Art gurus


Dear Artist,

The question, “Where do you get an art education these days?” pops up on the screen of this studio computer so frequently that I sometimes think that it’s some sort of spam. “Struggle at home with the help of books,” is often my cryptic reply. Some believe only a higher education will do — and they tell me why, and why nothing will stop them. But I’m generally visited by folks who want to learn stuff fast and to get on with it. I often advise them to take workshops.

At the heart of workshops are authoritative, working professionals — the “art gurus” who have a sideline of sharing their moxie. The modestly named Great American Art Event is such a venue. Presented by the Pearl Paint people, it happens in New York each fall. Pretty well every type of art guru is available at this one. Students can pick and choose from top-tier instructors who specialize in painting animals, abstracts, actresses, aircraft, etc., etc. Techniques and processes can be sponged up, tried out and accepted or rejected. “Tell me and I’ll forget — show me and I’ll learn,” is the modus operandi. Hands-on is where it’s at. Bring your easel.

In my own modest guruhood, I’ve noted and admired a certain type of workshop student. They are people who already understand the nature of our game. They know that private individualism is the key, but they also know that a little voyeurism is okay. Young or old, they are curious, focused, eager, and happy to be challenged. They pop in and pop out — often never to be seen again except when you hear about their openings or their own inspiring workshops. Their initial knowledge may be puny, but their intuition is grand. For them, learning is a matter of finding out what they already know. Among these folks, I’ve seen sly smiles as if they happened on the keys to Fort Knox.

In the guruology department, personalities are as wild and different as in any decent asylum. Some talk more than do. Others talk by doing. Some can’t talk very well at all. Some will come around behind you and grab your brush. Others wouldn’t think of the effrontery. Apart from the tips that the good gurus give, there’s the exemplary wisdom that “it can be done.” Over and over I’ve heard it said that during a workshop a door was opened and possibilities were newly seen. When the “Great Goddess of Art” is so blessed, it makes a guru proud.

Best regards,


PS: A few years ago, while in Thailand, I spent a day with a monk. One of the prayers that he repeated several times went like this: “The Buddha said, ‘Monk, you and you alone are your refuge. You and you alone are your pathway.'” In the saffron robes of my own guruness I say something similar: “Artist, gain knowledge, but know that the greatest guru of all is the guru within.”

Esoterica: Perceived masters can be intimidating. They may even cause a novice to give up because there’s “too much to learn.” Sensitive instructors are able to draw you in and put your creativity ahead of their own. Just in case, you must walk in with your integrity firmly in hand. Open, yes, but full of your own chutzpah. Last year at a workshop a woman picked up her brush, pointed it at me, and said, “Don’t talk to me Mr. Genn, just go about your business with the other painters.” For two days her fingers never stopped moving. I couldn’t help noticing her ears growing larger.


No spoon-feeding
by Bruce Zeines, Brooklyn, NY, USA


“Son Of Popeye in a Quandry”
mixed media painting
by Bruce Zeines

My understanding of the meaning of the word “guru” is guide or, in some cases, guiding light. Yes, this guiding light is within us, but not always accessible. In my meetings with artists, I am always struck by those who understand the need to take their own actions and gather their own resources, including tapping into mine, and by this action, they retain the knowledge they seek. Whereas, those who wish to be spoon-fed have the information they receive go in one end and come out the other.


Invite your own muse in
by Kay Cox, Seabrook, TX, USA

Oh yes, I am so glad to hear a voice on this subject. I have observed so much art that has little to say other than “I have gained some proficiency at copying pictures from magazines, etc.” I highly recommend Peter London’s book, No More Second-hand Art. I always try to encourage students to move out of the “safety” zone and play. Workshops are wonderful to introduce one to media, learn its possibilities and limitations, experiment, but after that it is time to invite your own muse in.


No guru within
by Todd Plough, NY, USA


“Upstream Bridal Falls”
oil on canvas
by Todd Plough

Usually I find your comments to be on the mark — this one is a bit of a wild pitch in my opinion. The guru within? Nonsense. That is what makes people think a tree is brown and green. It is only when we empty ourselves and know nothing that wisdom can enter. When we paint what we see — without evaluating whether or not a face can actually have blue highlights or a tree appear purple — then we really see. Look at Sargent! or Claude! They just turned up the volume on reality. If the guru was within then we wouldn’t ever need to leave the studio. The greatest teacher is your eye and if you are an artist it has an unquenchable thirst. Outside us is the freshwater sea and our canvases need to be the sails. There is but one great artist creator — one guru — the rest of us are just mirrors.


