Dear Artist,

Kelly Borsheim of Cedar Creek, Texas, 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.”


“Libri Riviste e Fumetti”
pastel on PastelBord
by Kelly Borsheim

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.

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)

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)

The following are selected responses to the above letter. Thanks for writing.


Watch me
by Clair Raabe

I’m one of those artists who earns my living from my art and hate to disagree, but I am totally self-taught. I knew what I wanted to do. I found equipment catalogues, got what I wanted and got started. Of course I blew out motors, didn’t know how to maintain the equipment, rearranged the equipment parts to work for a 100 pound woman, and became the self-invented person I am. If I went to school for what I do I would have been told, “You can’t do that… blahh blahhh blahhh.” Other artists in my field have been critical as well. My comment: “Watch me.” If I am to give any credit to a teacher, it would be Joseph Campbell, whose wonderful and inspiring words to “follow your bliss,” was my teacher, but had nothing to do with the techniques of my art.


Hard work and solitude
by Robb Debenport

Kelly Borsheim is correct, the term “self-taught” is not accurate; however, it is common enough, and we all know what it means. If one wishes to assimilate quickly and successfully into the world of art, then one is wise to go to art school to learn all the details. With due diligence, one can soon join the ranks of those who manufacture pop-culture images. Such people often make a good living producing very pleasant wall decorations.

If, however, one wishes to do his or her part in helping to elevate the planet’s awareness of higher dimensions, moving toward a shift in consciousness that will bring mankind into attunement with its divine purpose… well… art school isn’t going to be much help.

Hard work and solitude seem to be the environment in which genuine fine art is proven to manifest. One must learn some basic techniques, but beyond that, producing art is an internal experience to which no outside influence can make any significant contribution.


Learning is one big snowball
by Bev Willis, Fresno, Calif., USA

I believe that no one is self-taught. If they were they would not be as far into whatever it is they have learned as they are now. We are fortunate to have so much reference material before us. I say thank you to those that came before and put down the groundwork for us to build on. Now to say one is self-taught—they would also have to find these truths first and then learn to do them. So to proclaim one is self-taught would mean one has started from “0” and gone from there. I can say that a person might be able to add something to what is already been learned or investigated and then the next can learn from the next. Learning is just one big snowball that keeps rolling down the hill of a big mountain covered with wet snow that never ends. One must learn how to suck even before one can chew.


Apply the knowledge
by Sherry Hall Shelton

I truly believe each of us is self taught — to an extent. We are given the information — but it is up to each of us to learn it and apply it. Therefore teaching ourselves how to use the information, how to adapt it to our ideas and “model” the mediums. Yes, we learn from inspirational input, from adaptations of everyday exposure to life. But we are self-taught if we take that inspiration and apply it.


From the roots
by Isobel

I think of a tree absorbing what it needs to survive and I feel the determined artist-to-be to be similar. Just being in a new artistic environment and you can feel your senses heighten. Due to my father’s view on women’s education, I ended up working in the business of art and learning as I worked. I was so fortunate as I still use these skills today with the art I have within me. I still regret not being able to be schooled as I have the questions of how and why, but I go to any workshops I have time for. My life now does not have the time for full time school. I am too busy painting and loving it.


Kendall Hailey
by J W Tod

Many of your readers will have not heard the word “autodidact” before and would be at a loss to know what it means. Autodidactism and the movement toward self-schooling is in fact world-wide and gaining credence. A book by Kendall Hailey, The Day I Became an Autodidact is a journal of a young woman’s decision to begin a life of self-education. It starts in her junior year of high school and traces her choice to finish high school early and her self-educational adventures.


Silence is golden
by Annette Waterbeek

In your letter about “self taught” art I agree with Kelly. We gather information whether knowingly or subliminally from all parts of our lives. We are also sharing information whether we are aware of it or not. But in saying that we have to be careful when we are sharing information… of a certain nature — like you say in one of your don’ts — “Don’t talk about what you’re going to do.” When I first starting painting and advanced member of our club and I had a conversation… I told her my game plan for a painting I was about to start. The focal point was to use the golden mean — a waterway was to take you there and I was using the light value of yellow against the darkest green value I could get for contrast. To keep the viewer there I was going to attempt to pattern the yellow so that it danced. At that time her skills were much more advanced than mine. At the next show she had painted my idea. I was speechless.

(RG note) The suggestion not to talk about what we are going to do helps to avoid a common human weakness. Some of us tend to lose the desire to complete a project if we verbalize. It has something to do with completing in our heads—for many of us this is enough to satisfy. It may also have something to do with trivializing the project. I recommend that you keep your plans and ideas bottled up and let them come out of the end of your brush. Not having someone beat you to it is another bonus.


No college
by Betty Newcomer

I am happy to have the title “Autodidact.” I was asked to join an artist’s group, and was excited about it, until I had to submit a Resume and Biography. I didn’t start doing anything in art until I was 48 years old. I did have a course in ‘The Famous Artists School’ illustration, when I was 24, widowed with 4 children, and made very good grades. However, I didn’t finish the course (to my regret, later). I have every book ‘North Light Book Club’ offered, and studied them thoroughly, and have come a long way by trial and error. How does one admit there was no College, or Masters in Art, or even a Bachelor’s degree? Maybe I am better off without the ladder? At least I can draw well, and that is unique nowadays!


