I love teaching art, I really do.
And I love my students. But they don’t always love me.
In fact, sometimes they hate me.
Not because I’m overly critical; I actually do my best to be kind and supportive. It’s something else entirely.
Most art teachers give demonstrations for their classes. Anyone who’s seen one knows they can be wonderful to watch–the best of them can be like great performances. The artist/teacher paints and the students watch as a blank canvas magically comes to life. There’s even a little applause at the end.
One reason I’ve never done a painting demo is that they frighten me to death. That roomful of eyes watching my every move makes it difficult to concentrate and impossible to do anything great.
The other reason is that painting is, for me, the most private of activities, so working in front of an audience feels about as natural as sleeping in front of one.
Over time, I discovered a method that was both comfortable for me and valuable to my students. They don’t watch while I paint.
I watch them.
The students perform and I become the audience, circling the studio, noting their work, their body language, focus and attention–even the way they breathe. Which they sometimes forget to do.
All the while giving equal attention to the subject they should be looking at but usually aren’t, at least not enough.
Which brings me to why I am so disliked.
It’s the maddening habit I have of resolving, with a single brushstroke or comment, a painting problem that they’ve struggled with for an hour. And making it look easy in the process.
No, I don’t claim to be better, smarter, or more talented than anyone else.
Only observant, a little lazy, but mostly,
free from the distraction of an unfinished canvas.
Observing while painting
is like listening while speaking.
How many great listeners do you know? I happen to know just one.
Most people talk more than they listen, as most artists paint more than they observe. You can’t do both at the same time.
Observing is like listening with your eyes, but you have to be silent for a moment (i.e. stop working), and look, the longer the better.
The problems creep in when your artwork consumes most of your attention.
The moment your eyes move away from your subject and onto your art, you’re basically painting from memory. If the memory is a second or two old, no big deal, but if it’s a minute or more then you’re basically making stuff up.
So what’s wrong with visual memory?
Nothing, but it’s bland.
The mind has this peculiar way of smoothing things over, straightening things out, and making forms more perfect and symmetrical than they are. All those wonderful little idiosyncrasies, the odd twists and turns that give things their character and visual truth, are lost when we rely too much on memory.
What about technique?
Good technique is essential. But while technique impresses, observation connects.
The difference between a great technician and a great eye is in the response, “Your work is beautiful”, vs. “I feel like I’m there!”
An artist’s vision is more like physical health than, say, the ability to ride a bike. Maintain it or it will decline, usually before you realize it.
We need to stretch our seeing skills, all the time, to keep them ahead of our technical skills. When the opposite happens and technique takes over (a problem that can haunt mid-career painters especially) vision weakens and the work starts to look artificial.
Creativity as Self-Creation
This advice will sound dry to anyone coming to art as a pathway to self-expression and creativity. It may even be a letdown. We don’t want medicine, we want a delicious meal.
But think of creativity as an act of self-creation more than the production of anything tangible.
Use your imagination to find new and exciting tools that increase your visual power.
The habit I picked up, as a student, of turning the painting to the wall and looking at the subject for as long as possible, has made a world of difference in the work.
So has trying to draw hundreds of perfect charcoal lines, freehand on scrap paper, as an exercise in hand control. I still do both each day.
Logging in endless hours is nowhere as effective as shaking up your routine.
Forget about what everyone else is doing. Forget about how people respond to your work, whether it will sell, and forget about your age if that’s a concern.
Instead, keep searching, be experimental, and remember, your most important creation is the artist, who creates the art.