Art School Grad vs Self-Taught : 6 Ways to Design your own Painting Path

Many self-taught artists who I have met, both on and off-line are apologetic about not having gone to art school. They don’t see themselves as legitimate or ‘real’ artists. Some are concerned that they missed out on something fabulous and mysterious by not going to art school. Where does this notion come from?

untitled © Flora Doehler, 2017

There are thousands of painters and makers yet very few are recognized as such in our public galleries and museums. Women artists are under-represented in major collections and exhibitions.  The establishment art world makes assumptions and judgements on artists based on what art school they graduated from. There is an elitism that suggests the system is rigged. I believe this culture helps to create the notion among artists without diplomas or degrees that they are practicing without a licence.

Using my art school experience, I want to lift the veil of mystery and show you ways to learn some of the skills that can help your practice.

I attended two art schools – in Toronto and in Berlin, Germany and one thing that I did not learn was how to paint. It simply wasn’t taught. Students received a supply list and were given brief instructions before the assembled ‘still life’. None of the teachers demonstrated painting. The thinking in the late 60s early 70s was that the student would copy the teachers’ style and not develop their own. I had no idea how or if any of my teachers could or had ever painted. Imagine! I didn’t learn painting techniques until years later when I joined a large art club in Toronto and attended weekend workshops where artists such as Margaret Roseman, Art Cunanan, and Claudia Jean McCabe  demonstrated their approaches. Since then I’ve practiced and experimented. The past 10 years of painting full-time in Bear River has been the greatest boost of all for my painting development.

Acrylic painting © Flora Doehler, 2017

I don’t want to negate the entire art school experience because there were some tremendously helpful skills that were taught and I want to share those with you. If you are a self-taught artist these subjects are taught online or in Continuing Education classes and may fill-in some of the gaps you missed by not going to art school.

  1. Life drawing class – Nothing teaches eye-hand coordination better than a live life drawing class. It teaches you how to see, how to express movement, form, and perspective. The one minute warm-ups will loosen up your drawing and help you to stop over thinking. It is the best way to learn to draw. There are even websites with models posing. That might work for those of us who live 3 hours away from the nearest class, but for the majority of you, I suggest a live group. You’ll learn so much by watching others.
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  2. Composition and Design – There are basic guidelines about what makes a successful painting, drawing, print or three-dimensional piece. This has to do with value, form, line, center of interest, color, layout. Once you know these, you’ll never see a piece of artwork in the same way. You’ll be able to look at your own paintings and understand why one worked and another didn’t.
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  3. Art history – When I went to school, art history was all about the achievements of white male artists. (see above)  Fortunately, the definitions have expanded somewhat. We are all influenced by the Art and Design around us — in architecture, furniture, clothing, film and everything that is created by people. All of this design and art is the legacy of those artists who came before. There is so much to learn from our artist predecessors.
    Getting help from Matisse and Simard.
  4. Color theory – if you love using pure colours, as I do,  this is a delightful must. Learn to make colour work for you! I wrote here about the online class I attended last year and my 100+ color swatches that I now refer to in my daily painting practice.
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  5. Painting workshops–I can’t emphasize enough how much you can learn by watching another person paint. If you find an artist whose work you admire, contact them to see if they hold workshops. Workshops can feel intimidating for everyone (including the instructor!) but it’s a quick way to see and to experience a new way of handling art materials. And just like in the life-drawing class, you will learn from the other students and be able to geek out on ‘shop talk’.
  6. Online resources – Oh how I wish the internet had been invented when I was an art student. There is a treasure trove of artists’ who share their techniques and knowledge. Three painters who I admire and who have free instructional videos online are Jane Davies, Bob Burridge and my latest ‘find’, Nicholas Wilton. They all offer encouragement along with the instructional videos.
untitled © Flora Doehler, 2017

Give yourself lots of credit for having the persistence, inner drive, and initiative to paint or to make, whether you have gone to art school or not. Many folks go to art school and abandon their practice soon after graduation. The only sure-fire way to develop as an artist is by making and doing.
Over and over and over.

