Initially the prospect of teaching fashion sketch remotely filled me with dread. I thought longingly about the wooden horses and easels of past classrooms in which I had taught drawing for fashion. The live models, and the suitcase of vintage garments they would generously bring to wear while they posed, the plastic accessories and lengths of fabric they would drape around their form to make shapes and create attitude. The tall windows letting in plenty of sunlight and the friendly janitor who happily wiped away the coating of charcoal dust and emptied the giant bins of discarded newsprint at the end of the day. The shabby dust-mote-filled drawing lab is a magical place rarely experienced by fashion designers after they leave fashion school. Then it’s mostly sterile cubicles and corporate boardrooms.
As I settled into January, I realized I would be attempting to recreate this halcyon atmosphere via Zoom from within the confines of my Manhattan one-bedroom apartment. I invested in tripods and ring lights and apps to synch my computer to my phone, while remaining convinced that teaching sketch is an exclusively hands-on, physical discipline. I felt sorry for the students who had the misfortune to enroll in fashion sketch during the second spring semester of a global pandemic.
The pros and cons of remote teaching an arts class
Eleven weeks in and I now realize how shortsighted I was. In fact, the experience will surely transform how I approach teaching this class, post-pandemic. One of the biggest positives to come out of teaching remote sketch is realizing that I can now ensure that each one of my twenty students is seeing the same demonstrations at the same time, something which rarely happens within the spontaneous creativity of the drawing room. Usually small clusters of onlookers gather around as I pluck the pencil from a student’s hands and show them how to master a line or capture an angle, but those on the other side of the room engrossed in their work, or hidden behind their easels, don’t catch it. This semester, pre-recording demo videos and sharing them during class, while the students draw along, then rewatch, pause, rewind, has resulted in a consistently higher standard of work. My teaching remains the same, but students’ access to it has changed. I can’t be on two sides of the drawing room at the same time, yet this semester I have been in Texas, Shanghai, Delhi and Brooklyn at the same time. Every student has their nose right up close to my pencil. The intimacy of the analog nature of making marks on paper is just as rewarding as I listen to myself talking through the steps via the video and hear the scraping pencil of those who haven’t muted their audio making marks on their end. I feel less on show as I am not moving among them in a physical space, but my hands and voice are more spotlit than ever before. I even feel the need to paint my fingernails to demonstrate techniques of painting with watercolor.
On the downside, digital fabric swatches are not as inspiring as those you can feel. The gloss of the computer screen makes wobbly lines look less sloppy and smudges can be sneakily Photoshopped away. While I can request that students turn on their cameras I can’t insist, if they prefer not to, and I can never be totally sure one or two haven’t set their alarm to join Zoom and then gone right back to bed. The fragility of our virtual connection also became abundantly clear when a Noreaster swept through the tristate area and took my Zoom connection with it or when a record-breaking winter storm raged across the Great Plains over Valentine’s week and left a trail of devastation and half my students without internet for a week.
Currently, the campus classrooms across the nation are still half-empty, while the Zoom rooms are full. You can now find regular life drawing sessions online and schools will probably soon organize their own. This semester has taught me that a phygital approach to teaching sketch is not a compromise, it’s the ideal. Also, there’s no fitting an easel in this New York City apartment, and I don’t fancy the clean up after I crack open my box of charcoals.