The art of teaching art


Dear Artist,

In the live comments of a recent clickback, I noticed a response by “Another in Anonymity”: “At the peril of upsetting others,” he or she wrote, “I think my main secret was my decision early on not to teach. It was a selfish decision, I know, but I thought I would be poor at teaching art or even talking about the subject. Art was a mystery to me then and it still in a way is, and that’s the way I like it. Without a side income from teaching I was more inclined to concentrate on my own improvement until I became accepted by excellent galleries.”

Thanks, “A in A.” Without going into “Those who can, do; those who cannot, teach,” this writer is making a point while not mentioning who paid the rent while he or she was concentrating on improvement.

While many art teachers insist teaching invigorates their own art, many others find at the end of the day there is little left of their own energy. Furthermore, the mere act of speaking and demonstrating may steal the thunder they must take to their own easels.

We cannot discount the value of skillful teachers who save students from potholes and pitfalls. In fact, in its best sense, the teaching of art is guidance away from the bad habits that come so naturally to many who struggle alone. In my experience, the best teachers are often mature part-timers who live in the real world. Perhaps the best one might be a private mentor. While these are hard to find, she might be persuaded to take a motivated fledgling under her wing.

Robert Henri, one of the outstanding art teachers of all time, notably said, “All education is self-education.” In the best of all worlds, there is a balance — the passing of knowledge, skills and techniques by qualified instructors, and the determined work habits of dedicated and exploratory private workers to follow their own noses.

The “mystery” that our writer mentioned may be key to the secret. Unexplained and unvarnished with many words, the act of art becomes a doing thing that never ceases to puzzle and challenge. It wakes the artist in the morning and puts him to sleep at night. It’s a constant and unending game he plays against himself, the joy of which lies in never being absolutely satisfied.

Best regards,


PS: “First he wrought; afterward he taught.” (Geoffrey Chaucer)

Esoterica: One of the main problems in art instruction these days is that career teachers themselves are often burdened with bad habits. This is partly due to the freefall of technique that continues to be rampant in some jurisdictions. The situation is compounded when students absorb attitudes similar to those of their instructors. “Poisonous pedagogy” stalks many art schools and campuses. In the great cathedrals of art education, the idea is to grab what you can from the priests before they get to you, and then go it alone with courage, optimism, and full-on individualist character.


Variety within one school
by Philip Koch, Baltimore, MD, USA


“Blackberry River Forest”
oil painting, 55 x 44 inches
by Philip Koch

I’ve taught drawing and painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore since 1973. I have seen firsthand some of the dangers Robert warns about. But that said, we need to realize a major art school is obligated to teach a wide variety of viewpoints.

There are thoughtful artists on our faculty for whom notions of technique, drawing skills, and appreciation of the art of the past are indeed minor concerns. But there are just as many on our faculty who find these same things critical and try their best to teach them. One only has to look at the broader art world to see the problem – there just isn’t any agreement anymore about what matters in art. We can’t turn back the clock, but we can champion what we believe is most important for student artists to learn. Academic art training in the atelier system comes with risks of its own where a student can be buried under the weight of tradition. University art departments and the major professional art schools can bewilder students with too many choices.

There is 1 comment for Variety within one school by Philip Koch

From: Penny Collins — Nov 17, 2009

Those are beautiful colours in your painting, Philip.


‘Easy’ comes only with practice
by Paul Allen Taylor, Rochester, NY, USA


“Morning Passage”
original painting, by Paul Allen Taylor

Not long after starting my path in painting with watercolor, I began teaching classes in Adult Continuing Education.  I was being approached by many with the “Do you teach?” question, so I thought no reason not to. Although I was new and had never spent time in front of a group doing and talking, it was a good way for me to learn more about watercolor. I had been told “If you think you really know something about a topic, try to teach it.” I still teach these “evening artists” as well as national workshops.

The “Art” in the teaching for me is seeing the abilities of the artist before they do. Pointing out what they have a knack for and tapping into their strengths. Some beginning painters want to be masterful from the get-go, but watercolor doesn’t afford many that luxury. Reigning them in but also not limiting their enthusiasm helps to show them where they can go, but also affirms where they are. (Yes, you can get there from here.) I forget that I am at times intimidating while demonstrating and am accused of “making it look easy.” “Easy” only comes with practice. Students need inspiration and then motivation. It’s the motivation that keeps them working towards “easy’ and then maybe a teaching opportunity as well.

There are 2 comments for ‘Easy’ comes only with practice by Paul Allen Taylor

From: Ken Flitton — Nov 17, 2009

I worked on the St Lawrence Seaway and this painting is a superb evocation of the BIG vessels transiting a reach around the International Bridge. Well done!!!

From: Paul Taylor — Nov 20, 2009

Thanks Ken. I too have lived there and go back each summer. Glad you made the connection. Paul


One point a day
by Vianna Szabo, Romeo, MI, USA


“Heading out”
oil painting, 30 x 20 inches
by Vianna Szabo

Teaching art can be a learning opportunity for the instructor as well as the students. I believe the approach is what makes the difference. I try to approach each lesson as a learning experience. I give the students the same leeway I give myself. At the first class I say that I expect them to make mistakes, and that if they don’t I will sign up for their class next time. Each class we cover basics, constructing form, describing light, finding a narrative through edge work. I apply this to all subject matter and all mediums. At the end of class I say to the students, “If you learn one thing today then it was a good day. You either learn what to do or what not to do, both are equally important.”




