doren has joked that his class is “the anti-technology course.” Now, he’s forced to reckon with what happens when an anti-technology course goes virtual, and when his guided brush strokes are replaced by Zoom meetings.

“Mastering the Art of Watercolor” is not technically an art course, but a humanities one. Painting, according to Van Doren, represents an important core of the liberal arts, and he wants to teach it that way.

“If you were studying in the ’70s or ’80s or earlier, learning to draw and paint was considered one of the great liberal arts, just like writing and science,” he said. “Painting is critical thinking because it teaches you how to see and how to experiment with your hand and mind.”

But Yale doesn’t require painting courses, so Van Doren uses his seminar to “teach painting as a liberal art.” The course is built not just on painting skills but on studying old painters in order to discern techniques and strategies. 

“This is how painting was taught for 500 years. You’d have artists who studied how the other artists did clouds and skies and windows, and they copied these techniques,” he said. “They didn’t have museums, but you’d have an apprentice and you’d study from them.” 

For Van Doren, some of the appeal of this imitation strategy comes from the fact that many students are beginners, and basing work off others’ is a good way to start. For non-art majors, he said, creating from scratch isn’t always the best option.

“Some people feel, wait a minute, how do I even start? I don’t have any skills,” he said. “Painting is often taught with a blank canvas.”

In the age of COVID-19, Van Doren’s students will still be engaging in painting as a liberal art, but the group won’t get to gather together in a studio. Still, much of what makes his course special can be preserved. The outdoors, for example, is a uniquely special place to paint. While some groups at Yale will need to move outside and see it as an inconvenience, Van Doren has always seen painting in courtyards as an opportunity.

“Learning to paint with natural light, not necessarily in a studio with artificial light — that’s a whole skill,” Van Doren said. “The wind is blowing and people are walking around. You get distracted, and you have to balance the paints and the brushes in your hand. And to learn to paint from natural light, that’s where you’ll get the best color.”

The fall is especially equipped for this course, he said, because students can be comfortably outside for several months. While Van Doren’s course does include discussion components and PowerPoint presentations, it also has painting practice built in regularly throughout the syllabus. 

Van Doren was teaching watercolor last spring when Yale students were sent home for spring break, not to return until the fall. 

“I had to think fast and be creative,” he said. “Each student would have to have their own setup wherever they’re located — some of them in different parts of the world, in Europe and Nebraska.”

Even in the Zoom component of the course, Van Doren has developed a routine from last semester. Some talking, some music — jazz is best, he said, for its improvisational quality — 20 minutes of painting, and a break. Then, he goes around the Zoom room and checks in. A student will hold up what they’ve been working on, and he’ll start to offer some advice.

“You know, add some color here,” he said. “Everyone gets to see what everyone else is doing. I used to stand over their shoulders. I can’t do that, but this works pretty well.”

Then, the class goes for another 20 minutes and the jazz continues. A final product of the class is typically an exhibit and a catalogue, the former of which will probably not be able to happen this year.

“People see their work, and it’s kind of just a visceral thing,” he said. “Some students have never had the work presented in a formal exhibition. Trying to salvage some of that feeling, I will still be curating the work of the students and selecting a couple of works from each one and putting them into the printed catalog.”

All these elements of the “anti-technology course” gone virtual — the Zoom painting sessions, the isolated work environment, the limited resources — have led to some particularly astonishing work. According to him, the last virtual semester produced some of the best art the course has ever seen. Part of that could be that students have time on their hands. Part of it could be a broader reflection of the times.

“I think art is needed more than ever now as an output for feelings driven by COVID,” Van Doren said. “It’s kind of an underlying river of anxiety and uncertainty. You feel very powerless now, right? Because everything is out of your control. But there’s a sense of making something out of nothing. And it’s something that you have control over. That empowerment is important right now.” 

Owen Tucker-Smith | owen.tucker-smith@yale.edu