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February 06, 2003
Anything goes in art classes

Meanwhile, over at 2Blowhards, Michael has been taking art lessons, and isn't impressed.

I went to the first class last night, and was reminded of what a ripoff most art classes are. The woman teaching it seems nice and for all I know is a good artist, so I have nothing against this class specifically -- it seems like an OK version of the standard thing. It's the standard thing that's a ripoff (and that, in a sane art world, would be a scandal).

Last night's class, like about 3/4 of the art classes I've taken, followed this model: the teacher has set up a subject, whether a model or a still life. You bring a bunch of art materials with you. You draw and paint. The teacher wanders around, giving each person a little time and a few hints. You pack up and go home.

Like I say: what a ripoff. It's amazing the schools charge for this, and just as amazing that eager students put up with it. Would it be too much ask an art teacher to do a little actual art instruction? To have a little something prepared? To structure a series of classes so that the bit you learn this week joins together with the bit you learned last week, and you leave the term having acquired some genuinely new skills, and able to do things you hadn't previously been able to do?

Seems like a reasonable thing to demand. So why doesn't that get supplied?

I guess I assume that what it represents is a coming-together of four things: asinine progressive-education ideas (let the student discover art for himself!), laziness and convenience, the continuing-ed business, and annoying modernist (ie., anti-technique, anti-skill, pro-self-expression) ideas about art. Do you think I'm off here? Or that I'm missing some other element?

I see nothing wrong about any of that, but maybe I can add something.

Consider that bit I did here about the Army, and how seriously they set about their teaching. Or consider, for that matter, the example of another kind of teaching that Michael does consider.

Imagine, say, a cooking school or a cooking class. Now, imagine showing up, being confronted by a roomful of tools and ingrediants. And a teacher who says, "OK, class, cook! Every now and then I'll come around and give you a little criticism and help!" I know I'd be pissed. How about knife skills? Poaching? Grilling?

Cooking - and I'm guessing here but it seems to me, etc. etc. still retains some semblance of pedagogic rigidity, in the sense that "good" and "bad" cooking are widely regarded as being distinguishable. If you cook an omelette (one of the few cookery things I'm quite good at doing) for a minute or two and watch for when it is done and then dish it up it, you can get a very good omelette. Cook the omelette for half an hour and then give the ruins ten minutes in the fridge, and you will absolutely not get a good omelette. I don't know any omeletteer who would disagree about that. It would be wrecked. Get your cooking seriously wrong, and you might even kill people.

If the Army gets its teaching wrong, it will definitely kill people. They teach right, or people die. In such a world, the mind of the teacher is going to be concentrated wonderfully on doing the job a certain way, the right way.

But what they hell is the right way of doing art these days? The artists have spent the last hundred years trying to explain that there is no right way, that anything goes.

And the irony is that Michael Blowhard with his exuberantly wide-ranging willingness to appreciate and to enjoy, and to pass on by if he doesn't enjoy with a mere "well it's not my thing, but if it's yours, then fine" is now doing his bit to reinforce this atmosphere, as well as to undermine it somewhat by asserting his tendency to enjoy more traditional, that is to say artistic-skill-based, varieties of art.

I want techniques -- the "art" and "expressive" end of things I'll take care of myself. Or I won't. But I certainly don't want some teacher I don't know trying to take charge of that end of things. But techniques? I'm eager to learn, and I'll pick 'em up where I can get 'em. Yet the art-instruction establishment doesn't want to give them to me, or even, apparently, sell them to me.

When Michael says "techniques", he's not referring to the technique for writing outrageous press releases, or the technique for how to dress on TV in such a way as to cause maximum anger to the bourgeoisie. He means brushwork, etc. So does anyone teach this old-school art technique stuff? Still?

I stay "still?" because in my opinion another reason why anything goes in painting these days (can of worms opening warning force eight to nine) is that painting has, in terms of its contribution to the real-world economy out there, been pretty much replaced by photography. Painting's days of economic glory and artistic centrality are over. Anything goes in painting for the same reasons that you can, within the limits only of the criminal law, do anything you like in a bombsite.

Short second last paragraph. Big subject. Which I'll get back to, but mostly in another place.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:32 PM
Category: Adult education

Brian’s article about Michael’s experience of art teaching, gives us blog readers a very good summary of the way this subject is taught in so many schools and “art” colleges. Much of art is taught via the “skydiving without a parachute theory” of learning; you jump and learn to fly on the way down. I prefer this model of learning, as the outcome is death where nothing is learned. The sink or swim model has the possibility of floating out of trouble. So why should art teaching, without any visible means of support, be any more likely to lead to success? There is no excuse for such poor pedagogy.

Mr. Nicholson, my art master at the Royal Grammar School Worcester way back in the 1960s, didn’t seem to be one of those who appreciated the “abstract”. You learned to draw as a technical skill; otherwise, you are not an artist. It was really that simple.

