How Did Teachers Help You ?

When I interview artists who teach drawing and painting, I usually ask them what procedures have proven to be most helpful to their students. Some suggest having painters start with a limited palette so they learn how to work with each color separately, others recommend they spend a lot of time drawing before they tackle painting issues, and still others say there is no substitute for just painting a lot of pictures and practicing what you’ve learned.

I’ve never actually interviewed students in an art class or workshop to learn what piece of advice or recommended activity was most helpful to them. Perhaps they would have told me they were most satisfied with the demonstrations offered by the teacher, the stimulation of working in a studio with other serious students, the words of encouragement offered by the instructor or another artist, or the carefully planned exercises offered during each session.

If you are currently an art student or remember back to when you were, it would help me to hear from you. I would be interested in knowing what you thought was the best thing that happened in a class or workshop. Or, looking at the question from the opposite perspective, what happened that was so discouraging or frustrating that you almost dropped the course and took up basket weaving?

Thinking back to my own art education, I don’t remember specific lectures, demonstrations, or teaching techniques, but I certainly recall professors who encouraged and inspired me. Their enthusiasm was infectious, so I worked hard to learn what they were teaching. I hadn’t been a particularly good student in high school, but I graduated first in my class in college, in large part because the instructors explained their academic subjects well, shared their excitement, and believed I could succeed.
Please let me know what recollections you have about your education in art.

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M. Stephen Doherty

About M. Stephen Doherty

I've been interested in art since I was a child,  and I was fortunate to be able to take Saturday art classes at the Cincinnati Art Museum from the time I was 9 years old until I finished high school. I majored in art at Knox College and graduated summa *** laude, Phi Beta Kappa (proving artists can use both sides of their brain!).  I then earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in printmaking from Cornell University; taught art in public schools, a community college, an adult education program, and a college; worked in the marketing department of a company that manufactured screen printing supplies; and was hired to be editor of American Artist in January, 1979.

Thomas S. Buecher introduced me to plein air painting and it immediately became a passion of mine because it got me outdoors and allowed me to continue learning when I traveled to judge art shows, attend conventions, give lectures, and interview artists. Over the years I've exhibited my paintings at Bryant Galleries in New Orleans, Trees Place Gallery on Cape Cod, and in a traveling exhibition titled From Sea to Shining Sea.

I've written 10 books on artists and art techniques and contibuted articles to magazines, websites, and exhibition catalogs. Now as I prepare for semi-retirement, I'm trying to hone my painting skills -- especially those related to painting portraits.

I've been very fortunate to have met thousands of talented artists who have enriched my life with their art, their friendship, and their advice. I am grateful to Jerry Hobbs and Susan Meyer who hired me in 1979, to the talented people who worked with me on the magazines, and to the artists and advertisers who supported American Artist, Watercolor, Workshop, and Drawing  magazines and the related websites.

I've also been blessed with a supportive, talented wife, Sara; a daughter, Clare, who works for an insurance agency; a son, Michael, who is a computer enginner in Austin; a son-in-law, Shawn, who can fix and carry anything; a granddaughter, Amanda, who has me wrapped around her finger; and my mother, Dotty, who has advised and encouraged me from the beginning.

33 thoughts on “How Did Teachers Help You ?

  1. In the few classes I was able to take, I learned from teachers pointing out which parts of my paintings were successful, and which sections were “unfortunate,” to use the wonderful euphemism of one of the teachers.

    I feel like I have many of the advantages of an art class in the new format of this website.

  2. Thinking through this brings back a lot of memories. One of my favorite instructors was rigid and poignant in his teaching, he demanded practice and we were expected to draw along with him through his demonstrations. The entire class was spent drawing, very little time watching him work. Even when we had class critiques, we were expected to take notes. I was able to value this interaction even more a class that I had years later where I spent the first hour and a half listening to the drone of my instructor and watching her slow paced methodical drawing. It was the tone and interactivity that made the difference. A passionate teacher is much more inspiring than someone who is there for the paycheck.