The inner student
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki


“Burrard Bridge Reflections”
acrylic painting
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki

I am thankful to all the art gurus I have met. The geniuses and the dilettantes. I learned something from every single one of them. The craft, the language, the attitudes — it all makes the world of arts. Having come from a different background, I appreciate immensely every single little crumb the gurus had to share. I had the ones that grabbed my brush and found it okay to make the last few brushstrokes on my almost finished painting. I had the ones who wanted me to buy their signature paints, and I had the ones who never did demos “out of principle.” Some even told me that my paintings were “constipated,” and tried to break into my car with a coat-hanger.

My feeling was always that they provided much more than they were aware to the students who were attentive enough. Some fellow students were focused on the shortcomings of the instructors, overlooking the great buildup of barnacled knowledge that could be gathered. The truth is that you have to find the student within yourself, and that student will find the teacher within everyone else.


Understand and respect the individual
by Nancy Cook, Trappe, MD, USA

As a former art teacher of elementary children (all grownups are versions of same), the thing I encouraged was “what do you think about what we are doing?” To children who “hated art” (they had the courage to tell me that at times), I asked them what it was that they liked to do… and was most often able to relate their interests to what we were doing. One boy liked writing, but he went along with our figure drawing project (from posed classmates) which developed into 3D papier mache figures. I had him write about the project to explain our display. I did mention he needed to make certain his spelling etc. was correct since other teachers would be reading it. He did a great job.

It is understanding and respecting the individuality of each student that makes a successful class. Everyone brings that “spark” of specialness which is their life’s gift.


Importance of soul and intuition
by Judy Beals, Salem, MA, USA

I have just spent several hours at the exhibit of the Gee’s Bend Quilts at the MFA in Boston. The makers of these quilts are 70-, 80- and 90-year-old women who are uneducated and pick cotton all day… quilt, sing, and create quilts by night to warm their many children when it’s cold. They rip up everything from old curtains to worn denim jeans as materials. They know nothing about color charts, perspective, or drawing. The buzzword of that exhibit is “My Way” and they are each determined to be the unique creator of their own work with no help from the others. Those hours absorbing the quilts in all of their beauty, humility, weariness, and joy have reconnected me with the importance of soul and intuition in art.


No short cuts
by Dave Fontaine, Plainville, MA, USA


“Still life”
original painting
by Dave Fontaine

The statement “Where do you get an art education these days?” caught my eye. I was classically trained in fine arts and majored in painting. When I graduated college I had no idea how to make a living as an artist. I had my degree but no direction. To my dismay I was working a menial job, with no hopes of doing anything with my artistic ability whatsoever. I actually dropped the idea of making a living as a painter because I didn’t believe it a realistic thought. I never figured out how to make a living as a fine artist. Continued education cannot guarantee a career in art. Two years after I graduated college I found a job as a printer, which led to the job I have now: Graphic Design. And I might add that this job had skills other than those I learned in college. It was on-the-job training.

I have been a Graphic Artist for some 20-odd years now and still wish that somehow I could have unlocked some magic door to the world of fine arts and painting, but never did. I got back into doing painting some 3 years ago… for myself. I guess we all take different paths on our artistic journey. Mine still continues and from what I can see, there are no short cuts.


School offers divine saturation
by Laura O, Santa Fe, NM, USA


“Falling in Light”
graphite on paper, 16 x 14 inches
by Laura O

In keeping with the guru/disciple theme, I would also offer that a disciple of any discipline gains enormously from living, breathing and creating with like-minded believers. I have attended formal art schools, participated in specialized workshops and apprenticed to master painters, and the one thing art school offers that the other options don’t is saturation — divine saturation. In school it is less about picking a guru to follow and more about sharing creative inspiration and absorbing the wealth of a multitude of perspectives, techniques, media and work ethics. School can also be the proving ground for an artist’s community, so essential once they are out on their own. If the novice artist already has all those issues pinned down, then they should seek out a master and devote at the very least one year to them.


Avoiding class to experiment alone
by Dot Hoffman, St. Peters, MO, USA

I took up painting four years ago and I’ve been taking classes all this time. As time goes on I find I resist going to class. For a while I even resisted painting because everything began to feel like “homework.” Now I go only when I feel like socializing with the other participants because most of them have become friends, or because there is a technique I don’t know but want to master. I am finally reaching that place where I can look at my work, and analyze it myself to see what needs to be done to improve it, or when to leave it alone. I am still exploring, and finding my style. Some of my artist friends don’t understand why I don’t go to the weekly art clinic more often, but I know now I will never paint like anyone else, nor like my instructors (I sometimes felt pushed in that direction) and I just need room to experiment and make my own mistakes right now and grow from them. If something is just too awful, I can always gesso over it and start anew.


