Teacher Feature

Meet Gregory Lambert

Gregory Lambert is a D.C.-based artist who has studied and created art for more than two decades. In September, he taught his third class for Knowledge Commons DC, “Learning to Look: A Primer in the Visual Language of Painting.” I spoke with him near his home in Van Ness, and we continued the discussion via email.

How’d you get involved with Knowledge Commons?
A friend of mine told me about KCDC and, after looking at the website, I thought the idea was great. It’s like crowdsourcing but for school. And I’ve been impressed with how many people show up. I figured there’d be two or three people in my first class.

Do you have any teaching experience?
No, not really, I’ve done some open studio stuff.

What do you think KCDC’s free pop-up school model?
I am very impressed with KCDC’s model, which permits teachers to offer a variety of classes that would not be available through a standard educational system. Knowledge Commons offers an exceptional opportunity for community members to share knowledge in a powerful and new way.

Why do you think people need to learn to look?
The first reason people should be aware of the elements of visual language is that it gives them a new way to appreciate art. A viewer who is armed with the basics — like an understanding of silhouette, shape, color theory, and so on — is able to understand the artist’s thought processes by dissecting the visual elements. The viewer can identify the first place his or her eye looks in a painting, where the brushwork is intentionally loose, and so on. By coupling that technical understanding with things like historical context, that viewer can develop a deeper understanding of the artwork.

The second reason is that advertisers use visual languages. Colors, shapes, directional movement, and many other elements are consciously employed to guide our eyes through advertising. Like in a traditional artwork, your eye is guided through the advertisement in a very precise way. A person who has an understanding of the elements of visual language is better able to react critically to advertisements. Advertising isn’t inherently bad — lots of great non-profits use the same concepts to promote themselves — but there’s value in knowing how your eye is being directed visually.

How do modernism and postmodernism play into learning to look?
In modernism, the idea is that the artist’s intent mattered, but by saying that, I don’t mean to indicate that the viewer’s interpretation didn’t. But that’s really neither here nor there. By learning the elements of visual language, the viewer is able to begin thinking like an artist because they are now looking at art in a new and analytical way; they are not passively engaging. Instead, they read the brushwork in a painting and trace the artist’s thought processes. Was that piece of orange eventually dulled down with grey because it conflicted with the colors over here? Is that portrait really just a silhouette with some added detail? How would the piece work if there wasn’t a highlight on that woman’s cheek? Would the painting work as well if these gestural strokes did not lead the eye to his shoulder?

By reading that brushwork, a viewer sees through the artist’s eye. They become a student looking over a master’s shoulder, not just someone walking through a museum. And being able to develop a discourse with other artists through their artwork is fundamental to making the transition from someone who says “I could never do that” to someone who says “someday I will do that.” It is a mindset that makes someone an artist. That’s why learning to look matters. (And incidentally, that’s why the artist’s intent matters: It informs the viewer’s experience even if it doesn’t define it.)

What’s the best place to see art in D.C.?
The National Gallery.

Jeremy Mohler is a writer living in Washington, D.C. His work has been published by Truth-Out.org and a few literary journals, but he’s yet to be paid to write. He writes about political economy, art, and not getting paid.