  3. I took a painting class at a Junior College when I was 32. I am self taught and had no interaction with others in the art field. I was just trying to replicate what I saw.

    The thing that I got from that class was that once my painting reached a likeness, he told me to forget the still life and focus on making the painting stronger. In this particular instance, he told me to make the lit wall very dark.

    That one comment has stayed with me for 25 years. It has helped me look at art in a whole new way. It can be stated in many different ways, but I now look at a painting as a painting and the creative part is how one interprets or is inspired by a scene. I now strive to create a painting that evokes and emotional response.

  4. From Jack Beal and Sondra Freckelton, I learned to incorporate diagonals into my compositions. One diagonal to lead the eye into the space and another to allow the viewer to gently leave the space.

    From Richard Schmid, I was happy to learn about the color of light and shadow. The color all depends on the type of lighting equipment, or time of day and weather when painting outdoors.

    A warm light source (like incandescent light) will make cool shadows, while a cool light source (like north light or a cloudy day) will produce warm shadows.

    However the darkest darks are always warm. Try it out when you want to punch up a dark by adding transparent oxide red or burnt sienna, or alizarin crimson. The area will look darker than if you use blue or green.

  5. I didn’t take many drawing classes since my major’s not concentrated on drawing (I still love drawing, though!). The most valuable lesson I learned from a drawing teacher (Marc Jacobson of Herron School of Art and Design): Squint.

  6. My watercolors were very “tight” and I took some private lessons from Jane Carol. She looked at my portfolio, and said
    “well, your style is very different from mine- but if you’re willing to learn some of my techniqes (loose and free), I believe you will be able incorporate some them into your style.” WOW! She acknowledged my work and opened my heart in one sentence!! The she took my beautiful 300lb half sheet and put it under running water! WOW again! What fun from there on out. Also, I’ll never forget how we would take a break and go outside as the sun was setting and watch the colors melt and blend together. It is a lesson I still enjoy. I’ll be driving home and think – I’ve got to paint that!

  7. My art experiences were all in workshops, but some of the best learning experiences included:
    1. Use your brush handle at arms length and measure, measure, measure.
    2. Do a finished monochrome paintiing using a gradation of ten shades of grey with pure white and black on the ends.
    2. Draw a portrait with a pencil in one line and never lift it from the paper.
    3. Squint at your model to better capture all the different colors seen in light and shadow areas.
    4. Use complements to make grey and use your darkest blue and darkest brown to approximate black.
    5. Put in a small area of your lightest lights and your darkest darks in first and work from thereto get a cohesive painting.
    6. Use a shadow box lined totally with black velvet and have only a small opening near the top of one side to shine a light through to get a better approximation of a single light source.

  8. I never received formal training other than a few private lessons and workshops, but I had the good fortune to meet early in my adult life a successful professional watercolorist. At that time I hated watercolors and you couldn’t have paid me to try to paint in that medium. But I asked him, if he could give me one piece of advice, what would it be? He told me to paint awhile, and walk away. Every time you come back, your perspective changes as does your vision. All I can say is it worked for me. Now I choose watercolor almost exclusively and love it!

  9. The most important thing that I learned in a formal art class setting was from my high school art teacher (and I majored in art for part of college). The number one thing was this: “draw (or paint) what you see, not what you know”.

    A good exercise in practicing this was contour drawing, where you draw what you see without lifting the pencil, and without looking at the paper. Didn’t create any masterpieces that way, but certainly helped train the eye/brain/hand connection.

  10. I have gone to two different art teachers. Both were great artists, however, they spent more time visiting and gossiping with the class than giving me the instruction I need to improve. I am learning more through reading art books it seems and practicing at home during the evenings. I get a lot more accomplished when I can focus without talking or hearing others visit around me.

