What do you learn when you study art? What exactly is taught in art school?
From simple techniques to high-level thoughts, here are the three best pieces of advice I’ve ever received from art teachers.
1. Always stand back from your work
Finished art has a tendency to be far away from the public, kept behind ropes or barriers suggested by slashes of duct tape on a gallery floor.
With all of the hands-offedness of displayed art, to know if the piece is working, setting it down and walking back a few steps reveals fixable flaws. Taking a step back and taking the time to look at a piece from afar also speaks to the power of fascination (or lack thereof) within the art piece.
Stepping back from a work of art in progress, you can ask:
Does this painting make as much sense from far away as it does close up?
Is this painting so captivating that someone would want to step closer to it?
Stepping back gives the gift of an audience's perspective, and it answers quite a few critical questions.
2. Make it bigger
Like any study or exercise regimen, spending years in the study of art means taking larger and larger risks in order to grow.
It is easy to make a sketchbook of drawings, easy to doodle and impress friends at a basic level - but do you have the power to create a large-scale finished production?
The advice of "Make it bigger" can tend towards being maddening, because in the end, everything could always be bigger. The Mona Lisa would not have been a better painting if it were bigger. Yet, creating larger artworks stretches the muscles of artistry in an unavoidable way.
'Bigger' doesn't necessarily need to mean physically larger - it could be more of an aspect of taking a project seriously, or creating 5 more paintings to add to a series of 10.
3. Things really aren’t so bad if you can still make art
It is easy to get depressed while making art because the habit of making art well involves a close scrutiny of the world - and the world is not always a happy place.
In college I had a tendency to fall into depressive states. Looking back, I am not sure why (depression rarely makes sense in retrospect) but, I think it had something to do with feeling closed off from the world. I didn’t like partying and didn’t have too many friends - one reason for this was that other art majors were also wrapped up in their own worlds, just like me. I only wanted make art, and so did everyone else. We existed deep within our own solitary lives.
One winter I was feeling this desolation in class, when the class art teacher stopped by my drawing table and we talked through it a bit. I can't remember exactly what I said, but I was feeling awful. Everything felt hopeless, or worse, pointless. In my utterly lost 19-year-old brain, walking into a snowstorm and dying seemed like a good idea at a time.
The teacher listened and eventually said: “Well, if we are still able to make art, then, that is pretty good, right?”
Something in my brain just flipped over. It was a full transformation. The teacher was 100% right, and I realized that for all of the things I didn’t have or didn't know, I also had innumerable blessings. I had hands I could draw with, I wasn’t living in a state of war or in a place where drawing paper was scarce, I had graphite. This was enough.
Art may not always be considered an important enterprise, or the most lucrative, but there is hope for any society where it can be done openly. Things really aren't so bad if you can still make art. We should keep doing it as long as we can.