Picturing artistic pursuits

Penn Today photographer Eric Sucar captures students engaged in moments of creativity during fine arts courses throughout the year.

a student works with clay and a paintbrush
In studios, darkrooms, labs, and other collaborative spaces in the Charles Addams Fine Arts Hall, hundreds of Penn undergraduates from majors across the campus engage in hands-on art courses, including clay, each semester.

Hundreds of undergraduates take classes in the fine arts each semester, among them painting and drawing, ceramics and sculpture, printmaking and animation, photography and videography. The courses, through the School of Arts & Sciences and the Stuart Weitzman School of Design, give students the opportunity to immerse themselves in an art form in a collaborative way.

“We see ourselves as a hub for creative making and thought on campus,” says Matt Neff, director of undergraduate fine arts and design. “Students are coming because of their interests and curiosity.”

Enrollment in undergraduate fine arts courses has spiked in the past couple of years—especially in materials-based courses like painting, drawing, clay, sculpture—since students returned to campus after the pandemic, Neff says. “I think people were itching to use their hands.”

painting canvases
feet visible from behind a canvas
students painting on easels
painting faculty advises a student
Most work in oil painting is from direct observation, including object study, still life, landscape, interior and exterior space, and the self-portrait. Figure painting is from life and the model. Student pay attention to perceptual clarity, the development of imagery, the process of synthesis and translation, color, structure and composition, content, and personal expression.

Fine arts and design are separate undergraduate majors, but intertwined, sharing elective courses. Faculty, artists themselves, are in the Weitzman School of Design, but the undergraduate courses and degree are through the College of Arts & Sciences. Together nearly 800 undergrads take those courses each semester, and most are non-majors, Neff says.

students draw a figure still life
students work on easels in a drawing class
close up of a still life
Students engage in observational drawing through object study, still life, interior and exterior space, self-portrait, and the figure. They explore different techniques and materials, including charcoal, graphite, ink, and collage, to understand the relationship between means, material, and concept.

“We don’t have prerequisites; our intro-level courses are for everyone,” he says. “If you’ve never drawn anything before, we welcome that. You won’t be alone.”

Courses include traditional drawing, painting, sculpture, clay, printmaking, photography, video, and even a course about creating murals. Darkroom photography, eliminated by many universities, is “booming right now,” Neff says. Several classes are offered on animation, including hand-drawn animation, computer animation, and 3D animation. There are experimental studios, including a projection class.

student using paper cups for a sculpture
student with red gloves working with chicken wire
top down view of colorful art materials
student work with materials in a sculpture class
student working with sculpture materials
Students experiment with three-dimensional art making while developing fundamental techniques used in sculpture. They learn to use the Fabrication Lab, and work with wood, clay, paper, and mixed media. Advanced classes expand on technical fabrication through woodworking, metalworking, mold-making, casting, armature construction, surfacing, and assemblage.

Neff teaches the course Contemporary Art Studio, with trips to visit artists and galleries and museums, as well as making art projects. “Our teaching in fine arts is really responsive. We’re constantly tweaking our courses and curriculum,” he says.

If enrolled in a fine arts or design course, students have access to facilities, like the Charles Addams Fine Arts Hall, 24 hours a day. Photo and video and other equipment are available to borrow. “I’d almost like to take the ‘fine’ out and just make it arts for everyone in a sense,” Neff says. Many students “decide to take one elective here, and then they kind of get hooked.” 

students working with clay slabs at a table
top down view of clay work at a table
student trimming clay on a piece of pottery
Students engage in fundamental clay-building techniques, including mold-making, model-making, and casting, promoting an understanding of materials, processes, visual concepts, and techniques for creating three-dimensional forms. In addition to using different water-based clays and plaster, students use other materials such as wax, plastiline, paper pulp, and cardboard.

The work is collaborative, often in teams. “They'll bring anything and everything into the studios in terms of content,” Neff says. “It’s about helping them figure out ways to visualize or manifest what they are thinking about.”

photography student works with a copy stand
In mixed-media animation classes, students learn stop-motion animation concepts and techniques. They use digital cameras, scanners, and digital compositing software to produce works in hand-drawn animation, puppet and clay animation, sand animation, and multiplane collage animation.

The undergraduate fine arts program is interdisciplinary, mirroring the Master in Fine Arts graduate degree. “A student could take a drawing class and a video class and an animation class at the same time. And they don’t have to commit to being any one of those things,” Neff says. “Penn undergrads often have other majors or minors, so this integrated knowledge is really core to the fine arts program.”

gabe martinez works with students in the darkroom
developing a contact sheet in the darkroom
staff member working in the photography equipment cage
photography students during a critique
In black-and-white photography courses, students learn about exposing and processing 35mm film, operating a camera, lighting photos, procedures in the darkroom, and printing images. Digital photography courses include camera use and techniques of digital capture, as well as scanning, retouching, printing, and image manipulation. Photo, video, and multimedia equipment is available to students to borrow. Critique is a critical component of all fine arts courses.

Undergrad fine arts majors have their own studios on the fifth floor of the Duhring Building, next to Fisher Fine Arts. Once a semester, they have an open studio and hundreds of people come through. There is also a final critique with faculty at the end of each semester. 

students during a video critique
Students are introduced to video production and post-production with instruction on basic camera operation, sound recording and lighting, as well as video and sound editing. They create three collaborative video projects that they present for critique.

“Community is embedded in art making. It just is,” Neff says. “I think especially now, it feels more important than ever that if we’re going to be in a space together, let’s be thoughtful about it.”