  11. “You have to know when to kill your babies.” I’m not sure if it is truly one of the best pieces of advice I ever got but it sure has stuck with me. It came form the sweetest lady that I ever had the chance to study with Elsa Warnick. She was as much like a mother as an illustration teacher, and what she meant by it was that it is often easier to start over then to try to continue to fix a bad painting.

    All the best,
    Michael Orwick

  12. 2008 I took two workshops.
    I have been having such an amazing brain crushingly good time traveling, learning and of course painting. I just finished up the Fantastic Elio Camacho workshop in the Oregon Gorge. We painted from sun up to sundown -no joke(see example on my website), and learned so much about seeing and finding color.

    The biggest thing I learned or was reminded of was the exuberant love and determination it takes to be good at this painting thing. That was what I picked up from Scott Christensen’s workshop in Idaho also. These guys are so focused and work so hard and love every minute of it. I think I work hard, but let me tell you my standards have been raised through the roof. During both work shops I would just fall into bed each night exhausted from all the hard work and art’s education over load, but many nights I couldn’t sleep because my mind was still racing with all the new information and the shear excitement of all the possibilities.

    It has been crammed into us that we have to give up so much for our art, but these two artists showed that art gives back 10 fold if we are willing to put forth the all the effort.

    Scott has an amazing house, property and studio and unbelievable fame, Elio gets to travel sharing/teaching people about what he loves. And they are both great and very generous guys and a real pleasure to be around, the joy they feel from what they do is truly contagious.

    All the Best,
    Michael Orwick

  13. When I decided to get back into art after decades of carrying around yellowing sketch pads, I found the only basic concept that I could remember was using values to render shapes. LA muralist Kent Twitchell taught this back in the 1970s using paper grocery bags under a solo spot light. Fortunately, I was able to contact him via his web site and thank him. The other “primary concept” that I learned from both live instructors and the late Helen Van Wyk PBS lessons is that if you cannot render an image in monochrome, all the other hues in the universe cannot held you!

  14. A few years ago the local group I belong to, Madison Watercolor Society, asked Helen Klebesadel (nationally known watercolorist, wonderful instructor, caring mentor) if she would come to one of our meetings and give critiques of the members’ recent works. (her critiques are amazing!) Sometime during the meeting she offered, as an aside, this simple bit of wisdom: “Never allow a piece to become too precious.” Since then, there have been a number of times when I have asked myself, “Mary, has this piece become too precious?” when stuck, tight or afraid to move forward on a certain painting. For me, the phrase is a profound gut-check, like standing at the fork in the road of growth. If the answer is yes, then either I need to put the piece away for a while (let it rest to the point where I can approach it objectively), push through the preciousness (what have I got to loose?) or even throw it away. After a number of these situations, I now realize that when I am that defensive/protective about the piece, it usually isn’t that good anyway. Actually, many of my best pieces have been subjected to this question and allowed to go to the next level because I have replaced “yes” with “no”. Hopefully, I am explaining this ok. Basically, I would rather my work emerge out of inspired freedom, joy and confidence than with an energy that is stilted and safe. This simple question has really helped me to grow as an artist.

  15. Way back when I was 19, I decieded to take a painting class at the U. Prior to this I was selling everything that I painted. The instructor was an abstract expressionist and has paintings in Museums. When I arrived at class he set up a still life and said paint. Then he would walk around and tell you what that your painting didn’t work. No suggestion as how to fix it or why it didn’t work, it just didn’t work and walk away. We clashed often so I dropped the class & didn’t paint again for a long time.

    Now I’m back and feel that I’m getting where I want to be with my paintings…

  16. In mid career I studied oil painting with Pat Jerde, a portrait artist in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It was a great experience. Pat was passionate about painting, passionate about teaching – especially if you were passionate about learning. She knew her subject through and through. Her critiques were specific, direct and unapologetic. My success was her success. She was always willing to answer my questions with sincere, specific, and encouraging comments and advice. She was honest and tough, comforting and generous with compliments. She is a great artist and a great teacher. As I teach, she still teaches me as I remember her passion for painting. Her words still echo in my brain as I help my students gain the skill and passion for painting. Their success and passion is my reward too. Thanks Pat!

