Saturday, February 7, 2009

PONDER: The Best Way to Learn

What's the best way to learn to draw and paint? I think it depends on a few things. Having done it the wrong way, and the LONG way for sure, I hope this persective will be useful. That said, if you have an opinion, please hit the comment button and let us have it.

GO TO UNIVERSITY: No, don't bother. Save your money for art supplies, or a mortorcycle or porcelain veneers. I went to art school in the 80s, so my perspective is extra cynical, but here it is: universities are in the business of babysitting adolescents and taking their parent's money. Unlike doctors or accountants, there's no glory (money) in turning out well trained artists, so they don't bother, they just keep you there. The poeple who are teaching aren't that great, and many of them still subscribe to the idea that art training will crush the delicate flower of your soul, so they actually "unschool" you. It's a stupid waste of time.

GO TO DESIGN SCHOOL: Now we're getting somewhere. If you're under 25, let's face it: you are in the best position to train your eyes, mind, and hands on this business, while your grey matter slowly ferments into something people want to hear about. Design school is a "trade school" and while that sounds like a dirty word to some people, it's highly effective. They're invested in the success of their graduates, and engineered to prmote both technical training and the mindset of innovation. Plus, you may end up with a degree, thus allowing you to go somewhere (like university) and teach one day, changing the world forever. Or allowing you to get a totally unrelated job when your spouse tells you to grow up.

GO TO AN ATELIER: Wow, this is dreamy! If you can afford this, it's a great way to spend a few years training yourself to be a great artist. It's expensive, but thorough, thorough, thorough.

LATCH ONTO A MASTER: Yeah, this is the one I'd pick if I could do it again. Art is a business, art makes a product. The concept of not having a degree in this society sounds like balls-out-crazy-talk. But if degree-making institutions don't have master-level teachers, then who cares? You have to go to the mountain, shackle yourself to the mountain, and hang on the mountain's every word for 10 years or so. Some of these people are at RISD and PAFA, I hear. One on one coaching as an apprentice is how you would learn, say, small engine repair. Or emergency medicine. Possibly it's cheaper than an atelier too.

WAIT UNTIL YOU'VE HAD YOUR KIDS AND READ A LOT OF BOOKS: This is not impossible, but it's pretty tough. It's how I did it, with a lot of Internet discussion group critique, which helped a LOT. If you are a grownup, the obstacles have multiplied on you, so do youself a favor: waste no time. Get in the habit of drawing a lot - carry a moleskin with you. Post your work for critique, and listen to the critique. Download hi-res copies of old master paintings and copy them stroke for stroke. Go to live workshops. Find out the general curriculum of an atelier and try to recreate it. If you don't have the discipline to do that - get the discipline! Believe me, there are no shortcuts, only long, circuitous routes where you end up having to do the same work eventually anyway. So just do it.

BTW, this is the main reason Cindy and I started Art Studio Secrets. We both used the Internet to find information, and believe in the power of the self-directed individual to accomplish this stuff. And now that we know a few things, and know just how powerful demonstrations are in helping that process, we wanted to get involved.

THINK ABOUT IT ALL THE TIME AND DO OTHER STUFF INSTEAD: Gee, when I say that way, it sounds kinda dumb right?

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  1. Lisa, would you please give some ideas of sites or blogs that offer online art criticism? I don't know where to find this, I went through plenty of art crits when I went to school(the Art Center college of Design) but I would love to be able to submit stuff for a crit again. By someone who's opinion I could respect and who could be helpful.

  2. Janice, that's a good question. Mostly I went to online art forums. I know people ask individual artists for their help too, but that works best if you already have a relationship with that artist.

    If you're not already familiar with the forums, they're communities of artists. So in exchange for your active participation, you can post work there for critique and often get very good feeback.

    The ones I'm familiar with are,,,,, (for-pay site) and Each has their own "feel". Best to poke around a bit and pick one that has artists you respect and a level of criticism you can be comfortable with.

  3. I have a BFA, and an MFA (master of fu@# all)
    I went to school late in life after years of training at the Art Students League in New York which is still the best deal on the planet for studying art with someone who knows how to draw and teach.

    The BFA was fun to get the art part was absurd and the academic part was enlightening as I went to Tufts and they have excellent professors.

    I went to a state school for my MFA, Mass College of Art, great design school by the way. The MFA program was a complete waste of time and money and if I had to do this over again I would have used the money to go to Italy and study for a year or more at the Florance Academy.

