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Still Life With Zoom

Still Life with Zoom

Faculty member Claudia Bitran inspires students in her virtual painting class to take risks and mix mediums.

Still life by junior Christian Scott 22 IL

Junior Christian Scott 22 IL captures the distortions seen through a glass of water in this still life in progress.

“As a multidisciplinary artist classically trained in painting, I work through creative ideas in every medium as I would a painting—starting with broad strokes and then building in the details,” says faculty member Claudia Bitran MFA 13 PT. “And that’s how I encourage my students to approach their work.”

Bitran is reflecting on her current course, Experimental Painting Intensive, which—like all of this year’s Wintersession classes—is taking place entirely online.

Photograph by junior Christian Scott 22 IL captures distortions seen through glass of water

“Teaching painting virtually is challenging because it takes a lot of explaining, adjectives and imagination,” Bitran says. “But on the positive side, the Zoom grid is very democratic and it’s great to be able to share online resources—like images and films—in the moment.”

“It’s good for students to see... that artists are always learning and that happy accidents happen all the time.”

faculty member claudia bitran

The class begins as a basic painting practicum and gets more and more experimental over time, eventually covering collage, set building and simple animation. Bitran demos various techniques each week—like how to prepare a palette or mix one’s own black pigments—and then the entire class gets to work with their cameras on and their audio muted. She moves from square to square much as she normally would circulate through a studio, using the chat function to answer questions and offer encouragement and advice.

Photograph in classical baroque composition style, by sophomore Olivia Joung 23 PR

Painting from classical baroque composition style photograph, by sophomore Olivia Joung 23 PR
A classical Baroque composition in progress by sophomore Olivia Joung 23 PR.

“RISD students are excellent artists, energetic, enthusiastic and smart,” she says, “and this group is really great. They have a huge desire to experiment and ask questions, and they’re so kind to each other.”

In a session devoted to still lifes, students shared photos of vignettes they’d constructed using objects from around their homes. After settling on which tableaux were most promising, they translated them onto prepared canvasses using charcoal, ink, pastels and acrylic paint. Bitran encouraged them to try painting from life but understands that it can be easier for beginners to translate a 2D photograph into a 2D painting.

Photograph by first-year student Evan Sherman 24 EFS, inspired by I Spy picture books

Painting by first-year student Evan Sherman 24 EFS, inspired by I Spy picture books inspired photograph
This piece by first-year student Evan Sherman 24 EFS was inspired by I Spy picture books.

“We looked at Baroque still lifes for inspiration,” she says, “but I also showed them the Peter Greenaway film The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. It’s so intense, and I love the way every object and every character makes a statement. I want my students to be similarly precise and deliberate about their choices.”

Still life painting by first-year student Suwen Han 24 EFS

Detail from still life painting by first-year student Suwen Han 24 EFS
Detail from a still life in progress by first-year student Suwen Han 24 EFS.

Since many of the students are working from their childhood homes, interesting toys and other nostalgic objects found their way into the still lifes. Evan Sherman 24 EFS pulled together a vignette inspired by I Spy picture books, while Olivia Joung 23 PR played with textures and flowers, also incorporating the distorted candelabra from Beauty and the Beast.

“There’s something dreamlike about this composition,” Bitran told Joung. “That weird chandelier stands out and looks almost digitally rendered. It’s a great commentary on the still life genre.”

Still life photograph by first-year student Jasem Al Sanea 24 EFS

Still life painting by first-year student Jasem Al Sanea 24 EFS
More first-year talent on display in work by Jasem Al Sanea 24 EFS.

As in her live classes, Bitran’s approach is informal and down to earth. “It’s good for them to see me make mistakes so they understand that artists are always learning and that happy accidents happen all the time,” she says. “That’s what’s cool about experimenting.”

Simone Solondz

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