Art For Thought: Student or Convert?

Because this issue of American Artist focuses on art education, I thought it would be interesting to explore the teacher-student relationship, particularly what happens after a student completes a course of study at an academy or an apprenticeship with a particular instructor. Specifically, I'd like to look at a phenomenon that many of us have noticed at one point or another: students who become overly indoctrinated in one artist's technique or philosophy to the point of losing their own voice and vision. Or when, in a similar fashion, a student or budding artist idolizes a certain painter's work and essentially ends up copying what he or she admires rather than applying it to a new, personal direction.

I think the ideal model for teaching art would look something like this: students are given foundation skills in drawing and painting based on the best techniques and processes of the past.

I think the ideal model for teaching art would start with
giving students foundation skills in drawing and painting
based on the best techniques and processes of the past.

Teaching and passing on knowledge are vital aspects of art making, and giving beginner artists the tools they need to find their way is essential. Someone who is called to teach or to steer a school has a tremendous responsibility to lead his or her students in a way that will best serve them throughout their artistic lives. Most instructors today teach out of a love of helping others and a desire to share and encourage in the same way that perhaps their mentors inspired them. I think the danger comes when an approach to teaching is so set in stone that there is little room for outside influences or for the student's own interpretation. And sometimes a curriculum almost seems destined to produce disciples of the instructor rather than students with individuality. You may have heard the adage that if a student doesn't become better than his or her teacher, the teacher has failed. I would say if a student doesn't eventually produce something unique from his or her teacher, the teacher has failed.

I think the ideal model for teaching art would look something like this: students are given foundation skills in drawing and painting based on the best techniques and processes of the past. They are exposed at some point in their training to many current approaches to painting in order to develop an awareness of the larger contemporary-art picture. They are asked to read philosophy, theology, criticism, and poetry by influential writers, artists, and thinkers from throughout history to shape their cultural context. They are allowed occasional "freedom" sessions, in which they are given permission to try something completely novel just to loosen up and explore. And, ultimately, they are encouraged to find their own visual language that is both a culmination of what they've been taught and a reflection of their personal perspective and path.

What do you think? Is this a realistic model? When you look at various artists coming out of academies, ateliers, universities, workshops, and apprenticeships, do you see students or converts? Leave at comment on Artist Daily and let us know.

Allison Malafronte is the senior editor of American Artist.


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About Allison Malafronte

Allison Malafronte is the senior editor of American Artist magazines, and the project editor of  Plein Air Painting and Workshop With the Masters magazines. She is also the creative manager of the Weekend With the Masters Workshop & Conference ( which was launched in 2009 and is now in its third year. She is author of the Art for Thought column in American Artist magazine (also on the Artist Daily site under The Artist's Life blog) and the 2008-2010 Plein Air blogs on Artist Daily. 

9 thoughts on “Art For Thought: Student or Convert?

  1. One of the best instructor I’ve ever had stated at the beginning of the class that he wasn’t going to teach us to paint just like him, but rather to find our own style and direction which would help us to become better painters. I learned more from him than any other instructor I’ve had, and felt that I grew as a painter by leaps and bounds under his instruction.

    I also had a drawing instructor who presented all the information a student would need to become proficient in drawing (tools, techniques, practice, and reference) and he also was one of the most effective instructors I had who didn’t push their style or philosophy on his students.

    I thank both of them each time I paint or draw for the important information they conveyed and the way they conveyed it.

  2. I am an art teacher – middle school kids. (hormones with feet!) I teach the skills, and let them run with it. I get some amazing stuff from them. I let them express themselves however they like, while keeping the technique being taught as the basis of my grading. Did they learn the technique and apply it properly? This is also the first year that we will be having an Art Club after-school. I am anxious to bring in more advanced techniques to these students. I WILL be teaching the techniques of other artists to get their “juices flowing”, but I know they will bring their individual tastes to the classroom. I am also hoping it will get them to keep going with their artwork – into high school and beyond. If nothing else, I want them to learn to truly see the world around them.