  17. How did teachers help me? Where in the world should I start? Madison Wisconsin, 1970: Carl Sanger. Freshman drawing 101. “Damn fine eggs, Chris.” (I still have the drawing)

    Skip to 1991. Ann Kenyon, Scottsdale Artists’ School. “I just try to find the right color and put it in the right place.” Still working on that.

    Harley Brown, 1993, 1995. “That shadow is ALL wrong!” It was a small shape, which meant my big shapes were good, and I was thrilled.

    Tom Haas: “Gorgeous painting, Chris. Now, wipe it out.” I did.

    Doug Dawson, upon looking at my portfolio: “Why in the world would you accept such poor photo reference material?”

    Daniel Greene, after I spent 15 hours painting the best portrait I’d ever painted, and from life: “Well, Chris, you’ve done a good job preparing your canvas.” One of the best gifts a teacher could give me, a student, to believe I could do better. Many years later, I work on this every day.

    And so very dearly, Bill Whitaker, who has mentored me, has pretended I had good brushes, and who has inspired me to do my very best, every day, and to never become discouraged.

    I love them all, and am more grateful than I can describe. One of my greatest hopes is that I can pay forward some small amount of what I have learned, to my own students.

  18. How did teachers help me? Where in the world should I start? Madison Wisconsin, 1970: Carl Sanger. Freshman drawing 101. “Damn fine eggs, Chris.” (I still have the drawing)

    Skip to 1991. Ann Kenyon, Scottsdale Artists’ School. “I just try to find the right color and put it in the right place.” Still working on that.

    Harley Brown, 1993, 1995. “That shadow is ALL wrong!” It was a small shape, which meant my big shapes were good, and I was thrilled.

    Tom Haas: “Gorgeous painting, Chris. Now, wipe it out.” I did.

    Doug Dawson, upon looking at my portfolio: “Why in the world would you accept such poor photo reference material?”

    Daniel Greene, after I spent 15 hours painting the best portrait I’d ever painted, and from life: “Well, Chris, you’ve done a good job preparing your canvas.” One of the best gifts a teacher could give me, a student, to believe I could do better. Many years later, I work on this every day.

    And so very dearly, Bill Whitaker, who has mentored me, has pretended I had good brushes, and who has inspired me to do my very best, every day, and to never become discouraged.

    I love them all, and am more grateful than I can describe. One of my greatest hopes is that I can pay forward some small amount of what I have learned, to my own students.

  19. The best teacher I ever had was the very first one, Raymond Hoggan. He concentrated on drawing, the good foundation, making us students start each lesson with one hour blind conture for three months. He taught us to capture the balance or movement with quick conture, and most of all he gaave us home work to do each week. He gave us all indvidual attention by going over that home work and writing comments on it.
    And last but not least, he told us if we are serious about art that becided reading the history of it that we should practice by doing at least one drawing a day before going to sleep.

    Eleven years later and I still think he was the finest teacher I have ever had.

  20. Just judging by the shear number of responses tells me Stephen has hit a sweet spot with this blog. We hold our art intruction, most times, in very high regard. I liked Michael Orwick’s comments about his workshop experience–being so excited that it was hard to sleep.

    I do think that my favorite workshop (of many) was with Scott Burdick. Not only is he still my favorite living painter, but his generosity in teaching was outstanding. He gave so much information in a way that I could use. I have not turned out to be a clone, but I have taken what he taught me and built on it.

