Sometimes I think I’d be a better artist if I had gone to art school. Then I think, “OK, sweet cheeks. Go audit classes at the local university.” Then I Google the course catalog, see the course offering and realize (again) I’d rather die than enter a classroom again, even as a student and/or especially as a student. And I remember what it was like the semester I was an art major. It wasn’t fun or very productive except for two of the most important lessons I got in school — both from my drawing teacher, Jean Schiff. One, that I’m a painter. Two, that if you stand too close to the surface you’re working on your work will be shit (unless you’re carving a printing plate or doing silver point or something).

Otherwise, that semester was really disappointing. I badly wanted to learn how to DO things and that isn’t what I got (with the exception of Jean Schiff). It was strange because I had had to send a portfolio to the college to be accepted into the art program — and I was accepted. I thought that meant something. BUT…

I had two classes. Basic drawing and Introduction to Sculpture. The drawing class was fantastic, but the sculpture class was a bust (ha ha). We had four projects and no technical education. The teacher assumed we’d learned stuff in high school and, well, high school art was a disaster for me. My high school art teacher just plain didn’t like me, to the extent that he wouldn’t even critique my work. He dismissed it saying I had no talent and I was wasting his time. That is the antithesis of teaching. Maybe that teacher was right in his assessment, but even then the teacher’s job is to teach skills and ready the student to reach his/her highest level of potential, whatever it is. It might not be all that high, but the student has the right to discover that on his/her own.

Maybe the student will learn they have no innate abilities, and while practice makes perfect, there’s nothing more than that, and give up. Or, maybe the student will overcome his/her liabilities and do fantastic work. Maybe the student will go in a completely new direction. It’s the student’s job to discover this, not the teacher’s job to pass judgement on what the student could ever do. I think of Marc Rothko who started out attempting pretty conventional paintings (at which he didn’t succeed, IMO) and ended up putting some colors on immense canvases and making (for many) a very important statement. Do I like or understand Rothko’s work? Not at all. I’m a representational artist, but I don’t think Rothko was a “no talent, bad painter.” I just think he didn’t paint for me.

Education is a short cut to thousands of years of human culture and human skills. If each of us had to start from “Go” we wouldn’t learn all we need to learn in our lifetime. I understood somewhere in my teaching life that is what is meant by “foundation”. It’s “You’re going to need this stuff if you’re going to carry the baton forward into stuff we don’t know yet.”

I have these thoughts when I’m looking at a painting I’m working on. Would I do better work if I’d gone to art school? That leads to a whole tunnel of wondering. Usually I end up thinking that if I KNEW more I might discover less, and discovery is what I like most about painting. A lot of times with a painting — especially a big one — I’m truly afraid. But that’s part of the excitement, like a rollercoaster. I WANT my paintings to work. I KNOW there are better artists out there. I also know that, fundamentally, those paintings don’t matter to anyone but me.

It’s a paradox.

Ragtag Daily Prompt

26 thoughts on “Painting…

  1. I think the most important thing you learned in your art classes was the philosophy of teaching by preparing the student to learn and to find his/her own limits. Appreciation of art is an intensely personal attribute, and as long as your art works for you it seems to me that it’s successful. It’s a great outlet — one that I wish I had!

  2. I feel that fear when I start a weaving project and sometimes wish I had a mentor. The nearest guild is two hours away. So, I continue to dabble and discover!

  3. Even though my medium is writing, I can so relate to this. I think a very large portion of an artist’s brain must be devoted to useless, crippling self doubt. I am amazed that anyone has a healthy creative ego.

    • I know — mine is based on “who gives a fuck?” whether I’m writing or painting. If I get to THAT place, I’m good. I really value useful criticism, though. I understand I can take it or leave it, but the OTHER kind? Oh my god, no. I don’t even think that’s designed to help anyone. I don’t know WHAT it’s for.

  4. I had the most wonderful high school art teacher–Sister Elaine. She would walk up to your work and with one or two flicks with the brush, make it better. And you knew immediately how she did it, so you were able to use it on your next work.

