Returning from a workshop a few years ago, I dropped in on a fellow painter whose name I’ll not mention. “You know, Robert,” he said, “Every time you do a workshop and show people how you do things, it gets tougher and more competitive for both you and me.” Even though my friend was remarkably religious, he didn’t seem to have been in class the day they covered the Golden Rule.
I told him I wasn’t aware that sharing diminished my work or my business, and besides, I felt I had an obligation to those who might be craving info and know-how. When I told him it gave me joy to proselytize whatever I knew, he frowned as if I was on the slippery slope to a life of sin.
Then there was the time a fellow phoned and asked if he could hang out in my studio for a day. A perfect gentleman, he brought his own lunch, hardly said a word, took notes, and left. A week or so later a friend phoned to say that I had a disciple — my work was in a certain gallery with this guy’s name on it. Did I forgive him? Yep.
While a few bad eggs turn up in every egg-processing plant, what’s amazing is that the vast majority are Grade A. Most artists want to be original. They grasp the principle of rugged individualism. They don’t want to make someone else’s work under their own name. But they do have a right to get info from someone who has some sort of a track record. In my experience, no instructor claims the Holy Grail. As Stephen Quiller says, “The one common element that I’ve discovered when studying master painters is that they were all students.”
Painting is tougher than the accurate drilling of root canals. Painter wannabees need all the help they can get. Composition, colour mixing, and the professional touch, to name just a few, can be troublesome minefields. The better mentors give options. Choose your mentors carefully. In my experience, some of the best love it so much they do it for a song. In some cases you might have to bring your own lunch.
PS: “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without diminishing mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.” (Thomas Jefferson)
Esoterica: When I was about 8 years old my dad took me to watch a pro. Among other magical visions, I saw him spread a wash of Ultramarine blue and Burnt Sienna across a slightly tilted sheet of rough Whatman. When my dad sprung for my own watercolour block, my folks endured a few days with a whirling dervish at their kitchen table. These sorts of pro-side conversions, I came to find out, are quite common. Our own Workshop Calendar is one of the most highly visited pages on our site. It’s just now starting to fill with some magical learning opportunities coming up in 2011.
Pass on your experience
by Cathy Johnson, MO, USA
When I was a very young artist, just out of school and trying desperately to find a job, a pro took me briefly under his wing. I couldn’t get a job without experience, and I couldn’t get experience without a job — you know that old story. He didn’t have a job for me, but showed me the ropes and told me “Now, you have experience.” When I asked what I could do in return, he simply told me to pass it on. That’s what I’ve tried to do, for 40 years. I haven’t found it’s diminished me in the least.
Enlighten another’s path
by Phil Carroll, USA
I have always felt as an artist I have an obligation to give back to others through my teaching. At present, I have a younger student who has grasped my techniques to a “T” and it does not bother me for an instant. Rather it teaches me that perhaps my methods of passing on knowledge are working and truly have value for others. When we enlighten another’s path it must be selfless and will come back to us in ways that we could never have imagined.
Seeing the bigger picture
by Andrew Sookrah, Toronto, ON, Canada
It’s been a few years now since I have been privileged to receive your Painter’s Keys, and I was struck early on with the easy way you share that which some others, equally blessed, feel they should guard as their own. Thank you. I am reminded of a dear friend of mine, Richard Cote RGD, who works in the graphic design field in Toronto. Years ago when computers came on the graphics scene, Richard worked for us as a freelancer. Much like you, he did not guard his knowledge as his own, even though he worked hard to get it. He was always prepared to share even though it meant that the people he was sharing with were going to be competing with him for work. It’s all about being able to see the bigger picture.
