5 Things I Learned From My Post-Baccalaureate Visual Art Certificate Program

I just graduated from the Post Baccalaureate Visual Art Certificate Program at UC Berkeley Extension (UCBX). It has been a 1.5 year fabulous journey. This program is taught at their San Francisco Campus, near the Embarcadero BART station.

I decided I wanted a formal academic program to learn more about photography and art and to develop a portfolio. The program at UCBX provided all of that and a whole lot more. It exceeded my expectations!!! I loved my professors and classmates. And the work that I did surprised me!

The UCBX Visual Art Certificate program is robust and rigorous. It requires 13 classes and a final exam, including: 3 portfolio development classes, 2 art history classes, 2 mentorships, a final portfolio review to 3 faculty members, plus 6 elective art classes for a total of 13 classes and 25 college credit hours. The program is so good that my classmates and I are all taking more classes than required because we like them so much.

If I typed the lessons I learned they would probably take up hundreds of pages as is evidenced by the books and notebooks that are spilling out of my shelves. But I have five of the best lessons that I am sharing here. This post is in response to a lot of my photographer friends and family, who want to know what I learned as well as what is a Visual Art Certificate? What did you do there?

1) What is fine art? Fine art is about the why or the artists narrative as much as it is the aesthetic. It is so hard to grasp this concept until you have seen hundreds of examples, which we did in the comprehensive art history classes, the shows we curated, class lectures, our own artist statements, and on countless trips to local San Francisco galleries and museums. An artist’s personal view of the world and narrative, plus the innovation of his or her work, along with the aesthetic, is the key to being successful as a fine artist.

The Andersons, in their collection objectives for their abstract expressionism exhibit at Stanford, had the best criteria for innovative art. They asked, “have we seen this before and could we have thought of it?” If both answers are no, the art is very innovative and great!

Good examples of memorable artist narratives, combined with a strong aesthetic, include Jackson Pollock’s belief that he didn’t paint nature because he was the force of nature, throwing the paint onto the canvas; or that Walker Evans saw the vernacular as the subject and method of his Great Depression era portraits which are very profound today; or Dinh Q Le weaves long strips of photographs to make woven photographs that beautifully express his Vietnamese culture and history; and Cai Guo Qiang makes beautiful daytime fireworks exhibits to reflect on nuclear explosions and violence and to find peace in his art.

2) What makes a good photograph? The answer was discovered in an elective art philosophy class where I read four books to write a fifteen page paper comparing Walter Benjamin to Roland Barthes, two highly educated scholars who wrote about photography as it was unfolding in the Modern Art era. A great photo is always a moment in time, beautifully framed. But I learned that a photograph captures the aura and lives of the people in it. It is seen three ways: from the subject, the photographer, and the viewer. And it can capture a shock known as punctum versus being studium (Barthes, Camera Lucida). By understanding the difference between photography and painting, I understood what a photo does capture that a painting cannot. It is about the details of the people, recording history, and telling a story. And its significance on viewers, who view it as a truth, can be leveraged to take photos that create fantasies, alluded ideas, or altered truths. And, as my favorite photography instructor showed me with her critiques of my work, the best photography is of course about light and color but it is very much about an attention to every detail so you don’t capture details you don’t want to see! She was showing me the wrinkles in a fabric that I overlooked. I learned to see my work more critically.

This same fine art photography professor also gave us extraordinary lectures about the history of fine art photography and the artists who have paved the way with their innovative work. You can see a lot of it at Pier 24 in San Francisco. I highly recommend seeing that exhibit, along with the galleries at 49 Geary Street, and Minnesota Street Project. SFMoma has ongoing exhibitions as well as a permanent photography collection, too.

3) What is composition? Well, it’s certainly not just the rule of thirds!! I never really thought much about that rule once enrolled, to be honest.

As my favorite art professor said, composition is simply a balance of positive and negative space! It is about making both balanced and great, actually.

But you also need a variety of values with an effective use of them throughout the picture plane. And you need to use harmonious colors. I bought and read all of the theory books on color written by Albers, Itten, and Van Gogh. We studied color in figurative works, such as Matisse with his fauvism, and with abstract painters, such as Rothko, with his beautiful layers of color.

And for good composition you must have interesting arrangements of items. Crop something tight or give it ample space; make it big, make it square, make it long or tall or short. Rauschenberg is known for his amazing compositions. We took two fieldtrips to see his extensive collection of series.

