Back in the good old days, a select few youth were chosen to work in the studios of active and proven masters. After a few years of grinding pigments and other grunt work, they may or may not have had the opportunity to get their hands on a brush. In today’s world of instant gratification, most beginners prefer to cut to the chase without bothering with a proven master. While good quality workshops provide shortcuts for sure (see our Workshop Calendar) there are still many untutored and unguided, who wander daily into their studios to struggle on their own. With the current abundance of wonderful books by masters, this has also become an acceptable and often effective route.
Japan is a country where traditional apprentice-master approaches affect many areas of creativity. Known as Meisho-Deshi (May-ee-shoh-deh-she), some remarkable systems continue to frame and advance the Japanese miracle. Traditionally, apprentices were taken on at about age ten, and were not allowed to touch a master’s tools for several years. Surprisingly, some were not even allowed to ask questions. Even more surprisingly, they were taught to disdain the information provided by books. The apprentice was to learn by seeing and absorbing. The ideal apprentice was all eyes — and mute.
If a master was very old when he passed on, the apprentice might be quite elderly, and quite quiet, before stepping into his sandals.
Further, as well as “kata” — or “way of doing things,” learning to be a master involved philosophical and ethical obligations. Part of mastery lay in the need to develop an understanding of and sympathy for human nature. Further, with increased skills, prowess and consequent fame, obligations came automatically. A true master needed to live frugally and yet be generous with his earnings. Among the most ascetic masters, it was not good to keep a day’s earnings through the following night.
We recognize that things have sped up since Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) made woodblock prints of all those spots along the Tokaido Road. (These days the Shinkansen (bullet train) goes the length of it in about two hours.) But in our game, there is still a place for working, sharing, showing, and the good old business of demonstrating. Hiroshige, whose many apprentices developed in brilliant directions, would just be dazzled at the speed.
PS: “The Japanese system was geared to produce experts, not just men with enough training and experience to do adequate work. As a result, the quality standards for workmanship in all fields of labour were those requiring the ability and dedication of a master.” (Boye Lafayette De Mente, from “Elements of Japanese Design”)
Esoterica: It always surprises me when beginning artists do not make a rugged effort to search out their masters. Fear of “bothering” and shaky feelings of intimidation may be a couple of the reasons. Most masters I’ve known have been more than generous with their time and encouragement. Daily, I thank them for being there. I have, however, never known one who didn’t try to keep his earnings through the following night.
Finding the wisdom of others
by Brenda Behr, Goldsboro, NC, USA
I’m beginning to believe that sharing knowledge is an even greater gift than sharing art. It is truly a sign of abundance. My Ikebana (flower arranging) teacher, Sensai Wasui Kazuko, taught me many things. She taught me to appreciate the budding promise of a young flower as well as the spent beauty of a dying flower. After ten years of lessons with her, we developed a meaningful friendship. Through her, I earned my Ikebana certificates from the Sogetsu School in Tokyo. However, I am not permitted by this school to teach Ikebana. That would require a teacher’s certificate earned only by a one-year apprenticeship to my sensai. I still contemplate this apprenticeship. But alas! Painting is my calling, not Ikebana, and so I’ve chosen instead to go the route of a painter. More than flower arranging or any other art form that we might learn from the East, I wish we Westerners could get off our “Youth is God” high horse and begin giving more respect to the teaching profession as well as to the wisdom of those who have walked before us.
I currently have a portrait mentor (John de la Vega), as well as another whose workshops I have/will attend (Carol Marine). Neither of these artists is beyond taking workshops themselves. This I say in admiration.
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Productivity of the factory artists
by Norman Ridenour, Prague, Czech Republic
The master-apprentice system was normal in Europe until the late 17th century for all trades; carpenters, masons, weavers, etc. Until about a century before, artists were as nameless as tailors and dyers. Who did the sculpture for Chartres Cathedral? All trades worked under the Guild system, master / journeyman / apprentice and artists were just another trade. Even the top artists did not escape, Michelangelo paid regular dues to his guild. In fact, successful artists like Rembrandt, had to be entrepreneurs and run a small factory. Warhol was only a reversion. So much of the grunt work required for painting in those days needed many hands; grinding paint, making stretchers, priming canvas, painting backgrounds, applying varnish. In fact it has been averred that Rubens himself only did faces. Any painter who looks at even a medium sized Renaissance or Baroque painting should be mentally counting man-hours. There is a good reason that Vermeer, who worked alone, was not very productive.