The student mentality
by John David Anderson, Sayner, ON, USA

I agree with the opinion expressed in the quote about self-education. Another quote from the biography of Robert Henri, an excellent read, comments that if Robert Henri hadn’t been the greatest teacher of painting in America he would have been the greatest painter in America. It’s a great honour and privilege to be a part of the “self” education of others. The biography seems to suggest that Henri was a huge part of a lot of successful art careers by his selfless instruction and that he remained a willing student throughout his life. Charles Hawthorne said you are always a student and everything you do is a study. I benefitted greatly in leaping over a number of pitfalls from guidance provided by generous instructors.


Benefits of teaching
by Kathy Weber, RI, USA


“Fishing for Blues”
oil painting, 14 x 20 inches
by Kathy Weber

For the past few years I’ve been teaching art one day a week. It’s nice to get out of my studio and see people; and while it does leave me feeling too tired to do much when I get home, it also gets me excited about painting again. I usually bring some of my favorite art books to show my students, and find that looking at all those great paintings makes me want to run back to my studio and start painting again. I get into my studio the next morning with new resolve. Another benefit- students sometimes become patrons!

There are 2 comments for Benefits of teaching by Kathy Weber

From: Penny Collins — Nov 17, 2009

You’ve captured the light so wonderfully in this painting.

From: don — Nov 18, 2009

Thanks for the thoughts Kathy – painting is superb. Another example of your mastery of light and a freshness that are hallmarks of your work.


Observations of a seasoned teacher
by Norman Ridenour, Prague, Czech Republic


“Knowledge of the spirit”
wood sculpture
by Norman Ridenour

I have been a student and/or teacher all my life in one guise or the other. More often than not both at the same time. I now teach English to all sorts of people and I train teachers. I have decided:

Teaching is impossible.

Learning is possible.

The so-called teacher can only assist in the learning process and learning happens by doing.

There are no mistakes, only unsuitable our non-useful attempts.

All education is self-education.

The coach does not score the goals — the players do that.


The disappearing teacher
by Robert Wade, Australia


“Soho Steps NYC
watercolour, 19 x 29 inches
by Robert Wade

The art of teaching art is eventually to make oneself unnecessary, to make the students find their way without the teacher. We can think of ourselves not as teachers but as gardeners. A gardener does not “grow” flowers. He tries to give them what he thinks they need and they grow by themselves!

A GOOD TEACHER of ART… explains simply, instructs and encourages, praises generously, critiques honestly but kindly, kindles enthusiasm, never insists on pupils following his methods to the nth degree or copying his style.

There are 5 comments for The disappearing teacher by Robert Wade

From: Anonymous — Nov 16, 2009

Very well said. You forgot to add humor — something you are pretty good at, I think.

– Michael McDevitt

From: Les Ducak — Nov 17, 2009

Bob, if ever there was this type of a teacher, it is you. Although I never had a good fortune to be taught by you, just having a number of encounters with you showed me the generous and excellent teacher that you are. Surely the artistic community could use a few more such teachers. Cheers, Les

From: Sally Chupick, Kingston Ontario — Nov 17, 2009

I still think of your lesson called ‘Bob’s nose’ everytime I think about which edges I’ll sharpen, which ones to soften. Thanks you are a great teacher!

From: Robert Hutchison, Oklahoma — Nov 17, 2009

Two comments, actually. First, what a wonderful rendering of color and light in a sort-of-monochrome painting! I’d love to have seen that done, accompanied, of course, by appropriate mutterings and musings from the artist.

Second, with such praise from the three commentators, I wonder that a biography was not mentioned by any of them. Do any writings by-or-about Robert Wade of Australia exist? And, could we have more on the “Bob’s nose” vignette?

From: Les Ducak, Burlington, Canada — Nov 18, 2009

Yes, Robert, there are quotations by Robert Wade, and you can find them on his website under Books,open that page and there are quotes by Robert Wade. Enjoy,

Les Ducak,


Teaching chose me
by Yonnah Ben Levy, Stanwood, WA


“Horse and barn”
original painting, by Yonnah Ben Levy

My husband and I are both teaching, he is new at it and I have been mentoring and teaching officially for 45 years. During college I also made the choice “to not be an art teacher,” ha ha. However , the year I was out of college a semester, there was a job down the street to substitute the fifth grade and having nothing better to do, I took it and found out I loved the children as much as I loved doing the art! In a way I see that teaching chose me in spite of myself. I went back to finish my senior year at George Washington University where I received such a mentor (Mr. Hara, a zen master in pottery and architecture) that his influential imprinting set me up for life in doing both. I have done both from here to Israel (lived there 17 years) and back and to this day have found that each individual has to find their own path and do what makes them happy, not what society or others think of what they should or should not do!


Everybody happy
by Monika Welch, New Zealand


“The owl and the pussycat’s Love song”
original painting
by Monika Welch

I recently began teaching. After 6 years of painting, ‘piffle and nonsense’ (which I love), I finally found the courage and validation to share such triflings with others. They were all lining up to learn! How could I refuse? So I named my style of teaching… ‘Art-quirks,’ and away we went. My students are all women and after one term quickly signed up for the second. We have blundered along together and for the most part we have created also… a close-knit group that share lives, stories and huge amounts of laughter. ‘Tis fabulous!

I’ve learned to adapt to the artist as an individual, discover their strengths and weaknesses. With great amounts of encouragement they have become brave and courageous and often now brain-storm for each other. They had not picked up a brush since high school and now all aged in their 40’s, they are producing work that fills their hearts with great pride. They have all enjoyed too, the astounding surprise from some previously cynical husbands!


Why be unfulfilled?
by Tom Hoffmann, Seattle, WA, USA


watercolour painting
by Tom Hoffmann

Artists who teach but resent having to do so have probably chosen badly. I was asked recently what advice I would give to college students considering a life as visual artists. What surfaced as the most useful thing to offer was the idea that whatever you do to pay the bills should be something you really enjoy. If you don’t love teaching, please don’t keep doing it. You simply won’t be any good at it unless it engages you deeply. Most artists follow a path of continuous self-improvement. We are never content to just go through the motions. The same should be true of teaching. We all have known teachers who are not fulfilled by their work. Why be one of them?