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Dumbing down of the audience?
by Joseph Jahn, Nibe, Denmark
I never have a qualm when I see a better painter than myself. However, what I do not agree with is the influx of amateur painters in the exhibition pool. They do nothing other than create a public which cannot distinguish levels of excellence. Presenting bad art and pretending it is art has the effect of creating a public with little to no idea how to “see” art. Two week courses in painting, furniture store mass produced oils, and cheap canvas/paint in abundance, eats into the public psyche creating a public with little or no baseline for appreciating art created with mastery. The audience for real painting is probably the same size as it has always been, but the sad part is the audience could have been broadened with a little more care. However the commercial pursuit of making money from amateurs has co-opted the education of the general public and deadened their “eye for art.” So, Robert, in one way I do agree with your friend. I do not grudge you the training of real talent in the least, but how many of those have you seen in your many years? And how many little dogs and flowers in a pot does it take to kill an eye?
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Open studio system of teaching
by Marsha Hamby Savage, Smyrna, GA, USA
Recently, I decided to change my teaching format to an “open studio” type of class in my home. Discussions will happen during painting time, painting will happen also. I posted my schedule and the price of $25 for the day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. or any amount of time during those hours. Pressure is taken off the student to feel the money is justified — they know it is well worth the $25. They also get to “just show up.” They do not have to let me know unless they want something special — framing, marketing, critique, raising their level, or special info and discussion on any aspect of painting. The description I send out to potential students talks about a “mentoring” attitude rather than a structured class. When several students have said “Are you sure this is enough?” and I answer “yes,” they look a little bewildered! I explain, “I want to spend time in my studio with like-minded students that truly appreciate working. And, I want students to come. In this economy it is more difficult to structure a six-week class for more money. Invariably, a student says I can’t come on this date so I won’t sign up for the six weeks. Now, they can see my schedule of “studio days” and plan accordingly!
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Far better to share
by Bonny Current, Wolcott, CT, USA
In my experience it is far better to share knowledge than keep it a secret. Most workshop people seem to be of two types — those who are artists trying to become more skilled with the goal of becoming more marketable — and those who are trying to become more skilled and are simply in it for the joy for themselves with no desire to go any further. If you are a real artist I believe you are always learning and getting inspiration from everywhere. Most of the people in a workshop will never be a threat to me or my work. Our styles will always be different as will our view on the world. If someone is attracted to my view of the world and desire to own my work, there is a good chance that they will not connect in the same way with the other artists who are exhibiting with me.
Where might we be as artists if others hadn’t mentored and encouraged us? I always marvel in a class or workshop at the variety of interpretations the class comes up with when all viewing the same setup. Our styles are as personal as our signatures. Even if I come away working a bit like my instructor — my style soon takes over and emerges in my new work — but I have been enriched by the experience of watching and working with other artists.
No direct competition
by Skip Rohde, Asheville, NC, USA
Your artist friend seems to think that artists are in direct competition with each other. That’s not the case. There are five painters in my building, with literally several dozen more within a block, and none of us are in competition with each other. All of us do different things. When people come in my studio, they respond to my work, or to my studio partner’s work, or to neither. Even if I were the only painter in the building, I would not sell one more piece. Teaching painting workshops does not make things harder for painters any more than teaching people how to read and write makes things harder for authors. It’s much better to share our knowledge and help others find their own voice.
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Fear or faith?
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
If I was an enthused beginner, how would I want to be treated by someone who had more experience and knowledge than I had? At the root of the Golden Rule and religion in general is the concept of imagining yourself in someone else’s shoes; that all people are connected by our common humanity. Good instructors know that making art is a struggle. There are no guarantees or perfect ways of doing a painting. All I can do is help a student fight the same battle I fight in front of an empty sheet of paper. If I am able to help, it is a wonderful feeling. I have no fears of imitators or of helping out the competition. I don’t see legions of people wanting to sign up for the typical artist lifestyle. Being miserly with my knowledge diminishes me. I want to expand out into the world, not shrink into a corner. I find this to be a universal conflict for everyone. Do we risk making ourselves bigger in life and attitude or do we bunker down to create a false sense of safety and security? The most common impulse is hole up, to hoard our little stash whether it be cash or knowledge, to fear our neighbor might seek to exploit us. In the end it becomes either fear or faith.