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Mentor experience shaped his life
by Jeffrey Hessing, Nice, France
When I finished undergraduate school my drawing teacher, who already was a kind of mentor, suggested we seek out our favorite living artist and study with him. My first letter to Leonard Baskin remained unanswered. My second letter to him was more strident, a bit over the top actually. I was accepted to several graduate schools with good reputations but went to study privately with Baskin instead. At our first meeting he told me I couldn’t draw at all. He gave me a murex venus sea shell with hundreds of spines and told me to draw it. I did it many times over in different sizes and then in bas relief. Baskin was a brilliant man, very successful and an avid collector. His house was full of antiques, prints, drawings, paintings, sculptures, roman glass, porcelain, coins, Oriental rugs. Being from a lower middle class family in Brooklyn I had never seen an antique. It was like living in a museum and opened my eyes to many things I would have missed if I hadn’t seen them day in and out. His fame brought many demands and pressures. There was a carton of mail to go through every day and the phone rang non-stop. I learned a lot about the life of an artist and its pitfalls. I saw him make pieces which later I saw in museums. My time in his house is a far cry from years of silence next to a Japanese master. Still it was an invaluable experience which shaped the rest of my life. I never regretted not going to graduate school.
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Apprenticeship leads to friendship
by Bill Skuce, Sooke, BC, Canada
In the early 1980’s Mario had just graduated from the University of Costa Rica with a degree in Chemistry. He met the Nicaraguan painter, Alberto Ycaza at a San Jose opening of the latter’s paintings. “Will you teach me to paint like that?” Alberto took him on…the condition: that Mario would agree to a classical master-student apprenticeship. Just one year later Mario’s very first painting was accepted into the Monte Carlo Biennale. (His master won best in show that year.) I had the good fortune to visit these two artists a number of times in the San Jose studio they continued to share long after Mario’s artistic maturing.
End of a painful relationship
by Ansgard Thomson, Edmonton, AB, Canada
Taking classes from masters is certainly a very good way to learn. It is helpful to take workshops with different artists. My uncle who had inspired me as a very young child had such a relationship with his master in Germany. He used to paint many works but as long he worked in the masters’ studio, the master signed all of his paintings and also sold them as his own. My uncle managed to liberate himself by painting very different works in his own studio and ended that painful relationship. The master was very vindictive when he quit painting his canvasses and politically turned against his students’ art as “entarted” and anti Nazi.
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Male in ‘state of incompleteness’
by Pepper Hume, Spring, TX, USA
I thought you’d be amused to know that I am going to use Mikansei as the name of my incomplete male figure floating in windy cloud. He is the First Lord of Chaos and “state of incompleteness” suits him perfectly. The Second Lord of Chaos will involve light. I intend to resist the temptation to search for a Japanese term for that. They should all come from different cultural sources. There must be something Inuit or Nordic for the unending light of polar midsummer….
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Heel of the Master
by Keith Cameron, Sierra Madre, CA, USA
Art has become the one area of thought that can still escape fascism. Boundaries assigned by Academia become more about human politic, and less about experiencing the boundless joy of creation. Whether to learn at the heel of a Master, or to boldly move forth beyond convention it is a choice made by a human being. One can endure, or enjoy the outcomes by choice. There are enough wars against choice and freedom. It shouldn’t take place in the realm of Art. Please again withold your editorial urges. My writing holds up my opinion very well without the need for Masterly intervention.
Masters teach without teaching
by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA
The word “master” leaves a bad taste in the mouth here in the states and is used indiscriminately on anyone who paints well. Or sells. It’s so… esoteric, uppity sounding though having a person with the ability and knowledge to teach you to paint is worth all the tea in China. I was lucky enough to have such a teacher but if I were to call him “master,” he probably would hit me with a stick. There are so many excellent Asian painters here in America now. We Americans here are on the fast track and many don’t see the benefit of taking time to learn to draw. Everything is fast, fast, fast. Got to have it now. Well after 30 years, I’ve reached a stage where I can look back and see that even with a “master” teacher it took years to be able to paint anything with the facility I now possess. And still it’s tough to make it as a painter. I’m not sure how you measure when one becomes a master. It takes more than being a good painter. It takes a lifetime of living, experience, dedication and devotion to the practice of art. The Japanese have tradition, we don’t. American artists have to get the teaching where they can and more than not, they stumble in the dark on their own. If you can find someone who can show you the way and let you become who you are. Cling to him/her and soak up everything they do or say. Most times they teach without teaching. Show you without showing you. Maybe that’s why they are called “masters.”