There is 1 comment for Why be unfulfilled? by Tom Hoffmann

From: Ken Flitton — Nov 17, 2009

Super yet simple painting, Tom. Well done!!!


One does not retire from the arts
by Gerald Liu


“Bird and leaves”
sumi-e painting
by Gerald Liu

I have taught adult students Chinese painting for a year at the University of Wisconsin — Union in early 1970’s. It was fun and the experience was rewarding. I also taught adult students Chinese painting at the Three Schools of Arts in Toronto, Canada for a while. It gave me lots of satisfaction. I taught Chinese painting again in mid 1990’s at Keyano College in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. I found arts getting more and more important to me as I became older. I retired as an engineer, but I do not retire from the arts. The joy of doing it, teaching it, and giving it is more than a life.




Fall gray day on Maliview

acrylic painting
by Justin Beckett, Vancouver, BC, Canada


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 Virginia Wieringa of Grand Rapids, MI, USA, who wrote, “The best book I ever read on teaching art is The Art of Teaching Art by Deborah A. Rockman. She is a gifted teacher and she also a prize winning artist.”

And also Page Railsback who wrote, “My eyes opened wider as I read your letter… regarding the energy left over for my own painting. I am always exhausted and don’t really have the time or energy to really do the work and make the growth that I know is lurking beneath the surface.”

And also Ann Hardy of Colleyville, TX, USA, who wrote, “No matter how great our teacher, it boils down to the desire, determination, and the work ethic of the student.”

And also Yvette Renée Parrish who wrote, “To “A in A” you made the right decision NOT to teach. If you think you would have been a poor teacher and uncomfortable even talking about art, then you have done many artists a favor by staying out of the field.”



Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for The art of teaching art



From: Steve Morvell — Nov 12, 2009

Yes Robert….your allusion to who was paying the rent while this ‘lucky’ lady was discovering her ‘true artistic self’ gets right to one crucial point. Quite obviously she did not have to make a living while performing her solo spiritual exploration. …but for those of us artists who live in the real world, teaching can be a real and available, positive key to survival.

It is important to say GOOD teaching is about getting outside of your own self indulgent ego and developing real empathy with other artists who are often struggling to make their art say the things they want it to say. Independant teaching does not deplete you as a teacher …..that only happens if you are teaching within a school system which demands measurable outcomes. If you are teaching independantly you will most likely ‘teach best what you most need to learn’!!!…..this is not a down side…it’s a real positive for your own learning and an incredible chance for you to grow through helping others to grow their own art.

I feel very sad when people say that teaching depletes your creativity. That is not a given…it is a function of the WAY you teach. Teaching art a few days a week can be the greatest gift that you ever give yourself….the gift of understanding, humility, and best of all your students will teach you many things you would never find on your own.

I often come home at 10pm after a vibrant class and I am fired up so much I cant sleep so of course I work off that energy in my studio. Yes my students have pointed me to some of the greatest discoveries I have made in my own art and after 30 years of full time art practice I have a lot to be thankful for. Most of all I am greatful for the wonderful people art has introduced into my life!! …..None of whom I would have met closeted in the safety and delusion of my own safe studio. …….I say TRY teaching others….you just may learn something :))))

From: Jillian in Cary North Carolina — Nov 13, 2009

Teaching art gives me energy and inspiration. My youngest students, ages four and up, teach me each day about the craft and art of teaching itself. Every class is a fresh, instructive experience for me. My senior students bring curiosity, genuine yearning to make art and great appreciation for life’s gifts of time and good fortune. Their learning experiences inspire me. I cannot imagine having lived a life without the thousands of students I have taught. There are times I wish I had more time for personal art exploration but I wouldn’t trade the classroom for the lonely agony of my studio!

From: uka meissner-deruiz — Nov 13, 2009

I have been ” teaching ” art on a full and part time basis -but it was never what one calls teaching -I was -and am -but a coach -and it has never taken energy away from my work as an artist.

And one can always see new things within the team

From: Pat — Nov 13, 2009

I’ve been an art student since early retirement 12 years ago. Have been fortunate to have several different teachers and am grateful to each for what they had to offer me as I learned. Recently I’ve finally found my own “voice”. One of my first teachers told me I would learn from alot of people along the way and then sort of throw all that away at some point and become an artist. I really didn’t understand what she was saying at the time. I do now. So, my thanks to all artists who are willing to share and teach so that people like me can find our own voice.

From: Darla — Nov 13, 2009

While I hate public speaking and am really, really bad at it, I love teaching art. It’s so great to be able to give people the tools to do something wonderful! I always learn a lot from other artists. The only thing that gets me down is when people are convinced that they are doing badly or are unable to make anything good.

I don’t understand how teaching is giving away your creativity! Does that mean giving away time or ideas? You can give students a map, but they’re going to have to walk the road themselves. Even if they imitate the teacher’s style, it’s going to come out different.

From: Patsy, Antrim, Northern Ireland — Nov 13, 2009

Another in Anonymity – what was selfish about deciding not to teach when you knew you would be poor at it? Instead, that was unselfish of you!

There are too many teachers (of any subject) who are not good at teaching, who therefore are doing more damage than good, often destroying a student’s initial interest in a subject. Haven’t we all experienced a bad teacher some time in our lives?

If you are good at doing something you are not obliged to teach it!

So you had another source of income; that was fortunate. It has been assumed you are female, and a “kept” woman – some assumption!