    Don't get me started on the crit's I used to have to sit through, they were unbelievable and even after 8 years my blood pressure goes up when I think about it. Some art professors love the sound of their voices and are able to go on and on and on about things such as the tyranny of the brush stroke and how being a realist painter is dangerous as it evokes fascist overtones. Or "why do you want to paint like this?" my all time favorite are the words minutia, substantive and "in context to the mark making overall" and the formal issues of this painting are to tied to the historical context of how women are portrayed in art..., I kid you not. I'll stop now.

  4. "Find out the general curriculum of an atelier and try to recreate it. If you don't have the discipline to do that - get the discipline!"

    This is very good advice. One of the main things a course like an atelier program gives you that is difficult to supply for yourself is a logically progressing curriculum. It's all too easy to thrash around at random, and whilst you can learn a lot that way, it takes much, much longer. You don't know how to build a house until you've built one.

    So taking a lead from the progression and structure of good courses can help avoid a lot of heartache. Even for general things like learning to draw really well before doing too much painting.

    The other main pitfall of self-training is motivation. On a course you have a structure to follow, be here at this time and draw this cast until it looks real. If you're self-teaching, you don't have that. The best answer I found to that problem is to set short term, achievable goals and structure your time around them. Working in series and having a fixed number to the series can be helpful. Personally, I found I had to set myself a routine that I would ordinarily chafe against. But it works.

    Nice post Lisa.

  5. I appreciate your views on this Lisa. Having gone to University in the late 60's for just one year and again in the 70's for one more, I left both times because I never felt as if anyone was teaching me what I was interested in learning at that moment. As Jeff remarked, professors do love their own voices, and I remember feeling as if I had missed a whole course in "Critique Speak". (I still sometimes revisit those puzzled moments when I read blog comments.)

  6. im so happy i found and subscribed to art studio secrets. Thank you so much for sharing so much with us. I really appreciate it.

  7. Sarah- You're welcome! Thanks for dropping by!.

    Dale and Jeff - I know what you mean. Artspeak is dazzling. The critiques I've gotten from strangers on the internet have often been direct, insightful, and without guile or agenda. If artschool had been like that! (Oh, Art Students League, sorry I didn't mention it! My mistake.)

    Paul - I agree. The atelier program is so logical, I really wish I'd known what that was when I started out. We're lucky artists don't get really good until their 50s+. We've got time!

  8. Great post, Lisa! I'm a painter now (that is, I spend most of my time making commissioned portrait paintings) but my undergrad degree is in entomology and I did years of grad school in landscape architecture with an emphasis on concrete that's another track to an art career! A side benefit of the entomology degree is that now, if I'm painting outside and an insect gets stuck in the paint, I can identify it right down to genus and species.

  9. LOL Jandi @ insect identification.

    Don't get me started on ArtSpeak! One of my favorite things to do is just walk around quietly by myself at art museums, and just listen to what folks are saying.

    I went to a state University to study graphic arts. I wouldn't say I received a great art education (this was way before computer graphics) but I did receive a well rounded education.

    Too bad my memory is so bad, I could seriously use some of that knowledge.

    I think that university art programs try to be all things to all students - a jack of all trades, master of none. Everything from arc welding found objects from the junkyard to stone lithography and paper making. My school did have its fair share of both awesome teachers who were excellent artists, and bitter failed artists who resented anyone who showed a modicum of talent.

    I learned to paint about 7 years ago, by attending adult education classes, reading books, and posting work on art forums. Lisa's right when she says it's important to learn from critiques - and I would add - don't take criticism personally! (Learned that one the hard way.)

    I agree with Paul that discipline and motivation are key when you're self-directed. (Paul I wish I had just a fraction of your discipline!)

    And, if I could do it over again - I, too, would go to an atelier - preferably in another country - in order to get out of my comfort zone and stretch myself as much as possible.

  10. wonderful article.i just finished a gig in highschool. a teacher quit half way through the year. i was able to fill in until they hired a replacement.i learned many sad things about how they are teaching the students. i know this has been the process for years. it doesnt work. and this was a great high school with great students. maybe the future will be better.

  11. I've found it very helpful to take workshops with artists who's work I've admired. That way I'm working toward the exact skill set that I would want to incorporate into my own work. I try to take one a year as it takes me almost that long to absorb all the information and make it my own.