Monday, September 7, 2009

Can She Be Helped?

Yesterday, Raymond Kowalski of Cleveland, Ohio, wrote: "A woman in my classes refuses to take suggestions. She likes the way things are and says she doesn't need improving. She says she doesn't have time to learn basics--composition, color theory, design, technique. She gets excited watching a demo, then ignores what she might have learned. She devotes a lot of time to her art, but she's not really improving. I'm at a loss to help her. Any thoughts?"

Thanks, Raymond. I've had the runaround from the same woman. It's quite endemic these days, with all the talk of freedom of expression and painting from the heart. All this heart stuff is one of the main reasons there's so much substandard art around. It's enough to make you think it doesn't matter.

Accepting that many folks are just in it for the fun of pushing paint around, here are a few things you can do to get the girl to raise her standards:

Without focusing on her, give short, low-expectation exercises that run against people's standard repertoire. Make them time sensitive (finish in twenty minutes) or media limiting (use only three colours). While telling students they can go their own sweet way if they wish, make the exercises fun and be prepared to give out cigars. Draw your students in with a sense of exploration and excitement. Give them the idea they've nothing to lose.

It's a fact of life that some people don't want to learn. But I don't believe in just coming out and telling people their art is poor. You have to let them discover that for themselves. A useful ploy is to praise the work for whatever virtues you can find in it, however slim, then ask them to tell everybody how it might be improved. Teaching art is an art that sometimes requires a slightly devious approach.

Many workshop students have a problem with the instructor-student axis. You need to invite other workshop participants to quickly chime in with their opinions. Further, you can sometimes effectively influence a student by quietly giving attention to another student who sits nearby. Other times, when addressing the whole group, you can hammer home specific points by making thoughtful eye contact with the slower learners. No matter how flawed, everybody is special.

Best regards,


PS: "The best way to teach somebody something is to have them think they're learning something else." (Randy Pausch)

Esoterica: In the conduct of your own affairs, understate and over-prove. Give well-planned, information-rich demos. Let folks make up their own minds and take what they want for themselves. Make your comments short and precise. Tenderness and your own humility count. People are human beings first and artists second. Thankfully, some will pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, no matter what you have to say. And while there will always be those who stay put, a properly conducted workshop can be a place of miracles. "The burned hand teaches best." (J. R. R. Tolkien)

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