Even if you are female, and maybe had a husband happy to support you while you followed your passion, that is your business. You didn’t waste that opportunity; you made full use of it, and I am sure gave the supporter great satisfaction for having been able to help.

And an artist who has to support himself can find ways other than teaching to do so; he doesn’t have to teach art!

From: Tania — Nov 13, 2009

Good and great teachers are a treasure much sought after. Even a teacher who teaches things you already “know” still has inspiration and ideas for the student. As one progresses further and later into ones art career, it seems to become a give and take, where you could teach the course yourself, but yet you still want to be the student. Nevertheless, I do not believe that foolish statement about those who do, do, those who can’t do teach. The last line of that statement could be true, those who can’t do or teach…criticise. Or rather, won’t try, so they criticise.

I am trying to work up the skill to teach! I have a vast area of experience, but teaching is a talent and skill needed. Not to mention confidence.

Keep going all you wonderful teachers!

From: Marsha Hamby Savage — Nov 13, 2009

I have been teaching for about 12 to 13 years. It has been the most wonderful experience. As many have already said, those students that came my way are part of my life. I would not have had them if I had not done this teaching. They have become part of my family. And, they don’t paint like me! They have been taught many of the principles that will keep them learning even if they never take from another teacher. I have allowed them to go their own way, but with good basics.

But, having said this, I do feel like it saps some of my creative energy. Planning and conducting the classes takes time, if you do it well. Funnily since you have sent this letter, it comes at a time when I have made a decision to take a breather from teaching weekly classes. I will continue to teach mini-workshops near home and regular workshops around the country. I made this decision because I felt drained and wanted to use my energies to be in the studio more without “teaching” entering into what I do. I want to stop analyzing what I am doing. I want to paint more from the gut. I have internalized many good lessons. A wonderful teacher told me just lately to learn all you can and then forget it and just paint! Good words for me at this time.

I don’t negate the good that comes from teaching, but there comes a time when it needs to take a back seat to my own work and my intuition. What a surprise to find this letter just at a time when I have been struggling with the issue of teaching or not. Yes, it will seriously cut into my income, but hopefully I will produce more and better work and that will up the income! Thanks Robert!

From: Doug MacBean — Nov 13, 2009

This topic really gets me going.

The best way to grab students attention and respect, is to demonstrate the discipline being taught. In teaching, an artist who can demonstrate the content of the curriculum with skill, talent and knowledge does more to imbue students with understanding, than any theoretical approach.

When I stood before my adult students at Sheridan Collegiate, in Brampton, the very first demonstration I gave, surprised me more than my students. Before the (Life drawing) demo, the class had the usual low hum of a distracted casual gathering. I sat upon a low sketching seat for figurative drawing; they all gathered behind, to peer over my shoulder, and fell silent. I’m not the greatest figure drawer of present times, but my speed, accuracy of proportion and understanding of the human form became obvious to each student. I knew my subject, and demonstrated my ability. They got what they paid for, in that lesson, by observation.

I still have my Teacher Evaluation forms from 1991. On it is written “Doug, Excellent Evaluation”, by the Director of Sheridan. Ultimately the students rate the teacher. The proof is in the “Putting”.

As art classes go, one must “give good demo”. There can be no respect, nor real learning without it. The trade-off may be in the balance of teaching and ability. One can be a great artist but a poor teacher. The converse may hold, but even good teachers cannot teach good art, if they are inept artists.

I have attended places of high learning, and realized, sometimes, my talent exceeded the instructors’. But to be a good teacher, one must be a good student first. I listened for jewels of insight. If the talent was lacking, perhaps there was excitement, enthusiasm or wonder emitting from that teacher. This, was good enough for me, if I often went home thinking of better ways of making my art.

Doug MacBean

Hamilton ON

From: Gail Harper,NY — Nov 13, 2009

..i know ALOT about this subject …..but I DO love sharing my knowledge and experience with others. I believe it is a privelege.

However….its the study of time control and usage plus keeping your own spirit alive as well……heh heh not always good at either btw……hopefully I am listening to my own words

From: Joan Crawford Barnes — Nov 13, 2009

I have found that while I am teaching, I am also being taught. I teach mostly home schooled students in my home studio. This is the joy of my life. When my students catch on, and the joy they experience in their own accomplishments is enough to inspire me on to greater things. I start my students at the beginning. In my opinion, the beginning is drawing! we do four (4) sessions (each session is six (6) lessons long) on drawing alone. We then venture into color, with the color wheel being the first lesson. My students usually stay in my classes until they are very good artists – some graduate high school and go onto college. I have thought many times of just taking that time and spend more time on my painting, but I find that the Spring and Summer are my times to paint. When I teach, I don’t paint as much, but do a lot of drawing and thinking and planning for my “time.”

From: Judith Monroe — Nov 13, 2009

When I was first teaching, it did indeed take perhaps too much of my creativity, while at the same time it informed and shaped how I now work! I quit teaching for a while to get my own art making & selling to the next level, then found myself with an opportunity to develop my teaching skills & try again. Now my own work is my main focus & I enjoy part-time status (one or two classes) at a local community college – the perfect balance for me, too. ;)

From: Cheryl Renee Long — Nov 13, 2009

I decided not to teach art by the time I was 12 years old. I believed that I would jeopardize time and energy for a career as a painter. Finally, at age 63, after many years as a painter and studying art mostly on my own, I decided to teach after all since after the economic downturn I needed the income. Something very strange happened. Teaching energized my painting beyond anything I could have imagined. I suddenly started painting in oils, I suddenly started painting animals and human portraits, all a huge departure from my watercolor landscapes. Not only that, my income has soared. I am a good teacher with many years of experience teaching in another field. I hope I am not teaching my students bad habits- I think their results speak volumes and my happiness with teaching and painting tells me I have found my most authentic self. I have never felt more coherent.