    Here is my story. Scott is around my age and grew up in the suburbs of Chicago like myself (although I didn’t know him). In the 80’s, he went to the American Academy of Art in Chicago and learned to draw and paint. I went to a state school and got a BFA in art. I used to lament my choice seeing how far he had come in the time since graduating. I should have gone to the Academy, I thought. But now, I realize I was too stubborn, opinionated and not emotionally ready for what the Academy had to offer back then. So, my path was to get it through Scott so many years later. Thanks to Scott and generous teachers like him who went to the Academy, I have been able to learn the material at a time in my life when I was ready for it. How cool is that?

    My best,

  21. I have been painting since 1965, had one primary teacher, Jade Fon who started workshops in the Bay Area where he employed master painters from all over the country. Besides watching these artists paint, I attended nightly critiques. These critiques helped me to look at my own paintings in a objective manner. I still attend workshops as well as teach at my studio. I start each class with a group critique of their work before beginning a new lesson. We all learn from each other. Knowledge is not a private matter, it should be shared.

  22. I have been painting since 1965. My primary teacher was Jade Fon Woo. He started the many watercolor workshops in the USA. where he brought in many master teachers. I not only had the benefit of watching them paint, but attended the critiques in the evening. These critiques helped me look at my own paintings more objectively. Now that I teach myself, I start each class with a group critique of my students’ work before we begin a new lesson. We all learn from each other. Beginning students learn from more advanced ones and vice versa.

  23. I remember my high school teacher in Binghamton, New York the best. Roger Sherman was the warmest, optimistic and giving man. He took us all to NYC for a weekend in 1971 or was it 1972? Anyway, he paid for the whole class, hotel, bus, theater, museums. We got to see Marcelle Marceau, the famous pantomime. It was while visiting all the major museums that I was sparked by the enormity of the master’s paintings. Roger was on top of everything about modern art, he told us that we as art students were “The Elite” I will never forget that. I felt limitless in my creativity back then and I still do now.
    Another teacher, I can not remember her name except she was a mean French professor of Design in college, she taught me about abstract art. I wanted to keep painting in realism and she told me I needed to see the other side or I would receive an F. I completed all the abstract design projects the rest of the year with all A’s.
    It’s no wonder that my work has a modern style to it although I still want to paint semi-realistic or impressionistic and plein air. Though now I add the element of abstract design to my paintings, it’s a good mixture. It’s that New Your state of mind that I will always have in my work.

  24. This posting is more on how artists are discouraged by their instructors/teachers. I vividly remember my first (ever) workshop (in oil) a few years ago with one of the most sought after current contemporary artists. I had such high hopes of learning so much from him , read his book, and I was very excited. I had hoped to build on knowledge from classes and successful works I had produced. Unfortunately most of the other participants were experienced painters who worked in his style/method and were sellling their works. I found myself struggling to get even the basics of the still life or model on the canvas, not to mention trying to mix the correct colors. Unfortunately I got little attention from him in the process and struggled through the 4 day experience nearly crushed artistically!! I would like to attend other workshops but that first experience has made me more than a bit cautious in pursuing this kind of learning environment. The workshop included “for all levels of experience”. Would like to hear from other artists. Was my experience was unusual or relatively common?

    H. Willi

  25. Teachers help because they make us produce. They give us projects to do and challenges with deadlines to meet. You can’t be an artist unless you produce. In school you must do the work or fail. It’s what you produce after leaving school that really matters.

    The most important thing is to have a deep down, burning desire to produce art. Not just a Sunday painter’s “Gee, the is a fun way to spend an afternoon.” although that’s OK for some. Art can be a powerful way of celebrating things that have meaning for us: things we see, remember or even dream. Sharing these with others can be an important part of the process too but, for whatever reason, you must have the desire to produce.

    Those teachers, events and situations that teach us to continue to seek, see and produce in every way we can, for as long as we can, they are not just helpful but significant.

    Art, it’s appreciation and creation is a life long event. Whoever or whatever lights that spark in you is important. It’s up to you to fan that spark into a flame and keep it burning for as long as you can. Too few do.

