I was talking with a Gallery owner recently about different people’s experiences with painting classes and in particular, the teachers. Personally, I’ve had some doozies!

She told me of some artists she knew who had recently attended classes held by a well known and very accomplished artist. The knowledge to be gained from this senior artist was probably quite valuable, unfortunately his teaching style meant that the students had come away with a negative experience.

What he had done was insist on a certain discipline of style within the painting class and was inflexible in that. Instead of allowing each participant to take the knowledge he had to offer and then help them to build these new skills into their own working methods, he had insisted they just do exactly what he did with no variation. These people are mature adults with free will. You don’t have to be a professor of pedagogy to work out that for some at least, this would instantly create detachment from the work, resistance to the information being presented coupled with resentment to the teacher and disappointment in the experience!

No wonder people came away feeling like their joy in painting and development as an artist had been stifled. There was no room left for them to express themselves or assimilate new knowledge within their own methods and levels of understanding.

We all learn differently. I believe that anyone who has spent some time as an adult studying or practising a skill has probably already worked out the way that they best learn and are most comfortable with. I certainly have. That doesn’t mean that I am inflexible. If someone I respect for their ability suggests that I try something new that might fit with what I am doing and they can help me achieve a step forward that I would not have made so easily by myself, then I sure am going to give that a go, whether it works for me or not. Whichever way it turns out, that will be one piece of the grey area of my subject knowledge that I will understand better, whether I adopt that particular process or not. The point is, I, as more than likely do you, don’t need to be hog tied into a learning approach – we know our own way. Teaching painting should be about instruction and guidance, not a boot camp!

The teacher should be able to show you things in painting that you may have never seen before – some may turn out to be the keys to unlock doors you have been banging on for quite some time. Other things may only be of academic interest to you with no real ‘fit’ into your style or methods. It is not up to the teacher to force you to adopt everything they show you or do themselves. That’s their unique way of doing things – the sum of all their experiences and understanding up to the present time expressed as best they can through the filter of their personal aesthetic and painterly vision. You are quite different, following your own path and expressing your own painterly vision! The job as teacher should be to help you take on those things that you choose as valuable, to take you further along that path, where you want to go.

The odd time I have had a ‘teacher’ insist I do something exactly their way and abandon my usual practice, especially when I know that I don’t like the process or the end result and the method is completely strange to me, what was my reaction? I hated it! I don’t like floundering. I don’t like being separated from the body of understanding in my craft that I have spent years learning. I want to add to it, not be divorced from it!

One more point that came up in this conversation; Some teachers take the brush and make marks on the student’s work. I have had that happen in the past to me. I know from the way I felt and from talking to others that for many, even beginning students, a painting during creation is precious to the artist and having another hand alter it without invitation is akin to invading an intimacy. There is a sense of loss. Teachers – please don’t do that!

Other ‘joys’ I have personally experienced as an art student in the past include:

  • The painting teacher that didn’t teach, insisting that any guidance on their part would amount to “interference in my development” (a good way to hide an absence of general painting knowledge)
  • The painting teacher who, as a sculptor, had never picked up a brush in their lives. I didn’t find out about that until I’d already paid in advance and was halfway through the course.
  • The drawing teacher who couldn’t draw. Their argument – “but who needs to be able to draw? That’s so unnecessary in contemporary practice!”)
  • The painting teacher who declared “skills are limiting” as part of his encouragement to us to actively not learn anything about the craft of our arts practice in case it hindered our creativity
  • There are probably more if I think about it but now I’m just getting angry . . .

On a brighter note, I’ve had a few stand-out teachers who somehow put up with my crazy desires to actually learn stuff and get better at my craft. From them I learned invaluable skills, thank you.

I would love to hear some of the horror stories from others, that I know you must have experienced. If you have an interesting story regarding painting classes and teachers, please let me know.

So from the other side of the fence, If you don’t come out of one of my workshops or classes feeling like you have had a truly positive, enjoyable, learning and growth experience as a painter, I will be sorely disappointed.