From: damian — Nov 13, 2009

Feeling a little comfortable Robert? “this writer is making a point while not mentioning who paid the rent while he or she was concentrating on improvement” if he she is living on an average artists wage you must have made them feel,so good about the struggle. Teaching is a job designed for teachers

From: Daniel Ambrose — Nov 13, 2009

I began teaching after twenty years of painting. I have found that articulating a concept or showing my students why a great painting is great clarifies my own understanding of painting. It’s like thinking out loud. I do find it draining at times and instead of trying to explain how to paint, I just want to hurry back to the studio and paint.

From: Richard Smith — Nov 13, 2009

You need to add, pious, and pompous to poisonous pedagogy.

From: Marsha Hamby Savage — Nov 14, 2009

I would like to add something — I did demonstrate most every class. And, students were very insistent that they could come to class to only watch a demo. They knew the value of painting in class, so I could assess what they were doing at that time. But, many times they would say to keep working on the demonstration because they were learning as much or more from the demo as from me walking around and discussing what they are doing. And, sometimes when I struggled with the demo, they would say it was the best lesson ever — because they were allowed to watch what I would try to fix the problem. Sometimes I would even ask for their suggestions. They loved it.

Yes, I was energized by teaching. Yes, it did help my work. And, yes, I have some students that have gone on to gallery representation and winning awards. But, also I have many students that now paint for the love of it. My favorite saying is “It’s the journey, not the destination”. So, last August when I had a solo show with over 100 paintings, I named it “It’s the Journey!”.

From: Russ Hogger — Nov 14, 2009

I once received a phone call from someone from continuing education after they had been to see a watercolor show of mine. I was asked to teach an adult watercolor class. I replied with I am not a teacher. With that I was told I don’t want a teacher, I want an artist. I taught watercolor for twelve years after that and that was an education in itself.

From: Gary Holland — Nov 14, 2009
From: Dorenda Crager Watson — Nov 15, 2009

I am going into my 29th year of teaching and must say that it has brought me more joy and inspiration than anything else on the planet. I agree with Steve M…a really good session with a group of active learners can absolutely stoke your artistic fire! With that said, I also believe it depends on how and where and what you teach. I decided early on in my dual-careers that I did not want to teach in the public school sector because most do not support the arts (in my experience.) This is so unfortunate since there are many eager, talented students that would flourish and prosper in art careers if they only had support. I also do not teach everyday…I bless those that do because that is a HARD job, especially if you must follow a core curriculum set-up by non-artist-minded people and systems (and they usually are) that don’t allot you the funds or materials to teach a proper art class. I have always been able to find private institutions and organizations that welcome good art instruction and are willing to pay for it and I think, for me, the key was to always teach what I wanted to learn and provide examples and demos of what I was teaching to show the students that I was a working/exhibiting artist. I myself never had much respect for a teacher that didn’t produce a few samples of what they were working on. Teaching isn’t a job to take lightly …it is a calling and a life-long commitment (even long after you retire from it!) I was just made the god-parent of a baby belonging to one of my first second-grade students all those many years ago! Teaching is wondrous!

From: Dorenda Crager Watson — Nov 15, 2009

P.S. I became a teacher because of a great and nurturing high school art teacher, Hans Rietenbach. Several of my student assistants are now teaching as well, and the mother of my new god-baby…she also became a teacher. And so it goes…

From: Jackie Knott — Nov 16, 2009

*sigh* Why do artists engage in this debate and other professions do not? A teacher is someone who simply knows more or something different than the student being instructed. Must a high school chemistry teacher hold the Nobel prize to teach students? Must a college English professor have written an acclaimed literary masterpiece to pass on knowledge? Are there no gifted physics teachers other than Einstein?

I submit teaching, regardless of subject, is an unselfish pursuit. It is a desire to influence, impart knowledge, to give of oneself’s accumulated wisdom in a given field. It has nothing to do with ego, and little to do with making a living. There are certainly other things that pay more.

May we quit snapping at our peers over a futile controversy? God bless the teachers or none of us would have progressed past crayons and scribbling.

From: Lorraine Ireland — Nov 16, 2009

You have finally found a subject that I has both piqued my interest and enraged my sensibilities! I am an artist who teaches. I teach Beginning Watercolours, Intermediate Watercolours and Advanced Watercolours as well as Drawing for the Love of It and a new class in Art History. I have been teaching for over 19 years and painting, selling and exhibiting my work for 30. I am basically self taught, although I first took classes at a local college. I have taught for this same college – in the credit course for 14 years as well as at community schools, prestigious art institutions and seniors organizations. I also teach advanced classes in my home studio as well as run ‘plein air’ workshops. I am well travelled having taken a dozen painting trips around the world.

I enjoy painting and teaching. I find that when I am not teaching I am often looking after my family and doing household chores. It is these chores that take up my personal painting time!

Teaching affords me a way to stay connected to the best things about painting – reaching people through my art. With watercolours it is too easy to forget the beauty of what the paint can do in a basic wash by trying too hard to make paintings more sophisticated. Many of my beginnings in my classes are so fresh and lovely I often am inspired to finish them. There is the continued joy I receive throughout the years when I meet up with formed students who still praise my teaching. I often hear from my current students that they learned nothing from other teachers who have the attitude of your latest blinkered fan. Don’t give away all your secrets! Why would anyone want to encourage the image that there is a mystery to being an artist! What a pile of crap! You should know better than to encourage artists to keep this antiquated old wives tale attitude alive. Along with it goes the attitude that the average person doesn’t know anything about art or it’s mysteries and therefore it is above them to buy it or enjoy it. This is so bad for all of us and the future of art. Already we see art being eliminated in schools and in public spaces. Why? Certainly this pathetic attitude of some artists to promote their own narrow minded, obstructive, mysterious attitude, is extremely damaging to all of us. I can’t believe that you would pass this garbage thinking on to others!

