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Square by Square, a Painting Comes Together

Dec. 20, 2018 — In a light-filled art studio, teacher Bill Roberts holds out a plastic container filled with little squares of paper. “Pick one,” he tells the student standing before him. 

These paper squares are the beginning of a collaborative project in his Painting I class — an “homage to a past master,” Roberts calls it. He chooses a painting and keeps it secret from the students. He creates a grid of the painting, breaking it up into dozens of pieces, represented by the paper squares. Each student replicates three or four squares, using oil paint and compact canvases. Gradually, as the students complete their mini-paintings, the homage will become whole. 

This year, Roberts chose a work by David Parrish, a Photorealist painter known for his intricate renditions of motorcycles. “The students never think they can do this kind of Photorealism because it’s so challenging,” Roberts says. “But if they do just a piece of it and then put the pieces together, they start to realize that they can do this. They just have to slow down and carefully observe.”

As the students sketch out their canvases and pick up their brushes, it doesn’t take them long to figure out what they’re painting. “You can see it’s something mechanical because there are screws in some of the paintings, and lots of metal,” says Adele Spindle ’19. 

That metal presents a challenge. “It’s hard when you have to do reflections and get the color and details accurate every time,” she says. “With Photorealism, you have to be really precise.”

True, Roberts says, but this project is about reinterpretation as well as paying tribute. “These students are all unique individuals, and they're each going to see colors a little differently. It’s not going to be a perfect match, but that’s part of the fun.”

In past years, Roberts has assigned the collaborative painting project using works by Pablo Picasso, Georges Seurat, and Realist painter Janet Fish, among others. “I try to find pieces that are challenging and interesting from corner to corner, ones that are rich in shape and color,” he says. When all the pieces are completed, the students will spread them out on the floor and admire their collective effort, but even partway through, says Jack Loran ’19, “You can already see how good it’s going to look.”

The finished painting, which Roberts will assemble with lattice stripping and wood screws, will be six feet by six feet. Roberts hopes to find it a home on campus in a public, well-traveled space. “The first year I did this project, I let the students take their pieces home after the class ended. Big mistake,” he says. “This is work that should be seen.”