In the live comments of a recent clickback, I noticed a response by “Another in Anonymity”: “At the peril of upsetting others,” he or she wrote, “I think my main secret was my decision early on not to teach. It was a selfish decision, I know, but I thought I would be poor at teaching art or even talking about the subject. Art was a mystery to me then and it still in a way is, and that’s the way I like it. Without a side income from teaching I was more inclined to concentrate on my own improvement until I became accepted by excellent galleries.”
Thanks, “A in A.” Without going into “Those who can, do; those who cannot, teach,” this writer is making a point while not mentioning who paid the rent while he or she was concentrating on improvement.
While many art teachers insist teaching invigorates their own art, many others find at the end of the day there is little left of their own energy. Furthermore, the mere act of speaking and demonstrating may steal the thunder they must take to their own easels.
We cannot discount the value of skillful teachers who save students from potholes and pitfalls. In fact, in its best sense, the teaching of art is guidance away from the bad habits that come so naturally to many who struggle alone. In my experience, the best teachers are often mature part-timers who live in the real world. Perhaps the best one might be a private mentor. While these are hard to find, she might be persuaded to take a motivated fledgling under her wing.
Robert Henri, one of the outstanding art teachers of all time, notably said, “All education is self-education.” In the best of all worlds, there is a balance — the passing of knowledge, skills and techniques by qualified instructors, and the determined work habits of dedicated and exploratory private workers to follow their own noses.
The “mystery” that our writer mentioned may be key to the secret. Unexplained and unvarnished with many words, the act of art becomes a doing thing that never ceases to puzzle and challenge. It wakes the artist in the morning and puts him to sleep at night. It’s a constant and unending game he plays against himself, the joy of which lies in never being absolutely satisfied.
PS: “First he wrought; afterward he taught.” (Geoffrey Chaucer)
Esoterica: One of the main problems in art instruction these days is that career teachers themselves are often burdened with bad habits. This is partly due to the freefall of technique that continues to be rampant in some jurisdictions. The situation is compounded when students absorb attitudes similar to those of their instructors. “Poisonous pedagogy” stalks many art schools and campuses. In the great cathedrals of art education, the idea is to grab what you can from the priests before they get to you, and then go it alone with courage, optimism, and full-on individualist character.
Variety within one school
by Philip Koch, Baltimore, MD, USA
I’ve taught drawing and painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore since 1973. I have seen firsthand some of the dangers Robert warns about. But that said, we need to realize a major art school is obligated to teach a wide variety of viewpoints.
There are thoughtful artists on our faculty for whom notions of technique, drawing skills, and appreciation of the art of the past are indeed minor concerns. But there are just as many on our faculty who find these same things critical and try their best to teach them. One only has to look at the broader art world to see the problem – there just isn’t any agreement anymore about what matters in art. We can’t turn back the clock, but we can champion what we believe is most important for student artists to learn. Academic art training in the atelier system comes with risks of its own where a student can be buried under the weight of tradition. University art departments and the major professional art schools can bewilder students with too many choices.
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‘Easy’ comes only with practice
by Paul Allen Taylor, Rochester, NY, USA
Not long after starting my path in painting with watercolor, I began teaching classes in Adult Continuing Education. I was being approached by many with the “Do you teach?” question, so I thought no reason not to. Although I was new and had never spent time in front of a group doing and talking, it was a good way for me to learn more about watercolor. I had been told “If you think you really know something about a topic, try to teach it.” I still teach these “evening artists” as well as national workshops.
The “Art” in the teaching for me is seeing the abilities of the artist before they do. Pointing out what they have a knack for and tapping into their strengths. Some beginning painters want to be masterful from the get-go, but watercolor doesn’t afford many that luxury. Reigning them in but also not limiting their enthusiasm helps to show them where they can go, but also affirms where they are. (Yes, you can get there from here.) I forget that I am at times intimidating while demonstrating and am accused of “making it look easy.” “Easy” only comes with practice. Students need inspiration and then motivation. It’s the motivation that keeps them working towards “easy’ and then maybe a teaching opportunity as well.
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One point a day
by Vianna Szabo, Romeo, MI, USA
Teaching art can be a learning opportunity for the instructor as well as the students. I believe the approach is what makes the difference. I try to approach each lesson as a learning experience. I give the students the same leeway I give myself. At the first class I say that I expect them to make mistakes, and that if they don’t I will sign up for their class next time. Each class we cover basics, constructing form, describing light, finding a narrative through edge work. I apply this to all subject matter and all mediums. At the end of class I say to the students, “If you learn one thing today then it was a good day. You either learn what to do or what not to do, both are equally important.”
The student mentality
by John David Anderson, Sayner, ON, USA
I agree with the opinion expressed in the quote about self-education. Another quote from the biography of Robert Henri, an excellent read, comments that if Robert Henri hadn’t been the greatest teacher of painting in America he would have been the greatest painter in America. It’s a great honour and privilege to be a part of the “self” education of others. The biography seems to suggest that Henri was a huge part of a lot of successful art careers by his selfless instruction and that he remained a willing student throughout his life. Charles Hawthorne said you are always a student and everything you do is a study. I benefitted greatly in leaping over a number of pitfalls from guidance provided by generous instructors.
