Higher education


Dear Artist,

I’m frequently asked whether it’s best to go back to school or back to work. I’ve been on the board of directors of a prominent art college, and I’ve also been an advocate of do-it-yourself for life — so I’m coming from both sides of the fence. Fact is, even if you attend what you think is the best art school in the world (like I did — Art Center) it doesn’t make you into an artist. You’re the one who has to do that.


“Perspective Study of two shallow Dishes”
pencil & watercolour by John Ruskin (1819-1900)
The Elements of Drawing

Learning a skill or a trade is a hands-on game. As well as the instinct it requires a commitment to the materials and an attention to detail. It’s called passion. It’s mostly self-taught. It’s got more to do with character than with conversation.

Contrary to popular wisdom, the principal currency in the world of art is work. The idea is to get joy from your hands. When that happens everything else falls into place. What you have to figure out is how to best make this happen.


“The Pass of Faido” 1845
sketch by John Ruskin


If you are in need of a look-see into a lot of media, variety of approach, opinion, attitude, life-style, then perhaps a school is for you. But if you have a need to get passionate — perhaps you ought to go to your room.

No other generation has been blessed with so many brilliant books. There have never been so many professionals who are willing to share. There have never been so many opportunities for creative people. There has never been so much variety, specialty, information, and wonder. It’s a shame, but we ought to be granted many lives.


“Old Houses on the Rhone Island, Geneva” 1863
pencil, watercolour & bodycolour
on grey-green paper
by John Ruskin

Best regards,


PS: “The artist who gives up an hour of work for a conversation with a friend knows that he is sacrificing a reality for something that does not exist.” (Marcel Proust)

Esoterica: Epiphany. There’s a feeling you get when you see for yourself for the first time an effect, a technique, a creative event. I often think of the day when I saw what burnt sienna did when propitiously flooded with ultramarine blue on rough watercolor paper. I was eleven. I was by myself in the basement.

This letter was originally published as “Higher education” on June 23, 2000.


The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are now available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“The principle of all successful effort is to try to do not what is absolutely the best, but what is easily within our power, and suited for our temperament and condition.” (John Ruskin)



  1. Sure, self-taught is ok, but limited. An art school curriculum gives one greater experience: art history, basic drawing and design, varied studio experiences, peer discussions, critical analysis by teachers; writing, humanities, and a lot more to “round out” a potential artist.

    • I agree, Joseph. One needs to learn the fundamentals and academic approaches to fully understand why a work of art is successful, otherwise, it’s all strictly opinion. Like bellybuttons, we all have one. Can’t remember who said, “To break the rules, you must first know the rules, but it’s true.

    • I can’t argue against the flood of information any art student can glean from an institution; but if that student does not strike out on their own, and go beyond the tutelage, then all they can ever call themselves, is a commercial artist!

  2. “It’s a shame, but we ought to be granted many lives.”
    Since you’re now on the other side- Robert- it’s likely you can see how many lives you’ve already lived and how many future possibilities there are. I have so many skills this lifetime I’ve often wished I could just be several people all at the same time. Couldn’t make it happen and have never had enough money to expand into a situation where I had assistants doing some of the work so I could focus on the other things- too- while still manifesting the visual art.
    I’m self taught since childhood. Made it through a year of college- but with no support I had to get a job. All the things Mr Hutchinson suggests you get at school can be found in the real world too. I rounded myself out. If school isn’t available- you just do what you’ve always done. School can be just as great a limiting factor as not attending.

    • I agree! With all the info online, one can have as detailed and focused education in one area or can learn almost as much as is already known on any subject of interest.

      I keep thinking about all the great artists in history and they did not have the access to as much information or history as we have, but yet some managed to produce art that still lives with us, inspires us and although one may wish to replicate it, it has the head, heart and hand of the artist and we cannot come close.

      Sometimes I think we expect someone to feed us what we need to work at and discover on our own. We just might benefit from exploring, working, playing, testing, and learning from it. That way it is more “ours” than what we studied to learn.

      I’m not opposed to formal education at all as it can give us a jumpstart on technical abilities. Still I think keeping an open mind, being passionate about our own path, sets us apart and gives us a chance to produce a unique style that formal education may not do.

  3. A minor note maybe, but Roberts mention of the magic of Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna strikes home with me. For most of my 7+ decades of painting watercolors I have often said that if I were to be limited to only two colors for the rest of my life it would be a no-brainer. Those two, indeed! Of course bright greens, reds, yellows would be out but every shade of gray along with the purity of either pigment is available. As an artist that is drawn first to shapes and contrast those two old friends would be enough.

