Thoughts on teaching


Dear Artist,

In the incredibly dark and grubby Odessa airport, waiting for the short flight to Kiev, I find a crumpled copy of the English-language Herald Tribune. While most of its words appear well used by previous travellers, there’s an interview with 76-year-old American author John Updike. “I’ve tried to avoid teaching,” he says, “which for all its charm takes a lot of your energy and makes you doubt yourself.”

Composition VII, 1913 oil on canvas 78.25 by 119.1 inches by Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)

Composition VII, 1913
oil on canvas
78.25 by 119.1 inches
by Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)

Charming, for sure, I’m thinking. There’s that terrific feeling you get when you see the lights come on in students’ eyes. Watching improvement in others has to be one of the great highs. For those of us who love to spin knowledge, preparation itself opens up exciting new directions. Further, during delivery, the teacher finds out what she thinks by hearing what she has to say.

But teaching takes a special kind of energy. Lots of it. Frankly, I don’t know how they find it. Arriving home from the schoolroom, many of my art-teacher friends have to put their feet up and debrief with something like Vodka or the decorating of eggs. Exhausted, many have trouble getting to the studio. Like those undersized tubes of Ukrainian toothpaste, they are used up.

Composition VIII, 1923 oil on canvas 55.1 × 79.1 inches by Wassily Kandinsky

Composition VIII, 1923
oil on canvas
55.1 × 79.1 inches
by Wassily Kandinsky

Updike’s third point — teaching makes you doubt yourself — is worrisome and worthy of consideration. Within words themselves there resides the potential disarmament of creative action. Art is a doing thing. It favours self-discovery and process while eschewing words and theory. It thrives on silence and contemplation. Some artists report that creativity requires a sort of blind energy and focused ignorance. The seeds of doubt may be sown by knowing too much. If this is the “teacher-mind,” and I’m not sure it is, the antidote may be enforced mutism. This may seem harsh in a free country, but with the mouth closed, stuff comes out of the brush — or pen. Even those who teach by showing and doing expend resources and might just be subconsciously cheapening their passion.

Sky Blue, 1940 oil on canvas 39.4 × 28.7 inches by Wassily Kandinsky

Sky Blue, 1940
oil on canvas
39.4 × 28.7 inches
by Wassily Kandinsky

John Updike saw teaching from both sides. He understood what he had to do to become a creator. “Four years was enough of Harvard,” he said. “I still had a lot to learn, but had been given the liberating notion that now I could teach myself.”

Best regards,


PS: “The artist brings something into the world that didn’t exist before, and he does it without destroying something else. A kind of refutation of the conservation of matter.” (John Updike)

Esoterica: Or you might be one of those teachers who believes that the more you give the more you get. By sharing, guiding and watching, you become party to personal growth. For this exalted state, words and explanations need to be seen as expendable. By giving to others in a playful way we may leave ourselves more intact, and squeeze more out of ourselves. May we never run out of Squibb.

Kandinsky in Murnau, 1909 Gabriele Münter and Johannes Eichner Stiftung,photo

Kandinsky in Murnau, 1909
Gabriele Münter and Johannes Eichner Stiftung photo

This letter was originally published as “Thoughts on teaching” on October 31, 2008.

Sara Genn: New Alphabet is on view until October 17th, 2019 at Dimmitt Contemporary Art, 3637 West Alabama Street, Houston. 

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

“Dreams come true; without that possibility, nature would not incite us to have them.” (John Updike)




  1. Boy, can I relate to this! I do enjoy teaching, though I’m best with the one-off thing, not the ongoing process. OTOH, halfway through the class, I kind of wish everyone would go home so I can get back to work! Recently, though, a potential student asked about classes (they already have a respectable skill set. So I asked why they were so persistent about taking classes. What did they enjoy the most? They thought for a moment and replied, “Community.” Which totally changed my take on the value of teaching. This article shows that a healthy balance between teaching, and doing, which may be different for every creative, can work, if we are open to exploring why WE choose it, and how it benefits us. Thank you, I always learn something from these articles!

    • Luann, I get your point. In the past several years I have transitioned my ‘students’ to ‘painting companions’. They still pay a fee, and still come to my studio, but now instead of me ‘teaching’ and them ‘learning’ we all paint at the same time and if someone is struggling we collaborate on solving the issue. Naturally, as the more experienced painter, I am often the one most able to suggest a fix or approach–but sometimes it’s another student. And they see me struggle sometimes too, which seems to be a very helpful thing for them to observe–both that it happens even to experienced painters, and how I approach the problem and (usually) solve it, too. This approach has eased the drain on me, and everyone seems to both enjoy and benefit from it.

  2. My gratitude to all the teachers I have had over the years who set aside some of their studio time to be able share their learning! It is a bigger gift than one might at first think. For the past four years, at special request and with some reluctance, I have taught oil painting from life using water mixable or walnut oil paints in the spring and fall. The classes could be taken in person, online or by independent study. After this fall, only the independent online study classes will be available. This is a commitment I have made to my current students so they can continue to access the material and less so for new students who would like to learn. My own studio practice requires my full attention it seems and though I enjoy teaching there just isn’t enough hours in the day to paint, run the small seasonal gallery and manage the online year-round exposure, marketing and sales and then also teach. Something had to give. Since I painted and released 23 new work of various sizes this year before the end of September and sold 17 of the available paintings in my portfolio (as has been the ratio pattern for several years now), I decide I had best focus on painting, at least for now.