Please clarify your stand on this attitude.

From: Frank Pollifrone Sr. — Nov 16, 2009

I love your weekly letters, it`s refreshing to hear some gutsy truth for a change, I appreciate your comeback comments. As for the topic on teaching, I had attended an art school in N.Y. back in the 70`s, hoping to receive some form of academic training, when to my surprise half of the teachers couldn’t draw themselves. With the continuing ressurgence of atelier traditions and methods finally making headway we are again seeing great art popping up around us. If the so called instructors in our schools haven`t mastered the rudiments of picturemaking these institutions don`t deserve the high tuition they`re asking from young students thirsty for real inspirational education. In my opinion, along with the methods,techniques,main ingredients of art, a good teacher should also share with his students that being committed to this artist life is first and foremost, as in any of the fine arts, there is the art of living it! Thanks again.

From: Jill Stefani Wagner — Nov 16, 2009

When I was in art school, I decided to take a double major in art education.

I thought I was being prudent at the time. When my father found out, he took me for a long walk in the woods. He asked me if I “absolutely PINED to teach children art?” I had to confess that I did not, not even a little bit. I told him I was hedging my bet so that if I couldn’t make it in the art world, I would have a career to fall back on. I’ll never forget what he told me. He said that I would be doing a disservice to myself AND the children.

That I needed to put all my energy into what I really wanted out of life and leave the teaching to those who had that very special gift.

I am so thankful to the talented teachers who have helped me along the way.

Now, 30 years later, I often get requests to teach workshops or give private lessons. I am not ready to take that path yet. I feel I still have so much to learn. But someday…I hope to repay the many artist/teachers that enlightened my life by passing on that important knowledge.

From: Annette Joseph — Nov 16, 2009

I’ve been both an artist and an art teacher and can say that teaching, while it does cut into my time, is the best thing I can do for my art. First, what I teach gets passed along and will be passed through generations, long after I’m gone and this is a form of immortality that is impossible to duplicate. I recently had a show and some of my former students came to the opening to tell me how taking my class had changed the course of their artwork and their lives. Amazing, but I remember telling my best teachers the same thing.

Also, while teaching, I was forced to re-examine certain techniques I had discarded and this changed the nature of my own work, developing in a new and unexpected direction. It’s a total win-win for everyone.

From: Paul deMarrais — Nov 16, 2009

i just returned from a unique teaching endeavor. I taught a professional development workshop with twenty teachers from public schools and universities. These teachers made wonderful students. Free from their children both in the class and at home {all were women} they tore into the material like hungry wolves,producing dozens of paintings in the eight hours of studio time. These paintings shimmered with enthusiasm and color, exhibiting an exciting range of styles and marks. My theme was seeing color as value and how that idea frees you from merely describing objects and brings you color freedom. Of course, there is nothing ‘new’ here but for many in the group, it was a concept that hadn’t been demonstrated or stressed. They took to it with gusto. What struck me most was the childlike joy of creation I saw. The room just buzzed with a wonderful energy. I have no doubt these classroom warriors will take away great memories of the experience we shared, that ‘mystery’ of artmaking we enjoyed together. Teaching and learning can be thrilling when the spirit is right! It’s a carnival ride that no one will want to end.

From: Heather Lynne Ryall — Nov 16, 2009

As a high school art teacher who paints in her spare time and in a very concentrated way in the summer, I have to state that both are creative ventures, but occupy very different headspaces. It does take time and separation to go from helping others to develop their abilities to focusing on your own ideas. I am a very committed high school art teacher who has been at it for 22 years. I am one of the lucky ones. I love teaching more now than I ever have and enjoy it more and more each year. However, perhaps the reason is that I see all art students as artists who are simply unfolding in their potential and discovering their abilities with increased practice and exposure to different art forms. My role is help them discover and develop these sides of themselves. The processes I have learned in teaching have had huge effect on my own development as an artist. I often tell my students that I am also learning along with them. I think the greatest thing that I have learned is the structure and nature of disciplining oneself to paint whether you want to or not. The greatest successes in the art world I believe are the ones who do it consistently all the time. They are also the ones that take risks to put their work out in public view to be seen. In teaching I constantly force my students to expose themselves to their peers and believe me this is not easy for teenagers. The trick seems to be creating a safe environment to do that. I always tell them to recognize their greatest strengths as an artist and use those to improve their greatest weaknesses. Once students recognize what their particular strength(s)are, they are not so afraid to expose their art to their peers. I am also fortunate that most of the time I get to see a student develop over a 4 year period. The difference between Grade 9 and 12 is dramatic; and if you can help a student to see and begin to develop their own potential and ability, the rewards are priceless even for your own work!

From: Vicki Ross — Nov 16, 2009
From: Rodney Chesley Mackay — Nov 16, 2009

Who was the teacher of some of my teachers was entirely correct. Essentially we are all self-taught. The business of art teachers is to rescue us from remaining “one of the folk.”

Why is untutored art a bad thing? Donald Webster. curator emeritus at the ROM puts it thus: “…most modern folk art is not so much personal expression as it is market-oriented. A contemporary folk artist really ceases to be folk as soon as he or she is discovered (or successfully self-promotes) and becomes commercial. In the realm of paintings…much early and modern folk art is derived or copied from something else.” (Canfake, M&S, Toronto, 1996). It’s all about originality! I used to copy but haven’t for about two decades.

