The Necessity of Fundamentals

While not a photographer himself, the chairman of the art department where I teach is adamant that the first courses in photography be done with analog cameras, black and white film and chemical darkroom processes. When I questioned him about this, he informed me that the departmental approach to photography would stay the same so long as he was chairman. This is an interesting position, given that a number of major universities have phased out their chemical darkrooms, and along with them, basic courses in analog photography.

And even though, for a number of reasons, I am not sure that I agree with his position, I understand the rationale. This is not a man who would insist that courses be taught this way because “it has always been that way.” Rather, it is because he believes that those analog/chemical courses teach skills that are necessary to a full understanding of the art and craft of photography. His department is in the business of teaching fundamentals.

This is exactly the same business that the drama department is in. It is our firm belief that solid fundamentals are necessary to success in theatre; the art chairman believes the same thing of visual and plastic arts. It is true of all arts. I don’t know a single choreographer, for example, who does not stress fundamentals; the same is true of musicians. The list is comprehensive.

We should build on solid basics in any art, and those basics should be broad. It is, in my opinion, impossible to be a good artist without some knowledge outside of our immediate specialties. Our department demands, for example, that drama students take courses not only in the areas that are of immediate interest to them, but in other areas as well. So technicians attend acting classes, and actors sit, sometimes uncomfortably, in technical theatre classes. Everybody builds and paints and sews and works on productions. Such broad exposure builds respect for those who work in other areas—an essential in a collaborative art, and very often the knowledge is put to good use. Occasionally, someone will discover an area with which he/she was formerly unfamiliar and decide that that is where they really ought to concentrate. Without exposure to the basics in all areas, these students would have no basis for such a decision.

Sadly, many artists do not see strong fundamentals as a necessity. They are not quite sure what an f-stop is. They only know one style of acting. They can’t remember all of the principles of design. Part of color theory is a little hazy. Getting exposure exactly right becomes a thing of chance.  They are convinced that there is no real need to learn stage directions. They can’t pick out a tune on a keyboard. The precise names of things elude them. Mastery of certain tools and techniques is beyond them. They are unconcerned with the very thing that holds them back: incomplete knowledge of basics. Unfortunately, without solid fundamentals, artists find it difficult to do really excellent work consistently, broaden their repertoires, or even communicate with other artists.

Strong fundamentals, like any solid base, give the artist a foundation to support his/her imaginative work without having to worry about the underpinnings. This then allows the artist the freedom to create and develop. Without strong basics, the artist is restricted and is likely to produce a very narrow range of work.

The same applies to any art. The more media types and styles and approaches we know, the better able we are to make the decisions necessary to create our art. The stronger our foundation, the higher the structure we can build on it. The more we know about the theory and history of our arts, the better able we are to put our own work in perspective. And such knowledge allows us to avoid wasting time doing work that has already been done, and allows us rather to build upon the work of those who have gone before. And such knowledge can give us freedom to move forward on our own. As a friend of mine said recently, “you can’t consciously break the rules unless you know what the rules are.

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Date: Monday, 25. March 2013 1:31
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: Creativity, Education

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