STEM Master’s Student Braves Art Class – Joseph (USA)

Art seems to be this mystical land of make-believe and subjectivity. This semester, I am taking two art courses digital photography and practical composition. But why, what value could they possibly provide me in pursuing a master’s degree in Actuarial and Financial Engineering?

Before I answer that question, I want to start by quickly talking about the courses themselves. In digital photography, you spend the first few weeks getting acclimated with the digital camera settings. You learn how aperture, ISO, and shutter speed interact to allow the photo to come out properly exposed. After those first few weeks, there is a different topic each week to take pictures of and critique the last week’s photos.

In practical composition, there are two halves to the course. In the first half, you learn about how different compositional elements are used in a work of art to make one cohesive painting. The second half is the practical portion, where there are several different artistic periods to study. After you spend some time exploring the style, you use the elements you learned in the first half of the course to create a painting of your own.

What were the most difficult portions of the courses? The primary drawback is the time I have had to put into digital photography. There is a requirement to take at least 30 pictures per week and submit five for critique. I frequently found myself taking 100 or more each week to get five of submission quality. The process of taking and editing has taken well over the expected time per credit hour each week. 

For practical composition, the most challenging part was getting the materials during the lockdown. The process was not very clear, and many of the stores were out of one or more colors. But, in the end, I was able to get paints before I needed them for class, so it all worked out. As for the actual course, again, it is the time required for me to produce, what I consider, an acceptable painting. Case in point, I had intended to finish the above painting before this blog post was due, but as you can see it’s still not finished. Part of this is due to my inexperience with drawing and painting, but the other part is that I won’t submit something with which I’m unhappy. But, of course, you can’t grow without a bit of difficulty in your path.

And since I don’t want to write a post that is all doom and gloom because there is a lot to enjoy about the courses, let me return now to the question I posed, what value could these art courses provide me, a STEM major? A large portion of the answer to that is that photography is my hobby, and I wanted to break out of my comfort zone to improve my photos. One benefit of going to the University of Tartu is that you can choose any course outside of your degree program, at your degree level, as long as you meet the prerequisites and make sufficient progress toward your degree each semester. Usually, courses like these wouldn’t count toward my degree, but I have six ECTS built into my program to take any course(s) that I would like that add up to six credits. Meaning, not only could I explore my hobby, but I can also count these two, three-credit, courses toward my degree.

In addition to all that, I also believe in the value of exploring topics outside of your subject area. In high school and during my undergrad, I spent some time on different subjects from anthropology to Spanish to Tae Kwon Do to find out what I found exciting and what I didn’t. However, I never took the time to take an art class.

So, how are art classes compared to the STEM world? Well, for a start, from an organizational and expectations standpoint, things are a lot less clear. Since, in art, everything is subjective, the standards are a lot less clear than in a mathematics class, where there is almost always a correct answer and a wrong answer. While certain qualities can define what is “good art,” such as the quality of the materials and skill of the artist, often there can be many ways to do something and achieve a good result. It can also be challenging to pinpoint what makes a painting or photo better or worse than another. Whether this is a pro, or con, for you is also subjective.

I think the best thing about these courses is that they allow you to explore your creativity. This exploration is a freedom that was a refreshing change of pace from my structured and logical math-intensive classes. The subject of the assignment is the only thing that restricts this creative freedom. For example, one photography assignment was “finding shapes,” for this assignment, the photos needed to be black and white. 

But this limitation of creative freedom makes some of the assignments easier since there is less decision-making that you need to do. And the photo above happens to be of my personal favorites that I have taken so far for the course.

The next best thing about the courses is that I can see the professor critique the photos and paintings from all the students. He also takes them into Photoshop and shows some ideas of what he may have done differently. In this way, we get to see in real-time how someone else’s creativity played out. I can then use these ideas in my next round of photos or my next painting. Sometimes they pan out, and others, they wouldn’t. But art is about experimentation, so even if something doesn’t work it’s still worthwhile to try.

Overall, I think the courses have been valuable for me. They are providing me with some great insights into the world of art. I have also learned that oil painting doesn’t have to be scary, and you don’t have to be incredibly skilled to get a decent-looking image. I think that everyone should take a class that’s a little outside of their comfort zone and these courses from the University of Tartu Centre for arts are a great place to do just that. Of course, if you would like to try one for yourself, they have more information available at https://www.kultuur.ut.ee/en/about-us/university-tartu-centre-arts.

All photos are the courtesy of the author.