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Connecting with a Chinese master
by Lisa Chakrabarti, Los Angeles, CA, USA
Fifteen years ago, in the course of developing my career as a fine artist, I decided to investigate the world of oriental brush painting. I became smitten with the medium, following an assortment of “how-to” manuals and Asian art history books. An eager self-starter, I practiced strokes and techniques. But since brush painting has its roots in Chinese/Japanese calligraphy, I eventually realized I could not get much further without guidance from a master.
There was a budding Chinese art supply shop and painting studio not too far from my own studio that had recently formed as the “Liaison of Chinese and American Brush Painters.” The calligraphy master, Lao Zhu, spoke very little English. Fortunately, the studio’s director was fluent in English and was able to translate when necessary. The process was to watch, practice, and partake of copious amounts of Dragonwell tea over a 3-hour lesson which segued into a shared meal of Chinese take-out. I studied with Lao Zhu for about 5 years, usually alone, but occasionally joined by his two other calligraphy students: an aerospace engineer near retirement and a young professional photographer. It was a wonderful time; Lao Zhu’s own career was starting to gel and he frequently traveled back to China for solo shows, returning with fabulous brushes, xuan paper, Chinese kangxie dictionaries and other treasures for us.
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Difficulties with commitment
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
Regarding the teacher / apprentice relationship, the biggest difference I see nowadays is that we are unable to establish the same commitment between two people that existed in the old days. For example, if I would be your apprentice, what would have to happen to commit to that relationship in the old style? Both of us would have to make major changes in our lives. As you say, your day’s earning and mine, have too many complicated implications that require our attention. Even if the prospective apprentice is a child or very young — today’s kids already have a crazy full schedule with addition of many gadgets that they won’t give up in order to commit to just one goal.
I think that it is up to us to reinvent the apprenticeship of today. I am sure that your readers will have many ideas and suggestions and I doubt that many will see the old style relationship and level of commitment as possible, although it is a wonderful, romantic thing to dream about. I would chop your wood and cook your meal and grind your pigment and one day you would allow me to touch your brush — doesn’t even putting this in words sound bizarre to you?
Regarding students asking questions — I love the idea of not allowing the apprentice to ask questions. Having to figure things out develops person’s character and intelligence. I believe that one can never pay for someone’s time or teaching. You can give money, but how do you price the time of one’s life, and the energy out of one’s body — I think those are priceless, and only children can feel entitled to receive those from parents. That’s why I hesitate to ask questions. I don’t feel entitled to take control over such precious resources until I am certain that it is necessary.
I remember a new employee (Japanese) who stood in his cubicle not to fall asleep as he was reading self-training materials. Most trainees go bug someone, or as they say “pick someone’s brain” when they feel “lonely.” I think that Japanese have the right idea in this case. Yes, you are right that most teachers are generous with their time, but I don’t take that as a license to waste it before having thoroughly digested their teaching.
On the other side, nothing worse than when someone bombards me with questions without a pause to hear the answers. Sometimes people build their own agenda into a construction of questions and it really doesn’t matter what you answer — I hate it when I fall into that trap. A pure, extremely annoying, time waster.
The sunset swept to the west
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Mohamed Razif of Malaysia, who wrote, “I do agree with the old masters way of teaching. There are reasons for them to do so. They have gone through trials and errors and they definitely know what is to be done. Their most precious thing is their experience. To me, no matter what sort of artist we intend to be, the basics are the first step.”
And also Sudhakar Karayi of Mississauga, ON, Canada, who wrote, “I read all your letters. I use all my time learning art. I sell my work locally and use the money to travel and enjoy. These letters add to my improvement.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Master-apprentice dynamics…