Paint Schoodic

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Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Why don’t I teach private lessons?

You only hear what you are ready to hear. That takes time.

Bracken Fern, oil on canvas, available through Maine Farmland Trust Gallery.

I get frequent requests for private instruction. After all, if group lessons are helpful, wouldn’t private lessons be even better? Absolutely not.

I’ve taken harpsichord, voice and piano lessons. There are many similarities between studying music and painting. In either discipline, instruction time actually plays a small part in the student’s development. Most learning happens during practice, as the student masters what he or she has been shown.

On the other hand, there are significant differences. Painting class is not nearly as noisy, for one thing, so we teachers don’t have to try to sort out each player from the cacophony. We don’t demonstrate the minutiae of fingering or sound production, or concentrate on every note, phrase and fingering. There are aspects of music-making that are intensely detailed and physical. Painting in general avoids that.

Blueberry barrens, Clary Hill, oil on canvas, available through Maine Farmland Trust Gallery.

Instead, a good painting class is an ensemble of well-matched peers. They build on each other’s questions, suggestions, successes and failures. They ask questions that are pertinent to everyone. They borrow ideas from each other. My students often have insights that elude me, and I trust them enough to occasionally say, “I don’t know the answer.” I’ve frequently said I learn as much from my students as they do from me.

I have students who drift in and out of my classes and workshops over years. That’s a good thing; it means they’ve taken ownership of their own learning process. Last summer, one of them asked, “Where do I go when I’m done studying with you?”

The truth, to be brutally honest, is: nowhere. And everywhere.

Blueberry barrens, Clary Hill, watercolor, available through Maine Farmland Trust Gallery.

There are people who flit from teacher to teacher, workshop to workshop. They’re looking for a silver bullet that will circumvent the learning process for them. What they don’t realize is that most painting teachers are saying—more or less—exactly the same thing. The ones who aren’t, are selling a gimmick.

Nothing about painting is particularly revolutionary. The basic process is thousands of years old. Yes, it’s been refined, and a good teacher ought to be able to elucidate how it’s changed and why. But paint still gets attached to paper and canvas in a specific way.

Sea Fog, oil on canvas, available through Folly Cove Fine Art.

There are degrees of competence in painting teachers. If your teacher can’t articulate his process or doesn’t know color theory or art history, consider finding someone else. But beyond that, what we’re teaching is pretty similar. It ought to be.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy, or that you can take lessons for a year and nail it. For most of us, learning to paint at a high level of competence takes years. The lessons are deceptively simple. The teacher lays out the same information over and over, but the student is only capable of hearing what he’s ready to hear.

Good teachers repeat things—often—and watch and listen to see who’s getting it and who isn’t. Suddenly, there’s an insight somewhere in the room. When that moment happens, it’s an epiphany for everyone in the class. Everyone leaps forward; everyone benefits. No individual lesson can give you that.

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