Learning Connexion
by Roger Watkin, Wellington, New Zealand

We have a vibrant and energetic art school here in Wellington, New Zealand, where a number of us receive your twice-weekly letters. It is called The Learning Connexion and has been providing hands-on art instruction and mentoring for nearly fifteen years. Your article, Art gurus is an excellent discourse on the philosophies of our school. All our courses are “hands-on” and the students graduate by creating art pieces, be it a painting, drawing, sculpture, video, photograph, print, tapestry or 3D item made from recycled or unwanted “artifacts.” There are no written “exams”, or essays. Just art! We run an extra mural programme, and yes, can cater for “off-shore” students, even those in your part of the world.


Learning from ‘bad’ workshops
by Helen Opie, Bridgewater, NS, Canada

I decided not to go for an MFA when I heard a student talking about her thesis-project. She had wanted to paint on a theme her instructor dismissed and made her paint his chosen theme. She was miserable. I realized I had already mounted a body of work in a fairly major location (National Exhibition Centre in Fredericton, NB) and didn’t need to go to school to learn how to do that — and that seemed to be all she was learning. The rest she learnt by keeping at it — and that can be done without “teachers” — though critiques from trustworthy individuals certainly help shove one along the path with less stumbling.

Regarding seemingly “bad” workshops: there is always something to be gained from the experience. One can analyze why it didn’t work out for you — were you unclear about what you wanted to get out of it? Was it teacher’s weaknesses? You must be specific as to what these might be, for then you will learn to never commit them yourself, or weed them out if you already are behaving like that. If you teach or ever might teach, you will have clarified how you will do it. Presumably it is a good experience for some, or this person probably wouldn’t still be teaching. You may have not had enough experience to appreciate what is happening, or too much experience to need this now, or it may be a simple clashing of vibes.


Do more and talk less
by Emily Hale, Cypress, FL, USA

I especially liked this letter, and it gave me the hope I was looking for as far as learning to watercolor. Recently I enrolled in the study at home course via video taught by a well-known Florida artist. I have learned quite a bit, by just observing, but it is frustrating because I wish he would do more and talk less — just the subject you dealt with in your last letter. I haven’t picked up a brush since I started receiving the videos, but your letter has given me hope and inspiration to try it “my own way” and of course use some of the techniques that I have observed in the videos.


Life modelling
by Beverley Hanna, Midland, ON, Canada

This is in response to your anecdote about the lady who pointed her brush at you and told you not to talk to her, but go about your business with the other painters.

For many years, in addition to making art, I was a life model. For me, it was an ideal occupation. I could sit for long periods of time and create or discard images in my head, so that when I went back to the studio, I had culled all but the best ideas. Even better though, was the opportunity to listen to some excellent instructors discuss the various lessons of the day, while being paid for it! I learned far more as a model than I ever did as a formal student, if only because I had access to a much wider variety of teaching styles and viewpoints than I did even as a full-time art college student. An additional benefit was that I was constantly surrounded by people whose passion was art, and that passion rubbed off. All too often artists become hermits, so a milieu such as this was invaluable in replenishing my enthusiasm. I highly recommend it.


Higher learning
by Gabriela Morrison

Too often one sees the work of people who regularly participate in workshops where mainly a technique is taught, and a characteristic of these works is their uniformity and lack of individualism. This reveals a reliance on incompletely digested information. The cloned results are readily apparent in many art club exhibitions. In order to make truly personal work, one has to struggle with intent and content as well as with techniques. And technique is the easiest thing to learn in art and can be readily taught. Examining one’s intentions and learning about content is best imparted over a long period of time, in a setting which encourages exploration, the examination of assumptions and the exchange of ideas. For this, nothing comes close to fulfilling this function than an accredited Art College or University Fine Art program. One can still remain one’s own guru, but some closer familiarity with excellent exemplars becomes possible.


Private lessons
by Aliye Cullu, Gainsville, FL, USA

After many years of working in various mediums, most recently oil painting, I have found my painting guru. It took many years of off-and-on schooling, finally graduating last Spring with an art degree, and approaching a professor whose work rang true to me to teach me private lessons. Yes, it’s expensive, yet well worth it. I have entered this tutelage as an empty cup, and learned leaps in understanding what it takes to be a professional artist. I am also trusting my inner voice to be the guide in painting what captures my vision.





Gabbiani, Nebbia, Sanctuario Del Christo Church

Stephen Quiller is one of the instructors at the ‘Great American Art Event’


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2005.




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