My studio in the distance.

untitled © Flora Doehler, 2017
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10 thoughts on “Art School Grad vs Self-Taught : 6 Ways to Design your own Painting Path

  1. Congratulations on your progress. That is great news! I hope the shows brings you many good things.
    P.S. I know all about getting rain water from the roof, only in my case, it was a necessity — When there was a drought or when there wasn’t enough water pressure for water to make its way up mountain we fell back on the rain water we captured in drums from the roof! (I grew up in Jamaica’s Blue Mountains.)

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    1. Thanks Kay! If not for the show, I might not be blogging weekly. If not for that, we wouldn’t have ‘met’. IF not for that, I wouldn’t have this picture in my mind of rain water dripping from a roof in lush Jamaica. So this show has already brought me good things. 🙂 Thanks for your message.

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  2. Hi Flora,
    Love this and your beautiful paintings. I did learn to paint at OCAD. I had fabulous teachers, both men and women, (some of the most famous Canadian women painters) and loved my watercolour prof, my life drawing prof, and my acrylic abstract painting prof. But I agree. My father felt this way, and I am hoping to hang an abstract flower painting today, the only painting I got from his collection, which I think rivals anything, by any great painter I’ve seen in the world. Please come over to my blog and spread your glorious light sometime. Love, love, love your work.

    XOXOXOXOXOXOXO Barbara

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    1. Barbara, you were so lucky! I did have a wonderful printmaking and life drawing teacher. I learned a lot from Audrey Garwood. If only she’d taught painting too. I’d love to see your dad’s painting…I will head to your site right now. Thanks for sharing. xoxo Flora

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  3. Thanks for this article, Flora! I found it very interesting. I am about as self-taught as they come, having ‘given up’ on formal art education at age 16! I think what makes self-taught artists so apologetic for not having gone to art school is that many of us do not know what we have ‘missed out on’. I don’t know about others, but, whenever I find an area of my knowledge that I feel is lacking, I am rather inclined to think that I would at least have the bare bones of it, had I attended art school! Sounds like this may not be the case! Also we live in a world where education is king and a person is not considered successful unless they have as many qualifications as the length of their arm. I could write reams on the subject, but, I will just also add that I am truly thankful for the internet as a resource in my art journey as it has fed me in so many ways. As far as wonderful, free resources go, I would highly recommend Will Kemp (Will Kemp Art School) He has a multitude of free clips and more lengthy tutorials that you pay for, he responds to all comments posted on his extensive site and, well, he’s just lovely! He has helped me tremendously in my comprehension of Color Theory and color mixing and also in my quest to paint subtle and lifelike skin tones in acrylics!

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    1. Thanks Hilda for the link…I’ll check it out for sure.
      The ‘proof is in the pudding’ isn’t it? Painting is one of the few vocations where the end result ‘proves’ the skill of the artist.
      My mother wrote a good many magazine articles, edited a professional journal, wrote speeches for cabinet ministers and made her living as a writer. Yet she was tormented by the knowledge that she’d not gone to journalism school and felt she’d missed out. No doubt she had missed ‘something’, but her competence and abilities obviously made up for that. I wonder if men go through this to the same degree.

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  4. This is a really interesting subject to think about! Personally I think that the world of education, in general, is undergoing something of an evolution – largely due to the internet and also due to astronomical college fees and that as long as there are people who are on fire with the desire to learn about something they will find a way to get as much knowledge as they need to grow; and many of them are doing it via the internet!
    I think that, depending on the subject, and certainly in art and writing subjects, some men must go through it to the same degree as some women, unless they are better at seeing the future of their lives and careers than women are! 🙂

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  5. We are living through an information revolution that is, I think, as profound as the discovery of the printing press. For all of that I feel so lucky to be alive now.
    I’m sure there are men who would feel inadequate without ‘official’ credentials. I sense though that more men than women are instilled with a self-confidence that is reinforced by our culture and don’t question their abilities in the same way as women do.

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