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Getting the most out of your learning log

One of the key components in developing your learning log or blog is visual analysis – looking at, selecting and recording the artists/photographers who you find interesting, challenging or useful in progressing your work. The more you document and reflect upon those creative practitioners who have had a ‘marmite effect’ on you, the more you will improve both your critical thinking and creative skills.

Step 1 – Look and Reflect

Reflective practice is a ‘sorting out/clarifying process’ giving you new perspectives on yourself and your work. Although reflective writing may feel particularly difficult and more challenging than other forms of writing, it essentially involves describing and examining your own experiences and feelings (both positive and negative) about what you see.
Visual analysis is often highly subjective, but the aim of reflecting on or evaluating an image in your log is not simply to ascertain whether you like/dislike it, but to explore WHY you like/dislike it. Whether something shocks, confuses or inspires you, analyse your reaction and be honest, because to think critically you first have to recognise your emotional impulses. If you are working under a deadline, it can be hard to find the time to sit quietly and patiently with an image and let it do its work, but as James Elkins argues in Pictures and Tears: A History of people who have cried in front of paintings, the more you look, the more you feel. So, give your chosen image a chance, pay full attention, and do your own thinking.

Step 2 – Look and Rethink

Rethinking is all about honing your interpretative abilities and integrating your analytic and emotional responses. Having engaged with the image/artwork playfully as you would a friend, you should now try to employ your log to deepen your initial thoughts via contextual research. This means thinking about the ‘who’ (the artist or creator), ‘what’ (the subject, medium, key formal qualities like colour, shape and style), ‘where’, ‘when’ (the historical, social and cultural issues that underpin the work), and ‘why’ (exploring the purpose or ‘meaning’ of the image).

However, to build and use your critical thinking skills you will also need to consider what other viewpoints, interpretations and perspectives there are. What is the evidence for these? How do they compare? How does your prior knowledge and understanding relate to these ideas and observations? Be self-aware – make sure that you identify your own assumptions, prejudices, and biases.

Step 3 – Look and Go further!

Continue to ask questions about what you see and be willing to challenge your beliefs. Being open to ideas and different influences or approaches will enable you to situate, develop and extend your own work. I.e. synthesise what you know in a way that creates new meaning for yourself. Using your log to solve problems creatively through research and practice should empower you to find your own voice, increase your ownership of your learning, and develop a greater sense of critical awareness.

Visual enquiry is dynamic in nature, so throw yourself into looking and record your experiences and impressions as vividly as you can. Your learning log is an invaluable tool for seeing better – use it!

Images: Norman Rockwell, The Art Critic, 1955 (Cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, April 16, 1955), Norman Rockwell Museum Collection © 1955 SEPS: Licensed by Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN
Photograph of Salvador Dalí, Paris, 1950 © Willy Rizzo, Courtesy Staley-Wise Gallery

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