Despite the considerable influence Hoyt Sherman’s teachings had on the University of Georgia, Sherman’s only published book, “Drawing by Seeing” remains very difficult to find. An artist, himself, Sherman devised ways of teaching students how to see. His methods incorporated both psychology and ophthalmology which he experimentally proved to develop certain kinds of eyesight. His theory of perceptualism observed a quality of perceptual unity in great works of art, works that distinguished the greatest masters from the competent craftsmen. Sherman’s method was initially attacked on the grounds that it overly emphasizes a Renaissance style, but history has proven that this argument unfounded. Various techniques established by Sherman remain in practice in art classes around the United States, although the proper credit is often misattributed. There are striking similarities between Sherman’s Flash Laboratory and the Art X demonstration which include sensory immersion and the use of multiple screens. For this reason, Breithaupt was especially prepared in the manipulation of equipment necessary for UGA’s basic art courses.

Hoyt Sherman was a painter, but foremost a teacher. He spent fifty years teaching at Ohio State University. He went there as graduate student in the 1920’s and the remained there until his retirement in the 1970’s. He was well respected by his students, though his reputation is not well known outside of Ohio. He worked with Adelbert Ames, an expert ophthalmologist and immediately began to implement their knowledge toward understanding and teaching visual art. It involves the human eye and how the human mind interprets seeing.

He treated the education of art as being dependent on the means of perception. The main point was addressing the perceptual units that make up a visual scene and teaching students to encode what they see.

He used certain visual concepts from Gestalt Psychology as a useful framework, since it was concerned with holistic systems to derive results. The rules and labels of gestalt methods helped Sherman instruct his students build up from simple reductive components (shape) up to full closure (size, position, brightness, and color.) He had a number of fairly impressive predictions included in  his idea of the “Color Organ” and “Drawing by Seeing” method.

He tested his theories in a clinical method so that his finding were verifiable. Sherman’s  “flash laboratory” allowed him to control the sensory environment of his students for an immersive experience. He would flash images on projection screens at carefully measured time intervals, training his student subjects to see. Their results both noted both in opthalmology tests as well as the students proficiency at drawing.

Sherman lectured at Chicago as well as at Ohio State with much influence, yet the ideas were too avant garde for mainstream acceptance. The critics oversimplified his uses to maintain the polarity of art and science. The students of his method, artists like Roy Lichtenstein, were his most tangible measure of success, though he paved the way for Betty Edwards and her related but better known work.

Sherman wrote two books in 1935. Surrounding the critical back lash Sherman noted a, “deeply ingrained dictatorial tactics toward conformity.” This observation prefigures the similar political intrigue of the Basic Art program, and ensuing backlash within the UGA art program 20 years later. However, for all its controversy, Sherman performed experiments which continue to bear fruit. Sherman also had his loyal proponents, howver, including Erwin Breithaupt and Harold J. McWhinnie. McWhinnie was with the department of design at the University of Maryland he wrote a draft article in the Fall of 1989 called:  “Hoyt Sherman, Adelbert Ames, Jr. & Betty Edwards on Drawing and Seeing,” which contains some gaps but otherwise  encapsulates Sherman’s story better than any other document.

The only error with regard to the mention of UGA is McWhinnie’s misidentification of Erwin M. Breithaupt Jr. as a “Leonard Edmonston.” Still, McWhinnie worked together on an experiment with Sherman at Ohio State which makes him an especially useful observer and critic of Sherman’s methodology. McWhinnie even consulted Sherman’s students for his report. 

The report claims to be a review of Sherman’s ideas, revealing the psychological sources for his work. It compares Sherman’s work with Betty Edwards' and Mona Brookes' work. McWhinnie’s proposes that Sherman’s ideas were an early forerunner of contemporary work  in computer art, electronic music, and the “telematic” nature of culture.

McWhinnie met Sherman as a student in the fifties when he was already discussing the potential of a device he called, “a color organ” which could show possible color variations on a display screen. (This idea is now brought to common use in today’s software such as Adobe’s Photoshop.)

Assuming that you make a obvious connection between the color organ and modern computer graphics, you can assume that Sherman was 40 years ahead of his time, even though his work was not typically speculative. As previously mentioned, Shermans worked with Dr. Adelbert Ames who discovered “anisekonia,” and  who as a psychologist invented the “Ames Demonstation” in perception. Their overlapping interests dovetailed into testing the limits of eyesight in art.

In 1910, Ames began his own investiation by painting with his sister, his goal was to exactly reproduce the colors of his subject matter. He devised a system of color notation which involved 3,300 different color variations of 27 hues, 15 gradations in value, and 10 steps of intensity (chroma) This was an antique forerunner of the color organ idea. Together Ames and Sherman would explore the limits of visual perception.

In his paper Ames stated a basis thesis on illusion of pictorial depth is dependent on the method of reviewing it. “The most useful effect is by the use of a mirror or of a combination of lenses and prisms.” Some of the insights from this article must have found their way into Sherman’s later analysis of Cezanne. Unfortunately, his Cezanne book was not published and it exists only as a draft at the Ohio State of Library.

Sherman’s published book, “Drawing by Seeing” was already “long out of print” by the time of McWhinnie began his writing.  McWhinnie summarizes:

“Sherman designed and built what was known as a the flash lab. This was a room that could be blacked and was equipped for the projection of images upon a large screen. These were not ordinary slide images and the room was not designed for the typical University art slide images and the room was not designed for the typical University art slide lecture or art studio drawing class. The images were all simple lines, shapes, forms, textures and color not unlike material found in the typical textbook on Gestalt psychology.

