Can't be helped?

September 8, 2009

Dear Rodney,

Yesterday, Raymond Kowalski of Cleveland, Ohio, wrote: "A woman in my classes 
refuses to take suggestions. She likes the way things are and says she doesn't 
need improving. She says she doesn't have time to learn basics--composition, 
color theory, design, technique. She gets excited watching a demo, then 
ignores what she might have learned. She devotes a lot of time to her art, but 
she's not really improving. I'm at a loss to help her. Any thoughts?"

Thanks, Raymond. I've had the runaround from the same woman. It's quite 
endemic these days, with all the talk of freedom of expression and painting 
from the heart. All this heart stuff is one of the main reasons there's so 
much substandard art around. It's enough to make you think it doesn't matter.

Accepting that many folks are just in it for the fun of pushing paint around, 
here are a few things you can do to get the girl to raise her standards:

Without focusing on her, give short, low-expectation exercises that run 
against people's standard repertoire. Make them time sensitive (finish in 
twenty minutes) or media limiting (use only three colours). While telling 
students they can go their own sweet way if they wish, make the exercises fun 
and be prepared to give out cigars. Draw your students in with a sense of 
exploration and excitement. Give them the idea they've nothing to lose. 

It's a fact of life that some people don't want to learn. But I don't believe 
in just coming out and telling people their art is poor. You have to let 
them discover that for themselves. A useful ploy is to praise the work for 
whatever virtues you can find in it, however slim, then ask them to tell 
everybody how it might be improved. Teaching art is an art that sometimes 
requires a slightly devious approach. 

Many workshop students have a problem with the instructor-student axis. You 
need to invite other workshop participants to quickly chime in with their 
opinions. Further, you can sometimes effectively influence a student by 
quietly giving attention to another student who sits nearby. Other times, when 
addressing the whole group, you can hammer home specific points by making 
thoughtful eye contact with the slower learners. No matter how flawed, 
everybody is special. 

Best regards,


PS: "The best way to teach somebody something is to have them think they're 
learning something else." (Randy Pausch) 

Esoterica: In the conduct of your own affairs, understate and over-prove. Give 
well-planned, information-rich demos. Let folks make up their own minds and 
take what they want for themselves. Make your comments short and precise. 
Tenderness and your own humility count. People are human beings first and 
artists second. Thankfully, some will pull themselves up by their own 
bootstraps, no matter what you have to say. And while there will always be 
those who stay put, a properly conducted workshop can be a place of miracles. 
"The burned hand teaches best." (J. R. R. Tolkien)