Nowadays, sheep pickling is a form of art. The answer to all this mush is relatively straightforward. If you want to draw realistically, you need to find a source of information about how to do that. There is one that I have used which is very powerful in achieving the objective of creating a realistic drawing - Betty Edwards’s book, called “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” is one of the best. Her web site is at: -


Her book contains a set of very specific exercises, none of them difficult, leading the reader to a way of drawing exactly what is put in front of them. There is even a video and drawing kit for those who are interested in a more elaborate approach to what is so very uncomplicated.

Truth be told, you only need the book and some basic materials. We are talking less than 30 pounds including the book. A truly low cost approach would be to borrow the book from the public library. Learning to draw can be close to cost free after all; most homes have pencils, erasers and paper too.

I have used the book and it works. At the end of the book, the author deals with colour once you have learned to draw in monochrome, of course. When you have finished her exercises, you are on your own; you can now graduate to sheep pickling or watercolour painting. The choice is yours; at least you can draw!

I have to say that if art teachers think that the osmotic method of learning is appropriate they must be dreaming. Putting students in front of a model or a still life display, without real instruction, is not the way to go. There are some basic rules that need “teaching,” in order to learn how to draw. In the old days, there were those who felt that “instruction” was not quite the same as teaching; after all we have flying instructors, not flying teachers. Perhaps there is method in the military way of boiling it down to what is, a matter of “instruction”.

The artist, David Sheppard (the guy who painted those wonderful wildlife pictures), did an apprenticeship with a professional artist who insisted that he come in at 8.00 in the morning and went home after 5.00 at night. In short, there was a professional attitude to the process of learning art. By the way, I believe the Slade School of Art turned down Sheppard’s application for admission. The upshot of the process was that David Sheppard became a millionaire artist because he could - wait for it - PAINT! Not everyone has to be able to embalm butchered animal parts.

Home schoolers could well use the Betty Edwards book for teaching people how to draw. The moral of the matter is that much in art has slipped by the way into the nihilistic mish-mash of modern education. Perhaps that’s why so much of education is in “institutions”- you know - much like where they used to put the insane before those in charge felt that the streets were to be preferred.

While proofing this note my bother in law Jeff threw in this one about modern art: -

The sanitation worker (Dustbin man in the UK) went out for the day to the Museum of Modern Art. He was asked what he thought of the experience. He replied, “I may know nothing about modern art but I do know garbage”!

Comment by: Howard Gray on February 8, 2003 07:24 PM

I highly recommend Mark Kistler's approach to learning drawing techniques, primarily destined for children. Some might argue that it's cartooning really, but his explanations of shadowing, perspective, etc., are fundamental to all drawing. His enthusiasm and desire to help everyone enjoy drawing because they can actually do it make his books a wonderful resource for all ages.

Comment by: Robin Clochard on February 10, 2003 01:15 AM

I am an art teacher and it certainly isn't 'anything goes' in my classes. The original article was about adult education and I suspect that is very different from what goes on the average secondary school art department. Art teaching, the ambition and standard of art being in schools in the UK has improved extraordinarily in the last 20 years.

As for teaching techniques... when I am teaching drawing - and I use some of Betty Edwards ideas - there is certainly a way of thinking taught, an understanding of how we look and how that affects what we see. I teach ways of thinking that help us to make re-presentations of what we see. But all drawing even Photgraphy is a visual equivalent of what we see. (what do we see? - the retinal image or something we know is there?)

Is teaching drawing the same as Art education? I am concerned with encouraging a delight in visual connections and contrasts, in giving students the chance to see how an artist goes about expressing (articulating in paint, plaster forms, digitally layered images for instance) a particular idea. And there are rules to do with effective use of colour, composition. But context is (nearly) everything. Modern art is too cheap a shot. Garbage can be art! However, Kurt Schwitter's use of garbage to make his Merzbild collages led to abstract art of tender sensitivity to tone and colour as well as carefully constructed word plays...

Comment by: hermitcrab on May 1, 2004 12:37 AM

It sounds as if you did not research your class or teacher well enough...... you may have had a teacher centered experience. Many teachers are great artists but marginal teachers. Many teachers lack a cognitive psychology background that matters in the sequence in which one introduces material and learning experiences to the learner (this applies to all subject areas). As HermitCrab had intimated earlier, context is everything. Where you interested in learning to draw realistically similar to the European Renaissance style? Or where you interested in learning about how to work from another style and culture? You need to think about what kind of instruction you are interested in before you enroll in the class. Your thoughts on art education are somewhat simplistic....Maybe you should think of it this way, if you wanted to learn French cooking you would not go to a culinary art institute that taught Chinese cooking, would you? Art is a vast and immense subject area that encompasses all human culture and history with a multitude of materials and ideas. Learning to replicate the visual is one small aspect of knowing in the visual arts...don't bash what you don't understand....Clyde

Comment by: Clyde Gaw on July 7, 2004 06:03 PM
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