Nova Scotia is heavily inflicted with “poisonous pedagogy” on two fronts: folk art (which does have its teachers) and conceptual art, which doesn’t need teachers. Both forms have survived here long after their time.

I speak as a former teacher of physics and biology who never taught art for fear it would spoil the fun. I also speak as a sometime abstractionist, non-objective painter and folk artist. Those forms of my work is still in the after market! It was fun, but as my mother says “Rodney, that was interesting, the first time.”

The damning part of a these two approaches to art is the fact that they limit possibilities for thinking and painting. A formal training is never a bad thing provided that a painter eventually breaks the rules proposed by his “betters.” Mine hated sunsets and “violent” colour. What about yours?

From: Marleen Goff — Nov 16, 2009
From: Carole Mayne — Nov 16, 2009

Regarding the age old conundrum, of doing or teaching art, I feel that entertaining ‘all or nothing’ thinking doesn’t cut it today!

”To the student, the questions are many, to the teacher, few”. ~ Confucius. How would we know anything if someone didn’t have the generosity of spirit to pass on knowledge?

Decades ago, I read a brief story about a woman with 11 children. The interviewer asked her ”Ma’am, how do you divide your time and love amongst all those kids?” Her reply, ”That’s just it, I don’t divide, I multiply!” It’s not an exclusive ‘either/or’ world! Artists can do and teach, and reach their highest potential. My experience of studying with MANY of this country’s hard working, talented, and commercially successful painters, has left a deep sense of gratitude for their generosity, that can I can pay forward, not only in my work, but in sharing those gifts with others.

From: Ruth Rodgers — Nov 16, 2009

Apart from my career as an artist, I am a “teacher of teachers” in the post-secondary system, and I congratulate Anonymous on being brutally honest in his/her self-examination–at least he/she realized that he/she wasn’t cut out to teach! I wish more teachers would examine this question before deciding to teach–for the sake of their students. Being a brilliant artist does NOT automatically mean that you are a brilliant teacher. Doing art and explaining it are two different things, requiring quite different skill sets. This is not to say that great artists cannot be great teachers–we’ve all found those, I hope–but to say that one does not necessarily equate to the other.

And the WORST teacher? The brilliant artist who withholds the “secrets” of their art, wanting only to build up his/her mystique and dependency among the students. These prima donnas often criticize student work harshly, belittle beginners, don’t hesitate to paint on top of student work without permission, and maintain a cool distance, refusing to answer questions etc. That’s not teaching–that’s grandstanding–but there are some artist/”teachers” out there who do just this–shame on them!

From: Beverly Rimer — Nov 16, 2009

I have been teaching for over 50 years and over 25 to the elderly at the Jewish home in California. It is the most gratifying thing I could do ,to see how happy it makes others feel ,and that it takes all of there concentration away from their problems. They look forward to the day I come there and so do I. All of the work helping , also helps me in my work to SEE!! Looking , realizing what the subject is that I’m trying to accomplish and how to get there. With so many to teach, there are many ways to help them and yourself in learning ,which never ends.

From: Mona Youssef BFA — Nov 16, 2009
From: Jakki Kouffman — Nov 16, 2009

Response to: The Art of Teaching Art, November 13, 2009

A painter’s identity derives from a chosen style of painting, but it also emanates from thoughts about the act of painting itself. Moreover, an artist who chooses to teach ought to feel a fascination with the thinking and learning styles of others. For the artist/teacher this effort requires a willingness to look outward, far beyond the confines of the self. Also helpful is an old-fashioned respect for service to others.

Showing another artist how to reflect on her inner life is a daunting responsibility. To some it can feel like an unfathomably difficult assignment, or worse, a burden. But if nothing surpasses the glory of making contact with another through the alchemical craft of mentoring or leading groups, both of which have engaged me productively for the past thirty years, then teaching is probably the right direction. No other work, save picture-making itself, reveals more about the secrets of the “calling,” or gives a clearer picture of the community of artists laboring so close beside us.

For the working artist/teacher, the issue of balance is crucial. Are you an artist who teaches or a teacher who also paints? The promise I keep to myself is never to teach more than I work at the easel. In this way, painting remains tethered to experience, while pronouncements stay grounded in practice. Retaining the freedom to program your curriculum and, if you’re lucky, where and how you show your work, plays an important role here.

The art of maintaining the professional and emotional equilibrium to turn a life of brush handling into informative counsel requires discipline, skill and a healthy amount of self-awareness. It also takes an unquenchable desire to unearth and share the reasons for pursuing these activities in the first place.

Jakki Kouffman

Santa Fe, New Mexico

From: Susan-Rose Slatkoff — Nov 16, 2009

Anyone can give feedback on a work, but few can give it in a way that is respectful, useful and encouraging. I say that teaching art is an “art form” of its own, separate from creating art. I hope people who have been able to work with someone who has the fine artistic touch needed to help them will be able to appreciate it.

I was blessed to be able to study with Alexis Celona in Victoria, B.C. Canada. Alexis was a superb cheer-leader, and had the ability to enliven everyone to produce better and better art. She was able to see through the student’s vision what was needed in a picture. She never placed her style over yours. She was brilliant at knowing just what was needed for YOU to finish YOUR painting. Her feedback was enlightening and encouraging at the same time. She seemed to revel in our successes.

Without Alexis, I would never have considered becoming a professional artist.

From: Shirley Parish Hatfield — Nov 16, 2009
From: Ron Rumak — Nov 17, 2009

If you want to teach, get a teaching certificate.There is at least as much skill and understanding necessary to teach as there is needed to make art. Self-taught teachers may suffer just as many pitfalls in their craft as self-taught artists in theirs. Both teachers and artists require a good education which includes good training. Only then can we hope to limit the proffering of poisonous pedagogy in art education … as well as buffoonery.

