I watched My mom take a lot of art lessons over the years. Her experience greatly influences the way I approach teaching art at Firstlight. I want to make sure that others don’t have the same frustrations.
Mom wanted to go to art school, but my grandfather wouldn’t let her. Instead, she had to get a more practical (in his view) degree that was basically “how to be a good secretary”.
But she was always an artist at heart. We had her paintings up all over our house, and they were really beautiful. There were forest streams in the fall, and snow-clad cabins in the winter.
However, there was one really big problem with them. None of her paintings were her paintings. Each one was a copy of the her teacher’s step-by-step follow-along demonstrations. She was copying the teacher’s style and subject.
I remember her showing me all the cool techniques she had learned, like how to make snow on a rooftop, or add some fall foliage to a tree branch. I really enjoyed hearing about these. We talked about art a lot, and my mom always encouraged me as much as she could.
After a while, and after struggling a lot with her work, it became clear to my mom that she couldn’t make a painting look nearly as good unless she was in the expensive class, following along. She tried over and over. Years later she finally made one really large work that my dad loved and placed over the fireplace, but she wasn’t satisfied with it. It was just a larger, less awesome version of one of the snow-clad cabins.
The inability to create paintings on her own deflated her, and played into the fear that she wasn’t a “real artist”. She kept after it though, and eventually found a watercolor class that allowed her to create paintings she liked. I had gone to art school by this time, and I could see that the teacher wasn’t imparting very good technique. She struggled with these paintings too. She said the teacher pretty much left them on their own most of the time, and painted her own watercolors with them. She would show them what she did from time to time as instruction.
Then one day, she was in an antique and collectibles shop in another state. She saw her own painting! But then she realized it was not her own. It was another student’s painting that had taken the same lessons from the same teacher years before. I didn’t realize until much later, but this was devastating to her. The work had been on our walls for years, but now, to her, it was all fake. Shortly after this she gave up painting, and turned to writing poetry as her creative outlet.
This story is more common than you think. The teachers she had were good artists, and they did what they knew how to do. They painted, and they told their students what they were doing as they did it.
It seems very reasonable. It just doesn’t work very well.
Some students can move past this, and incorporate the follow-along into their own work, but most cannot. Most art students need real training and insights.
My mom was not taught how to find reference; how to compose a work; how to control color mixing; how to draw accurately; and lots of other very important things that make creating art much more accessible – much more satisfying and rewarding. So when she tried to do these things, that had once been easy when following along… she couldn’t.
So at my art school, I make sure we teach these things.
It’s really hard to teach art with a balance. Some teachers allow students to mostly work on their own, developing their art in their own way. Other teachers have students follow along and make copies of their own work.
We want to explain exactly how we do art, yet not force our own style on students. This takes lessons that delve into the nitty, and the gritty, like how an artist analyzes their subject so they can reproduce it accurately, or how to make a bright color look like it’s in a shaded area.
This approach does create some different problems though, and that is with perception. Sometimes I have artists and parents who want to see the pretty snow-clad cabin paintings coming home on a regular basis. They misunderstand the fact that many of our lessons that don’t produce lovely finished artwork.
They can be frustrated with the slow pace of learning such a huge endeavor as art.
I know without a doubt, that there are no shortcuts; no magic method to achieving competence in drawing and painting. But there is good news! Anyone can improve and learn to create their own work at home – if they get past two misconceptions.
1 One is that you are born with talent or you don’t have it. Talents are gifts that make some things easier to learn, or propel some artists to an extremely high level. It’s not necessary to be at that level, or even close, to really enjoy creating your own work though. Even highly gifted artists create work they do not keep and do not show to anyone. I ask students where all of Michelangelo’s work is that he did when he was young and learning art. They don’t know! We don’t have it, because no one kept it. It was practice work.
2 The second misconception, is that you can get quick tricks that will make your work instantly better instead of doing steady practice. I’m sorry, but even though the internet if full of buttons that promise secrets that will instantly change your life, it doesn’t happen with things like playing the piano, or painting a beautiful scene. There is a lot to learn, and it takes time, practice, and a well-trained teacher to incorporate the foundational insights, master the basic techniques, and discover your own personal style.
Our program is actually as short as I can make it for once a week lessons of an hour and 45 minutes. I’ve also worked to ensure that the teaching is consistent. Our teachers use the two-year curriculum I’ve worked on for 12 years now, and they go through weekly training. The curriculum has been written out in specific steps and with set times for each step and sub-step. They have explanations and videos of me doing every single demo that they can access at any time, 24/7/365.
After working with over 1500 students, some for as many as 12 years, I can guarantee you that if you stay with it, and follow our lessons, you’ll be able to work on your own.
You can be the artist you dream about.