Zooming In …

Posted by: Tom Lee
We spent an hour or so reading J.M.W. Turner’s “The Dort Packet-Boat from Rotterdam Becalmed” on the first day of the summer institute.  It’s a massive painting – over five feet tall and seven feet wide, and has a wall all to itself in the gallery.
As the viewer in the gallery approaches the image from a distance, how does its narrative begin to unfold?  What  is the first impression the image makes?  What main ideas does it communicate at first sight?  Big sky, big ship – what’s happening here?
What surprised and delighted me as the group settled in and began to explore the image was how accessible the smallest details were.  Facial expressions on individual passengers on both ships – some rendered with a single stroke of Turner’s brush – became the focus of in depth discussions.  It was as if there were paintings within the paintings, like stories within a story.
Who are these people?  Are they approaching or departing?  Friendly or hostile?  Do they know one another, or are they strangers?  What inferences can we make based on the details of the clothing – the shape of the man’s hat, for example?  All of these questions began to emerge from the group.
We noticed, too, how masterfully the reflection of both the small boat and its passengers is executed.  The small patches of brilliant red and blue, and their reflections, are two of the brightest points in the whole painting.  In contrast, other reflections are blurred and vague.  Taken in isolation, they resemble some of Turner’s later masterpieces to my eye.
abstract reflection
Every picture certainly tells a story, but Turner’s sprawling canvas here becomes more like a novel, and its details become compelling subplots with vivid characters. 
How does this “zooming in” correlate to your classroom work?  Can you think of specific examples where this sort of  focus would support your teaching goals?
We look forward to reading your comments on this trial blog post!
I’ve discovered that my iPhone is an incredible useful – and fun – tool to have in a museum*.  Without a flash, and keeping a safe distance from the painting, I can photograph minute details, down to the smallest brush stroke or crack in the varnish.
*Most museums (including YCBA) allow non-flash photography of artworks in their permanent collection. (Artworks on loan from other institutions usually can’t be photographed.)
To see the full image on the museum’s website – click here: http://collections.britishart.yale.edu/vufind/Record/1667701


10 thoughts on “Zooming In …

  1. Great workshop today! I very much enjoyed my group’s insight with the Turner painting noted above. It’s fun to peel away the layers, and discover the story behind the painting.

  2. What a great summary of such an in-depth process!
    Like your facial expressions, a seemingly insignificant hat became the focus of one of our most detailed discussions.
    I am so excited we have three more days of this!

  3. From a writing standpoint, I was inspired today. The idea of taking one object and developing a story was a great spring board (ex. the flag). When I think of “zooming in” I am reminded of a technique in writing known as a “snapshot” (Writer’s Workshop?) Zooming in on a memory or moment…just focusing on a few details and elaborating on those specific moments. Color, texture, size, feeling…all these attributes help young writers focus on a topic. The painting’s story was complex and timeless.

  4. In just one day I feel refreshed and enthusiastic about next year. The biggest message that I walked away with today was that I need to remember my passion for art and incorporate that into my teaching.
    Throughout the day today both during our workshop and after, I have been specifically thinking about “zooming in” and how it can relate to what I will be teaching next year (5th & 6th grade science). My mind is moving in several directions at once. Herer are 2 ideas I am planning to elaborate on in more detail: 1. I can clearly envision zooming into various ecosystems and having students focusing on the areas that jump out at them- taking these elements and researching them in more detail. 2. Having students read a painting or photograph to to determine prior knowledge and vocabulary about each biome that we will explore. Thisbis just the beginning of the unit- to launch whst we will learn. The possibilities are endless!

  5. I left the institute today feeling so inspired and rejuvenated, and most of all excited to use what we’re doing in my classroom next year! There are so many things that visual literacy can be used for, and I’m looking forward to continue exploring them!

  6. I left feeling refreshed and excited – though I have barely finished my school year! It feels more retreat like than PD like.
    Zooming in on the painting this morning aligned easily with our already existent “Oral Language” lessons but went so much further – reading a painting for the purpose of discussion – not to generate complex sentences but to communicate thoughts ideas and feelings is something I am excited to try with my kindergartners. Zooming in on seemingly minute details and focusing on them is something we teach young readers to do before they can read – how much information can you get from the illustrations? But a painting stands alone and is a frozen moment giving you the freedom to connect add on and imagine beyond the canvas without feeling right or wrong. Looking forward to day 2!

  7. In the entrance court yesterday, Cyra said, “It’s hard to teach something that you don’t know or haven’t experienced.” This, to me, is at the heart of what makes great teachers. Those who seek out, and are willing to experience what it is they are asking their kids to experience day in and day out. Ginny Lockwood, a literacy consultant, uses the phrase “we don’t want our kids to just ‘do school'”. She believes in having them invested, passionate, and alive with learning. I believe that this experiential institute brings life into teaching and learning so that teachers won’t just ‘do school’.

  8. I really enjoyed reading Turner’s piece yesterday. I especially enjoyed being able to examine the artwork with a group that was eager to share thoughts about even the smallest details of the piece. “Zooming in” allowed us to see the significance of individual brush strokes in a piece that was massive. I can see this idea of zooming in being useful when teaching students to find quotations within a text that back up a larger theme being expressed by an author. Delving into a text for the individual words and phrases that best exemplify an author’s purpose can be daunting – breaking the text into that “grid” we talked about in the lecture is also an interesting thought. Looking forward to exploring these ideas in full!

  9. I’m excited to try “Zooming in” in the classroom. I believe that children often observe things differently than adults, seeing the smallest of observations. I am interested to see what they will have to say about such a large panting. Looking at the perspective of lesson planning, my 8th graders will definitely be able to take this idea of “Zooming in” when talking about a text. It would be a great beginning lesson before we start poetry — taking a whole poem or stanza and “Zooming in” to each line.

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