The art of teaching art


Dear Artist,

Yesterday, Keta Claure of La Paz, Bolivia, wrote, “What do you think about teaching? I am a new artist, with a couple of shows in my city. I also teach. Sometimes I wonder if I’m teaching too much. Some of my students now paint like me. Do you think I should teach only a little, and not everything that I’ve achieved? What are the main problems for artists who teach?”


original painting
by Keta Claure

Thanks, Keta. I find it impossible to teach without telling everything I know — which sometimes takes several minutes. Seriously, I like sharing every little bit of arcane info that I can possibly drag up. I think most teachers feel the same way. And while you may think that having students grab your precious knowledge and clone your work is a problem — it isn’t. In my experience it tends to be the weaker teachers — and the weaker — who are the most worried about this. The real problem is that teaching can stealthily eviscerate your own need for art-making.

Of course, there are those who find teaching to be a stimulus. And because many of us have a hard-wired need to share — and teaching is an obvious vehicle — we need to find ways of satisfying this need. Teaching art is not like teaching accountancy. In the first place, individuals in an art class are likely to have vastly different expectations, potentials and prior experiences. Because everybody’s on a different page, you need to adjust your methodology. I modestly call mine “The Genn Method of Teaching Art.” Users of this system find that TGMTA helps them more quickly and better, while maintaining the health of their own creative desires and capabilities. Here’s how TGMTA works:


Keta Claure and family

A feeling of “We’re all friends here” must be established. In a game-like environment and an urgent atmosphere, all the students start by going to work on current projects at their own level of proficiency. When the instructor feels that some direction can be reasonably offered, she engages on a one-to-one basis. Students may gather or disperse. On occasion the instructor may pontificate for the whole group. She may quickly demonstrate her own or another’s work (with permission) for whoever may be interested. Examples of work, good and bad, finished or not, are held up for quick discussion. There’s an interactive crit at the end of every session. For the student, it’s a celebration of individuality within the joy of the group.


oil painting
by William Merritt Chase

Best regards,


PS: “Association with pupils keeps one’s work youthful. Critiquing others keeps one’s point of view clear.” (William Merritt Chase, 1849-1916)

Esoterica: I owe some of my thinking to legendary instructors Robert Henri and William Merritt Chase. In the Genn Method, the “group leader” is a very busy and observant character. While alternately bombarding students and leaving them in pregnant silence, her approach is nevertheless anticipatory and dependent on the will of individuals within the group. This goes a long way in avoiding the toxicity of recipes. The instructor must be able to think on her feet and thus make it a learning experience for herself as well. Her job is to give authoritative crits, tips, demos, as well as input from Leonardo, Mike, Vincent, Georgia and others. It’s good to instill a feeling of the historic brotherhood and sisterhood. Students benefit when they keep their pride and lose their inhibitions.


Words get in the way
by Tiit Raid, Fall Creek, WI, USA


“Fall Creek Pond Flowering”
acrylic painting on paper
4 5/8 x 16 13/16 inches
by Tiit Raid

I taught art for a total of 36 years. One of the main problems with learning to see the visual world is that since we know what things are and we have words which name the things we observe, this actually prevents us from looking longer and more completely. So, we need to encourage young artists to see beyond words and names and labels, and teach them to see the appearance of the visual world. This is not a one class or one semester or one degree process task, it is an on-going task that must be developed every day. As Van Gogh said, “Art demands constant observation.”


Words don’t replace experience
by Adam Cope, Dordogne, France


Students at work, painting holidays
Chateau de Lanquais, France

A real teacher creates a space where students learn from their own painting experience. Every art teacher should have a whiff of turpentine about him. Painting is first and foremost an activity and not a theory. It will help you if the art teacher is a practicing artist. On a practical level, you’re far more likely to have an exciting and educative learning experience from an experienced painter/teacher; his or her demonstrations will be more natural and the guidance more relevant because he/she has been there, too.


Inspired by another artist/teacher
by Aileen McLeod, Woodrising, Australia


“Bayview morning”
watercolor painting, en plein air
by Aileen McLeod

I love to teach and get great satisfaction as I see my students progress and become more creative with each painting they do. We, as teachers, can never teach too much, Lucrecia need not worry about that. Her students will love her for it! I believe that we continue to learn as we paint, and teachers can learn from their students also; creativity is unique and individual so let’s share it and spread it around. Some years ago I was fortunate to attend a demonstration by Robert Wade. He was the one who inspired me not only to paint but to teach.


