Monday, January 26, 2009

Some thoughts on painting and its teaching

The triumph of death over hope, digital painting by Stapleton Kearns
-used drop cloth and photoshop

I think it must be harder for people to "get" painting than music. Most people can hear a song like Help me Rhonda and not be too concerned if the Beachboys actually knew a girl named Rhonda, most would understand it probably just fit nicely into the lyric. They might say,"I don't give a damn whether Rhonda helps him out or not, I just like the tune". They know at some level the song is not about some possibly helpful chick named Rhonda. They know that the tune is the thing and Rhonda is not really what its about. They do not understand the same idea when it comes to painting.


Most people don't see the art part at all and only see what its a picture of, or not a picture of, as the case may be. This is a painting of a dog that's a painting of a horse.That's how some art students and art instructors (at least in my youth) dismissed all of representational painting. They saw the representational painter as a sort of camera made out of meat. If that was all there was to painting, it would truly have been supplanted by photography long ago, and deservedly so. Damien Hirst and a lot of contemporary artists do not care what the painting, or object looks like. Their concern is what can be said about it. Tom Wolfe wrote a brilliant, little, easily read and understood book on this, called The Painted Word. I highly recommend you read it.
Back when I owned my gallery in Rockport I had the benefit of hearing what thousands of almost randomly selected people had to say about painting when they came into my shop. When they liked something, I heard one of several phrases,"it looks just like a picture" or "its reawy , reawy detaiyoed" These folks meant well , they had just never been introduced to any of the things artists think about, like design, form, color, rhythm etc. That the painting contained anything other than representation was lost on them. I blame that on the art instruction given in the state owned schools. They had "art" twice a week for twelve years and knew nothing about it. How did that happen? The answer is that art instructors could teach cut and paste but not art history or appreciation. Can you imagine you and I having a discussion on rock and roll and when I bring up Chuck Berry, you say "who?" I can tell you know nothing about rock and roll. How then can we imagine students can know art without knowing the players in its history? I used to on occasion be invited to speak in art classes. I would hold up a twenty dollar bill in a full classroom and say"this goes to the first person who can name me five American painters who died before 1930. I never lost that twenty, the teachers would try to avoid my gaze, because they didn't know the answer either. Often someone would ask, Monet?,
If you tried to put your students through what it takes to really be a painter you couldn't fill your classrooms with the hundreds of wannabe artists necessary to run an art school.


I am aware that the situation is improving and there are a few places that do produce better trained young painters. I also know there are some fine teachers out there who do lead their young charges through a fine course of instruction. Now I know that over in the graphics department students learn useful skills. But I feel these fine instructers are still very much the exception, if you take a walk through the studios of most art schools, colleges and Universities the work is appalling. Most of the art schools out there are foisting a deceit on their pupils. By making their students believe that all they need to know is already within them, if they just have the self awareness to find it, the student is taught, its all about them. That, for many young scholars today is an attractive idea, they do like being told how special and individual they are. In many art schools today the teachers will tell a student that there is no way to even teach art, and they will be contaminated by studying works by another artist with the end of improving their own. The contemporary art school changes the educational event from really wicked difficult, to one of self admiring introspection that any student can do. Now they can fill those classrooms! The art schools of America graduate more students in a year than there have been artists in the history of our nation. If the hairdressing schools of America produced as few hairdressers they would be shut down for robbing their students. It can be argued that art is subjective and shouldnt be measured for its results the same way as say, engineering, but isnt hairstyling kind of subjective as well?
Often enough in the fine arts department the students are coddled for four or more years, and then released into the real world where the are served a harsh awakening that it's not just about them out there. I have often seen young would be artists confronted with this reality go back for a masters degree, to get more of the training that didn't make artists out of them in the first place. If you really unpack this with them, you find out they intend to teach. The best of them will, and the best of their students will be teachers as well . There are plenty of teachers out there who have never made a living as artists and their teachers and their teachers' teachers didn't either. They have in fact only contempt for those of us out here who actually do it as a vocation. The sudden rise of popularity of the new ateliers across the country and in Italy is a response to a small but growing number of students who would like to make a living painting and have figured out they will need to know a lot about painting in order to do it. I believe that small but growing atelier movement probably holds the promise of a new American art..


DS said...

What would your recommendation be for someone who is bewildered and flailing and trying to turn her university education into an art career that is both respectable and sustainable? Some income from my artwork would be nice, as well.

My mother directed me to your blog, knowing that I was looking for guidance at this point in my career, and I admit that some of the things that you said about university education rang very true. I think there was some value in my education but I am feeling its lacking now as I struggle to build on what I did get without going back for my master's.

What is this burgeoning atelier movement? Perhaps it's my location in Maine but I haven't seen much evidence of atelier-style learning or the opportunity for it. It would certainly be a welcomed alternative to going back to school.

Anyway, I appreciate your posts and have enjoyed reading your blog. Thank you for your willingness to share your techniques.

Stapleton Kearns said...

DS I am not sure I can give an answer to that without knowing your situation. I have been asked that more than a few times,and its a big question. Years ago I thought I could just roll out an answer.I am, far more cautious now, giving you the wrong answer would be an enormous disservice to you. There are a lot of questions that would precede an answer, like are you interested in doing commercial art?,what other far easier options might be available to you.What level of expertise have you now. Do you have the wherewithal to go back to training for years,most of the painting ateliers are multi year affairs and very rigorous,their expectations of students generally are a whole lot more demanding than an art school or university.Would you be just as happy in an art allied profession, web design, graphics etc? If there is any chance you would, than that is what you should do.There are all those intangibles like your level of dedication to getting there as just about any other career path is easier. I can't impress enough on you the difficulty of getting to a point where you can make a living as a painter. That being said all my friends do it.While difficult it is not impossible and almost all the pros I know came from a small number of mentors, small ateliers and some of them are second generation. None of them graduated from an art school knowing what they needed to know to make it in the fine art world.I am not comfortable with recommending one atelier over another in this public blog and even then there are only a very few I could recommend just off the cuff any more than I could say go to this college not that,there is a question of fit as well.I cant imagine those are questions you would want to answer in this open forum. Would you like to e mail me? My email address is

Nick Neumann said...

Thank you for this. It's nice to have this sort of take on the matter.

Lots to think about.

Carol said...

A fascinating read! Thanks for the insight.

jjwoodee said...

This post just hit me in the stomach. Really hard. Buts its true the points you make. I have started painting outside for 6 months and have seen progress but knowing the level of talent out there, I wonder if at all I have the wherewithal to endure. Thanks for your post.

Gayle Levee said...

Hi Stape, Bayview Gallery represents us both, and I quit teaching at Montserrat specifically because of what you say here. My students were seniors getting ready to take their illustration portfolios to NY and they didn't know how to draw! Now I teach independently, covering the basics. Have real trouble getting young students, though. They all think they need the "accredited" schools.

Stapleton Kearns said...

The young students do not want to be artists, they want to be art TEACHERS. That's why they want the degrees,of course. They have no intention whatever of actually being a self employed artist.Only a small portion of them will get to teach of course.I think it is a deceptive and cruel system. If the hair dressing schools of America produced as few hairdressers the government would step in and shut them down for running a scam!