    Teachers, magazines, books & DVDs all can help keep you inspired and informed but in the end, it’s what you do with all that information.

    The best procedure is to learn by doing. Work is your best teacher. Be forever thankful to the people or events that brought you to this conclusion.

  26. Most of the concepts I learned in drawing classes, I find hold in painting. Color Theory and basics of design are indispensable. Beyond these conceptual issues my best teachers could offer solutions when I got stuck, show where things were working and where they weren’t, demonstrate a technique I needed to learn, and as others have said, remain enthusiastic even when I’m struggling.

    I think that the most important thing is to keep working, but working without feedback from someone experienced just slower. You should have to reinvent the wheel.

  27. Ah yes time for a latte and an art lesson!
    I’ve been lucky I have lots of good memories from my art student years. I have had the pleasure of working with many nationally recognized artists, some have been marvelous and inspiring instructors and others well the opposite has been the case. As far as the instructors who were too self absorbed or egotistic…rather then give up practicing painting-I have left them in the past although I believe, since I now teach that I have learned from these folks also, in terms, of what I don’t want to be as an art instructor!
    My favorite art teachers are those who have shared their knowledge in a concise and logical manner. Whose skills at communication, regarding design, composition and content are as strong as their creative work. It is this level of sharing that has inspired me over the years , kept me looking at art and searching for more knowledge.
    Timothy Clarke was the first professional I studied with almost 30 years ago, He will always go down as one of my favorites for his communicative abilities to zero in on a painterly problem . He helped me learn about the medium and how to see & correct my work. Katherine Chang Liu ,Glen Bradshaw and Harold Greigor all opened my mind to composition and design, Milford Zornes enhanced my eye for design & composition by sharing a life time of his own work with his students. I learned from Milford how even with our own creative endeavors we as artists change… But it was in studying with Jean Grastorf and learning about pouring that I learned how to dive in and have fun with my own creativity! this concept I try to emphasize with my own students today.
    Being an artist has been ,is and will be a life time adventure. if I can spend the rest of my years continuing to learn and to share knowledge about my art ….I will consider myself a very lucky creative person.

  28. I experienced several tutors who, once I had learnt how to apply the paint, became predictable, sometimes boring and rarely inspiring.
    Fortunately for me (I may have stopped painting otherwise) I discovered a genuine tutor who kept on about being genuine in your work, about not being a phoney, about discovering your own feelings and passion and painting them… WoW! I could not get enough of it. I went on to discover like minded tutors and students and I have not looked back – i feel free and painting now to me is simply wonderful self expression.

  29. I had the honor of studying at the American Academy school in Chicago, and it was one of the most thrilling and challenging things that I have ever done. Although it has been 25 years since I have been at that school, and my life has taken a path that did not include art as the primary source of of income, there are still memories that I hold to that have molded me into the artist that I am today.

    Since my education, I have always looked at subjects as an artist. I continued drawing and painting in my mind, on a canvas that was always ready for me whenever I needed it. Part of the reason I find myself doing this is my teachers did not only teach the mechanical form but the “art” of drawing or painting, and this is what I fell in love with. If I were able to advise teachers who have young, future artists, it would be to cultivate the love and passion in their students hearts for their craft.

    I am now returning to use graphite and watercolor brushes on paper, and I do so feeling very comfortable, like the return of a friend whom I loved and now am able to sit and be with again.

  30. I went to college when I was 38 and I was blessed with very fine teachers, although I didn’t appreicate them at the time.

    The watercolor teacher ran a tight ship. You came to work, and she was a tough critic. Bless her today. My painting teacher watched, and pointed out my most glaring errors.

    This was the era of absract art, which I didn’t want to do, so they let me do my thing.

    Bless them all.

  31. Mr. Hunter, where ever you are I have never forgotten your truthfulness, encouragement and humor. Taking notes in class and listing all the “don’ts” during critique time; I created my next painting using the entire “don’t” list and you loved me for it. I think of you often.