  3. I teach decorative painting in my home studio. Decorative painting is method painting, involving a pattern, etc., but each student is encouraged to make their painting their own and, believe me, that’s what happens! Luann Udell mentioned “community”. In my classes we have often discussed how they are more than “classes” and more of a “ministry”. I have a core group of students who come on a fairly regular basis, with some coming only when the project interests them, and we have shared and cried and rejoiced in life circumstances with each other. It’s a wonderful bond and, when I tell myself it’s time to retire from teaching (I’ve been at it almost 40 years), I think about the comaraderie we share and just keep doing it. On another note–I have students who only paint in class and I want to continue to give them for their creative juices to flow.

  4. Oh, how I can relate to this: “During delivery, the teacher finds out what she thinks by hearing what she has to say.” Teaching forces us to confront our thoughts, our processes, our stumbling through the agony of the “middle section” of paintings. As a student, I love to see the teacher struggle, working to solve the myriad challenges of putting a painting together. Somehow the struggle validates the end result and makes the teacher more human. Or perhaps I’m just forgiving myself for my own teaching and painting challenges. All the more reason to celebrate when things go well!

  5. I think all the artists, including the ones above, who give of their time and share their experience and talent are wonderfully generous in heart and spirit as expertise. I thank my tutors over the decades who have taught and helped me with all my heart. You have made such a difference to me – not just in helping develop my work but in giving me confidence in myself and encouraging me to persevere and share my joy in and love of painting.
    Thank you all – and thank goodness you haven’t been like John Updike in avoiding teaching. I love his quote though – “The artist brings something into the world that didn’t exist before, and he does it without destroying something else. A kind of refutation of the conservation of matter.” (John Updike) Yes! Thank you John Updike – for sharing this wisdom and inspiration. I’ll carry it into my painting tomorrow.

  6. Barbara Belyea on

    John Updike’s comment is a good summary of the cost and dubious reward of teaching. Of course it’s more satisfying to “create” on one’s own, to make things (paintings, books etc) rather than directly giving one’s talents, insights, experience, energy and patience to others. But it’s more admirable to give than to produce. Teaching is a selfless act, the highest profession.

  7. Teaching makes me a better artist. Articulating the “how-to” and the various possibilities makes me take note of exactly what it is that I’m doing in my own creating. Reminding my students to find joy in the process keeps me in a place of spontaneity. Fostering an atmosphere of positivity, keeps me positive as well. Convincing them that we learn so much from our not so successful attempts opens their eyes to other possibilities. Their joys are also my joys when they are happy with a new level of achievement.

    • I agree 100%….teaching makes me a better artist. If I have to explain the how and why to a student, the feedback loop informs me in a way that I might not achieve if I was lost in my own head.

  8. Took a plein air workshop with the late , great Ken Auster. A student asked him why he taught. His answer was ……“ it keeps me honest “…… He was very kind and funny.

  9. For the first 5-7 years of teaching, I found it true about learning what I think by having to articulate the ideas, also the prep made me research and learn more. (I had come from 15 years of advertising design and needed to get back into the academic brain.) It was also invigorating to be in a “learning/experimental” environment instead of a “producing” environment. For the next 5 or so years it maintained some of the positives, but slowly became something that kept me from my own work. I do enjoy sharing knowledge, so now I only teach one class every other term. I think teaching is a good experience, but for many of us, it has to find the right balance with our own creating.

  10. I’ve had great pleasure in teaching but it is a draining experience. My best experience was on the queen mary 2 to New York and back to Southampton . 6 full days going and 6 back. No pay just a cheap cruise…. I had beginners and experienced artists and the results were amazing. I do know that I was appreciated but it would be nice getting a letter of thanks afterwards…

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Featured Workshop

February 19, 2020 to February 26, 2020


If you live in the cold north like I do, this is the BEST thing you can do with a February – believe me! Join me, Hermann Brandt for my 4th annual PLEIN AIR workshop/retreat on the west coast of sunny Mexico. Casa Buena Art Retreat Center is a beautiful private residence overlooking the ocean. While our vivacious hostess, Jane Romanishko takes care of almost every need, I will guide you through the process of identifying, designing, composing and painting the gorgeous land and seascape that surrounds us. Medium: oil or acrylic.

At the end of each day, we gather on the veranda by the pool and critique our work – it’s a beautiful thing :-)

I endeavour to run a friendly, encouraging, no-pressure workshop so beginners are welcome. Minimum of 6 participants. IMPORTANT: Registration by 1 Dec 2019

I look forward to painting with you
Oil on Canvas
48 x 48 in.

Featured Artist

Gardens are my enduring inspiration, and getting to the heart of the flower, my passion.


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