Avoiding the generic group process
by James Gielfeldt, Welland, ON, Canada


“The Venus Series”
acrylic paintings on masonite, 8 x 1 feet each
by James Gielfeldt

I teach Life Drawing in a college graphic art and design program. What you describe is also how I conduct my classes, other than some ‘front of class’ instruction in the triangulation method of measuring the human figure. I find this system works wonderfully, giving each student individual time with the instructor that is more directed to their needs rather than a generic group process. Most importantly, the method tends to lessen the impact of the instructor’s style upon the student.



Good art teachers rare
by Roger Cummiskey, Dublin, Ireland


Roger Cummiskey

t never ceases to amaze me the number of people who feel they can “teach” art. Their so-called qualifications seem to range from a primary degree right through to weekend painters themselves. Some are so poor as painters and teachers that it amazes me that their activities are not curtailed by the authorities. They seem to get away with it under the guise of hobbies. Many talk a good game but are unable to perform on the pitch! Some claim to be full time painters who teach because they cannot make their living as artists. They will never make it as artists if they take their eye off the ball and divide their time by teaching or some other method of earning money. Being a painter/artist is a full time job that demands all one’s efforts and concentration. Sadly, good art teachers — available ones — are few and far between. “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach!”


Student desire necessary
by Robert Anderson, Metchosin, BC, Canada

I was recruited a few years ago to teach an extension division course and found it disappointing in that most of the students weren’t really art students. They were just students off taking evening courses, this year watercolor, next year acrylics, next year basketweaving, next year yoga, and so on… none of ’em serious about learning to be artists enough that they did anything except file their pigments and brushes away between sessions, then come and expect the teacher to swipe his magic wand and ‘make them’ into an artist. All it really did was take time away from my own art and my own productive time as a professional. I also love to drag up arcane info, but the only way the teaching experience has any meaning for the teacher is if the students are actually there with a desire to learn.


Loosen up approach
by Ann Painter, Berkeley, CA, USA

I started teaching workshops at Ghost Ranch (New Mexico) about 4 years ago. I teach one intensive one for college students and several other shorter workshops. This year I am privileged to take a group into the landscape where Georgia O’Keeffe lived and painted. When I started teaching, I felt the need to be structured and almost authoritarian in my method. That has changed dramatically over time. I find now that being there as a mentor, encouraging individual creativity and expression and teaching through group sharing of work on a daily basis works best. I still have to know a lot and be able to “think on my feet and dredge up every trick I know on call,” but I am one of the lucky ones who is stimulated by teaching and I think my work benefits as a result.


Banishing the outside world
by Maxx Maxted, Nimbin, Australia


Maxx Maxted

I have also found that what I know can take a few minutes to relate. Luckily I never had any fine art training except to look and learn. My own teaching method and working method is to ‘invite Leonardo, Mike, Salvador and Georgia to look over my shoulder and make appropriate whisperings in my ear.’ This method, adapted from a Rosicrucian mentoring exercise has served me well. Whenever I enter my studio to work I always make some sort of ‘genuflective salute.’ This takes the form of touching a flat ovoid pebble set into the doorpost like a Yiddish mezuzah. All thoughts of the outside world are banished.


Class became self-taught
by Rene Seigh, Huntsville, AL, USA

I participate in an art group that started as an art class until our teacher moved away. We’ve all been on this path for several years, so now we teach each other, much in the manner you describe. One thing not mentioned is the beauty of creative energy generated by a group. The atmosphere is bathed in energizing inspiration. Teaching or participating in a class also gives a structure that many people need to keep going in art, especially if doing it ‘on the side.’ We help each other through the frustrating times and celebrate accomplishments. I think teaching is one of the highest callings and admire people who share themselves.


Learning how much you don’t know
by Paul Allen Taylor, Rochester, NY, USA


“River Side Farm”
watercolor painting, 18 x 30 inches
by Paul Allen Taylor

I am now teaching two nights a week, performing demonstrations and presenting regional and national workshops. It has taken ten plus years to develop “the art.” A few days ago, by invitation, I presented my approach to painting in watercolor to thirty or so high school art teachers. I told them that they were living my former dream of teaching in the school environment, but that I had found my way back, and am having such a good time teaching adults who want to learn to paint. These art teachers have gone through the rigors of learning various mediums, practicing their “art” in front of young people (the toughest crowd) while at the same time trying to make their own creations. Talk about “stealthily eviscerating” your creativity. Along with the doing, we as teachers have to be spontaneous, enthusiastic and motivational. If you are excited and show that you love your craft, it only serves to make others want to continue to take your classes. It’s good for business. I was once told, “If you think you have knowledge about something, go teach it. You’ll learn just how much you don’t know and move forward from there.” Sometimes the toughest student is right under your nose.


