Yesterday, Raymond Kowalski of Cleveland, Ohio, wrote, “A woman in my classes refuses to take suggestions. She likes the way things are and says she doesn’t need improving. She says she doesn’t have time to learn basics — composition, color theory, design, technique. She gets excited watching a demo, then ignores what she might have learned. She devotes a lot of time to her art, but she’s not really improving. I’m at a loss to help her. Any thoughts?”
Thanks, Raymond. I’ve had the runaround from the same woman. It’s quite endemic these days, with all the talk of freedom of expression and painting from the heart. All this heart stuff is one of the main reasons there’s so much substandard art around. It’s enough to make you think it doesn’t matter.
Accepting that many folks are just in it for the fun of pushing paint around, here are a few things you can do to get the girl to raise her standards:
Without focusing on her, give short, low-expectation exercises that run against people’s standard repertoire. Make them time sensitive (finish in twenty minutes) or media limiting (use only three colours). While telling students they can go their own sweet way if they wish, make the exercises fun and be prepared to give out cigars. Draw your students in with a sense of exploration and excitement. Give them the idea they’ve nothing to lose.
It’s a fact of life that some people don’t want to learn. But I don’t believe in just coming out and telling people their art is poor. You have to let them discover that for themselves. A useful ploy is to praise the work for whatever virtues you can find in it, however slim, then ask them to tell everybody how it might be improved. Teaching art is an art that sometimes requires a slightly devious approach.
Many workshop students have a problem with the instructor-student axis. You need to invite other workshop participants to quickly chime in with their opinions. Further, you can sometimes effectively influence a student by quietly giving attention to another student who sits nearby. Other times, when addressing the whole group, you can hammer home specific points by making thoughtful eye contact with the slower learners. No matter how flawed, everybody is special.
PS: “The best way to teach somebody something is to have them think they’re learning something else.” (Randy Pausch)
Esoterica: In the conduct of your own affairs, understate and over-prove. Give well-planned, information-rich demos. Let folks make up their own minds and take what they want for themselves. Make your comments short and precise. Tenderness and your own humility count. People are human beings first and artists second. Thankfully, some will pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, no matter what you have to say. And while there will always be those who stay put, a properly conducted workshop can be a place of miracles. “The burned hand teaches best.” (J. R. R. Tolkien)
Freedom in the classroom
by Nina Allen Freeman, Tallahassee, FL, USA
A few years ago when I began teaching a few painting classes, I thought it would be an easy way to earn some extra money. It’s not easy, and it’s not much money either. However, teaching is almost as much fun as painting. I love watching my students grow in ability and create paintings they couldn’t conceive of in the beginning.
I use the group process. I ask them what they want me to demo that day, then explain as I go along what I am doing. Everybody gets an informal critique of their painting. “Let’s get a long look at this” and put it up across the room. I ask the class, “What does this need?” I involve them in discussions of design, color, value, etc. so everyone learns. This is all done informally, casually, with good humor and while everyone is painting. I have had students who refuse to change, or who don’t work in class, just talk and visit. I just allow them to get what they can out of the class. Each person is responsible for her own learning.
Re-ordering the pecking order
by Rod Cleasby, Witney, Oxfordshire, UK
Sometimes the ‘approval of peers’ can be more powerful than the disapproval of the tutor. Here is something I’ve done in class: after getting each student to ‘present and talk’ about their last piece to everyone in the class, the entire class gets to rate approval for their colleagues’ work in a practical manner.
Here’s one way to do it: Lean all the canvasses up against the wall at the front of the class, in a rough order, where the obviously better ones are to the right. Students are then asked to pass by the line and if they like one piece more than its neighbour, to swap them over, best to the right. If the student dislikes the piece, swap it with its neighbour to the left. You can only promote or demote a piece by one place. This takes out a lot of unnecessary emotion in making that choice. Limit the number of changes they can make to about three, four with bigger classes. This rapidly re-orders the line into an order that is the ‘approval of peers’ and as such the pieces to the right will be the best.
Here the tutor only needs to congratulate those in the top spots, and students not achieving those positions will draw their own conclusions. After a few weeks of this regular event, students will be more focused in getting their piece onto the right hand side of the line up, and not surprisingly, the weaker students will begin to ask the tutor ‘what can I do’ as well as looking more closely at the techniques of their colleagues.
Point her toward abstract work
by Beth Deuble, San Diego, CA, USA
Perhaps another way to go is to point this type person to abstract expression. She has the impetus now she needs to channel her energy — she needs direction.
I would introduce her to the artists from the 50s when abstract expression and action abstraction bloomed; I can recommend three excellent books:
1. Action/Abstraction, Edited by Norman Kleebat
2. Lee Krasner, Edited by Robert Hobbs
3. American Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s, Edited by Marika Herskovic
Have her study abstract techniques so she can discover parallels in her own vision. Challenge her to ask the question: How did they do it? And more importantly, why?
