Art can be taught: On knowing, doing and thinking Art

Art is power. ~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

As someone with a Fine Art degree, who studied Art through high school and university, I often hear comments from others like “I’m not artistic,” “I’m not arty,” “I can’t do art,” or “I can’t even draw stick figures” (this last one from my dad). As the daughter of an artist-educator (my mum), perhaps people think that anything arty I produce is the result of some kind of genetic sorcery. That Art is in the genes and in the bones. You’ve got it or you don’t. And yet, we don’t view many other things this way.

My mum always said that learning to paint is like learning to play a musical instrument, something needing hours and years of careful instruction and diligent practice. Of course some people have more aptitude than others, but it seems accepted that anyone can learn a musical instrument, if they learn the knowledge and skills, and then practice, guided by a teacher.

Playing a sport also needs a coach and regular teaching, training and playing. My 5 year old son recently started ‘Auskick’ Australian Rules Football. Did they give him a ball and send him onto the field to play a game, only to send him off when he didn’t know what to do, with cries of, “You’re just not sporty!”? No. They’re starting with skills and drills, small groups of children with coaches who are guiding them through the basics, giving them opportunities to develop and setting them practice goals in between sessions. First the knowledge (how the game is played, rules, positions, teamwork) and the skills (handballs, kicks, marks, tackles, disposals) are learned and honed. Again, some will have more innate talent than others, but all can learn, engage and participate.

The same goes for Art. Learning artistic knowledge and skills leads to artistic capability.

from a 1980s newspaper clipping; me & my painting beside my mum's painting

from a 1980s newspaper clipping; me & my painting beside my mum’s painting

My mum taught me age-appropriate artistic techniques from an early age. Her teaching meant that my attempts at Art looked good for my age, but these were carefully taught strategies. She ran Art classes out of our garage where she taught other kids the same tricks—learned, practiced on newspaper and then enacted on canvas. Parents were impressed. This wasn’t magical ability, but careful teaching by someone who was a knowledgeable, skilled practitioner and an experienced teacher. My mum now teaches my kids how to draw and paint, and they experience the same success. Is it genetics? No, it’s teaching.

And imitation and practice. As a teenager I would sit and draw. Copying posters, copying faces, copying landscapes. Over and over until I got it right, or at least better. My scribbling was informed by knowledge I had been taught about proportion, perspective, shading, the way colours work and techniques for using a variety of materials. I also copied the Old Masters, as many Art students do. Being able to replicate others’ work teaches how to follow the rules. Then an artist can think about and experiment with how they might be bent or broken.

field of flowers painted by my 5yo, as taught by my mum

field of flowers painted by my 5yo, taught by my mum

But Art is also more than knowledge and technique. It is communication and conversation. As I discussed in this post, artists respond to the world and to other artists. Like bloggers, writers or commentators in other disciplines, artists use the language of Art to protest, to provoke or to celebrate. It’s why Manet’s Olympia was so scandalous in its time. It’s why Pop Art and Dada, and even Impressionism were, in their time, an ‘up yours’ to what had come before and a challenge about what could be. Art has always been about communication, storytelling and symbolism (just look at any cave paintings or religious Art), but especially since photography made copies of reality possible, artists challenge what Art is and what its purpose might be.

I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them. ~ Pablo Picasso

Today’s blog post is a response to this one by Greg Ashman, who reflected on his own experiences of Art. Also, tomorrow is Mother’s Day here in Australia, and my mum and grandma have both majorly influenced my love, appreciation and practice of Art. Like Greg, one of my parents is (among other things) an artist. She is currently in America for an exhibition. Like Greg, most of my high school Art classes began with an instruction like, “there’s something: draw/paint/sculpt it,” without much other direction.

Yet the totality of my experience is very different. My mum gave me the grounding in the knowledge, skills and thinking of Art. My grandma still explains artworks and their intricate meanings to me. At university I was taught skills from welding and glass pouring to printmaking and drawing. I was taught Art History, and have since taught this in London at A-Level. I wrote a 25,000 word Fine Art dissertation. Once, I won a national art criticism prize based on the description my grandma gave me of an artwork. The artwork was in the gallery basement and as she was a gallery guide she was able to recall it from memory and describe it to me. When I finally saw the work, I realised that my critique was more inspired because of the image she gave me through her description. The piece was published in a national journal. I’ve written about the PhD as sculpture. I painted illustrations for my thesis.

thesis illustration

thesis illustration

I take my kids each year to Sculptures by the Sea in Perth (here are my pics from 2015 and 2016) and we talk about what our favourites are, and why. I recently took my 5 year old to the State Art gallery and he looked at a large canvas painted dark purple and said, “That is NOT art!” Then we talked about what art was and what criteria made something Art. I didn’t tell him my own views, but was more interested in encouraging him to think about his own thinking and his own assumptions about what makes something Art.

If it’s in a gallery, is it Art? Is Damien Hirst’s Mother and Child Divided (a mother cow and her calf, cut in half and displayed in formaldehyde), or Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (a photograph of a small plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist’s urine), Art? What about Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning, in which he took a drawing by another artist, and erased it? Or Marcel Duchamp’s signed urinal, Fountain?

For me, Art can be a way of seeing, a way of thinking and a way of doing. It’s not something people are inherently bad at, or good at, but a concept and process in which to be engaged. Its value is in that engagement. Can I teach someone to paint a landscape or draw a realistic figure? Sure. Can I teach someone to think more like an artist? That’s trickier, but, like learning to think using a mathematical, theoretical or scientific lens, it’s worth the effort.

All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone.. the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act. ~ Marcel Duchamp


7 thoughts on “Art can be taught: On knowing, doing and thinking Art

  1. Pingback: Is teaching an art? | the édu flâneuse

  2. Pingback: Engaging the aesthetic | the édu flâneuse

  3. I came across a book or two plus two miniature paintings of yours , they were my father’s , he bought them from you he thinks when in Perth.One is with the Southern Cross and the other with Ayers Rock. They now reside with me in England. They still look as good as new, Just thought you may like to know,
    Nick Neville


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