Responding to rhythmic-modal signals
by Jenny Arntzen, Vancouver, BC, Canada


“three wise pears”
oil pastels and acrylic paint on mylar
by Jenny Arntzen

As an art teacher, I believe it is my responsibility to teach creative process and materials investigation, rather than “how to paint” or “how to draw.” Ellen Dissanayake, an independent academic based in Seattle wrote, Art and Intimacy: How the Arts Began. Her thesis is that the arts are biologically evolved propensities of human nature: their fundamental features helped early humans adapt to their environment and reproduce themselves successfully over generations. Dissanayake elaborates on mother-infant bonding behaviors as rhythms and sensory modes, the exaggerated face and body movements and patterns of vocalizations through which mothers and babies communicate. Dissanayake argues that these rhythms and sensory modes give rise to the arts, that, as human beings, we are evolved to respond to rhythmic-modal signals as a means to connect, build meaning, and a sense of importance within our ‘family’ (community).


Interplay a source of joy
by Caroline Stengl, Saanich, BC, Canada

I teach at an Adult Education Centre, a school that offers high school courses to First Nations adults who are returning to school. My students inspire me because they are so kind, gentle, loving to their families and quick to laugh together. Many of them come from a life of intense poverty, abuse, substance addiction, violence and systemic racism yet they are such warm, good people, persevering and caring deeply about their community. Offering them the opportunity to make art is something I feel very lucky to be doing. Seeing them open up and get involved with a painting or drawing when they’ve never done anything like it before is just so wonderful. The way they gently tease me gives me such a sense of belonging and community that I feel I am receiving more gifts than I can give them as a teacher. Part of my job is to paint murals in the school building so I try my hardest to give my students the best of me through my artwork.

Last year one of my students was a constantly smiling and laughing grandmother. She worked incredibly hard on her academics and received the student of the year award for being such an inspiration to everyone. If I was late for class she would hunt me down and demand her art class. In my art class we did some paper making, collage, paper marbling, watercolour painting, calligraphy and greeting card creation. This lovely lady produced some of the most elaborate art cards I have ever seen and she had never taken an art class before in her entire life. Her paper collage paintings made her laugh because she didn’t know what the painting was of, yet she liked the shapes and colours. When she was working on her projects she would giggle and say how painting and creating brought out the little girl inside.

Other students brought their babes-in-arms to class, drew pictures of their loved ones and made paintings for their toddlers in the daycare downstairs. One quiet soft spoken man made vibrant watercolours with imaginative First Nations designs interwoven with beautiful brushstrokes and colours. A young woman with several very small children created a handmade journal for herself out of paper she made by hand. She and another young woman talked a lot about how their journals would help them to continue the work they started at a workshop about emotions. Recently one of my younger students gave me a beautiful eagle feather. She is going to paint some designs on it for me.

Even if my studio art practice became wildly successful I don’t think I will ever give up teaching in the Native community. I am very lucky to be working there with such wonderful people.


The teaching of visual perception
by Rachel Payne, Oxford Brookes University


Rachel Payne

I am a senior lecturer in art/education, specializing in visual ability and with a deep interest in the teaching of contemporary practice with a view to extending students’ thinking skills.

I was interested to read your response to Lucrecia’s query, although I’m not sure that I entirely agree with your comments. An area of visual education I am currently exploring is that of visual perception and how best to teach it. Surely, an effective art teacher is one who teaches students how to develop visual perception, which I briefly define as the development of knowledge, understanding and skills of a visual language in both a practical and analytical way to enable students to make informed visual choices and read images, objects and artifacts in their environment, whether within the fine art domain or within craft or design. With this in mind, teaching strategies implemented to develop visual perception allows each student to explore a topic or media without copying or forming a ‘house style.’ The teacher is teaching skills, practical and analytical, which are needed for students to then explore the work in their own way, as appropriate to their own, not the teacher’s intentions.

When training art teachers we always discuss whether to create completed resources to show the students during a project, and if the teachers decide to do this, when the most appropriate time to show the resources is. The idea behind this is to allow students to find their own ‘voice’ or making style based on their ability to analyze the brief in relation to their own experience. It is the teacher’s responsibility to give students access to the necessary making skills and the ability to reflect on this, not to encourage a specific style or approach.