The nuanced classroom
by Carol Anderson, Camdenton, MO, USA
As a teacher of art and painting, this teaching information has really spoken to me. As an artist who has had a three year course from Art Instruction, Inc. and several workshops, some from wonderful teachers and some from college art professors who didn’t teach art, but taught me how not to teach! As a mostly self taught artist, I am always reading and trying new techniques to improve myself and teach in my classes. At any rate, after 30 years of giving classes from my home and now studio, I know exactly what you are saying when you talk about teaching one student but really talking to another. Some of my students come to really learn and some come for the social side and just a little art. I am always so proud when any of my students win a ribbon or sell a painting — it makes me feel that maybe a little of the drawing, values, composition, etc., etc., etc., has made sense to someone else! Many of my students will get up and watch while I demo for a beginner or critique a painting. That is when I know they are really interested or at least curious of what is going on. And of course, there is always the person who has taken classes from many famous artists, thinks they know all about art, but either does not know a thing or refuses to use what they do know for the freedom of expression!!!!
Advice not needed
by Jim Rowe, Lakefield, ON, Canada
I am one of those people, with “sub standard work” and didn`t want to listen to the teachers, who really don’t have a clue to the artistic path their students are on. They think because they are on a certain path that everybody should be on that path also. The problem is, that once they have sucked their students on to the “teachers path” it is hard for them to find their own individual paths. To find one’s path is a hard thing. And to have someone else showing you your path is like the blind following the blind. I really can`t stand to be around any other artists either. One really helpful hint one artist was able to get through to me, was graying my colors, I was really struggling with the control over my colors and this was like magic, I ate it right up. But that’s pretty well the only time I ever listened to any kind of advice. Joe Mendelson once said “The only rule in art is that there are no rules.” And after all these years of working away at what I do (I am 54 years old), I have created my own personal standards that don`t really compete or relate in any way to the rest of the art world. Of course, none of my art work is selling and probably won`t in my life time. Van Gogh had the same problem, and that kind of sucks. And I would love to sell my work for lots of money. But is that what it is all about?
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The fostering of ‘geniuses’
by Sandra Muscat, Toronto, ON, Canada
Years ago I was lucky enough to study with Lupe Rodriguez. Lupe had such passion for art and for teaching it was impossible to leave her workshops without feeling like a genius. One of her techniques was group critiques — even for the most basic exercise. At the end of each one — whether we had spent 10 minutes drawing or a weekend on one painting, students would hang our own work and Lupe would critique it both as individual pieces as well as a group body of work. She had the most incredible ability to find the excellent qualities of each piece (however small) and delivered her critique with true passion. “This one reminds me of Picasso”… “This one shows such powerful energy” …No matter what the result, she had everyone striving to do better simply to raise the collective bar. A student who is unwilling to change things may be afraid. Perhaps she feels what she creates is good enough and if she tries to conform, she will be “bad.” A series of in-class “experiments” (rather than instructions or assignments) frees the terrified from losing what they consider to be control.
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by Irene Chaikin, Jerusalem, Israel
In my humble opinion, there are enough accomplished artists in this world, that no matter how well they paint, how great their composition is, and how much of themselves they put into a painting, they are far from making a living or being recognized by the world. So if this student is enjoying ‘doing her own thing,’ and finds her painting exhilarating to herself, I say, let her have fun. She obviously wants to do her own thing. Maybe in this way a new painting style will be discovered, (my tongue is in cheek), and if not, so what?
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Bad apples must give it up
by Elaine Fraser, Australia
I was that woman. Having plodded with painting for 15 years (getting nowhere fast) I attended my very first workshop. The instructor was a well respected Australian artist who wanted to open the eyes of her students. I was the one bad apple in the barrel, becoming like a goat head-butting at everything she wanted to teach me. I was completely unprepared to get out of my comfort zone and found it more than difficult to face my fears. I became angry about her pushing me, not leaving me alone. I thought she had something against me. At one point during the 5 day workshop it became quite an emotional war between the two of us, that day ending with both of us in tears.
However, there was a turning point at last. An “Ah ha!” moment when I saw something I was working on (the process of which was completely foreign to me) come to life, and my eyes were opened. I saw then that she had nothing against me, but rather could see things in me that I could not see myself because of my own foolish pride. She knew I could paint from the start and wanted to show me the way to success. She believed I was worth the battle and I thank her so much for winning it.
That was 5 years ago. Since then I have held exhibitions, have work selling from galleries and have commissioned work going out to other countries. To all “bad apples” I say… give it up!
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Why take it away from her?
by Carol Putman, Clayton, CA, USA
I’m slightly confused as to why this woman is taking classes if she isn’t receptive to instruction. It’s possible she isn’t there for the instruction as much as she is for the company of other artists. If she is happy with what she is producing, she’s far less neurotic than most artists I know who are never really satisfied with their work, and she deserves the right to paint what makes her happy even if it doesn’t make the instructor so. Perhaps she is simply process oriented and doesn’t care as much about the end result as she does about the joy of making marks with paint on a canvas in the company of others who do likewise. Why would you want to take that away from her?
