Years ago when I taught studio art in a Performing and Visual Arts high school I gave a series of production lectures about the use of gray. My primary objective was for students to develop a functional understanding of how gray works across the visual mediums and the ability to consistently apply that knowledge in the practice of their craft. Many days were spent painting grayscales in acrylic on paper and drawing them with vine charcoal on newsprint to learn how difficult 80% and above actually was to achieve. The final assignment was to create a standard 9 value chart like the one you see above on zinc etching plates, an assignment typically performed the first year in college and is difficult to perfect for all but the most dedicated of printmakers.

This was not you typical high school nor was it a typical lesson. All art students learn grayscale and color wheel as a foundation of their work, but these students were juniors and seniors, kids who had a few years of intensive arts training already under their belts, and they resisted at first this perceived form of busy work. And while I understood their reluctance I also knew what I had in store would hook them in a way guaranteed to solidify not just their understanding of the nature of gray but also challenge the nature of how they viewed their entire world.

By the time we arrived at etching all students had a basic mastery of the nine value scale. They could draw it using hatch marks and a Rapidograph pen. They could render it in acrylic with a brush or with sumi ink. And every student could masterfully execute a beautiful scale on paper with their fingers and powdered graphite and compressed charcoal. They knew their stuff and the etching was a way to prove their knowledge as a permanent record. The results were beautiful, even for those unable to achieve accuracy. Etching is difficult and the process can be hard to control. I pleased with the outcome but more importantly they had a sense of achievement. A true success all around, the entire process.

But the process of making these works was only half of the work we accomplished. Throughout the weeks of practice and perfection the accompanying lecture portion of our journey was rarely about values and degrees of light and dark on paper or in regard to the interaction of light with the physical world. While they created our Socratic conversations attempted to translate what we learned into an understanding of the values of Light and Dark, of  Black and White and the relative nature of Gray in the moral, ethical, spiritual and philosophical senses. True to the nature of the high school student these discussions were quite deep.

Because I had support from above and because exploration of controversial and mature subject matter was routine at the school, we were able to deal in issues of life and death, morality and immorality, race and gender and other difficult material in a meaningful way. And because students this age are naturally addressing such issues in their own lives our work together was resonant. It is, to this day, my favorite experience in teaching and unfortunately one I have since been unable to replicate at such a high level. It was my last year before moving on from that school and my last year at that grade level, as I moved down the grades thereafter through middle and into primary level teaching.

That is not to say I haven't used similar methods for both the art and philosophical teaching of the values of gray. I have since differentiated this example at every school and in every grade level form PK to 8. It's simply a matter of things being developmentally appropriate and tailored to suit the circumstance. I have had much success across the board in getting students to understand how black, white and gray work both in practice and in principle, as a physical phenomenon and as an intellectual one. At the end of the day the study of Gray is the core of my curriculum at all levels because it is what allows for Value to take hold on paper and in people. In art it is the understanding of light, without which art wouldn't exist. Intellectually it is an understanding of how our Human world works, without which we are blind to all but the extreme.

Over the years, as I have come to know former students from that period as adults, our work with Value and Gray always seems to reemerge as a strong influence on their thinking. It is rewarding to know that fifteen years later they continue to see the world through a lens of critical thinking and acknowledgment of subtlety. It is heartening to see them living life as people sensitive to distinctions and accepting of difference. It is wonderful to observer them passing along the values to their own children, both at home and in their classrooms. Many of my former students from that time are now themselves teachers. A gift that truly keeps on giving.

On the issues we concern ourselves with here at Daily Kos I am troubled by the division and polarization so evident in our political, religious, moral and ethical worlds. Black and white thinking is rampant in our society and it is infectious on both ends of the spectrum. Increasingly rare are the subtle perspectives that take into account the complexities of how life often works. Things are bad or good. People are villains or heroes. You are with us or against us.

Students of the grayscale know that, with very few exceptions, life is largely rendered between 10 and 90. They know that true black happens in only the deepest of shadow and true white in only the most blinding of lights. They know that everything which exists or happens outside of those extremes is by nature not so easily defined.

Yet, even on the grayscale there exists a neutral, a 50% gray that is equally white and black. This is a precarious and elusive value and one that is almost as rare as 100% and 0%. In practice neutral is difficult to achieve. As nature abhors a vacuum so do people gravitate toward extremes. As progressives it seems our goal is to move towed the lower numbers. To quote J.K. Rowling "Yes, there can be no light without a dark, and so it is with magic. As for myself, I always strive to live within the light."

May we all keep striving to live within the light, even as we acknowledge the infinite degrees of value all around us, in every direction. May we work toward understanding the complexities that color our world, even as we try to find simple and honorable answers and may we try our best to be understanding with each other as we stumble upon the road.

Very few things in life are truly black and white and almost nothing is truly neutral.

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