Saturday, March 26, 2011

Drowning In Art Classes?

Under The Tree
from the series, "The In-Betweens"

Feeling bewildered? Confused? Maybe you've taken too many painting classes. I realize I'm foolishly swimming against the tide here. There's a whole art market flooded with books, videos and workshops to help you learn to paint. "Read my books! Buy my videos! Take my workshop!" It can be overwhelming. Granted there are excellent, quintessential art instructors out there, many of whom I am grateful to have encountered on my own journey. But how is a gluttony of classes going to make you a better painter? I'm of the opinion that over-dosing on books, videos and classes, can distract you from the very thing you most need— the self confidence that comes from direct experience. Do you remember learning to ride a bike? Mom or Dad ran along beside you and your bike, with one hand on the back of the bike seat to steady your ride whenever you wobbled or tipped. You pedaled that bike. Now what if old Dad had grabbed your bike and pedaled off yelling, "Watch me! This is how you do it!" How do you think you'd learn to ride then?

I meet so many students who just want to watch me paint. (And that is like watching a pot of water come to a boil— boring beyond belief.) "I'm a visual learner," they say. Many spend lifetimes watching others and never get around to painting themselves. I'm not saying watching demos is particularly wrong. I suppose watching others paint can be a pleasurable pastime. I suggest reserving those more passive experiences for later in a student's development. Direct experience should be your most trusted teacher. Personally, I hate watching someone else paint. I want to do it myself. Yes, I am influenced by others. We all are. But the new painting student needs to build inner resources from the very beginning or the art market will effectively "jump on her bike and run away with it". So I gear my teaching toward pushing the student back into themselves. I want students to learn to trust and rely on themselves from the beginning. I want them to develop confidence and above all— a sense of curiosity about the painting process.

Some do find that inner balance that allows them to discern the way forward with brush and paint. They thrill at the challenges, the inevitable wobbling this way and that, and keep right on painting. Curiosity and confidence are their best friends, feeding and supporting one and other. Learning watercolor is not so much about painting per se, as it is about finding the middle way through each and every situation you encounter be it a brush gummed up with too much pigment, or color diluted and drowned in too much water. Neither one is good or bad, but learning to flow with whatever circumstance you and your brush create is key. I call that playing in the gap. Suspend judgement and see what comes. That's why I teach, even though I hate watching other people paint.


  1. I understand what you're saying and it makes sense. But I think we should distinguish between people who have some natural artistic ability and people who do not. I fall under the latter category. If I wasn't able to read books or watch demos then the things I created would be absolutely hideous. I'd have no idea where to begin. The instruction helps provide some basic technique that I need to provide me with some structure and direction.

  2. You're not alone in doubting your artistic ability! All artists grapple with those fears. I believe everyone has creative ability. Traditional art instruction is helpful to "get the pedals turning". But learning to suspend judgement and build a sense of curiosity about the artistic process is key. I say "suspend" because we do need to discern the way, find a balance between judging our work and allowing curiosity to take the creative lead. When someone doubts their ability, I say dig into learning everything about your materials. Set aside ideas about making paintings and play with your art materials to see "who they are". Allow curiosity full reign.

  3. Beautiful post! So glad to see you "out here" in blog land again :) Your post is a wonderful metaphor for the "spiritual path" and life in general: following your own direct experience, finding the "middle way", and learning to flow with life circumstances; all things I'm learning at this time, riding the stream of life. I'm sure you are a wonderful teacher, pointing your students back to their own creative Self! :)

    Warmly, Christine