Teaching delayed artist’s career
by Susan Hillman, Bowen Island, BC, Canada

I have recently retired from 34 years in the teaching profession, (painting and drawing) at the college level. While stressing a necessarily serious commitment to art (or any discipline of study that lasts one’s lifetime, for that matter) I always valued a warm atmosphere, laughter, and a sincere desire for every student to look forward to coming to my class for what they might learn from me or other students about art, or about themselves. Many times I regretted the hours/days/weeks/years I was not developing my own work in the studio but as it was necessary for me to earn a living somehow to raise a family I could not have experienced a more rewarding, fulfilling career which would allow this to happen. I did manage to maintain an active, informed studio practice throughout my professional life despite the fact that the output was somewhat slimmer and less well promoted than might have been possible otherwise. I found it easier to learn to play the bass guitar in short periods of time, but now in retirement, I am able to immerse myself gratefully in my chosen issues.


The value of technical competence
by Dianne Mize, Sautee, GA, USA

I will be shortly retiring from 42 years of teaching art at the Sautee Nacoochee Center, the past 22 years entirely to adults. I’ve been guided by a theory that the individual uniqueness of each student-artist can emerge if given the generic tools with which that emerging can be enabled. My on-going question is this: why should there be a difference between how a person studies violin and how a person studies painting and/or drawing? My conclusion is that there is no difference whatsoever. Just as the violin student needs to understand how the instrument works, so the painting student should be instructed about how his/her tools and materials work; just as the violin student learns how to read a musical score and translate it to the strings and bow, so the art student needs guidance in how to see images and be taught basic techniques for translating those images visually; just as a violin student can become capable of interpreting a musical score into his/her own expression, so can an art student learn to reach within himself/herself and interpret images into his/her own visual expression. Individual uniqueness can emerge and present itself into an exciting expression and/or interpretation in any artistic mode if properly guided. I believe that one finds freedom and self confidence through technical competence.

(RG note) Thanks, Dianne. And thanks to the several hundred art teachers, drawing instructors, workshop givers and demo-doers who responded to this letter. Needless to say, a few students wrote to say that they had been “short changed” by one system or the other. Incidentally, I’ve never thought that my system was the only way art should be taught. Messrs Chase and Henri didn’t think so either — they both used systems that suited their personalities and degree of commitment. All methods need of course to be tempered by the needs and expectations of the students. To add a further nuance to the teacher-student discussion, many highly evolved (and successful) creators claim to have never darkened the door of any art classroom, nor have they listened to any other guru but the GOW (Great One Within).





Fiesta Dancers

acrylic painting
by Judy Bagshaw, Vancouver, BC, Canada


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.

That includes Julianne Biehl of Dallas, TX, USA who wrote, “I have always thought of myself as a catalyst in teaching, setting the spark of creativity so that each can find his or her own way without ‘copying’ a guru’s methods. If one offers enough examples of a variety of great artists, students can find their own path true to their own vision.

And also Lisa Schaus of Kalispell, MT, USA who wrote, “Each student at a different level of comprehension of tools, methods, and perception of seeing. Thinking on my feet in class is my strength… the joy that comes with the ‘channeled’ knowledge expressed makes teaching the greatest blessing!”

And also Susan Avishai of Ottawa, ON, Canada who wrote, “When I teach, I hear myself talking concretely about the things I do instinctively. Often during a class I will have a moment when I say to myself, ‘Aha! so that’s what I think!’ ”

And also Sally Chupick of Kingston, ON, Canada who wrote, “When the student’s perseverance out-weighs what the teacher is willing to share, then it is time for the student to find a new teacher.”

And also Gordon France who wrote, “For my money, evidence of personal style is what painting is all about. I prefer to have students show me how they see and interpret rather than me influencing their efforts. As the class project progresses, I make the rounds to encourage the idea of interpreting form.”

And also Kate Jackson of Merced, CA, USA who wrote, “Even when I haven’t totally figured out a new technique or approach, I demo it. The students often far surpass my attempts and create fantastic pieces, having figured out the glitches or improving on my ideas! I love that!”

And also Luchia Feman of Mission, BC, Canada who wrote, “As the child of an artist I grew up understanding that any form of expression is a gift on loan to us, not specifically ours, but there for all to enjoy. I have never been shy about asking for technique and inspiration and have been blessed by those who gave freely.”

And also Del Lack of Albuquerque, NM, USA who wrote, “I’m not a fan of boring ruts, and teaching definitely keeps me from landing in one.”

And also Betty Covington of St. George, UT, USA who wrote, “I finished my Chocolate Lab, and I’m going to download it from my camera this week and send it to you… I cannot believe I did this… I was asked to do this and almost turned down the request, but now I’m glad I didn’t.”



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.