My Teaching Philosophy, part 3: On artistic principles

February 1st, 2017

It is important for serious students of art to understand basic artistic principles.  The more of those principles we understand, the easier it becomes to optimize our own work, no matter what medium we use.  And the greater appreciation we gain for the mastery of great artists we might otherwise overlook.

Although I do try to incorporate and discuss many of the principles in my classes, in conjunction with lessons on watercolor technique and during our subsequent coaching sessions, I can’t cover them all.  The spectrum of artistic principles is far too broad to allow me to cover everything comprehensively in the few short class sessions that I teach in our community every winter.

A brief overview of the principles applying specifically to artistic composition is available in my ebook, Elements of Great Composition: A Quick Reference for Photographers and Other Visual Artists.  Needless to say, there are many additional principles besides these that need to be learned, regarding use of color, creating the illusion of form, perspective, and so on.

Final-EGC-Cover-(small)Any self-taught artist who is serious about improving his or her work and learning to appreciate the finer aspects of art in general, would do well to seek out a comprehensive course that goes beyond the “tips” offered by many popular teachers for using a specific medium.  It should provide both a firm foundation of artistic principles and at least an overview of the development of various artistic styles throughout history.   I used the Virtual Art Academy, an online, self-paced course, to fill this gap in my own belated artistic education.  It is just such a comprehensive program, and I have found the training invaluable for my own artistic development.

My point is that, as artists, we should be continually seeking out opportunities to learn many different aspects of art.  These will gradually coalesce and contribute to a personal style by providing us more tools and information from which to draw as we strive to express our unique artistic vision.

As you settle into 2017 and envision the year unfolding ahead of you, challenge yourself to seek out some form of continuing education to both reinforce and extend your current understanding and level of mastery in whatever area your creative passions may be.

My Teaching Philosophy, part 2: The risk of teaching stylistic methods

January 15th, 2017

It’s probably safe to say that an artist who is confident enough in his own skills to teach others has most likely developed certain stylistic methods.  Not only do these methods feel comfortable to her, but (presumably) they have served her purposes well.  Because these methods feel “natural,” it’s easy for an artist/teacher to assume that they will feel natural to others and be as successful for them.  But there is a danger in this assumption because it’s rarely true.

Eye of the Moon (#110805w)

Eye of the Moon (#110805w)

What the teacher may overlook is that these methods suit a specific style, which derive from not only mastery of a medium and understanding of artistic principles but from the artist’s internal vision of what she wants to express and how she wants to affect her audience.  No two artists will share exactly the same vision or purpose.  This means that their approaches to the medium will differ, and their implementation of the principles may be quite divergent, as well.

So it’s unwise to impose stylistic methods on other artists.

Yet we can certainly learn from one another, gleaning ideas for methods that can be adapted to suit our own styles. 

So there’s nothing wrong with offering alternative approaches to solving compositional problems or suggestions for alternative methods of paint application, so long as we don’t expect others to do everything exactly our way or emulate our style.  Instead, these alternatives should be offered primarily for purposes of adaptation to suit each artist’s individual conceptual needs.

My Teaching Philosophy, part 1: Teaching techniques

January 1st, 2017

As we enter the new year and I look forward to another opportunity to teach, I am reminded that lessons I teach must be clearly focused.  As a working artist, there is a strong temptation to try to cover too much ground too quickly, and even to influence beginning artists inappropriately to adopt certain stylistic methods before students have had a chance to discover their own style.

Aside from art history, the study of painting includes technique (handling of a specific medium and the implements used to apply and control it), artistic principles (how optimal results can be achieved through design, color, and use of the medium), and development of style (the method of integrating techniques and principles in a way that expresses the artist’s unique vision and concept).

A related and overlapping form of teaching is that of coaching, which is less structured while (optimally) encouraging and guiding the student’s efforts, offering constructive critiques, suggestions, guidance, and alternatives to be explored.

My beginning watercolor classes focus on technique.  This allows beginners to learn what to expect from the paper as well as the paints, how water and pigments interact with one another, how flow can be encouraged or controlled, how edges can be adjusted to create specific effects, how differently shaped brushes can be manipulated to achieve a variety of marks, and so on.  munsell-colors-croppedThrough a series of exercises students begin to develop confidence in their knowledge and understanding of the medium and in their control over its application.  They learn how to avoid or minimize common difficulties that arise, and how to respond when the paint doesn’t behave quite as they originally intended.  This increasing confidence allows them the freedom to play and enjoy their further exploratory efforts as they continue to learn. img_1666-croppedFollowing the instruction portion of each class I also incorporate individualized coaching while students are applying the lesson.  I feel that this is an important component of teaching to help my students develop independence and self-confidence as their artistic understanding and skills increase.

New Season Classes

December 15th, 2016

This month I’m looking ahead and preparing lesson plans for the classes I’ve committed to teach in the new year.