These images were flashed upon the screen for intervals of one-tenth of a second; the students standing at the specially constructed drawing stations, drew in the absolute dark with large chalks on sheets of 18” x 24” paper.”

This drawing laboratory was used for instruction as well as for research for many years. At the time of Hoyt’s tenure, all dental majors were required to take his course in order to sharpen their visual skills.

Elizabeth Clymber Okerbloom in her 1944 article: “Hoyt Sherman’s Experimental Work in the Field of Visual Form,” for the College Art Journal gives a more detailed account of a typical art course with Sherman.

Sherman focused, at least at first, on improving those students who had no previous interest or talent. A six week course, with art never being discussed, nor student’s work criticized.

The question was raised by Okerbloom, could this program have universal education applications other “than the curricula of fields other than fine arts? And finally, will it help build balanced personality of increasing esthetic sensitivity?” This last part is asking in a scientific way: can this method make you a better artist or at least give you some of the necessary tools you need to be one?

Professor Sherman’s center piece is a theory of “perceptualism” which “distinguishes the work of the greatest masters. Preminent among those drawings and paintings reveal “perceptual unity” are Masaccio, Rembrandt, Cezanne, and Picasso.

“To see which “perceptual” unity is to perceive the “whole field” of vision simultaneously, all points being seen in relation to a single focal point. Given the capacyt to see in this manner: “the problem of learning how to draw is to discipline oneself to allow the image, so perceived, to form itself through kinesthetic channels into the eventual drawing.”

“The training procedure is based upon this theory. It centers upon the dynamic, aggressive act of seeing-and-drawing as a pleasurable experience in its own right, and not merely as a means to the end of producing art works.”

“The class meets five days a week in periods that graduate from about a half an hour at first to an hour or more toward the end of the course. During the first four weeks the students draw from flash-exposed slides in a darkened room. They stand while at work. Chunks of charcoal are used to record the slide images on large sheets of paper. The students wear masks beneath their chins to prevent the image they are drawing from competing with the image perceived from the slide upon which they are concentrating. Recorded music accompanies the drawing sessions, to encourage freedom of movement. Under these conditions old habits of seeing one thing at a time are broken down while new habits of “perceptual” vision develop.

The darkened room is important because the dark-adapted eye is more sensitive to refined distinctions. The tactile sense also is heightened. Later in the course the masks are removed and the students work in full light. By the end of the six-week course such gains have been made that perceptual capacity is not lost easily.

A warning signal precedes each slide, which is exposed for less than one-tenth of a second. About 400 slides are required during the course, 20 to a session. The slides are designed so that the problems become progressively complex. The motifs are based on the elements of space perception in their order of importance: position, size, and brightness.

"The first slides are composed of simple black spots, elongated blobs that appear along the edges of a white ground. The students are obliged to concentrate in order to perceive the entire slide in a split-second view. ..”

They feel in the dark, without regard for accuracy, they locate positions on the paper.

The complexity increases until they are capable of retaining and defining on paper precise small shapes of subtle value differences appearing in intricate backgrounds.

“During the first four weeks the students are gradually moved closer to the screen until the field of vision… from the comfortable ten degree angle of vision to the demanding angle of 35 degrees.”

The three dimensional models come around the 4th or 5th week. “The first step is made by placing two flanking screens 5 feet in front of the central screen. The slide is flashed on all three screens. Then the students draw slide images projected onto the floor, walls and ceiling of the room.

Finally, a stage setting of objects suspended in mid-air is drawn under the same conditions, including spots.

The instructor picks out a point in the setting with the beam of a small red light and when a flood is flashed briefly they draw the ensemble in the usual way. Using different centers.

The last week painting is introduced with black and white, and grey values. Finally in four colors. Finally a dancer is flashed in motion.

Sherman was using tachistoscopes, the tools of  the airforce to improve seeing in pilots.

In 1972, Sherman and McWhinnie conducted a research experiment on his method using architecture students finding that his method “significantly improve the students’ skills to perceive and treat form, perceptual wholeness, and the ability to deal with space. These are skills considered essential by the architecture faculty.

June McFee whose 1961 book sparked renewed interest in the perception focused visual art education, based her theories on the work of Sherman and Ames.

These were Sherman’s teaching variables according to McWhinnie:

1) By drawing in the dark the student could not see the paper. This process discouraged the “I can’t draw attitude”. This is somewhat similar to Edward’s method of drawing and copying a drawing upside down

2) Within Sherman’s system he forced the student’s to draw the negative space as well as the objects that they were looking upon. Edwards did the same.

3) Sherman focused on whole perception and developed perceptual acuity, Students even drew the cracks in the slides as well as the images on the slides.

(The emphasis on instant perception and whole gestalt caused them to make no differentiation between abstract and accidental crack.)

Hoyt Sherman’s contribution to Art and Design and America are pioneering concepts and techniques in color perception and perceptual learning.

Sherman’s methods fulfill many requirements of what would seem to be a very powerful treatment. These are:

  1. It is well grounded in psychological theory.
  2. It has been tried and used successfully for 25 years in the teaching how to draw
  3. It is well grounded in a study of the drawings of past and present masters; and
  4. It is very strong and dynamic way of teaching drawing.

Two questions arise: Why or is this method hard to assess and was Sherman a critical element of the method?”

Other than his book Sherman wrote little and published almost nothing on his work. (Although an open letter to his critics is very informative.) He was not a trained researcher, yet according to Dr. Thomas C. Holy, director of the College of Education and Dr. Glenn Fry, director of OSU School of Optometry the data suggests all students made gains, some dramatic ones under Hoyt Sherman's method.



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