Recipe for joy
by Andrea Pratt

The 6 phases of a project:

1. Unbridled Enthusiasm
2. Disillusionment
3. Panic
4. Search for the guilty
5. Punishment of the innocent
6. Praise to the non-participants

Had a good chuckle as it seemed so accurate to my own experiences with a painting. It made me recall the excerpts I heard from Edmonton writer Will Ferguson’s book, Generica. The message in this book (hidden under the veil of satire) is that joy is in the moments and can most easily be ‘accessed’ through elements as diverse as love, alcohol, failure, true friends, both pain and passion, and belly laughs. This is so different from the nature of joy as described by the Buddhists and related spiritual groups — that calm, elevated mindful state of pure bliss. These six phases of a project seem to be part of Ferguson’s recipe for joy.


God in art
by Julie Rodriguez Jones, San Pablo, CA, USA

It was wonderful to hear people actually use the word “God” in their writings to you (Joy in God by Jeni Feeser and Spiritual Questions by Margaret Gee in The Joy Mode). In the “Jesus in 2000” competition, in which the Catholic church was looking for a new image of Christ that would appeal to people worldwide during the new millennium, the winner of the competition said that she felt that her paintings came not from her but “through” her. This is a recurring theme that I have heard in many clickback letters. Many who write to you, know this experience. I think perhaps that with current culture, expressions of “God” tend to be stated as spirituality or the inspiration of the muse. Personally, I do not think there is a separate movement, only what people perceive as being acceptable expressions for the times. Those who may want to force their beliefs on others have a tainted idea of religion, and therefore religious expressions, in recent times. Fanatics give a bad name to religion. Therefore, religious people may be suspected of narrow thinking. We find ourselves saying things such as “spirituality.” Guilty as charged. What I mean is that art for me is a connection with “The Creator.” When colors merge and form takes shape, it is an experience of God’s presence. I believe it’s the truest sense of worship and religion.


Selling art on the Web
by Alan Taylor, Condon, MT, USA

Can you please direct me to the URL where the results of the “Sell your art on the web?” survey might be found? I’d like to share the results of with another artist friend.

(RG note) Our surveys are at Online Galleries and Survey Results for The Art Web. Another source of information is Marques Vickers dedicated site Art sales via the Internet continue to grow as people become more comfortable with the medium. Some galleries and a few artists who know what they’re doing are starting to profit from it. Yesterday I had a report from a small regional gallery who sold zero (nothing) from the gallery last month. (August) They did however sell for over $30,000 via the Internet — which, needless to say, saved the day. If you want to know how they did it, go to




  1. I call myself a self-taught artist if for no other reason than to define myself over those who have completed formal education (fine arts degrees etc). That said, I would credit art courses and workshops I have taken, books I’ve read, demos I’ve watched as well as observation of others as my lessons. Pursuit of these lessons continue to be my ‘schooling’ so the word Autodidact works for me. Here’s to life long learning from others before us, our own experiences, whatever allows our minds to stay open and let light in.

  2. As a frequent instructor of workshops (not as much as when I had more energy) I’m always hopeful the participants are autodidacts. Sometimes the group members are seasoned painters themselves. Usually they express appreciation for what we have done together, and I can always say honestly, the instructor learned as much as the rest of the group.

  3. In order to be truly and completely self taught you would need to live in a void, a complete vacuum; without any outside influence. A ‘self taught’ person may take information from several sources and apply them to their art, but, in a practical sense they are ‘taught’ by the people and reference tools they have acquired. I think it is odd to watch the battle between the ‘self taught’ badge of honor and those of academia. The true test is the end result. Does it really matter how we got there? I have had two professions. I went to college for both, nursing and art. But, I found I learn much more, in both professions, after I graduated. I find there to be value in both methods; taught and/ or ‘self’ taught. Neither method should be minimized or make an artist feel lesser or greater than the other. An artist should always be a student of their trade.

  4. Joanne Ehlers on

    I always say, I never had any formal training. True, you see what’s around you, but you need to pick up basics of composition, color, size correct shapes etc. It takes time, but I eventually see it. The more you paint, the easier the fundamentals happen. I love though, at our art league meetings when we bring our paintings to have critiqued, it’s interesting the comments, but is very helpful to see from someone else’s perspective.
    I find that non-artist see and pick up things that artist don’t. Maybe because the artist who has been taught formally and logistically, looks to deep. I never get discouraged, I sell well, that’s more important to me. Non artist buying paintings, don’t pick up composition, or is this placed right in the painting etc. If I like what I see, and it speaks to me, that’s all that matters, and I would buy it.. Remember the saying ” Art is in the eyes of the beholder”.

  5. I was very angry. A teacher of art took a pencil and drew lines on my first finished watercolor painting I had done for her class. I was so upset I never went back. I did not want anyone to change what I had done. I thought, “Please, just tell me what you want me to know. ” As many years have gone by, I realized that everyone teaches differently. Some are more patient then others, some have “the gift” and do not really want to share it. I love to teach others. I am a realist, and I share my techniques of painting en plein air. I have two exciting workshops coming up in 2017, The Rocky Mountains of Colorado in June, and a quiet Italian hillside village in September, both are listed on this website under workshops. Join us!

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