  5. As someone who was always utterly useless at art, I can at least appreciate the talent of others that I lack myself, and I can certainly appreciate yours, Martha. In fact, some of the most talented and creative people in all kinds of artistic spheres are self-taught, so school isn’t the only way to succeed. As you rightly say, though, at the end of the day, what matters is how you feel about your creations, and your love shines out from your work. It makes it come alive, so that even an art dunce like me can see it. I love your paintings. πŸ™‚

  6. Having taken art classes in HS (and art class at the University when I was in elementary school) I believe that the best artists are self taught or mentored instead of instructed. I had one really good art class in HS (Ms. Lorelei VerLey) she introduced me to silk screen, lino prints, charcoal drawing, water color and acrylic paints, fiber arts, and even enameling and pottery. Her methods were to demonstrate what the medium could do and then just turn us loose. If we had questions or problems she would answer or advise but she made it clear that the work was our own. I found out that I liked clay and painting but that I was mediocre at painting but excelled in clay. If you had been taught, your style would have been stifled and your innate talent diminished… I think your paintings perfectly capture the grandeur of the Big Empty.

    • Thank you! Your teacher sounds a lot like the great art teacher I had in 9th grade. β€œHere’s this! Now try!” I learned so much from him. I thought when I moved here that I wouldn’t even try to paint this place, but it (especially now) seems to have a profound effect on me. I tell it I love it, but I don’t know. It isn’t enough, somehow. ❀

  7. Martha, I’m doing an illustration MA and this simester I’m writing a manifesto about art and the death of creativity. How art is becoming less important and less time given to it in a time of austerity and covid. What do you think. You have strong opinions about it? maybe you can share a few words on what you think?

    • “Art” is a huge topic, and, after looking at thousands of paintings in my life, I don’t have any illusion about its importance. I admire most the guys back in the day who painted to earn a living and no one today even knows who they are — but we know what they saw. To me that’s magical, far more important than their names or any fleeting fame they might have had.

      I’m a creative person and I’ve actually taken serious shit for that at various times in my life. Many people seem to think that creative people are sloppy or careless or rebellious or something. But truly, it’s a way of looking at life and in a way I don’t think we can take any responsibility for it. Creativity can never die as long as people are born. In these days, though, I think it might be (naturally) channeled into directions less archaic than painting.

      And, as long as there have been people, people have wanted paintings to decorate their houses — look at all those amazing frescoes in Pompeii. I don’t know when it began, but I don’t remember a time when there wasn’t tension between “real” art and “decorative” art. Most of the art I see done around me is decorative and I think that’s OK. I know that right now with that big painting I’m working on, that’s the fork in the road. I have pretty much decided that even if I don’t make it a scary painting, it’s going to be mysterious and, therefore, not decorative.

      I paint landscapes — most of the artists around here paint landscapes, too. Mine are different because I’m just not that skillful. I saw the difference between what I do and what an educated painter does when I watched some tutorials made by a painter friend of mine and then looked at paintings and video tutorials by another well-known, successful artist — they were doing the same thing. They’d learned systems for approaching certain painting problems. I don’t know the systems so, in that sense, what I do is going to be more “creative” because I have to create my system, but my finished work might not be as “good.” But, as far as their plain air work, it would be difficult to tell them apart. Their studio work, however, is a different thing completely. There’s no similarity there except occasionally in subject matter.

      To me the “creative process” is a combination of curiosity, inspiration and discovery. I started oil painting when I was 10 so I’ve had a long time to practice, but I did no oil paintings between the time I was 18 and 58. My high school teacher just smashed my ego down so thoroughly that I didn’t even try. The one woman show I had in 1981 was all large water media work, mostly figurative paintings, but some semi-abstract landscapes. It was a good show and I made money. My first oil painting after high school — 10 years ago — was an 8 x 10 of the cows across the street from the house where I lived then. I loved every minute of painting it and realized that oil paints were, to me, just magical. They were my — are my — tools for really seeing my world.

      I don’t know if this is what you needed/wanted, Chris. But I don’t personally think we’re in any danger of not having art or of creativity dying. Creativity is an approach to life and a creative person really has no choice. As for the effect of COVID on people’s ability to do creative work — it definitely affected mine. But, I kind of woke up to the reality that without it, I’m just surrendering to something that might never happen to me. And I’m 68 and have a lot of paint. I have to use that shit! πŸ˜‰ ❀

  8. I’m no expert, but I think art school would have broken your creative spirit and you wouldn’t be the painter you are, the one who loves to face her fears and play with her medium.

    Some of us learn uniquely; following rote lessons can kill our desire to experiment and find out for ourselves what works for us, making what should be fun and playful a chore. That was my experience as a kid with piano. At age five, my initial instructor nurtured my natural talent. I flourished. She moved away. At age seven, the new instructor insisted I start over, practicing scales and learning the technical stuff. She almost killed my love of music. By nine I quit her and self-taught from there. Music was fun again. Would I have been a better pianist had I gotten formal training? I wonder….

    The “creative process” is both individual and universal, as old as humans. If the impulse resides in you, it’s nearly impossible to ignore, or crush.

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