It is so much fun to be with painters! My classmates, who were mostly painters, said, “make your photos look like paintings.” And they gave me ideas, “we think you should shoot like the Dutch artists.” It took me a year to learn to shoot good still life images. I did manage to compile a huge timeline of the history of still life paintings and photos and was especially fond of the modern ones by David LaChapelle. I am still learning and working on them.

My interest in LaChapelle’s work propelled me to meet him at the Taschen store in LA where he was signing 2 new books.

4) Have no fear! If you work hard enough you can do it! There were many times I had a freakout and was afraid of failure. Like in an advanced drawing class where we had to sketch a live nude model in ten-minute poses for three hours. Keep it loose! Or sketch seal bones in charcoal grounds by erasing the charcoal, or to make ink wash drawings, or use graphite to draw complicated still life scenes by adding hatched shadows. My drawing professor had an amazing group of lessons that allowed us to steadily build our skills and produce work that consistently made each student proud. She actually let me take her advanced class without the basic one so I could have a drawing class. I am so glad I did!

Just keep at it! Start at one corner and keep recording until you finish! And never stop practicing drawing. One graphic designer said you will never be a graphic artist if you can’t draw. I think that advice applies to all artists because drawing forces you to see details and to really compose well. Drawing taught me to make thumbnails of graphic art projects, photos, and paintings.

Here are the highlights of my drawing class. The first ones shown here are the ink wash drawings we did for our finals. I used some of my images from local farms and reproduced them in ink and gouache on Aquabord, making them a combination of fine detail and abstraction.

Graphite drawings balanced positive and negative space and they taught us about using values as part of the composition:

One lady on BART thought I was a forensic artist because she saw me sketching skeletons as part of my homework!

Here is the still life project which scared me to death and taught me I could draw, all at the same time:

And on the nudes, my teacher said, oh that does look like her!

 

Here are the beautiful seal bones which we rendered in charcoal by using a charcoal base and then removing color. And then adding dark shading and light highlights. I actually loved this lesson very much!

 

I also took an abstract painting class and learned color, line, form, values, composition, and most importantly that I can paint! I discovered that I love to paint and am very good with color!!

The funny thing is that I thought the abstract class would be a lecture until we were handed a materials list and I panicked!!! I would have to paint with students who had been painters for a long time!

But I watched a ton of painting videos (CreativeLive), researched my projects, enlisted the help of the Dick Blick staff for buying paints and then proceeded to paint a lot! I don’t have an easel at home so I used my stove! Early on I switched to gouache paint because I love the color and how it is chalky when it dries. One of the first gouache paintings I did got into a juried show and became the show’s poster and postcard.

Another project in the abstract class involved deconstruction. I used apple shapes and colors and reproduced them in gouache. I love these and want to paint more. They are already exhibiting in a juried show!

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Here is one more in acrylic:

5) Always research more! This lesson is from the girl who sat next to me in Photoshop and also from all the Millenials in my graphic design classes. I was able to add classes from their Graphic Design Certificate Program.

Watch a lot of YouTube videos and do something totally amazing that you love! Come in with something better than you were assigned.

In the Adobe Photoshop class on our first composite assignment, my friend came in with a mermaid riding a goldfish wearing Oculus glasses in a beautiful underwater city with glitter trails and a magenta sunset all composited beautifully whereas I tried to put a YSL dress on the Statue of Liberty, as we were assigned! We did get a Photoshop liquid tool lesson, though, to make my statue skinnier! My second attempt was much better.

In my Adobe Illustrator class I combined “do extra and draw well” for a project – this ad took almost 40 hours and is a realistic ad for a product drawn completely in Illustrator:

I also got certified for Capture One software and I learned really good hard and soft studio lighting outside of the UCBX program. I simply loved to learn!

Our Modern Art History class certainly included a lot of research about the history of the artists. I always looked forward to the lectures and loved how the entire class was engaged in critical thinking and discussion. I have a running notebook of the shows that I have seen at SFMOMA and the galleries in SF, especially the Minnesota Street Project.

I would highly recommend this program to any artist who wants to learn what fine art really is and how they fit into this amazing world. By developing your own vision and building a cohesive portfolio with a narrative you will take 1000 steps up with your work. You will do this through repetition, exploration, and the constructive feedback of your professors and peers. I feel very honored to have worked with all of the professors and my classmates for every class.

And I am now applying for a MFA.

The final series and portfolio is here. 

Here are some of my works of art in juried exhibits and a solo show plus I made the top 100 with 2 of my photos for the American Photographic Artists Something Personal Gallery Exhibition and Holiday Gallery, a huge honor. The peach photo has sold.