Paint Schoodic

We're offering three workshops for 2020, at Acadia National Park, Pecos, NM, and Tallahassee, FL.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Private lessons aren’t the best way to learn to paint

“You cannot step twice into the same stream, said Heraclitus (more or less). That’s true of painting, too.

I no longer remember what Catherine Bullinger and Brad VanAuken were laughing about.

“What do you charge to teach a private lesson?” a fellow teacher asked me. I never teach them, I responded. They aren’t the best way to learn to paint.

In a perfect-size class, the group works like an ensemble and there’s a great exchange of information. For me, that’s between 9 and 12 students in the studio and 6 to 12 in the field. Any more and I’m not giving enough attention to each person’s questions, problems and successes. By necessity, a larger class is based more on demos and lectures and less on one-on-one support.

But a too-small class has its problems too. It’s hard to develop a rhythm.

Learning to paint is not like learning a musical instrument. There, the creative impulse is mostly borrowed, in the form of the musical score. The teacher’s job is to help his student render that music with fidelity, but also with joy, life and meaning.

As you play through your piece, he watches and listens with great concentration. He notes awkward fingerings, flagging rhythms, wrong notes, and peculiar interpretations. Then he takes you through those problematic passages again and again until you get them right. It’s your job to go home and practice until your technique is encoded in muscle memory.

That need for one-on-one attention would make it difficult to teach a roomful of piano students simultaneously. And, of course, it would be utter cacophony.

I may dictate the subject, but each interpretation will be radically different. 

In painting, however, the student is the primary creative force (which is why those paint-and-sip nights are so awful). Yes, I dictate what my students will paint. But their interpretation is always personal, starting from the moment their charcoal hits the paper.

“You cannot step twice into the same stream, said Heraclitus the Obscure. Unlike a pianist, a painter never navigates the same passage twice. I may talk with students about brushwork, demonstrate it, and even have them copy a technique on small corners of their paintings. But as soon as they’re back on their own, they’re in a thicket of their own devising. My role is to advise them, based on my own experience as a painter.

That involves lots of waiting to see what’s going to happen. If the class is too small, I find myself interrupting too frequently. Suddenly, I own the process, not my students.

Teressa Ramos in a class along the Erie Canal.

I was reminded of this in yesterday’s (perfect-sized) Zoom class. I’ve been talking with one student about loosening up and making big, wet washes for water and sky. She is a happy-go-lucky person, but that wasn’t coming through in her brushwork. She did six iterations of clouds. They were all just too tight. She seemed frustrated and on the verge of giving up for the day. I walked through what I meant once more and moved on, hoping that she would hang in there and try again. On that seventh try, she made a lovely, energetic painting of clouds. She simply needed time for the concept to click.

Students learn a lot from each other, too. In a group of twelve, everyone hears what I’m saying to the other students. Usually, the questions and answers are universally applicable. And if nothing else, they’re bound to be entertaining.

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