This article is by Keith Bond, Regular contributing writer for FineArtViews. You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.
There is an old saying, if you give a man a fish you feed him for a day. But if you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. There is a parallel with art.
To give an art student a formula or a technique is akin to giving him a fish. His creative life is limited, even fatal. But if you teach an artist to see and feel and problem solve, then you have given him the ability to create for a lifetime.
The only thing a teacher should ever teach is how to see, feel, problem solve and find one’s own expression. Nothing else.
But there are instructors who impose their ideals on others. Their way is the only way, according to them. But it is only right for them. No one else. You see, each artist is an individual with unique sensitivities and likes and experiences. These all influence the expression which comes from within. My way is right for me. Your way is right for you. No two artists are alike, though there are some who share similarities.
With this in mind, how should a teacher teach and how should a student learn?
First, both artist and teacher need to understand a powerful, but under-recognized truth:
Every artist is self-taught.
Even the artists who study for years at an atelier or under the tutelage of a master are self-taught. This may be a wild notion for some. But it is true.
A teacher can instruct until he is blue in the face. But the student doesn’t learn anything until he actually does something. The act of doing becomes the force that teaches. And that act of doing will never be quite the way the teacher would have done it. Even if the student mimics the teacher as closely as possible, there is still something different. It is a combination of being unsure or awkward added to the fact that the artist has different sensibilities and a unique innate character and background.
So the principle is learned just a bit differently than the teacher taught it. That learned principle is then added to the pot of fish stew (to take the fish analogy a step further). Every principle learned or discovered or invented is thrown into that pot and is influenced by everything else in there. My pot of stew has many different ingredients than your pot (mingled with some similar ingredients).
Watch Out for the Poor Teacher
A poor teacher tries to impose his methods. He tries to give a fish. True, the artist may learn that method, but is not taught how to fish. He is given a rigid recipe for fish stew that won’t taste quite like the instructor’s (remember, he will have learned it a bit differently than it was taught). It will lack something. That makes it mediocre at best. With no ability to create from within, the student will never reach his potential.
The teacher who only gives his own methods or techniques deprives the student of the most important learning. What is learned soon becomes a crutch limiting further growth, unless of course, the student is smart enough to seek out learning elsewhere. On the other hand, a good teacher who teaches the student to see, feel, and problem solve will - as a by-product - introduce the student to his methods and techniques. But they will be possibilities, not the only solution.
What makes a good teacher?
A good teacher simply opens the door to the possibilities. All he can really do is help the aspiring artist realize the capacities that are within. It is up to the student to develop the possibilities. A good instructor shares the vast knowledge he has with the student. He is an open book. He explains principles and gives examples. He asks questions of the student. He encourages experimentation. He teaches the student to question. The teacher enables the student to search from within. He helps the student learn to see as an artist, not as a camera. He helps the student learn to see through his own (the student’s) eyes and not through anyone else’s. The teacher shows the student how to feel. He teaches how to problem solve. This is much more difficult than teaching a formula.
So what is the role of the student?
The student should not expect solutions. He should realize that the examples given by the teacher are examples of larger principles. He must learn to recognize the larger principles and not get caught up in the exactness of the execution of the specific example. What do the larger principles mean? How many different ways can that principle be addressed? How many different ways can it be satisfied? How many different ways can it be manipulated? The instructor’s example demonstrates one solution or method. The student shouldn’t be satisfied with only learning that one method. It’s far better to learn the principle instead.
The student needs to be open to trying new things, but discard what doesn’t work. But not too soon. Rather, he should set it aside for a while and only discard it when certain that it absolutely isn’t for him. The student needs to recognize that there is a difficult learning curve with new things. It takes a while to find where those puzzle pieces fit. Sometimes years. More knowledge is better than less, even if much of it is never used.
The student should ask “why”. The student needs to learn to look within oneself. A wise student treats what the teacher offers as ingredients to be put in the kitchen cupboard. One doesn’t use the same ingredients in the same quantities for every meal. He should pick and choose from those ingredients given by each and every instructor, along with those found on his own. He creates his own fish stew. But he doesn’t make the same stew every meal. There are endless creations to be made with everything in the cupboard. It’s also important to add new things to the cupboard once in a while, lest the fish stew become formulaic and boring.
PS A wise artist is a life-long student.