On Description

Chinosierie by Susan Bee, 2007

I’m in the language lab at the moment with my students, who are working on a rather interesting project I am thinking to share with you.

They are all students of art, design, and architecture, and non-native speakers of English. We started our semester by thinking about how to describe images visually in as detailed and illuminating a way as possible.

I began by giving them lists of useful vocabulary for description. Then we watched a video of David Hockney enthusiastically describing a van Gogh painting (searchable on YouTube). Students had to listen for the various categories he covered in his description: composition, light, color, motifs, technique, materials, etc.

Next we listened to the visual descriptions on the MoMA website intended for people who are visually impaired. These descriptions are quite detailed and do not stray into the interpretive, so they are very useful for students of English & visual arts.

Then, in preparation for a visit to painter Susan Bee’s art opening, I had them look at some images of her paintings online and describe them in detail. They recorded their descriptions. Then we actually went to the opening, where students were able to see most of the actual paintings.

Today, I had students listen to two other students’ descriptions and give detailed feedback on them. At the moment, the students are re-recording their descriptions, taking their partners’ feedback into account.

The final step will be for students to compile the images and sound files into a PowerPoint presentation that will be something like the MoMA visual descriptions online.

I do wish sometimes that in our responses to poetry, we could be a little more descriptive and really, you know, look at what is THERE instead of launching off into evaluation. I really started to think about this when I studied Russian Formalism with Barry oh so many years ago. Description isn’t the be-all and end-all of response, but it’s a necessary base, I think; we need to ask, before we say anything else, “what is this?” Yes?

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