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?
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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’.
- 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.
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.