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Grateful to the givers of light
by Lorraine Khachatourians, Saskatoon, SK, Canada
If it weren’t for those generous givers of light, painters who share their knowledge, I wonder if I would have been able to paint. When I first thought I would like to see what painting was like, I went to a workshop, and was totally turned on. After the workshop, I worked away, but didn’t progress much. I tried reading books, watched DVD’s, read magazines by the pile. But I just didn’t get very far, so I got discouraged and didn’t paint much. About three years later I had to opportunity to attend a three week workshop with an artist I knew about, Kiff Holland, in France. That was what I needed. I discovered that I learn by seeing what is being done, by listening to the person with the knowledge talk about the process as he/she does it. From then on I have painted steadily and have tried to go to a workshop once a year with someone I know I will learn from and move to another level. I am so grateful to those generous painters who have given their time and their wealth of knowledge and skills. Without them I would have struggled alone, maybe getting there eventually. Instead the journey has been full of fun and joy, mixed with the usual frustrations of learning new things, but having somewhere and someone to go to for help. Thanks to them all!
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Impressed by the willingness
by Dr. Hal Martin, San Antonio, TX, USA
Eleven years ago I chose to retire from my practice of interventional cardiology to pursue other interests, predominantly my lifelong fascination with art. The quest to improve my painting and drawing skills included many workshops with very accomplished artists. I have repeatedly been very impressed by the willingness of these lifelong practicing artists to share their knowledge and technical skills with others, particularly individuals such as myself who come into art later in life from other successful career fields. Intuitively, I would think that there would be some level of resentment to this circumstance, particularly since, as everyone is well aware, anyone can purchase supplies, paint a few pictures, throw up a website and promote themselves as an “artist” to a public which has very minimal understanding of art. As mentioned, I greatly appreciate this willingness to share and, with regard to your friend’s concerns, don’t think I’ll ever be taking the bread off any of these nationally known artist/instructor’s tables.
Giving credit where it’s due
by Janice Vogel, Senden-BÃ¶sensell, Germany
“Passing the light” reminds me very much of the words spoken by my brother during his part of the eulogy about our father last week. Dad was a teacher for 25 years but always wanted to share his knowledge and lessons right up to his final days. Art was one of his specialties and many people have noted in the online comments about his pottery wheel and the sculptures they made with him in Grade 5.
Among many other things, my brother told the congregation:
Recently Dad wanted to show me his new style of making omelets because on his recent cruise, he studied the chef making omelets, and passed that knowledge on to me — and anyone else who would listen — maybe even you. Even this last Thanksgiving, he needed to show me one last time how to carve the turkey, a certain way that he learned from observing a surgeon. He knew his lessons would have more credibility if he linked professionals to them.
One lesson though that he wanted to transfer recently was about acceptance — referring to accepting [my partner]and [her daughter]into our family. It was a lesson that he learned from a fellow teacher about having a new student come into the school and the core of the lesson is that you don’t want to overcompensate or under compensate your attention to the new student and that they are equal like everyone else. So not only did he and Mom accept [them both]in that manner, but Dad knew that there was a lesson to be passed on — and he also gave credit to the person he had learned it from.
Robert, I believe in the old adage, “Give credit where credit is due.” Even though my siblings and I all worked hard creating Dad’s service, it was my brother who took the reins and organized what was, according to countless attendees, the best service they had ever been to. And I don’t tire of giving the credit to him.
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Evening at Blackie Spit
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 Melanie Peter of Gainesville, FL, USA, who wrote, “I have a compulsion to share my knowledge. It’s not a conscious act of goodwill as much as an evangelical fervor for painting which gains energy from being shared.”
And also Christel Schmidt of Nanaimo, BC, Canada, who wrote, “The only way to truly safeguard any kind of knowledge is by sharing it!”
And also Jennifer Foster who wrote, “I’m reminded of a wonderful quote by Woodrow Wilson: ‘You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.’ ”
Enjoy the past comments below for Passing the light…