    • Amen, Levi! A thousand times. After 20 years, watching those two colors melt together is still endlessly fascinating. It’s one of my favorite moments as a watercolor teacher to explain granulating pigments, and then have the students mix these two on wet paper.

  4. If you’re filled with curiosity, with unstoppable passion, you’ll be resourceful enough to learn on your own (though actually not alone, since there are many art centers/ painting groups/mentors/workshops/instructional videos/ instructional books, etc.).
    If I had it to do over again, I would not attend college; rather I’d take workshops with artists whose work I admire, and just do it. The more you do it, the better you get, the more you’re rewarded, the more inspired and passionate you become.
    My best friend is a great artist, Gerard Erley. You need your own kind. And above all, you need to work really hard. Because one lifetime is not nearly enough to understand fully.
    And you need to become fully human, to love deeply, to read voraciously. Through art, you can become so much more than you ever thought you could become.
    “When you give love, you give it secondhand; you get to feel it first.” Painting with love in your heart is the greatest reward!
    And distraction is a killer. No social media. No pablum.

  5. Suellen Lash on

    Self taught is so bogus. I SEEN AND HEARD SO MANY ARTISTS WHO CLAIM IT EVEN though they studied with great teachers. You can only expand your own mind just so much. A great teacher can help you push the limits.

    • I agree Suellen. I began my Art career as a retirement project! I have taken classes and workshops and I read voraciously. However, I still feel that if I had had the advantage of attending an Art College to learn the fundamentals of Art, it would have saved me hours of experimentation and frustration. Once an art student has that foundation , then we can go on to become artists through committed work and further learning.

  6. I went to Art School, and I’m very glad I did. However; when it came to further my education I enrolled years later, hoping to learn new things. Unfortunately, even with very high marks, I found that my learning style and hunger to get more letters behind my name had changed. I wondered why at first, and then realized it was because life got in the way. Sandwiched between young adult children and aging parents along with a chronic disease, I was simply unable to keep up with the demands that art school required. Yes, I could have just floated through it getting mediocre grades, but then I wouldn’t be submersed in my studies. I can tell you what I did find was that art school is an incredible experience if you are able to do it and life in general allows it, however; if you can study art and learn the habit of creating for hours a day then in my mind you are way ahead.

    Go to art school, work your butt off, or don’t go to art school and work your butt off but don’t let life get in the way. Find a way to honour yourself first.

    Learned and lived.

    L. Wood

  7. Epiphany: I was in grade six at one of the many schools I attended. The teacher was gifted. Throwing paint on the surface of the paper, allowing it to dry then picking out a shoreline blew my mind. This is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

  8. I think I’d pick burnt sienna and cerulean blue. Those are a magic combo for me.
    If you want to make art, you will end up making art. I went to art school, am happy with that, but I should have gone an art school with better networking possibilities. (Since I am crap at networking it probably would have made no difference) Anyway, I had art friends in high school who went to school for “real” jobs and almost all have ended up back as artists. School can broaden your experiences and classes are most efficient for fundamentals, but if it is what you really want to do, then you will find a way.

  9. Jan Christie on

    Marilyn Timmy, artist offering the Featured Workshop ‘Brushes of Barrier’ listed below, is an amazing teacher and possibly my favourite. She is brilliant and funny and encouraging. Highly recommend time with her.

Leave A Reply

Featured Workshop

Brushes of Barriere with Marilyn Timms — Barriere BC, Canada
July 7, 2018 to July 8, 2018


Brushes of Barriere recently announced they will be hosting an acrylic painting workshop with well-known B.C. artist Marilyn Timms on July 7 and 8, 2018, at the North Thompson Agriplex.

Timms is a highly respected artist and has been facilitating popular painting workshops for many years.

Brushes of Barriere has room for 14 participants with “any level of painting experience.”
Accommodation available at the Fair Grounds for a number of RV’s.


Cost is $180 for the two-day event. Deadline to book a spot is June 15, 2018. For more information or to reserve a spot contact Bob Bambrick at: 250-672-9541 or email: robertbambrick@hotmail.com



Featured Artist

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.”  http://www.meljosieart.com


Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

Subscribe and receive the Twice-Weekly letter on art. You’ll be joining a worldwide community of artists.
Subscription is free.