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Holding students accountable
by David White, Calgary, AB, Canada
The challenge that many of us 50 somethings have with the gen y’s is that they were so closely parented that they have not experienced a burnt hand and even if they did make a mistake it was probably cleaned up or glossed over so that they think even at 20 something like they are incapable of mistakes and don’t recognize them when they happen. Our role as leaders is to hold them accountable sometimes for the first time in their lives. Interesting times we live in.
I thought I would share a quote from a singer/writer I grew up with, Jimmy Buffet from his book, Where in the World is Joe Merchant. “The best navigators are not always certain where they are, but they are always aware of their uncertainty.” — Billy Cruiser — aka Jimmy Buffett. This is related to the current letter in that navigators learn early that their instruments are accurate within a range and this range provides uncertainty to their location (even GPS is only accurate to within around 5 m). Artists, including musicians, need to know that there is usually a range to what others will enjoy to look at or listen to and there are usually ways to define the range. We can push the limits on the ranges and maybe the recipient will appreciate it and we’ll both grow but going outside the “lines” is like Frodo going out his door, fraught with danger. We usually need a good reputation before others will even think about looking at something too far out there to see the merit. Like all good artists/ blues musicians, you gotta pay your dues.
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Keep your brushes dancing
by Taylor Ikin, Tampa Bay, FL, USA
I have been teaching for over 20 years and have the distinction of being known as the YUPO Queen. I paint in watercolor but my class has evolved into a mixed media — paint what makes you merry — sort of arrangement. I demo daily and circle the room to give all a hands-on chat. My goal is to support all efforts to make the best painting possible. The student who is inclined to be deaf to my instructions is always a challenge. I endeavor to get around this by having Class critiques in which I ask the class to comment, as well as myself. Often another student’s observation will carry more strength than mine. I think this is great because all are involved, have to think and verbalize clearly in order to explain their reasoning, and by analyzing another’s painting, they in turn can better understand their own work. Frustrating as they may be, the “Happy as I am” person, as long as they are not boring and complaining, can be a teaching tool for the rest of my class, myself included! Keep your brushes dancing!
Second thoughts on teaching
by Nancy Reyner, Santa Fe, NM, USA
I have been teaching art for over 30 years. Yes, there are some “high maintenance students” as all teachers know. However, when someone does not want to take my advice, even though that advice has taken years of experience, and worked like a charm with students 99% of the time, I like to still take some time to question if the suggestions are sound. Perhaps I am incorrectly imposing my standards on someone else’s work. Perhaps that student is working on something not yet visible in the work, and using the standard set of processes (composition, color range, focus, etc) will inhibit their progress, rather than help it. What if this student is the only one who is seeing differently, and just needs the energy of the class to keep progressing? I think there is a danger for teachers in thinking they have the only answer, the correct process, the only way to paint. Sometimes a difficult student is just what we need as teachers to take a new look at our own work, and our teaching tools. I learned long ago that every class I teach teaches me. There’s always a new approach I can use to keep my teaching and my art fresh. I just like to stay humble.
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Thoughts on ‘not enough time’
by Bill Smith, Duluth, GA, USA
I caution you to not be so quick to judge her impatience and not “having the time to learn new techniques.” Our son was a gifted pianist with a natural talent and I tried to get him to take lessons. His response, “I don’t have time.” A natural athlete and great golfer, I tried to get him to take lessons. His response, “Dad, I don’t have the time.” Shortly thereafter, he was diagnosed with leukemia and died about a year later at the age of 22. Quite frankly, he didn’t have the time. Did he know? Who knows? I certainly didn’t. But I remember his words and how frustrated I was by his response. Today, I am more frustrated by my unwillingness to accept his answer. We simply don’t know what life has in store for those we try to help. We may be helping in ways that we don’t understand, even if they don’t take all that we offer.
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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 Nora Gross of Dartmouth, NS, Canada, who wrote, “Oh boy, that same person has been in several of my classes and she then proceeds to tell others how to improve their pieces and I have had to undo her ‘improvements.’ Finally had to say that when you get paid the big bucks, you can head the class — otherwise I am the boss.”
And also John Barrell of Brigantine, NJ, USA, who wrote, “For every student who resists ideas during instruction there are a thousand professional artists who are even more resistant to new ideas. They feel because they have a degree their art is flawless.”
And also Margaret Cooter of London, UK, who wrote, “Slip of the pen?? — “get the girl to raise her standards” — disrespectful of the student, in my opinion, and will probably raise some “feminist” hackles too — though saying “the boy” would be as bad. Wording like this CAN be helped.
(RG note) Thanks, Margaret. I apologize for the word. I meant to say “chick.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Can’t be helped?…