From: Andrew Judd — Nov 17, 2009

Okay…. so where would we be without teachers?

If we all agreed that we should spend our time working on our own creativity making the decision not to teach, we wouldn’t have any teachers! I believe it is the responsibility of “those who can” to teach those who are interested to learn. ( I also believe there are a lot of artists who don’t have the attributes necessary to teach) I remember students in art college covering their work with their hands so you couldn’t see their secret ways. I don’t know where these people are today. I had some amazing teachers. From high school right through to my first employer I have been taught by selfless individuals who took the time to show me how to draw and paint. Teaching is about sharing and communicating. By articulating your process, you are helping the entire art world to better understand art.

I am going to my High School art teacher’s 80th birthday celebration this month. I haven’t even begun to discuss the benefits of the friends we make through teaching!

My first employer always said ” Andy, I expect you to share what I’m teaching you with others”

That is what teaching is for me…. sharing.

From: Dayle Ann Stratton — Nov 17, 2009

Oh, my. I am baffled by the barrage of defensiveness that this topic has brought out. Why should the decision of one person, recognizing both personal limitations and needs, be threatening to those who do choose to teach, out of either necessity or personal fulfillment? Though many simply spoke of the value of teaching to their own art, many of the posts went well past that into personal criticism. I am also baffled by the assumption of many that somehow the personal decision of some artists not to teach reflects on the value and necessity of teaching as a whole. The writer didn’t say anything at all about that, and it occurs to me that if every artist of accomplishment taught, there would be a glut. But particularly baffling to me was the rather snide and denigrating comment about the mystery that art held for the writer. What was that all about? The writer seemed to me to simply be using the word to express something that I suspect most of us experience but use other words for: art isn’t just technique.

As for the presumed gender of this individual, we should note that many male artists have been financially supported by spouses, family, patrons, or grants for centuries. Are the rules different for female artists? Ah, my, both sexism and classism at work. How sad.

Why couldn’t more of us simply recognize that some people are good teachers and enjoy it, while others do not? Isn’t that the real point here?

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Nov 17, 2009

Dear Ms Dayle Ann- Unfortunately we do not live in a planetary culture where all are equal. Many may be striving for this goal- but it has not been reached.

More unfortunately- as so many women move towards the idea of equality- they cling desperately to the notion that they are somehow special because they have a uterus and can birth children- though not without the help of some handy-dandy sperm.

Women are not special. Men are not special either- unless we are all special- including us gay folk- just for being.

There is an incredible amount of male-bashing going on by women in our culture. Until all female repression AND all male bashing end- there’s still a problem. Are you part of the problem?

I’m part of the solution because- being in the middle between the war between men and women- I can see both sides. And I just love pointing out both sides to both sides!

Robert Genn presents as a financially successful artist. He tries to share with us all how he became one. But his reality and mine are different and I’ve not succeeded at my art making as he has. So you are right- men can end up in that group of artists who have been helped/patronized. But women in our culture STILL grow up being taught by every thing and every one that they are special little princesses- so their assumption that they might EXPECT SUPPORT simply exists. And it will continue to exist until all women are taught to be utterly self-sufficient from the get-go.

Men are taught to EXPECT TO SUPPORT- it’s a whole different ball game.

From: Barb — Nov 18, 2009

Ah Bruce, the world is even more screwed up than you think. What you described is white people’s world. Take one step into an average black community and it is all different. There aren’t many men that stick around and support. We all wear blinds and if things do change, they will just get screwed up in some other way.

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Nov 20, 2009

Hi Barb- gotta tell you- if I’d said that- folks would be calling me a racist! I’m not. But I am an anti-heterosexist! And gender discrepancies- well those I’m interested in.

The problem you are describing isn’t just a black community problem because there are other ethnic and social groups who are pretty much the same.

Begs the larger question… what are you (we) doing about it as a community? And of course it all comes down to personal responsibility.

I chose to pursue my art. I chose to NOT father any children. I saw how having children got in people’s way and I took my own path.

Most people are unwilling to actually have the sex/procreation/birth control/children raising discussion with themselves and their children early on. Too bad- as I’m all for a lot of sex.

One never gets to truly know oneself until one knows oneself sexually- and you can get there without having sex.

But instantly having a family because you had sex gets in the way of pretty much everything else. Yet adults have such a difficult time talking about what is just a totally natural part of human existence/experience.

From: Grace Rankin — Nov 21, 2009

What a great video!

From: Des Howell — Nov 23, 2009

The art of teaching, like many constructs, is a continuum. One extreme focuses on the information some people think you ought to know. Teachers in this style deliver definitions, examples, more and more detailed explanations of theory and practice. At the other extremem the teacher first tries to find out where you are currently at, what you know right now and considers how he or she can help you grow in your own personal direction. .In practice, the good teacher does a bit of each of these things and, hopefully, aims at making the student able to act creatively on their own, rather than always trying to model themselves in the shape of their teacher.

I have returned to art rather late in life, with the notion that many of the best things I have learned, including the ability to teach myself, were not learned from others. Yet one of the main reasons I am currently moving to a new place is to find an even more supportive group of artist friends and more places to show my art.

From: steve morvell — Nov 23, 2009

Teaching is simply about pssing on the good stuff while trying to assist others to avoid the pitfalls. I have had the great good fortune to have many great teachers in my life and they have mostly been dogs and cats !!!! They have taught me the folly of fighting a battle where non exists. Chill out people….Robert has just wound us all up yet again!! Notice he stays well out of any discussion he starts??….heheheheee



Leave A Reply

No Featured Workshop
No Featured Workshop

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.