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Why My Art Students Hate Me

I hate you.
There, I've said it.

-D. Ruiz


Christopher Gallego

Updated November 1, 2018


I love teaching art, more than just about anything.

And I love my students, but they don't always love me. Sometimes they hate me.

Not because I'm too critical. I actually do my best to be kind and supportive. It's something else.

Most art teachers give demonstrations for their classes. Anyone who's seen one knows they can be wonderful to watch. The best of them are like great performances. The artist/teacher paints and the students watch, as a blank canvas comes to life. There's even a little applause at the end.

One reason I've never done a painting demo is that they scare me to death.


Your art is the biggest impediment
to creating your art.


That roomful of eyes watching 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 method that felt comfortable for myself 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, body language, focus and attention, even the way they breathe. Which they sometimes forget to do.

Giving equal attention to the subject that 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, lazy, and
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 exactly one.

Most people talk more than they listen, and 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 (stop working) for a moment, and look, the longer the better.

The problems creep in when your artwork consumes most of your attention.

The moment your gaze leaves your subject and lands on your art, you're painting from memory. If the memory is a second or two old, that's fine, but if it's a minute or more then all you're doing is making stuff up.

OK, but 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.

Those wonderful idiosyncrasies, the odd twists and turns that give things their character and visual truth, vanish when we rely 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 like physical health more than the ability to ride a bike...maintain it or it will decline, usually before you realize it.


Annette Voreyer, Still Life with TomatoesAnnette Voreyer, Tomatoes and Jam Jar, oil on canvas, 18 x 24 in.

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, 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 lots of 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 artis,t who creates the art.


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8 thoughts on “Why My Art Students Hate Me

  1. What a thoughtful and provocative position on the act of observation and painting. As someone who just started to learn to paint 4 years ago, this was a very intriguing post. You are almost suggesting some sort of training in mindful painting which for me, during plein air, is a challenge but I keep working at it.

  2. I loved how you write and express your truth. I am a great believer in painting what you see and it will turn out fine.

  3. Seeing IS like listening; so much so that I advocate asking questions of that which you are seeing. Asking questions stimulates the right mind and curiosity. The left brain cannot tell you what you see, or insist you remember what you saw, when the right brain is so actively discovering what is there.
    My students don’t understand the time gap between asking for suggestions and receiving my answer, until they get to know me, then they know I am being thoughtful. Of course, then they laugh at the unusual questions I ask them, unusual because no other art teacher ever asked those things. Yes, it is very good to watch. I’ve learned a lot from students, too.
    Another great article. Bravo.

  4. Well said, Christopher! I plan to keep this in mind the next time I teach AND the next time I paint. Mary Jo
    Mary Jo O’Gara

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