These “Snowbird Season” classes, taught at the Verandah Community in Fort Myers, FL, will include both a beginners’ 6-session series, beginning January 10, and a subsequent 6-class “continuing” series, beginning February 21. The second series will be for both students from the first sessions who wish to continue and for others who already have some background in watercolor who would like to pursue their interest further.

Milky Way Over the Bay (#160802w)

Milky Way Over the Bay (#160802w)

I always enjoy introducing new painters to the mysteries of watercolor painting. And I also find it gratifying to be able to encourage and guide more advanced artists to explore the possibilities that watercolor provides. Not only do I invariably make new friends, but the very nature of our classwork means that we have a common interest and creative drive. This means that we generate a special kind of excitement and motivation to advance beyond our current skill levels.

We all learn from one another’s efforts. Yes, I continue to learn, too, as we discuss strategies to produce the best possible work, analyze the cause of specific problems, and figure out how to overcome or at least minimize them and, preferably, avoid them altogether in future paintings.

Whether or not you are close enough to join one of my classes, I encourage the artist or art connoisseur in you to find or form an association with at least one other person with whom you can discuss your views and insights. It doesn’t matter if you use or appreciate the same medium. The fact that you mutually strive to visualize the world through artistic eyes with the goal of expressing or enhancing your vision of it will stimulate your continuing development and pleasure.

But most of all, whether you’re creating your own or appreciating others’ artwork, have fun, and share the joy!

I wish you a safe and satisfying holiday season and a happy and healthy new year.

Seeking “the Zone”

December 1st, 2016

The wonderful contemporary artist Quang Ho opened my eyes recently to what he terms an artist’s three levels of seeing.  If I understand him correctly, the first is based on our beliefs of accepted characteristics of our subjects (“A face has eyes, nose, mouth, and ears; an apple is red”).  This is exemplified in, but not limited to, a child’s early drawings, in which, though proportionately skewed, with simplistically shaped features, the subject is still provided the key formulaic elements.  Although these “truths” are incomplete and therefore often inaccurate for depicting specific subjects, this level is identifiable by our fear of diverging from our understanding and belief of “what is.” Because of this, we paint the surface characteristics we have come to accept, without looking for a greater, more specific truth.

In the second level we see variations from our original assumptions.  We base our revised assumptions on informed observations, which are interpreted by our understanding of artistic “rules” and our perceptions of natural laws.  (“Atmospheric perspective dictates that colors become cooler and lighter as they recede.”)  These observations and perceptions may or may not be complete or accurate for all situations.  But they allow us to make certain judgments that may break away from the original mode.  We actively seek out differences and compare our observations against what we have been taught to expect.  Yet at this second level, even with thorough technical mastery of the medium, we often still rely on, and stubbornly cling to, our revised understanding of “what is.”

The third level transcends this to the point of our slipping “into the Zone,” being able to imagine the whole of a composition before its execution, visualizing possibilities beyond what our eyes perceive, and allowing an artistic concept or mood to transcend the subject.  At this level the artist is freed to either apply or ignore observational assumptions and perceptions of “what is” and experiences a fearless freedom to play, experiment, and vary from the literal.  This is where innovation lives, creativity thrives, and individual vision becomes apparent.

"Une Petite Fleur," copyright 2010 by Carol Mertz. Used by permission.

“Une Petite Fleur,”
copyright 2010 by Carol Mertz.
Used by permission.

Third-level seeing is what separates top-grade artists from the rest of the pack.  While often designed using characteristics and idioms of first level seeing, cartoon art, such as Une Petite Fleur (above) by Carol Mertz, often illustrates an artist’s inner vision by transcending the seeming simplicity of the drawn subjects to express a greater message. Simplification and use of the first-level idiom focuses on the message of the art and makes it easily understood by any reader/viewer.  In Une Petite Fleur, the simplicity of the line drawings, and the subtlety of differences between the weekly images, contribute greatly to the poignancy of the messages.

But I leave cartooning to my daughter.  Watercolor is the vehicle that moves me toward that third level of seeing.  Once in “the Zone” I don’t have to concentrate so hard on the mechanics.  Here I tend to lose track of time and conscious thought, and can let the freedom flow.  It isn’t an easy level to reach, requiring both considerable confidence and competence in the medium. And the changes come gradually.

I haven’t entirely or consistently achieved that third level of visualization in my representational painting.

Perhaps more than any other painting medium, well-executed watercolor is demanding and requires considerable pre-planning.  But this medium carries me along, begs me to play, and challenges me to find the answers to “how.”  Acknowledging the need to find “how” is humbling (perhaps because it suggests incomplete mastery), but it drives my continuing exploration and pursuit of understanding.  This realization reaffirms that it’s time for me to come back home to watercolor.

With increasing mastery will come increased confidence to step beyond the familiar to paint as only my mind can visualize.  Thorough mastery ensures greater freedom of expression, to reach for that ultimate level of seeing and of composing that inner visualization in an entirely different mode.  At this level, even representational work transcends a literal interpretation.  This is the level of artistic mastery I am striving for.

I hope you’ll stay with me as I pursue it through 2017.