Dear Artist,

A subscriber wrote to say that many artists proclaim themselves to be “self-taught.” She cannot imagine that anyone is truly self-taught. She says, “I have learned from books, art exhibits, life, relationships, observations, and conversations with all sorts of people. I hear all comments and criticisms around me. I chew on them. I’m nourished by the ones that I decide work for me and spit out the others.”


sculpture by Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966)

The ten-dollar word is “autodidact.” It’s a person who directs and controls her own course of study, often with specific goals in mind. Think of Winston Churchill’s remark: “I have a naturally curious mind. I like to learn things but I do not like to be taught.” While one might be taught that blue and yellow make green, the formula can also be discovered by a curious mind. It also takes a curious mind to devise the vast varieties and subtleties possible in green-making. More sophisticated art considerations such as “likeness” and “truth” may not be teachable at all — but must be individually found through exercise and dedication. Furthermore, a unique and personal style can only be won by the person who desires it — it’s not the call of a teacher. The essential autodidact is hands-on, pursuing avenues of interest and gain in his or her own sweet time.


“Hands Holding the Void”
(Invisible Object)
1935 sculpture by Alberto Giacometti

With regard to art schools, one might conclude that some of the best artists don’t even go there. Sign shops, advertising agencies, commercial art departments are the schools from which many fine artists arise. These people are self-taught through observation and imitation. The aptly named “workshop” demo serves this purpose as well. Self-driven desire and aspiration propels the self-taught artist, and the world itself is her classroom. Furthermore, self-taught artists often have another advantage — the worker’s edge.

Best regards,


PS: “Artistically I am still a child with a whole life ahead of me to discover and create. I want something, but I won’t know what it is until I succeed in doing it.” (Alberto Giacometti)


“Head Skull”
sculpture by Alberto Giacometti

Esoterica: The autodidact is often suspicious of outside authority. He or she values creative invention and takes confidence in the idea that the personal path is the best one. “All education should be self-education.” (Robert Henri) “A discovery is an accident meeting a prepared mind.” (Albert Szent-Gyorgyi)

This letter was originally published as “Autodidact” on September 7, 2001.

Robert Genn and Sara Genn: Like Father, Like Daughter— 20 Years Later opens April 22nd, 2017 at Canada House Gallery in Banff, Alberta and is on view until April 30th.

“When the artist is alive in any person… he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressing creature. He becomes interesting to other people. He disturbs, upsets, enlightens, and he opens ways for better understanding.” (Robert Henri)



  1. Susan G Holland on

    May I share this vital essay with www. , please? Such universal words of wisdom and freedom! Thank you, Sara

  2. Karen Rathbun on

    Robert’s 2001 description of the autodidact (good word!) sounds very much like today’s educational method and philosophy called “unschooling”. It occurs to me that we should now begin to see a new flush of creativity as the first wave of the “unschooled” comes to maturity in the art world.

  3. I taught at a self-directed school in Colorado that has been doing it for 47 years…and it’s a public school of choice. I wrote a book about the alumni called Live of Passion, School of Hope that was published by Sentient Publications in Boulder. The book was also published in China, in Mandarin, and has sold more than 21,000 copies! If you’re interested in a school community that is project and student based with no grades or credits, check it out on

  4. I love this! Now instead of apologizing for not being officially “schooled” I can say that I’m an auodidact which sounds infinitely more intelligent and, well, cool.

  5. I became so angry. At one of the first classes I took in painting a still-life the teacher looked at my finished watercolor painting and with a pencil started making dark marks on it. I took my painting home and never went back to the class. I wondered why she upset me so much. As the years have gone by when my students would like direction, I carefully explain what I think, and share what I know that may help them. I only give what I understand may help, never taking liberty by taking away from what a student has already created. The work they are currently doing is something sacred, and I would never try to change it. All artists teach differently. Some do not have a lot of patience. Others have “the gift” but are not willing to share their knowledge. I enjoy sharing my knowledge of painting plein air. It is a challenging method of painting, but is it the backbone of all my work, including large studio pieces. When I head into the outdoors to paint, I know exactly what I need to do, and that is what I share. I have taught many artists my techniques and I invite you to join me. I will be teaching and painting in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado in June, and in a small, quiet, Italian Hillside Village in September, both are in the Workshop listing page of this website. Happy painting!

    • You sound like a lovely teacher. I’ve had mostly bad experiences with art teachers. Such a shame because i was so young & vulnerable to criticism. All kinds snooty teachers, mean teachers, she was pregnant so maybe she was just exhausted. Most of the teachers at our children’s schools seem like drones, void of all creativity.

      • Beth Figiel, I know exactly what you mean. It is such a difficult field. I too felt vulnerable when I was young, and I was also afraid that “they” would try to change my direction somehow. I thought even at that young age how important, even our mistakes were, and that they were to be protected. I don’t know much about public schools these days. I have no reason to go there, but occasionally help with home schooled children classes. It is such a gift to teach, it rewards the teacher as much as the student.

  6. The book “Art and Fear” has a great section on how one’s own work is one’s best teacher, and one’s best teacher is one’s own work. We learn from each painting we make, and apply that learning to the next one. And so on, and on. As helpful as good teachers can be, no one else can give us the direct feedback that our own work does..

  7. Liv Katrine Steinheim on

    I tried to sign up for your newsletter, but got error-messages saying I needed to correct my name and e-mail address.

    It did not work.

  8. Most formal teaching is based on the assumption that everyone will go through certain steps in order to achieve proficiency and follow a program of study. Any artist can immediately see the flaws in that process. The key is LEARNING not teaching and what most artists doing their career is spend a lot of time learning and putting into practice that which is useful. Art schools can provide an environment where learning can take place – and that is usually the best that they do, although I will agree that there are a few inspired teachers around.
    In this context I would prefer not to use the term “self-taught” or even “auto-didact” Both imply that teaching is taking place when what is happening is learning.

  9. Pingback: April 19, 2017 - Art sprouts - Life in Full ColorLife in Full Color

  10. I love this write up; and the following comments for so many reasons… I learned so much about the creative process, while “teaching”…engaging with others…. My students were in an environment where I was a guide, and I surely taught them that they can do it- they gained confidence through experiences; but they always always left knowing it was themselves that got them to the next learning experience…and when I create, I too see what’s possible for the next one. (Ironic isn’t it- we were “taught” and therefore, Learned a new word!) :)

  11. Pingback: April 19, 2017 - Art springs eternal - Life in Full ColorLife in Full Color

  12. I am so happy to have found this discussion: I am writing a book on this very subject, criticizing the current state of art education and the assumptions it makes about artists. Always glad to find others who are equally skeptical, because while I was in it I felt like the only one who didn’t follow like a sheep.
    I would love to be in touch with any of you who would like to discuss further or maybe be early readers.
    For book updates follow me at @ldowneywriter

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I’m a contemporary painter who loves to travel the world over finding pictures to paint, and capture on photo…check out my website and travel with me on my blog “The Traveling Artist Blog.”


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