Benefits of teaching
by Kathy Weber, RI, USA
For the past few years I’ve been teaching art one day a week. It’s nice to get out of my studio and see people; and while it does leave me feeling too tired to do much when I get home, it also gets me excited about painting again. I usually bring some of my favorite art books to show my students, and find that looking at all those great paintings makes me want to run back to my studio and start painting again. I get into my studio the next morning with new resolve. Another benefit- students sometimes become patrons!
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Observations of a seasoned teacher
by Norman Ridenour, Prague, Czech Republic
I have been a student and/or teacher all my life in one guise or the other. More often than not both at the same time. I now teach English to all sorts of people and I train teachers. I have decided:
Teaching is impossible.
Learning is possible.
The so-called teacher can only assist in the learning process and learning happens by doing.
There are no mistakes, only unsuitable our non-useful attempts.
All education is self-education.
The coach does not score the goals — the players do that.
The disappearing teacher
by Robert Wade, Australia
The art of teaching art is eventually to make oneself unnecessary, to make the students find their way without the teacher. We can think of ourselves not as teachers but as gardeners. A gardener does not “grow” flowers. He tries to give them what he thinks they need and they grow by themselves!
A GOOD TEACHER of ART… explains simply, instructs and encourages, praises generously, critiques honestly but kindly, kindles enthusiasm, never insists on pupils following his methods to the nth degree or copying his style.
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Teaching chose me
by Yonnah Ben Levy, Stanwood, WA
My husband and I are both teaching, he is new at it and I have been mentoring and teaching officially for 45 years. During college I also made the choice “to not be an art teacher,” ha ha. However , the year I was out of college a semester, there was a job down the street to substitute the fifth grade and having nothing better to do, I took it and found out I loved the children as much as I loved doing the art! In a way I see that teaching chose me in spite of myself. I went back to finish my senior year at George Washington University where I received such a mentor (Mr. Hara, a zen master in pottery and architecture) that his influential imprinting set me up for life in doing both. I have done both from here to Israel (lived there 17 years) and back and to this day have found that each individual has to find their own path and do what makes them happy, not what society or others think of what they should or should not do!
by Monika Welch, New Zealand
I recently began teaching. After 6 years of painting, ‘piffle and nonsense’ (which I love), I finally found the courage and validation to share such triflings with others. They were all lining up to learn! How could I refuse? So I named my style of teaching… ‘Art-quirks,’ and away we went. My students are all women and after one term quickly signed up for the second. We have blundered along together and for the most part we have created also… a close-knit group that share lives, stories and huge amounts of laughter. ‘Tis fabulous!
I’ve learned to adapt to the artist as an individual, discover their strengths and weaknesses. With great amounts of encouragement they have become brave and courageous and often now brain-storm for each other. They had not picked up a brush since high school and now all aged in their 40’s, they are producing work that fills their hearts with great pride. They have all enjoyed too, the astounding surprise from some previously cynical husbands!
Why be unfulfilled?
by Tom Hoffmann, Seattle, WA, USA
Artists who teach but resent having to do so have probably chosen badly. I was asked recently what advice I would give to college students considering a life as visual artists. What surfaced as the most useful thing to offer was the idea that whatever you do to pay the bills should be something you really enjoy. If you don’t love teaching, please don’t keep doing it. You simply won’t be any good at it unless it engages you deeply. Most artists follow a path of continuous self-improvement. We are never content to just go through the motions. The same should be true of teaching. We all have known teachers who are not fulfilled by their work. Why be one of them?
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One does not retire from the arts
by Gerald Liu
I have taught adult students Chinese painting for a year at the University of Wisconsin — Union in early 1970’s. It was fun and the experience was rewarding. I also taught adult students Chinese painting at the Three Schools of Arts in Toronto, Canada for a while. It gave me lots of satisfaction. I taught Chinese painting again in mid 1990’s at Keyano College in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. I found arts getting more and more important to me as I became older. I retired as an engineer, but I do not retire from the arts. The joy of doing it, teaching it, and giving it is more than a life.
Fall gray day on Maliview
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 Virginia Wieringa of Grand Rapids, MI, USA, who wrote, “The best book I ever read on teaching art is The Art of Teaching Art by Deborah A. Rockman. She is a gifted teacher and she also a prize winning artist.”
And also Page Railsback who wrote, “My eyes opened wider as I read your letter… regarding the energy left over for my own painting. I am always exhausted and don’t really have the time or energy to really do the work and make the growth that I know is lurking beneath the surface.”
And also Ann Hardy of Colleyville, TX, USA, who wrote, “No matter how great our teacher, it boils down to the desire, determination, and the work ethic of the student.”
And also Yvette Renée Parrish who wrote, “To “A in A” you made the right decision NOT to teach. If you think you would have been a poor teacher and uncomfortable even talking about art, then you have done many artists a favor by staying out of the field.”
Enjoy the past comments below for The art of teaching art…