Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Making of a masterpiece

Too often we show students completed work, the final product.  Students may look at it, read it or hear it and think that it is fantastic, but then they think that they never could do it themselves.  We may try to break it down for them, but we rarely show how they got to the final product.  We try to encourage them, give them positive feedback and tell them that they can do it.  Rarely are students ever shown what the rough copies looked like, how many models or sketches were done nor how many pieces of crumpled up paper ended up the waste basket (and of course properly recycled).  Today I spent a good part of my morning in the Musee D'Orsay in Paris, one of my favourite museums of all times.

As I was walking through the museum admiring the work of the artists and been mesmerized by some of their creations, I was thinking to myself that I wish I could paint like that, or sculpt like that.  The works are amazing.  I was looking at a painting by Gustave Courbet called A Burial at Ornans.  It was not so much the painting as it was the size, roughly 10ft by 20ft.  The people are life-sized in the painting and the detail is impressive.  The reason that I bring this up is because I started wondering how many sketches he must have done prior to doing the painting.  There are many paintings of this size in the museum and I kept thinking that they had to have planned it out and did not just start painting.

As I continued around the museum there was a section on Gustav Mahler.  The reason that I bring this up is because the display contained some of his sheet music.  When you start to look at the sheet music you realize that they are drafts of some of the music he composed. There are sections crossed out, times changed, notes changed and titles changed.  Sometimes there are whole sections that have been taken out, and other times just a few bars (I have not taken a music class in years so my terminology might be off).  As I was looking at this I kept thinking that this is what kids need to see, the rough drafts with changes and editing that had been done.  Mahler made mistakes, he changed parts of it, he did not get it right the first time round.  This would have been a great lesson for students to see, even world famous composers don't get it right the first time.  Too often we focus on the genius of the work and not the time and effort that went into it.

I think it would be of great use to our students if we could find more collections like the Mahler one so that they could see the editing process and realize that even great artists needed to review and change their work.  I feel it makes them realize that these great artists are human and had to take their time, a very important lesson for students to learn.  The next time you are featuring some great artist, see if you can find some roughs, I think it will make the lesson richer.


  1. It's interesting, because for many people this is a very serious flaw with using digital technology for writing; you very rarely get to see the mistakes that went into it.

    I think it would be interesting if we could find some writing which was done using a modern writing tool with revision history (like Google docs) and watch the writing unfold over time. If Google Docs had a play by play option, much like Google Wave has, that would make seeing the writing process itself unfold much easier to do.

    You are completely right in my opinion, it is important to see the process, rather than just the finished masterpiece. So often the process is the masterpiece in my mind. Great artists produce great work because they generally use innovative or methodical processes to produce their work.

  2. I think this is such an important topic to bring up. When I was in school I hated editing because it felt like to make corrections means I got it wrong or failed the first time around. I did do a lot of editing as I went along; however, re-creating and re-creating and re-creating are the necessary steps in, as you say, creating a masterpiece. This is why shifting the focus from product to process has become an important shift in education today. I wonder if we can find more collections like the Mahler and create a bank of materpieces that have a process component!? There is a function in word that keeps the edited parts but crosses them out in red - I think this would be a beneficial tool to introduce to students.

  3. Interesting ideas in the comments here. I wonder though how fair it would be to expose the drafts of some creation (writing, art, music, video) along the way to finished product. How many adults would feel comfortable being that exposed? I wonder about students and whether that would be helpful or harmful? Probably depends on the person so if it's a choice and personalized, perhaps...