  3. I think that there is too much made of a student branching out and finding their own style. They are pushed to find it before they are ready. Everything has to be ‘different’ they are told. A student should take their time before they are pushed to find their own voice. He has to learn his craft and understand it. Only then will he eventually find his own voice. I believe that not enough emphasis is put on how many years are needed to learn the craft of art. Learning everything you can from one perspective through an atelier or an academy, takes long hours of drawing, understanding anatomy, perspective, etc. After many years of studying, not worrying about finding your own style, you can now look at other’s works intelligently, understanding other teacher’s techniques and styles and truly discern if any of these can be useful to you. If pushed too early to find your own voice, you struggle to do this for others and fail to truly learn your craft. I have seen many students start classes and the first thing that everyone in his family and all his friends what to see is a finished piece. They push the student to sell his works almost immediately. Are you still drawing bottles they ask of exercises in trucation. Are you still taking classes? As if something is wrong if you don’t make money right away. The artists of the Renaissance studied under one master sometimes for 3 or 4 years and then went to another master for another 3…………then off they went as an itinerary artist for another 3 before they came back to their town to paint their masterpiece and get approved to start their own studio. They would have studied and worked for from 9 to 12 years. The one thing in common that the artists who painted the churches in the Renaissance had were the long hours they put in to understand their craft. And these long hours of study helped to create magnificant pieces. Today we are too much in a rush to make these students ‘different’. Study, learn, practice……………….your own voice will come when you thoroughly understand your foundation lessons. Take your time. You will blossom along the way, creating magnificent artworks because you traveled the road of an intellectual pursuit as well as a creative one.

    Connie Olson

  4. As a teacher, I emphasize a strong foundation in drawing and painting skills. Along the way, I introduce my students to the techniques and philosophies of a variety of artists and as they mature I encourage them to find their own voice. Some do, some can not.

  5. Yep…………I do little works of art but I have no clue how to do a master piece.
    I am a student of realism, of the landscape, of the figureand a student of portraiture.

    Before visual art, I was a seamstress. I learned to sew on my own. For 10 years, I sewed pants the wrong way because I had no teacher.

    There you go, learn from a pro or learn on your own, either way, the climb over the mountain is a journey and the picture of this journey speaks for itself.

  6. Yes, I agree that one can paint like a teacher. Because of that and that I do not want to paint like someone else I have made a point to not take from a teacher more than once. I want to be me, my own individuality. I have achieved that as people recognize my style. I am now also a teacher teaching beginners. I also have them draw what they are going to paint. I find my students each have there own style of painting even when we are painting the same picture. No two are alike nor do I want them to copy a painting of mine.
    Thank you, Marlene Russ

  7. How we wish your Observations & Reflections had been available when we had completed our studies at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art [Oxford Univ., UK] forty odd years ago.

    At that time, the Ruskin was one of a handful of schools or academies in the world teaching the classical tradition. Sometime in the 80’s, though we are not really sure when, the Ruskin abandoned most, if not all, of its traditions and bought into the post-modernist disposition. And, needless to say, it has nothing to show for it. In the good old days, at least it had Ruskin, of course, and had graduated the likes of John Updike and RB Kitaj.

    After our graduation, we basically had nowhere to go. We had no business or marketing skills. We were lucky to find a part-time job teaching. Within a few years, as Michael Gormley described it in this same September issue, we became a member of the “90 percent of art students [who] stop working as artists within 5 years of graduation.” It was not for “a lack of courage and perseverance.” It was for a too extended period of poverty and that other aspect of “life as an artist” that is hardly ever discussed: the loneliness. Those are not good reasons to abandon a God-given talent but it has happened.

    Perhaps if these dozens of schools listed in your fine magazine had existed then, we might have had somewhere to go to pass on the unique skills we had developed and still have.

    Back then, we had ideas about what kind of school would be ideal: two years of foundational skills in painting and drawing. That would require cast drawing several times a week as well as drawing and painting models in the same pose for at least three weeks. The final year(s) should be to encourage each young artist to find their own visual language.

    Reading or, more precisely, thinking critically is as important as drawing or painting. How can one think when the tools for thinking critically are lacking?

    Any review of the life and work of any serious artist reveals that their maturity as artists was the result of the labor of many years. It would be premature to expect any neophyte to produce anything spectacular or “ground-breaking” upon graduation.

    I think art schools and academies would also be well-served to teach some business and marketing fundamentals. In case no one has noticed, fine art is a business and every business, like every serious work of art, requires a plan. It is never too early to start thinking ahead because, if you do not, you may find yourself alone, in reduced circumstances, somewhat stressed, and possibly embittered.

    “Changing careers” was never a part of our original plan. We’d like to go back to the road less traveled but the choices we actually have are different now and truncated.

    Discuss your ideas and your plans with someone who has had the experience you seek. And then choose wisely.